Tiny treasures: Small towns to spend a winter’s day in Michigan

Tiny treasures: Small towns to spend a winter’s day in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Downtown Manistee via Facebook

By Lisa Green

November 28, 2023

From the merriest holiday celebrations to the most intricate ice-carving festivals, Michigan’s small towns have a lot to offer this winter.

MICHIGAN—You could turn up your thermostat and get cabin fever this winter, or you could check out some of Michigan’s best hidden gems for winter activities. We prefer the latter.

Michigan seems the best in the summer, sure. But there are plenty of reasons why the wintertime is no reason to slow down. In fact, Michigan is one of the best places to get out and enjoy a snow day. According to TravelUSA, in 2021, cold-weather tourism generated $3.6 billion in spending across the state. That’s more than enough proof that Michiganders don’t get shy when the snow starts.

But maybe you still want to keep things small. Maybe you’re tired of the hustle and bustle of the big cities and the tourist destinations. We’ve got you covered. Here are our favorite small-town spots to spend a winter’s day in Michigan.

Tecumseh (Lenawee County)

Can’t-Miss Event for Winter: Annual Ice Sculpture Festival (Jan. 20–21, 2024)

Tiny treasures: Small towns to spend a winter’s day in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Downtown Tecumseh via Facebook

This quiet little town in southern Michigan may not look it, but it was actually one of the first pioneer settlements in the Michigan territory. Its founding dates back to 1824, before Michigan became a state. The town was named for the settlers’ admiration of Tecumseh, a powerful Indigenous leader of the Shawnee tribe who fought valiantly to defend the Indigenous territory and died for that cause.

Tecumseh has a quaint and thriving downtown with plenty of opportunities for shopping and dining. During its Annual Ice Sculpture Festival, more than 40 ice sculptures decorate the downtown streets. A variety of other activities are also available at this time, like a family-friendly scavenger hunt and a chocolate/beverage crawl through the downtown businesses.

Plymouth (Wayne County)

Can’t-Miss Events for Winter: Walk of Trees (Nov. 24, 2023–Jan. 1, 2024); Plymouth Ice Festival (Feb. 2-4, 2024)

This picturesque small town in Metro Detroit has a lot of history. It was originally a “super township” spread across nearly 72 square miles, including what would later become the cities of Canton and Northville. When Michigan’s timber trade was at its peak, the Pere Marquette Railway served the Mitten State. At the time, Plymouth was the only area in Michigan where railroad tracks went in all four directions.

Today, Plymouth celebrates the winter season in a big way. A popular event for the holiday season is the Walk of Trees, which involves more than 70 decorated trees in Kellogg Park to view throughout the holiday season. Another popular event is the Plymouth Ice Festival, involving more than 150 ice carvings spread throughout downtown Plymouth, with incentives like Ice Festival Bingo encouraging traffic to local businesses.

Rochester (Oakland County)

Can’t-Miss Events for Winter: Big Bright Light Show (Nov. 20, 2023–Jan. 21, 2024); Rochester Area Hometown Christmas Parade (Dec. 3, 2023); Fire and Ice Festival (January 2024, dates TBD)

Rochester may feel like a big city in the hustle-and-bustle of the Detroit Metro, but it’s still a small town at heart. Rochester was the first European settlement in the present-day Oakland County area when it was founded in 1818. Its proximity to the Clinton River and Paint Creek made the area a valuable watershed for business, including Yates Cider Mill, the oldest cider mill in Michigan.

Today, Rochester may still be small, but its commerce is mighty. More than 350 local shops, restaurants, and other businesses call downtown home, and winter is an especially beautiful time to visit thanks to the Big Bright Light Show that embellishes the downtown storefronts with thousands of colorful lights. The Rochester Area Hometown Christmas Parade claims to be the largest Christmas parade in Michigan. The Fire and Ice Festival brings a variety of family-friendly outdoor activities including ice carving, axe-throwing, a climbing wall, scavenger hunt, face-painting, and more to the town every January.

Marine City (St. Clair County)

Can’t-Miss Events for Winter: Merrytime Christmas (Dec. 2, 2023); Fire, Ice and Spice (Feb. 10, 2024)

Tiny treasures: Small towns to spend a winter’s day in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association via Facebook

This charming Michigan port town sits on the confluence of the St. Clair and Belle rivers and was a big deal for Michigan’s lumber and shipping industries back in the day. Marine City’s ports were first used to ship lumber, then after the lumber industry diminished, it was used to transport iron ore across the Great Lakes. At one point, it was one of the largest shipbuilding towns on the Great Lakes.

Today, Marine City is known for its vibrant theatre community, Victorian architecture, and gorgeous nearby coastal views of Lake Huron. Marine City celebrates Christmas every year with Merrytime Christmas, a holiday event featuring live music, visits with Santa, giveaways, vendors, and more. Also during winter is the newer event, Fire, Ice and Spice, which pairs a chili competition with fire performers and ice skaters.

Marshall (Calhoun County)

Can’t-Miss Events for Winter: Candlelight Walk (Dec. 9–10, 2023); Ice, Wine, Beer and Blues (Feb. 2–3, 2024)

Marshall is a city with a lot of bullet points in Michigan history. Shortly after its incorporation, many believed Marshall would become Michigan’s capitol, but it lost the vote to Lansing. Alas, a Governor’s Mansion was still built in anticipation of a different ruling. The town was a major stop along busy stagecoach routes and the Michigan Central Railroad. Marshall even lays claim to the country’s first railroad labor union, which would later become the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. Another historical tidbit that Michiganders might know is Schuler’s Restaurant and Pub, famous for their trademark cheese spread, Win Schuler’s Bar-Scheeze, currently available in grocery stores.

Marshall is also famous for the anti-slavery stance its residents took in the Crosswhite Affair, when local townspeople helped the formerly enslaved Crosswhite family escape legal prosecution after fleeing from enslavement. The Crosswhites eventually found safety in Canada thanks in large part to the residents of Marshall, whose actions would later lead to the adoption of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Marshall is still known for its Victorian architecture and timeless buildings. Six historic homes can be seen in the annual Candlelight Walk, where participants take guided tours of each of them. Later in the winter is the Ice, Wine, Beer and Blues Fest, which features wine and beer tastings from a variety of local establishments, as well as a blues concert.

Niles (Berrien and Cass counties)

Can’t-Miss Event for Winter: Hunter Ice Festival (January 2024)

Niles is located right on the St. Joseph River and the Michigan border, just a state line away from South Bend. But there’s a curious history behind this timeless town. Niles was first settled as a fur trade post with Fort St. Joseph in 1691. The fort remained until it was demolished in 1795. Though no longer standing, many archeological artifacts have been found at the former fort site after the ruins were discovered in 1998.

Niles was originally known as the City of Four Flags. Before it became part of Michigan’s territory, it was originally Indigenous territory claimed by the Potawatomi and Ottawa tribes. The area was first claimed by the French, when explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle claimed much of the Midwest region. The French and Indian War in 1763 saw Britain take the area for about two decades before America seized it in 1783. Thus, four different flags for four different allegiances throughout history.

The historic Niles train station first opened in 1892 and was featured in several movies, including the 1988 “Midnight Run” starring Robert De Niro and 1981’s “Continental Divide” starring John Belushi.

Downtown Niles has had much of its original historic architecture preserved, making for a nostalgic stroll to accompany the many dining and shopping options. One of Niles’ most popular events is the Hunter Ice Festival, which showcases more than 150 ice sculptures throughout the downtown area and pays tribute to Niles’ history as an ice harvesting destination.

Grand Haven (Ottawa County)

Can’t-Miss Events for Winter: Spring Lake Sparkle (Nov. 25, 2023–Jan. 1, 2024); Grand Haven Winterfest (Jan. 25–28, 2024)

Tiny treasures: Small towns to spend a winter’s day in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Visit Grand Haven Area, MI via Facebook.

As one of Lake Michigan’s beach towns, Grand Haven may be primarily a summer vacation hotspot, but it’s also a great winter destination. Sitting at the mouth of the Grand River, which was historically used as a trade route for many years before and after European settlement, Grand Haven became an industry hub for logging, lumber mills, shipping, and shipbuilding by the late-19th century. Some relics of this time are still standing in town, including the Grand Trunk Railway Depot building, the Grand Haven South Pierhead Entrance Light, and the Grand Haven South Pierhead Inner Light. Grand Haven’s two lighthouses are particularly interesting in winter, as ice often overtakes the structures, making for unique formations on the lake.

The Grand Haven area has plenty of outdoor winter recreation as well as shopping and dining options. They also host a few special events during the winter. The adjacent town of Spring Lake has the Spring Lake Sparkle event in its Epicurean Village, which is a festive part of its social district. There’s a community fireplace with seating as well as a Christmas tree and Santa’s house. After the holidays, Grand Haven hosts its Winterfest, which includes family-friendly events like the famous Cardboard Sled Race. There’s also Glowbowl, which includes a snowboarding event that makes use of LED lights and a snow volleyball game.

Ludington (Mason County)

Can’t-Miss Events for Winter: New Year’s Eve Ball Drop (Dec. 31, 2023); Pure Ludington Brrrewfest (Jan. 27, 2024)

Tiny treasures: Small towns to spend a winter’s day in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Pure Ludington via Facebook

Ludington, another Lake Michigan coastal town, has an established background in Michigan’s lumber trade. Originally, the Ludington area was densely wooded, but the Pere Marquette Lake was not accessible for boat travel. James Ludington, the namesake of the town, made Ludington’s timber bounty accessible via trade by making the Pere Marquette Lake’s channel wider and deeper, enough to move lumber to nearby cities.

The Ludington Lumber Company also worked with Eber Ward to get railways into town. Ludington’s harbor eventually became home to the S.S. Badger, a 410-foot carferry known as the largest in the country, which takes cars from Ludington across Lake Michigan to Wisconsin. Visitors can relive these important historical moments through attractions like the Historic White Pine Village, Ludington Maritime Museum, and Ludington North Breakwater Light.

Downtown Ludington offers several shopping and dining options. Ludington’s most famous event is its New Year’s Eve Ball Drop, claimed to be the largest ball drop in western Michigan. The celebration is described as “one giant street party” with pedestrian-only traffic on the intersection of James Street and Ludington Avenue. It includes fireworks, live music, an outdoor beer garden, and more. After the holidays are over, Ludington also hosts the Pure Ludington Brrrewfest, a festival where more than 15 breweries from across Michigan set up shop in Legacy Plaza to offer tastes of beer, wines, ciders, and meads.

Owosso (Shiawassee County)

Can’t-Miss Events for Winter: North Pole Express and the Village of Ashley Country Christmas (Nov. 18–Dec. 17, 2023)

Tiny treasures: Small towns to spend a winter’s day in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Village of Ashley Country Christmas via Facebook

There’s not many places in Michigan you can go to visit an actual castle, or even anything that looks like one. But in cozy Owosso, you can do just that. The Curwood Castle Museum was the writing studio of James Oliver Curwood, a famous adventure novelist of the early-20th century, an advocate for environmental conservation, and an Owosso native. At one time, Curwood even outsold Mark Twain. His picturesque structure dating back to 1923 resembles a Norman chateau and sits in Curwood Castle Park, just steps away from downtown Owosso, with its slew of dining and shopping options.

Owosso is perhaps best known as a historic railway hub, having served the Ann Arbor Railroad, Michigan Central Railroad, and Grand Trunk Railroad. Owosso’s highest-demand experience is the North Pole Express, Michigan’s largest Pere Marquette 1225 locomotive operated by the Steam Railroading Institute. This train is the exact same model as the one in the 2004 “Polar Express” movie, which itself was based on a 1985 children’s book of the same name. In Owosso, the Polar Express lookalike takes visitors on an expedition to the Christmas village of Ashley. This idyllic village recreates the 1940s and 1950s, featuring a wide variety of family-friendly things to see and do including glass-blowing, face-painting, juggling, and mailing a letter to Santa.

Gaylord (Otsego County)

Can’t-Miss Events for Winter: Michigan Snowmobile Festival (Feb. 2–3, 2024); Alpenfrost (Feb. 17, 2024).

Tiny treasures: Small towns to spend a winter’s day in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Downtown Gaylord via Facebook.

Most Michiganders know about visiting Little Bavaria for the holiday season, but not as many know about visiting Michigan’s own Alpine Village. Gaylord is a town in Michigan’s Snowbelt, where snowfall creates good conditions for skiing. Community leaders adopted the chalet-style architecture in the 1930s, creating Gaylord as the pastoral Swiss-inspired location it is today. Though it is not the most historic of towns, Gaylord has seen an inspiring renaissance of tourism and industry that shows the tenacity of northern Michigan. Winter outdoor recreation is king here, with ski lodges including Treetops Resort and Otsego Resort.

Snowmobiling is a big sport here, with one of the downtown area’s biggest draws being that snowmobilers can cruise at 10 mph on city side streets, provided they avoid M-32 (Main Street) and Old 27. It’s so popular that the Michigan Snowmobile Festival, dubbed “Michigan’s Richest Snowmobile Fun Run,” is also held here. Snowmobilers ride along a route, stopping at several stops along the way, to earn a prize.

Also hosted here is Alpenfrost, a winter alternative to Gaylord’s popular summer event Alpenfest. The winter version focuses on the Frosty 5K Run/Walk, with additional events including a hot cocoa crawl featuring local hot chocolate and an art walk that offers a frozen art scavenger hunt. Other more relaxed activities include building snowmen and a paint-and-sip class.

Alpena (Alpena County)

Can’t-Miss Event for Winter: Alpena Ice Fest (Feb. 10, 2024)

Tiny treasures: Small towns to spend a winter’s day in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Downtown Alpena via Facebook

Overlooking Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay, Alpena is one of Michigan’s most charming coastal towns. Alpena originally started as an early commercial fishing port before eventually transitioning into a lumber town. This little town is also a big part of Michigan’s shale and limestone industry. Rockport State Recreation Park near Alpena allows visitors to take fossils they find in an abandoned limestone quarry, blending both Michigan’s ancient history and Alpena’s industrial history. Alpena’s seven lighthouses provide echoes of Alpena’s history as a major port during the era of the lumber industry in Michigan. The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary protects more than 100 historically significant shipwrecks.

Why visit Alpena in the winter, then? Its historic downtown is definitely something to experience, with plenty of buildings that have been preserved and renovated. Downtown Alpena showcases more than 200 diverse businesses as the second-largest city in northern Michigan, second only to Traverse City, and includes plenty of places to dine, shop, and enjoy art and culture.

One of Alpena’s best winter events is the Alpena Ice Fest, which features several ice sculptures on display around the town as well as a bonfire sponsored by the local fire department. There are plenty of other ice- and snow-related activities, like a graffiti ice wall and Siberian husky sled dogs for petting.

Manistee (Manistee County)

Can’t-Miss Event for Winter: Victorian Sleighbell Parade and Old Christmas Weekend (Nov. 30–Dec. 3, 2023)

Nicknamed “Salt City,” Manistee started out as two sawmills—one on Manistee Lake and the other on Manistee River. The town was one of Michigan’s biggest players in the lumber industry, outputting as many as 250 million board feet of lumber in 1890. Over time, Manistee also added agriculture and salt industries, keeping the town afloat even after the lumber industry collapsed and a 1871 fire nearly gutted the town.

Even throughout the changes to come, Manistee would remain a Victorian port city. The Ramsdell Theatre obtained a claim to fame as the place where James Earl Jones, the famous voice of Darth Vader, got his start in acting. One popular attraction is the Manistee Riverwalk, which stretches for 1.5 miles with plenty of shopping, dining, and other landmarks to check out along the way.

Manistee’s best event in the winter is the Old Christmas Weekend, which concludes with the Victorian Sleighbell Parade. At this event, everyone dresses in Victorian attire to witness a parade of draft horses pulling a 30-foot Christmas tree. Other activities fill out the weekend, including the Festival of Trees, a Grand Ball event at Ramsdell, a craft bazaar, live performances, and more.

Petoskey and Harbor Springs (Emmet County)

Can’t-Miss Events for Winter: The Enchanted Trail (Dec. 9, 2023–Feb. 25, 2024); Winter Wonderland Weekend (Feb. 16-19, 2024)

Tiny treasures: Small towns to spend a winter’s day in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Downtown Petoskey via Facebook

Petoskey is perhaps most well-known for its trademark stone, the Petoskey Stone, which is not only Michigan’s state stone but actually a fossilized piece of coral from a reef that existed 350 million years ago. But aside from being an ideal summer destination for hunting rocks on the beach, the Petoskey area is just as interesting in the winter.

The area was originally settled in Harbor Springs, then known as Little Traverse, which hosted a large Catholic presence in the mid-19th century. Curiously, in 1847, the French had settled the area, but it had the largest concentration of Indigenous people in the entire state. The Petoskey area gained popularity when the railroad arrived in 1873, back when it was called the “Land of the Million Dollar Sunsets.” The lumber industry took the area over from 1880 to 1920, with the lumber from the region famously helping rebuild Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire. Additionally, the limestone industry also became a prominent industry. Petoskey is even home to the Ernest Hemingway Cottage, also called the Windemere, where author Ernest Hemingway spent his childhood summers.

Downtown Petoskey has plenty of places for shopping, as well as other local businesses and dining options. Downtown Petoskey’s historic district is even called the Gaslight District for the iconic gaslights that line the streets.

Among the most popular activities around the Petoskey area in the winter is the Enchanted Trail, a leisurely 2-mile snowshoe trail in the Highlands Resort with LED-wrapped trees and motion-activated musical features—a far cry from the historic gaslights downtown. At the midpoint of the trail is a yurt with a variety of warm beverages and a bonfire with complimentary s’mores fixings.

In downtown Petoskey itself, the most popular winter event is its Winter Wonderland Weekend, held in Petoskey’s Social District. It’s a winter event with ice-carving demonstrations, scavenger hunts, and more. The downtown businesses host sales and restaurant specials as well.

Houghton (Houghton County)

Can’t-Miss Event for Winter: Michigan Tech Winter Carnival (Feb. 7–10, 2024)

Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula is known as Copper Country for a reason, and Houghton is the largest city on that peninsula. As its moniker suggests, Copper Country was the site of the United States’ first copper boom. Indigenous populations were mining the copper as early as 7,000 years ago, but the biggest industry boom came in the mid-19th century. The strength of the industry created a need for professionals, which led to the founding of the Michigan Mining School, now Michigan Technological University.

Though all mining of native copper in the Upper Peninsula ceased in 1969, Houghton is still a bustling Upper Peninsula town. In fact, you can still explore Houghton’s rocky history at the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum. Its downtown is also historic and vibrant, with plenty of local businesses for shopping, dining, and more.

Houghton’s most anticipated winter event is the Michigan Tech Winter Carnival. This annual celebration is sponsored by Michigan Tech’s Blue Key National Honor Society and has run since 1922. Its main attraction is the snow-building competition, with snow sculptures depicting variations on the year’s theme displayed around Michigan Tech’s campus and the surrounding community. Students also come together to participate in all kinds of winter fun including sleigh rides, comedy skits, a queen coronation, and more.

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