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Snowshoeing: A Simple Introduction to Traverse City's Winter Activity for (Almost) Everyone

Skiers and snowmobilers have long known about the miles of winter trails that meander through the forests and dunelands of Michigan’s glacier-sculpted northwest coast. But more and more visitors are learning that they can enjoy the snow-shrouded woods and glittering heights around Traverse City without investing in a lot of special equipment or training. They’ve discovered an inexpensive and convenient alternative that gives them immediate access to the region’s famous winter scenery: Snowshoes.
Thanks to advances in technology, the clunky wood snowshoes of generations past have been replaced by a new generation of small, lightweight models that have helped make snowshoeing one of the fastest-growing winter sports in North America. And because they can be mastered in a few minutes, they’re popular with people who don’t want to bother with lessons before setting out on the trail.

“Every year we see a rise in snowshoe sales,” says Eric Robinson of Backcountry Outfitters, a Traverse City outlet that sells and rents hundreds of new-style snowshoes each winter. “The technology is constantly improving, prices are much more reasonable and the gear is more user-friendly than ever. It’s just like going out for a walk – and that’s what people are looking for.”

Many of the region’s most popular backcountry trails – at Old Mission Point and the Sand Lakes Quiet Area -- are now as busy on winter weekends as they are during the traditional “peak season” of summer. Beginners are drawn to introductory events like the Saturday afternoon ranger-guided snowshoe hikes offered at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which provides free snowshoes for visitors who don’t have their own gear, but ranger Bill Herd says the tours are also attracting a growing contingent of experienced snowshoers.

“It seems to be catching on more and more,” said Herd. “These days I think about half the people we take out have already got their own snowshoes.”

Located about 20 miles west of Traverse City, Sleeping Bear has 13 trails ranging from 1.5 miles to 14.7 miles in length, and offers opportunities for snowshoers of all ability levels. (The park also provides free snowshoe hikes during the week for school field trips and other organized groups.) For information and maps, or to make a reservation for a guided hike, call 231-326-5134, ext. 328.

Several of the best novice trails in the region, however, are much closer to town, and a few are even within the city limits. The Grand Traverse Commons Natural Area encompasses over 300 acres of trails surrounding the stately castle-like buildings of a former mental asylum that’s now being redeveloped into a mixed-use “village.” Six different trailheads allow easy access to the system, which offers splendid views of the city and Grand Traverse Bay. (Novice snowshoers will be glad to know that here, too, there are free guided hikes held on Wednesday evenings.)

At the southern edge of the city is the Grand Traverse County Natural Education Reserve, a 420-acre tract that includes excellent habitat for beaver, otter, mink, fox, deer, and many other animals and birds. It has nearly 7 miles of improved trails along the Boardman River with boardwalks, bridges and scenic overlooks. To the east is the Timber Ridge RV Resort & Campground, which maintains a 5K groomed trail system that links up to 60 kilometers of trails in the nearby Pere Marquette State Forest. Cost to use the trails is $3-$7, and snowshoes can be rented from the resort.

Nearby is the Brown Bridge Quiet Area, a 1,310-acre nature study area perched on bluffs above a pond on the Boardman River, 11 miles southeast of town. There are trails to the north and south of the pond, where it’s common to spot bald eagles, osprey and red-shouldered hawks in winter. Boardwalks and wildlife overlooks are scattered throughout the area. Just 1.5 miles away is the Muncie Lakes Pathway, with 11.5 miles of trails that wander past small lakes and skirt the banks of the swift-flowing river with overlooks of the Boardman Valley.

At the tip of the narrow Old Mission Peninsula, about 18 miles north of Traverse City, the charming little Old Mission Lighthouse stands above a vast rocky shoal, surrounded by a 513-acre park crisscrossed by 7.5 miles of trails through forests and upland meadows. The trails can be accessed at several points, but the most scenic trailhead is at the lighthouse itself. For a smaller hike, the Peninsula also features the Pyatt Lake Nature Preserve, a 40-acre nature area near Bowers Harbor with a mile-long loop of trail through a unique wooded dune ridge area that’s home to winter wrens, woodpeckers, and owls.

Southwest of Traverse City is the Lake Ann Pathway, a popular trail system near the village of Lake Ann that’s divided into two distinctly different loops. The 3.5 mile western loop is a roller-coaster trail that passes two small inland lakes and a short section of the Platte River. The 1.8-mile eastern portion meanders gently along the Platte and the shoreline of Lake Ann.

Near the village of Interlochen is the Lost Lake Pathway, a gentle 6.3-mile trail that follows the bed of an old timber-era railroad, passing a small forest lake and scenic blueberry bogs and traversing a rare stand of old-growth red pine.

Several miles east of Traverse City, the Sand Lakes Quiet Area is 2,800-acre nature preserve that’s off-limits to motorized vehicles of any kind, with 11 miles of trails that meander through beautiful oak-pine forest and around five small jewel-like lakes, and provide opportunities for viewing deer, turkeys, squirrels, woodland songbirds and other wildlife.

The Grass River Natural Area, near the village of Bellaire on Antrim County's Chain of Lakes, comprises 1,325 acres along the pristine Grass River, with 7.5 miles of trails winding through upland forests and along raised boardwalks above floating sedges. It’s a favorite haunt for winter birds and mammals. Nearby, the 4,500-acre complex of Shanty Creek Resorts maintains 21 kilometers of trails through forests of snow-laden hardwoods. A trail pass costs $9-$12, and snowshoes can be rented.

For more detailed information on snowshoe trails and equipment rentals, as well as a schedule of winter activities and events in the Traverse City area and listings of special fall and winter packages offered by local innkeepers, contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-TRAVERSE or visit their Web site: VisitTraverseCity.com.

Information and photos provided by Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau.

© 2008