10 Winter Hikes You’ll Love at Northern Michigan Nature Preserves

Where do land conservancy staffers send friends for snowy and bodacious days outdoors? We asked, they shared. Explore the snow-inspired bucket list!

This story is featured in the February 2018 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!


Photo by Heather Higham

Every year I have a handful of outdoor moments that kind of open me up, make me feel especially alive, fresh in spirit, exhilarated, electrified. I used to be aware of these moments only in hindsight. Looking back on a banner outing, I’d think, man, that was the bomb sauce, as my friends and I skied back to the car after a long day in the backcountry. Eventually, though, it dawned on me that I should be more aware of peak moments as they are happening. Simply by noticing the moments in real time, I would amplify the aliveness factor.

That might sound silly, but I did it—committed to be intentional and present in those moments—and it worked. Awareness amped the outdoor enjoyment factor. But there was another discovery I made along the way. For me, it turned out that, by a wide margin, most of those alive moments happened in the winter.

I know many people view winter as dispiriting, as a season to be endured to pay for the glories of summer in Northern Michigan. But hear me out. Open your mind to a different possibility, an alternative and wonderful reality: a day outdoors in winter can make you feel more alive than at any other time of the year.

Some of my favorite images: Kicked back with friends high on a ridge above Lake of the Clouds, Porcupine Mountains, on a brilliant, sunny day, the whole valley glowing white below … XC skiing back to the car at night after a 12-hour day on skis along the frozen Pictured Rocks shore, our shadows cast by a full moon and stars shining brightly … snowshoeing with my sons along the Little Pup and Yellow Dog Rivers, near Big Bay, on a warm March day at the onset of the melt, streams gushing, snow shimmering in the sun … pausing along the cedar-rimmed shore of Platte River during weekly skis at Lake Ann Pathway … and so many more.

To entice you into fresh, sublime moments like these, I asked three land conservancies—Leelanau Conservancy, Little Traverse Conservancy and Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy—to suggest a few nature preserve outings they’d recommend to a friend for a winter’s day. They talked it over as teams, distilled their picks (difficult to select only three) … all for you. Here they are. So go ahead. Clip into the XC skis. Strap on the snowshoes. Toss some snacks and water into a backpack and wander into the heart of winter. Say hello to alive.

Winter Hikes

McCune Nature Preserve, Photo by Todd Peterson

Little Traverse Conservancy

ANDREAE/BANWELL NATURE PRESERVE COMPLEX | CHEBOYGAN COUNTY

To fall in love with winter, wander along a river dressed in snow. That allure made this the No. 1 recommendation of the Little Traverse Conservancy team. Strung together, the two preserves spool out 4 miles of trail along the swift and winsome Pigeon River, one of lower Michigan’s most pristine streams. The path is intermittently groomed, so you might be breaking trail. The preserve is about 4.5 miles southeast of Indian River. Afterglow: Vivio’s, Indian River, for spaghetti and homemade meatballs.

THE HILL NATURE PRESERVE | CHARLEVOIX COUNTY

Rising just beyond the border of the buzzy outdoor burg of Boyne City, The Hill Nature Preserve lives up to its elevation-inspired name. Wander 2.5 miles of groomed trails (not skate-ski groomed, but packed for fat-tire bikes) laid over an inviting 119 acres of hills and meadow flats, pine plantation and hardwoods. The payoff is climbing the 921-foot-high ridge to get the grand view of Lake Charlevoix. The preserve is a mile northwest of Boyne City on Clute Road. Afterglow: Boyne City for tasty and trending fare at Euro-bistro Cafe Santé, brews at 7 Monks Taproom and Tex-Mex-inspired Red Mesa Grill.

THE WILLIAM B. DERBY NATURE PRESERVE | MACKINAC COUNTY

Flat enough for beginners and lovely enough for the nature-seasoned, this Upper Peninsula preserve a half-hour east of the Mackinac Bridge, near Cedarville, will prime your heart for winter. Three miles of trail trace 207 acres through snowy cedars to the ice-sculptured Lake Huron shore and a view of Marquette Island—largest of the 36 islands in the Les Cheneaux Archipelago and where Aldo Leopold summered as a boy. The extra nature bonus is a bunch of large limestone boulders, dispersed throughout the forest, that have trees sprouting from them, lending a mystical, Hobbit-woods allure. A mile west of Cedarville on C134. Afterglow: Head to Ang-Gio’s for Italian and American comfort food.

THE ALLAN AND VIRGINIA MCCUNE NATURE PRESERVE

A go-to for Emmet County’s nature seekers, the 168-acre McCune Nature Preserve is just 10 minutes from downtown Petoskey, but it teleports visitors to a distant, tranquil realm. “This place is beloved,” says Anne Fleming, of Little Traverse Conservancy. Rimmed in snow-dusted cedars, the Minnehaha Creek here presents a Zen garden moment—don’t skip it. Nearly 4 miles of pathway (with many short loop possibilities for family) deliver plenty of distance for an XC ski or snowshoe outing with pals, or for busting out a solo workout. Two trail bridges for sublime photo moments. Trails are periodically groomed. Six miles east of Petoskey on Berger Road. Afterglow: in Petoskey, refuel with coconut curry at Thai Orchid or a gluten-free chicken paella at Palette Bistro.

Kehl Lake Natural Area, Photo by Ken Scott

Leelanau Conservancy

DEYOUNG NATURAL AREA

Consider this your instant-plan-fresh-snow-and-go preserve—just five minutes from TC. The 191-acre DeYoung spreads across a former centennial farm that transitions from farmstead and meadow to hilly hardwoods to cattailed and marshy inland-lake shore. Find flat but beautiful terrain on the east side of the TART Trail, with cozy moments in the cedar forest and along the lake. Hillier land rises on the west side, with trails and open forest that entices the off-trail seekers. Two miles north of TC on Cherry Bend Road. Afterglow: Go old school with fried smelt or a burger at Sleders Family Tavern, in TC (kiss the taxidermied moose if you want to flash some local cred).

PALMER WOODS FOREST RESERVE

With 721 hilly acres of pine and hardwoods plotted into a 2-mile-long stretch near the national park, Palmer Woods has enough expanse to be a daylong destination for snowshoers and XC skiers. But shorter outings are wonderful, too. Groomed by Friends of Sleeping Bear, the trails total about 4 miles (But the Price trail is a 2.1-mile out-and-back, so 4.2 miles roundtrip). The Price trail is tame enough for inexperienced skiers or for night skiing with headlamps. Open forest and hills makes for great off-trail exploring. Important: This place has a microclimate that squeezes snow out of the clouds and keeps it on the ground, so keep Palmer in mind for early and late-season outings. About 3 miles east of Glen Arbor on Wheeler Road. Afterglow: Little Traverse Inn, for stout and legit lamb stew; on M22 just north of Maple City Highway.

Kehl Lake Natural Area

“This spot is remote, but the beauty and solitude are worth the trip, especially in winter,” says Becky Hill, natural areas and preserves manager at Leelanau Conservancy. Kehl offers 279 acres of protected land, so you can easily while away an afternoon exploring off-trail here, or stick to the two miles of pathway. Go slowly to take in the old-growth white pine and 100-year-old hemlock. For a picnic, kick back on the lake’s birding platform (make the moment special with a camp stove and serve up something hot). Head out on the frozen lake and make a snow angel. About 2.5 miles north of Northport on Kehl Lake Road. Afterglow: Fischer’s Happy Hour for the famous broasted chicken dinner.

Pelizzari Natural Area, Photo by Mary VanValin

Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy

TIMBERS RECREATION AREA

At this former Girl Scout camp, winter fans roam 4.4 miles of trail across 250 acres of gently rolling forest and meadow, and trek along 2,000 feet of Long Lake frontage. Stick to the groomed trails (loops of 1, 1.5 and 2.5 miles), or get adventurous and head into the untrammeled woods. Make tiny, 20-acre Fern Lake the discovery destination that keeps the kids engaged. The trailhead is just 6 miles from downtown TC, but Timbers never feels crowded. Find the trailhead on Timbers Trail. Afterglow: The Hofbrau for steaks, pizza and more, 10 minutes south, in Interlochen.

ARCADIA DUNES

At 3,600 acres, the C.S. Mott Nature Preserve is GTRLC’s largest preserve and is a legend for its mind-blowing view of Lake Michigan from the top of Old Baldy dune (too steep to ski, but a fab snowshoe). But there’s more—way more—namely 17 miles of trail through dune, forest, meadow and swamp. Favorites include the Dry Hill and Camp trails. GTRLC’s communications director Jennifer Jay loves the new Overlook Trail, which serves up a big-view payoff 300 feet above Lake Michigan, but is easy to reach and is even designed for universal accessibility. Fifteen minutes south of Elberta on M22. Afterglow: Stormcloud, in Frankfort. Start with the homemade pretzels and a Rainmaker Ale. Try out the onsite curling rink.

Pelizzari Natural Area

For perfect winter, drop into Pelizzari when the towering old-growth hemlock grove is dusted in snow, and the sunshine is glinting through the dark green canopy. Families head to the 62-acre oasis for sledding (tame for little kids), snowshoeing and XC-skiing, just a few minutes out on Old Mission Peninsula from Traverse City’s downtown bustle. Most folks meander the nearly 3 miles of trail to the top of the ridge for an on-high view of East Grand Traverse Bay. Not up for the whole thing? Dawdle in the abandoned orchard and meadows. (Don’t be fooled by the boring parking lot and mundane start.) On Center Road about 2 miles north of Front Street. Afterglow: Bubba’s, downtown TC. Hat hair welcome, delish blue-cheese burger and vegetarian options, or Spark’s BBQ, in same block: pulled pork, oh yes

Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse. [email protected] // Heather Higham is a landscape & portrait photographer based in beautiful Traverse City. snaphappygal.com.