8 Winter Hikes in Michigan’s Moodiest Woods

Winter landscape at sunrise, Silver Lake Sand Dunes, Silver Lake State Park, Michigan. Photo Credit: Dean Pennala/Shutterstock

By Joseph Beyer

January 2, 2023

MICHIGAN—Hibernation is for rookies. Michiganders who crave the outdoors know that winter offers a transformative and completely new landscape to explore, as brief and as special as summer. From the rugged coastline of Lake Superior to the rolling hills of the Lower Peninsula, whether on snowshoes, skis, or simply your own two feet, experts say you need just three things to really enjoy a long winter hike: the right gear, the right attitude, and a plan.

Start by checking weather and trail conditions before venturing out. Remember to always Leave No Trace, and consider following up with whatever inspires you to help protect these public spaces for generations to come.

Before you hit the trails, allow us to suggest the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as your guide: “Chill airs and wintry winds! my ear has grown familiar with your song; I hear it in the opening year, I listen, and it cheers me long.” 

Sleeping Bear Dunes. Photo Credit: Leda Olmsted/Universities Space Research Association

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Empire

Legendary in any season and the jewel of Michigan, the dunes at Sleeping Bear offer perhaps the most unique and challenging winter hiking experience that should be on your ‘Gander bucket list. The trails to the Big Lake can sometimes be steep and slippery, but the views are well worth it. Plan to navigate a few nature-always-wins-challenges, or have an experienced friend along as a guide. Don’t miss out on the dozens of fascinating side-hikes for any ability that pop up along the way. After the view of Lake Michigan, they’re what make this practically cinematic treasure so special. 

The Sleeping Bear Point Trail is a 2.5-mile loop offering stunning views of the lake and surrounding dunes—plus it’s a great place to watch for wildlife. Well-maintained and easy to navigate, it’s a smart option for hikers of any ability level, including kids and leashed dogs.

At 1.5 miles round-trip, the Empire Bluff Trail takes you to the top of Empire Bluff, where you’ll find panoramic views of the lake and the countryside. Moderate in difficulty, with some steep sections, it’s perfect for that “I gotta burn some Ks” determination that follows a month of holiday treats.

Photo Credit: VisitAlpena.org

Thunder Bay Island
Alpena County

If the sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, and dense forest hiking opportunities don’t hook you, then maybe the chance to encounter rare and endangered species in your own home state might. One of eight islands in the Michigan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Thunder Bay is on the Mitten’s sunrise side, and is also home to the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. What’s more, a roadtrip to Alpena is delightful—especially when combined with a post-hike pint at Austin Bros. Brewery.

Tawas Point State Park in winter. Photo Credit: John McCormick/Shutterstock

Tawas Point State Park
East Tawas

Stretched along the shores of Lake Huron’s Tawas Bay, these trails and state park are famed for birdwatching, with over 250 species recorded so far.

Open year-round, including a campground and visitor center managed by the Michigan DNR, there are multiple trails through forests, along the water, and even to the top of the Tawas Point Lighthouse. Visitors say they’re relatively easy to navigate, and the views of Lake Huron have been officially deemed stunning by the Instas.

Photo Credit: Wilderness State Park

Wilderness State Park
Carp Lake outside Mackinaw City

Just southwest of The Mighty Mac, this unbelievable winter adventure zone includes all kinds of trails for hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing with some of the most beautiful views looking Up North(er) that you’ve ever seen. From the 3.5-mile Beach Trail to the more challenging 5.5-mile Pine Ridge Trail, you’ll find yourself stunned at the secret you’ve just discovered. You know that feeling you get when you notice you’re standing on a tiny blue dot in the cosmos? That. Here.

Manabezho Falls, Porcupine Mountains. Photo Credit: Dean Pennala/Shutterstock

Porcupine Mountains
Ontonagon

The Porkies are famous for over 60 miles of trails set in the rugged wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Hiking the Porkies offers a chance to explore a challenging variety of terrain, including dense forests, rocky cliffs, and serene—often breathtaking—views of Lake Superior. Adventurers won’t want to miss the Manabezho Falls Trail, which leads to a stunning waterfall. No matter which trail you choose, be sure to bring lots of water, a map, and a good pair of broken-in hiking shoes, as the terrain can be craggy and the weather is often unpredictable.

Photo Credit: LansingRiverTrail.org

The Lansing River Trail
Lansing Area

Following the Grand and Red Cedar rivers through the city of Lansing, the Lansing River Trail system exudes a unique mix of urban and natural landscapes. Well-maintained and easy to navigate, it’s a great local favorite for exercise year-round.

Approximately 12 miles long, it’s free to use—and it’s a strong symbol of urban redevelopment in Michigan, providing public good right in our state capital.

Photo Credit: FredMeijerHeartlandTrail.org

The Fred Meijer Heartland Trail
Grand Rapids to Cadillac

Spanning more than 120 miles from Grand Rapids to Cadillac, and passing through forests, wetlands, and small towns, this amazing trail is well-maintained and easy to navigate, and it’s a great place to get some fresh air in the winter.

Named after Fred Meijer, a Michigan businessman and philanthropist who was instrumental in the development of the trail, it’s a popular winter destination for hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. Open to the public year-round, there is no fee to use the trail, although there are some small parking fees at a few trailheads.

Saugatuck Dunes State Park. Photo Credit: Dean Pennala/Shutterstock

Saugatuck Dunes State Park
Saugatuck

Located on the “Art Coast” of Lake Michigan and offering a variety of beautiful landscapes and natural areas for day hikes, climbs, and views, the terrain around Saugatuck Dunes will delight any winter hiker. Much more accessible than national parks, the outdoor experiences near Saugatuck-Douglas are just as fun. We recommend capping off your day with a cocktail in any of the great bars and restaurants lining the downtown areas of both villages.

Saugatuck Dunes State Park is a local go-to with over 2,000 combined acres of possible escapes and hidden gems woven through the inland forests.

Among the more classic YOLO moments to be had: conquering the 303 wooden steps of Mount Baldhead. Don’t be deterred if you’re a little out of shape—everyone stops to catch their breath as they go, and it’s a famously judgement-free climb. Once on top, the reward is one to remember: Lake Michigan’s wild winter coastline. On your way back down, look for lovers’ initials carved in the wooden stair rails, and give yourself a high five for scoring winter bragging rights.

Looking for a simpler path? The Ox-Bow County Park right next door offers a variety of low-key trails that wind through woods, wetlands, and meadows home to wildlife of all kinds.

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