19 winter bucket list items to try before the snow melts in Michigan

19 Winter Bucket List Items to Try Before the Snow Melts in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Crystal Mountain Resort via Facebook

By Lisa Green

December 21, 2023

Michigan is an all-season recreational paradise, but we think it’s time winter got the attention it deserves.

MICHIGAN—When the snow starts to fall, Michiganders don’t falter. Not only are we snow-hardy, we’ve invented all kinds of fun things to do when the cold weather hits. With recreational activities like snowboarding and ice fishing, there’s always a new way to think about having fun outside.

Though Michigan’s tourism industry generally considers the winter to be the off season, there’s actually plenty of reasons to hit the road during a Michigan winter. We’ve rounded up a bucket list of items to add to your next travel itinerary. Just don’t wait for the snow to melt.

See Michigan’s frozen lighthouses and blue ice with your own eyes

19 winter bucket list items to try before the snow melts in Michigan

(Image via wsilver, CC BY 2.0 Deed)

Whether you’re a nature enthusiast or just looking for that perfect Instagram shot, Michigan’s unique weather patterns tend to create gorgeous frozen marvels during the winter. With more than 100 structures spread across its shores, Michigan is the state with the greatest number of lighthouses in the country. These lighthouses stand stalwart on Michigan’s shorelines and during the winter accumulate ice in wondrous random patterns that will never repeat, making them perfect for a candid nature shot. Sometimes, you may even witness a weather phenomenon known as blue ice.

Why is the ice blue? For the same reason Michigan’s Great Lakes often have a splendid blue hue. Color is a manifestation of reflected light, and water absorbs colors in the red part of the light spectrum, leaving behind colors in the blue part of the spectrum. Thick ice crystals work the same way, with the blue portion of the light and color spectrum traveling further into the ice than the red spectrum. Blue ice only turns blue when the water is relatively pure—a testament to the cleanliness of Michigan’s Great Lakes.

Blue ice is rare and does not necessarily occur every year. Specific weather conditions are required to create particularly clear and dense ice. A lack of high winds over time combined with steadily low temperatures allow water to freeze slower to create the blue ice phenomenon. It’s most common on northern Lake Huron and near the Straits of Mackinac. Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula and Lake Michigan are also sometimes graced by blue ice. But snap a photo while it lasts—blue ice may only stick around for a day or two.

Some of the most popular lighthouses for frozen nature photography include several Lake Michigan lighthouses: Holland Harbor “Big Red” Lighthouse in Holland, Point Betsie Lighthouse in Frankfort, Big Sable Point Lighthouse and the two breakwater lighthouses in Ludington, and the Grand Haven South Pierhead Inner and Outer lighthouses in Grand Haven. The Straits of Mackinac are also home to several lighthouses, including the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and McGulpin Point Lighthouse.

Explore ice caves in the Upper Peninsula

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is treacherous in winter weather, to the point that tourism to Michigan’s northernmost world may feel ill-advised. But winter is the only time you can catch one of the Upper Peninsula’s natural wonders: ice caves.

Ice caves are caves of rock that become encased in ice when the temperature drops. Specialized gear is necessary to navigate the ice—ice cleats, poles, and snowshoes, for example. Meltwater drainage, such as out of a sandstone cliff, are responsible for these “ice caves,” as they create gorgeous curtains and columns of ice that are often white with blue, green, and yellow hues. These colors are caused by various mineral concentrations and impurities (or lack thereof) in the water.

The tallest ice caves in Michigan are the Grand Island Ice Caves, located within the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The Pictured Rocks are one of Michigan’s most scenic parks, offering year-round breathtaking views of Lake Superior. You can view the impressive ice curtains from Sand Point beaches. Since ice is unpredictable and Lake Superior is notoriously dangerous, the National Park Service does not recommend trekking across the ice to actually visit these ice caves. Still, that hasn’t stopped some Michiganders from trekking at their own risk (we do not recommend it).

A much safer and easier to explore an ice cave is at the Eben Ice Caves in the Hiawatha Forest. Located on 4,700 acres of private land called the Rock River Canyon Wilderness between Munising and Marquette, the attraction is also sometimes called the Rock River Canyon Ice Caves. Thankfully, it’s open to visitors, who must make a short hike to access the caves. The ice walls of the cave can reach heights as tall as 50 feet. If you go, make sure to read safety tips from the experts.

Hit the slopes at a Michigan ski resort

You might be surprised to find out that Michigan has more ski areas than most of the country, second only to New York in quantity. But it’s not all done on slopes.

Michigan skiing usually comes in two forms: downhill, also known as Alpine skiing, and cross-country, aka Nordic skiing. Downhill skiing is how you probably picture it, often using a ski lift to help skiers reach the top then speed down a hill or mountain at 40 miles per hour. Cross-country skiing, on the other hand, is a better cardiovascular workout than your morning jog or stationary bike. Both are great options for Michigan outdoor recreation.

Skiing often requires gear and skill, but luckily, with a ski resort, you can get both. Most ski resorts offer gear rentals and ski lessons. In lower Michigan, you can hit Pine Knob Ski and Snowboard Resort in Clarkston or Cannonsburg Ski Area in Belmont. Up north, you can visit Boyne Mountain Resort in Boyne Falls or Treetops Resort in Gaylord. In the Upper Peninsula, check out Mount Bohemia Ski Resort in Mohawk or Pine Mountain Ski and Golf Resort in Iron Mountain. There are also many cross-country ski trails across Michigan.

Go Ice Skating in the Big City

800 Woodward Ave., Detroit

135 Monroe Center St. NW, Grand Rapids

19 Winter Bucket List Items to Try Before the Snow Melts in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Downtown Detroit Partnership via Facebook

There are few things more magical than ice skating while surrounded by holiday lights and a gorgeous city skyline. That’s why skating on the outdoor rink of Detroit’s Campus Martius is a coveted Michigan winter activity. The historical Campus Martius is so beloved it was placed on USA Today’s list of Best Public Spaces.

The Rink at Campus Martius Park is located directly on the bustling Woodward Avenue and within eyesight of Detroit’s massive Christmas tree. It’s open seasonally, but operates seven days a week, including holidays. The experience of skating here is so iconic, even Olympic ice-skating athletes skate in Campus Martius every year.

For those on the west side of the state, Grand Rapids has the Rosa Parks Circle Ice Rink. This plaza in downtown Grand Rapids between Monroe Avenue NW and Monroe Center Street NW serves as a venue for events in the warmer months and is converted to an ice rink for the winter. Rosa Parks Circle was designed by Maya Lin, who was inspired by the city’s connection to water.

Check out ice-carving and snow-sculpting events

With all that snow and ice hanging around, it’s easy to wonder, what should we do with all this snow? Well, when life gives Michiganders lemons, we make lemonade, and when life gives us snow, we make art. During the winter months, it’s incredibly easy to find some kind of winter celebration, both large and small, featuring ice carving, snow sculpting, or both. These events feature professional sculptors and carvers fashioning art pieces for temporary display in Michigan’s picturesque downtowns for everyone in the community to admire.

Michigan’s fascination with creating art from ice and snow likely began with Michigan Technological University, or Michigan Tech, in 1922, when a student organization put on a one-night “Ice Carnival,” a winter event with a circus theme. Students traveled to the downtown Houghton waterfront to watch classmates perform circus-style acts, play music, and figure skate. The carnival was so popular it became an annual event—but in the 100 years since its inception, it has changed a lot. In 1934, the event was taken over by the Blue Key National Honor Society. Today, it is the Michigan Tech Winter Carnival, a multiple-day celebration of intricate packed-snow designs from Michigan’s most winter-hardy college students. Each Winter Carnival has a theme to be used by competing sculptors to create the best and most intricate snow displays. The Winter Carnival remains one of the best events for winter creativity in Michigan.

Another popular event for snow and ice art comes from the town that thrives on Christmas, Frankenmuth. Zehnder’s Snowfest is one of America’s top snow- and ice-sculpting events, featuring both snow sculpting and ice carving in several different divisions. The event has dazzled patrons for more than 30 years and typically draws more than 100,000 attendees.

Both the Winter Carnival and the Snowfest are great opportunities to see live sculpting and carving in action. Or you can find a sculpting event near you.

Witness winter art at World of Winter in Grand Rapids

19 Winter Bucket List Items to Try Before the Snow Melts in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. via Facebook

Michigan’s second-largest city of Grand Rapids may be popular in the summer, but this city hardly sleeps during the winter; its two-month-long World of Winter Festival is the largest winter festival in the United States. The festival includes Valent-ICE, which turns downtown Grand Rapids into Michigan’s largest gallery of frozen art. There are also tons of art installations with twinkling lights and interactive artwork.

Aside from all the art, the festival includes special events and family-friendly activities throughout its schedule. Some of these include a street-painting party, skating events, pop-up DJs, and more. You’ll even see things like an ice bar in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market and an Ice Piano performance in Canal Street Park.

Become best friends with sled dogs

If you find yourself gushing over the pups of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, you’ll be delighted to know that Michigan has its own dog sporting event—just with a bit more snow. Dog sledding is a traditional practice dating back to Indigenous people in what is now Canada, with evidence of the practice dating back over 1,000 years. It started as one dog pulling cargo before expanding to many dogs carrying larger loads. Today, the largest dog-sledding race is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska. One of the qualifiers for that race is held right here in Michigan, specifically in Marquette.

The UP200 is one of the top 12-dog mid-distance races in the Midwest. The dog-sled teams race for a total of 228 miles through challenging terrain, traveling from Marquette to Grand Marias. There’s also a smaller 82-mile race called the Midnight Run, intended for teams of eight dogs, and a smaller still 26-mile race called the Jack Pine 30, which is for teams of six. Several spots along the race track are available as spectator areas.

Want to try dog sledding out for yourself? You can get up close and personal with sled dogs in the Lower Peninsula by going to Treetops Resort in Gaylord, or venture to the Upper Peninsula and book a run with Nature’s Kennel in McMillan or Husky Haven Kennels in Shingleton, just outside Munising.

Dazzle yourself with zoo lights

8450 W. 10 Mile Road, Royal Oak

19 Winter Bucket List Items to Try Before the Snow Melts in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Detroit Zoo via Facebook

Every year when December arrives, one of the best holiday excursions in Michigan is the Detroit Zoo’s annual holiday light show, Wild Lights. It’s so esteemed as an attraction that USA Today recently placed it on its list of 10 Best Zoo Lights.

The layout at Wild Lights is different every year, but it always excludes the animal habitats, instead covering the front half of the zoo. The show features more than 500 displays featuring millions of LED lights, with ticket prices starting at less than $20. Some of these displays are also motion-activated or otherwise interactive. Plenty of seasonal refreshments are also available, including hot chocolate and warm pretzels. You can catch a similar show at Lansing’s Potter Park Zoo’s Wonderland of Lights.

Sled down the Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes

6748 S. Dune Highway, Glen Arbor

The Sleeping Bear Dunes is a U.S. National Lakeshore located in the northwest Lower Peninsula in Michigan. The lakeshore is a top contender for Michigan’s most famous and most beautiful national park, and it’s especially popular during the summer. But even in the winter months, these impressive dune formations are popular for another outdoor activity—sledding.

When the dunes are covered with enough slow, the National Park Service operates a designated area of the Dune Climb for sledding. Visitors can use sleds, toboggans, snowboards, saucer sleds, skis, and even inflatable tubes to descend the towering 284-foot dune.

Take a horse-drawn carriage ride through downtown Frankenmuth

19 Winter Bucket List Items to Try Before the Snow Melts in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Fantasy Carriage Company, Inc via Facebook

Michigan’s Little Bavaria is already famous as a winter destination thanks to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, the world’s largest Christmas store. But this quaint and cozy little slice of German-inspired village life has plenty of other great winter spectacles. One of those is the horse-drawn carriage rides.

Fantasy Carriage Company, Inc. offers 15-minute, 30-minute, hour-long, and hour-and-a-half-long carriage rides through Frankenmuth for up to six people. During the holidays, the carriages have actual sleigh bells and are decked out with lights and garland, but they’re also suitable for Valentine’s Day.

Get horizontal with luging in Muskegon

462 N. Scenic Drive, Muskegon

If you like your sledding a little more extreme, you might want to try out luging. As seen in the Winter Olympics, luging involves a rider traveling on a flat sled at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. There are only four luge tracks in the entire United States, but Michigan has one of them.

The Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park within Muskegon State Park is home to the only kunstbahn track (German for “artificial track”) made from natural ice. The track was designed by Olympian and Luge Hall of Famer Frank Masley and is 850 feet long, a little shorter than an Olympic-qualifying track, making it ideal for beginners. No equipment is required, as the sports park provides daily equipment rentals for inexpensive rates.

Dine in an igloo

19 Winter Bucket List Items to Try Before the Snow Melts in Michigan

Photo courtesy of The White Horse Inn via Facebook

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, public health advisories forced restaurants across the country to close their doors. When they reopened later in the year, many restaurants, including those in Michigan, had significant restrictions on their indoor dining. But necessity breeds invention, and those pandemic restrictions brought about an outdoor dining business model that would outlive the mask mandates. When winter came, the combined need for heated outdoor spaces and socially distanced tables saw the rise of igloo dining, where pop-up domes crowded patios for a simulated al fresco experience.

What many people don’t realize is that Michigan was doing igloo dining well before anyone had heard of the coronavirus. Hop Lot Brewing Co. in Suttons Bay was one of the first, if not the actual first, dining establishments in Michigan to use igloo dining. The Hop Lot igloos are European-imported garden igloos set up with comfortable seating, glistening lights, and a pseudo-fireplace heater. And since Suttons Bay is “up north,” there’s no shortage of space.

The historic White Horse Inn in Metamora, just south of Lapeer in Michigan’s Thumb region, is another dining establishment that used igloos before the pandemic made them popular. Just before 2020, the inn created their own heated igloos seating up to 10 guests. Each igloo has its own theme, such as the Gingerbread Shed or Narnia. You can even tour one virtually.

There are many other spots around Michigan where igloo dining has become popular, like Lumen Detroit, a rooftop bar in Detroit’s Beacon Park. If you set out to find an igloo near you, be mindful of reservations, purchase minimums, and reservation fees.

Climb the ice at Peabody Ice Climbing

12326 Foley Road, Fenton

Ice climbing in the wild as a novice is usually a bad idea. Fortunately, Michigan is home to the United States’ only permanent mixed-climbing/dry-tooling training facility. At Peabody Ice Climbing, skilled instructors are always available to ensure safety, meaning anyone who wants to try out ice climbing can.

Located just south of Flint, Peabody has two towers that ice over in the winter, perfect for climbing. The shorter one stands at 45 feet and the taller one stands at 72 feet. If that doesn’t sound high enough, the facility has technology that can simulate a higher-altitude environment up to 19,000 feet. The entire grounds are located on a former apple orchard.

Indulge in retail therapy in downtown Holland

19 Winter Bucket List Items to Try Before the Snow Melts in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Downtown Holland via Facebook

Everyone knows Holland best for its popular Tulip Time Festival in May, but this Dutch-inspired town is even more interesting in the winter. One underappreciated fact about Holland is that it contains the largest publicly owned snowmelt system in North America. That means the streets are heated, no shoveling or salting required.

Without having to worry about ice patches, the winter is a great time to explore what Forbes Magazine called one of “America’s Prettiest Towns.” There are lots of shops and restaurants to explore in Holland as well as the annual outdoor European-style market Holiday Kerstmarkt at Holland Civic Center Place.

Go curling at Stormcloud Brewing Company

303 Main St., Frankfort

Michigan already loves its hockey. But did you know about curling? This winter team sport involves sliding stones on a sheet of ice toward a target area. One of Michigan’s best breweries allows you to do it practically right on their patio.

Stormcloud Brewing Company may be “up north” near the Sleeping Bear Dunes, but that doesn’t mean you should sleep on one of the country’s best breweries. The Belgian-inspired outlet won the Best Brewery Award for the 2022 USA Beer Ratings and its flagship Rainmaker Ale has won multiple awards, including a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival. Curling just so happens to be its favorite pub pastime.

Every December, Stormcloud Brewing creates its custom curling sheet in the open space next to the establishment. Customers can try out group curling lessons, reserve a private curling session, or even join the curling league. And if you’re not so keen on the sport, feel free to simply watch the action from the outdoor pub patio, where you can enjoy a Belgian-inspired beer or other libations and refreshments. You may also be able to find curling lessons closer to you, such as the South Haven Ice Rink.

Go snow tubing in Traverse City

10484 S. Timberlee Drive, Traverse City

19 Winter Bucket List Items to Try Before the Snow Melts in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Timberlee Hills Snow Tubing via Facebook

Snow tubing is the newest family-friendly winter activity. It’s a lot like sledding, but with less friction. And though Traverse City might be best known for the annual summer National Cherry Festival, winter has its place in these hills.

Timberlee Hills is a well-known wedding venue in the summer, but by winter, it turns into Michigan’s largest no-lane snow tubing hill. No equipment or advanced training is needed. For a small hourly rate, visitors can tube down the hill as much as they want, with a tow rope taking the tube back to the top for the inevitable repeat run. Snow tubes can reach speeds as fast as 30 miles per hour.

If you want to try out something more guided and lighted, check out the nighttime glow snow tubing at Bowers School Farm Winter Park in Bloomfield.

Take an atmospheric snowshoe hike

Trekking through Michigan wilderness after the snow starts to fall is a challenge. Thankfully, there’s snowshoeing, which involves using specialized footwear that distributes the snowshoer’s weight over the snow so they don’t sink through. The result is an activity that not only provides a good aerobic workout but is easy to learn.

There are plenty of ways to enjoy Michigan’s beauty and splendor on a snowshoe hike. On select Saturdays, the Michigan Legacy Art Park, part of Crystal Mountain Resort, leads guided snowshoe tours of the park’s outdoor sculptures and poetry displays. The Highlands at Harbor Springs Resort hosts an illuminated snowshoe walk called the Enchanted Trail, which involves admiring holiday lights and displays for a 2-mile walk until you reach a yurt for s’mores and hot beverages. On the Leelanau Peninsula, known as northern Michigan’s “wine country,” several wineries offer self-guided snowshoe tours through the vineyards, including the Vine to Wine tour, the Snowshoe, Wine and Brew, and Black Star Farms’ Snowshoe, Vines and Wines. The Friends of Ludington State Park also lead a lantern-lit snowshoe hike through Ludington State Park on select Saturdays. State and national parks also often offer great opportunities for snowshoeing.

Go winter river rafting up north

19 Winter Bucket List Items to Try Before the Snow Melts in Michigan

Photo courtesy of Sturgeon River Paddlesports via Facebook

Michiganders sure do love their watercraft, but there’s no reason that needs to end just because boating season is over. If you find yourself missing your kayak once the snow starts falling, you can substitute it for a whitewater-style raft in the winter. Compared to other winter activities, winter river rafting is slower-paced and lower-impact. You don’t need any prior experience to try winter river rafting, and you can easily find a guided tour or an establishment offering boats for rent.

In Michigan, there are several rivers that are perfect for a guided winter tour, including the Sturgeon, Pine and Jordan rivers. There are two liveries offering tours of the Sturgeon River: Big Bear Adventures and Sturgeon River Paddlesports. Both have three departure times daily, but Big Bear Adventures is on Indian River close to Burt Lake while Sturgeon River Paddlesports is further south in Wolverine.

Pine River Paddlesports Center, as its name suggests, offers tours of the Pine River. Further west, Jordan Valley Outfitters offers rafting tours of the Jordan River.

Try out a toboggan run

You’ve probably tried sledding at some point, but have you tried a toboggan? They’re similar to sleds, but somewhat different for the fact that a toboggan doesn’t have runners. That’s why a toboggan run, or a pathway made specifically for toboggans, is encouraged—and you can find a couple in Michigan.

Midland City Forest Park in Midland is the only place in Michigan you can find a hand-packed toboggan run. The park features four toboggan runs, each one about one-tenth-of-a mile long and cutting through 520 acres of pine and hardwood forest.

Another toboggan run can be found at Echo Valley in Kalamazoo. Each run has been installed with Everslide, an all-season sledding surface for all possible weather conditions. These runs are a quarter-mile long with a huge slope, allowing riders to reach speeds up to 60 miles per hour. If you wish to go again, the staff will use a lift to automatically take your toboggan back to the top.

Finally, the Kensington Metropark in Milford also offers a toboggan run.

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