Keep your winter spirit fresh with gorgeous days outdoors. These 11 Northern Michigan winter travel ideas … some dazzling, some dreamy, all delightful day trips … will light the fire within.
Photographer Heather Higham has shot the northern lights, ice caves, lighthouses, shipwrecks, untold miles of lakeshore and woodlands in Michigan—and, she says, “I still regularly stumble upon inspiring new destinations.”
“Any chance to be outdoors is what I am after,” says the self-described southern Ohio farm girl who moved north with her husband following several years living in the north Georgia mountains. She’d dabbled in photography since childhood, becoming more serious around 2010.
Higham seeks just-right lighting and unique angles when eyeing the landscape she’ll capture. Considering weather patterns is always a priority, of course. “I watch the weather all the time—it’s not the morning of, it’s the night before or two days before, and anytime there are aurora alerts, if we’re looking at a gale …”
She’s drawn to places that change as a season’s mood shifts. The day may unfold wet and damp, just 40 degrees, or carry the promise of an open sky in the middle of winter—the latter of which she captured along Lake Michigan in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. “On a blue-sky day, that contrast between the white, untouched snow and the blue water is just … I mean, that’s Michigan,” she says of the memorable winter hike at Pyramid Point in Leelanau. (She often has her pit bull, a rescue named Petey, with her, and he does make it into the occasional photo.)
Exploring the outdoors with others, through her portraiture work, is another passion. “It allows me to capture memories for people who love this area against the backdrop of its natural splendor. I appreciate Northern Michigan as a community and place, and I hope my photography expresses my gratitude while encouraging people to get out and experience it for themselves.”
“One thing I’ve found about Northern Michigan,” she says, “is the people understand that you don’t always get ideal conditions. But you go out in it anyway.”
Pyramid Point, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
A quintessential Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore must-visit, this sweeping Lake Michigan vista is especially magical and peaceful in the off-season. “There were a couple of people out snowshoeing,” Higham recalls, “but you can go in the winter and have the entire place to yourself for a couple of hours at a time. If you can steal away for a little bit during the day, it’s worth it.” // Do it: The trailhead parking lot is seasonal, so leave the car about a half-mile away next to the Leelanau Outdoor Center, then hike or snowshoe to the trailhead. Before, stop by either Market 22 (about 4 miles east on M-22) or Anderson’s Market in downtown Glen Arbor for snacks and a meal-to-go—pack it up and enjoy a winter picnic as a reward for your climb—or opt for a post-2.7-mile hike-dinner of authentic French cuisine at La Bécasse in Maple City. Here’s the trail map.
Kalkaska-Rapid City, Rapid River
After an especially cold night, Higham decided to drive to this scenic Rapid River location off Valley Road between Kalkaska and Rapid City. “We had had some fresh snow, and it was so cold, I knew when the sun rose there would be steam coming off the river.” Then, the magic happens: “As the steam rises, it freezes on the trees—the trees get caked in frost in the morning.” // Do it: Make a day trip by hitting Seven Bridges Natural Area, located along the same road, and continue on to see Rapid River Township’s Rugg Pond, “which, depending upon the time in winter, may or may not be frozen.” Several aging, beautiful barns dot the landscape out this way. Start (or end) your trip in Kalkaska, at Moose & Stella’s Cafe and order up the eatery’s towering oven-baked French toast.
Mission Point Lighthouse, Old Mission Peninsula
Capturing the sunset with fellow photographer friends led to this shot at the tip of Old Mission Peninsula. “It was a happy meet-up, last January,” she says of the gathering at Mission Point Lighthouse, at the end of the picturesque drive up M-37. The water along the shoreline was shallow and frozen, and Higham sought to capture the lighthouse reflection in the “skim of a puddle” she’d discovered. To do this, Higham positioned herself “literally camera-on-the-ice.” // Do it: Grab an après-lighthouse-and-beach-trek bite at restaurant, brewery and distillery Jolly Pumpkin (about 8 miles south, at Bowers Harbor). Try the white pizza or perch. “We love it in the winter at Jolly Pumpkin because it feels so cozy,” she says. “They always have the fireplace going.”
Maple Bay State Forest, Emmet County
This scenic Emmet County spot near Burt Lake is a favorite of Higham’s during trips to the Mackinac Bridge. “I’ve only been here in the winter. It doesn’t matter what the weather is doing; on our way, we’ll do a day trip and stop at a few places.” On this particular day, the clouds broke for a little bit, prompting Higham to pull out her camera. “We had driven across this river … I waded to the edge of the river and stood there with snow up to my thighs, and my feet in the water. It was worth it. This is a little creek in the Maple Bay State Forest.” A small inland lake is also in the area and it freezes solid. “It’s beautiful, surrounded by forest.” // Do it: Turn east from US-31 onto E. Brutus Road and go about 3⁄4 mile to the creek. Snowshoe or cross-country ski on the state forest trails. Make the short trip to Petoskey for a pierogi lunch at Polish Kitchen.
Elk Rapids Beach, Elk Rapids
This late-season moment on an Elk Rapids beach followed a day of warmer temperatures and a frigid night, leading to “great skim ice.” This quaint Antrim County village—and its shoreline— are peaceful come winter. Of this particular beach photo, Higham likes “the simplicity, and when you look at it you get a real sense of how quiet it is.” And the intimacy of the image: “You can see all the pebbles … you can see how there are icebergs, a piece of the night that gets captured in that layer of ice that has formed.” // Do it: Head to Elk Rapids and go to the shore. Follow up your beachcombing with a stop at nearby Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen. Opt for the chowder—“This is my absolute favorite. It’s perfect in winter because it’s warm and has just a little bit of spice in it.”
Torch Lake, Alden
An easy-to-find and welcoming waterfront spot, this Torch Lake public boat launch in downtown Alden is calling to you—especially as dusk falls. “There are few places, and this is one, where you can just pull right into. It’s a reliable spot to catch the sunset—it looks west and there’s a bench right there. It’s asking you to come enjoy the view.” Torch Lake doesn’t always freeze completely, but when it does, Higham says “it’s really impressive.” // Do it: She suggests spending some time watching the glorious sunset, then walking across the street for dinner at Torch Lake Beer Co.
Empire Bluffs, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
This hilly yet short-and-sweet trail, part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, promises an exceptional view as your reward, year-round. “I am still wowed by it, and I go there over and over,” Higham says. She remembers this wintry weekend day as cloudy and beautiful. “In Northern Michigan, on the weekends, you get out. It doesn’t matter what is going on with the weather; you work all week, so no matter what comes on the weekend, you go out and play.” Round trip, the Empire Bluff Trail is 1.5 miles and leads to a 400-foot-high bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. (Officially, the trail ends at post #6 in winter because of hazardous ice and snow conditions on the boardwalk and bluffs; savor the view, and do not descend the bluff.) Higham shot this pic when “the sun broke through, and there were these rays pouring out of the sky. You can really see the color of the lake even through the ice, and the fence just lets you know—it anchors it—that this is definitely Empire Bluffs, that this is a special moment and a special place.” // Do it: Further reward: a hot meal at Joe’s Friendly Tavern, an Empire village tradition.
Brown Bridge Quiet Area, Grand Traverse Conservation District
With its 1,310 acres and six miles of trail, the Brown Bridge Quiet Area offers peaceful exploration about 11 miles southeast of Traverse City. “It has an entirely different character now,” Higham says, referring to the river’s changes after the Brown Bridge Dam removal in 2012–13. The removal eliminated Brown Bridge Pond, allowing the Boardman River to, over time, return to its historic channel and status as a high-quality, free-flowing river. “It’s one of the few places I know around here where you get an out-West feel because you see the riverbed snake through the valley,” Higham says. Fresh snow led her to this photo destination one morning last winter on the south-side trails. “I wanted the fresh snow on the railings. The bridge and the sun make you feel very welcome into the woods.” // Do it: Fuel up at Rico’s Cafe and Pizzeria on US-31 near Interlochen.
Grass River Natural Area, Antrim County
A pine plantation gives you “that feeling of infinity,” Higham says. “Like you could just be swallowed up by pinewoods and live the rest of your life happy there.” These pines stand within the 1,492-acre natural area between Bellaire and Alden. // Do it: Hike, xc-ski or snowshoe Grass River’s seven miles of trails and boardwalk, then warm up afterward at nearby Short’s Brewing Company, in Bellaire. Higham suggests the White Pepper or Sketches of Winkle sandwich. Pair with a pint of S’more Stout—don’t forget to ask for the flaming marshmallow garnish.
Point Betsie, Frankfort
Located at the southern entrance to the Manitou Passage, Point Betsie Light (fog signal building pictured) and the shoreline nearby offer up incredible ice formations—even when the lake doesn’t freeze solid, Higham says. “Point Betsie always gets really beautiful ice because of where it’s situated on the lake. When the spray comes up, it coats everything.” Always on the lookout for dramatic light, Higham found it on this day as lake-effect clouds rolled in. “You can see the color in the ice, which really is that blue. And the skies look fun instead of dreary.” // Do it: The light is about 3 1⁄2 miles north of Frankfort; follow M22 to Pt. Betsie Road, turn west, take to shore. After your icy excursion, warm up in Frankfort, home to The Fusion (gourmet sushi and Pan-Asian cuisine are menu highlights) and Stormcloud Brewing Company (known for its Belgian-inspired, Michigan-made beer and locally inspired eats).
Mackinac Bridge, Mackinaw City
This “unplanned, once-in-a-lifetime shot,” as Higham describes it, happened not long after sunset, during the “blue hour.” “I keep a pretty good eye on moon rises and moon phases, sunset and sunrise times, and it turned out to be a full moon rising.” It had been a mellow, not completely windless day, and Higham had been shooting panoramic images of stacked ice on the Straits. She was wandering the shoreline, the moon rising in the cloudy sky, when the haze cleared. “The moon was out for maybe five minutes before it tucked back into the clouds. You could see the sliver of clouds that opened up. I was really lucky to be in the right place.” // Do it: Stop by Hunt’s Mackinaw Pastie & Cookie Co. in Mackinaw City for a soul-warming selection of pasties.
Featured in the February 2017 issue of Traverse Magazine.