Mackinac and Traverse Cities Winter 2018


            My wife and I decided to take a winter adventure to Mackinac City and Traverse City about a week before Christmas. We wanted to see the sights in the winter and see what there was to do in the winter. Going in winter, you will find inexpensive hotel rooms and it will be less crowded. Both the hotels we stayed at were less than $100 a night, come back in the summer and you can expect to pay 2 to 3 times more. As we were hoping to see what it was like up north in the winter, we found that there wasn’t much snow or ice in many places. It was still early winter and relatively mild weather for winter. Come back in January or February and you can expect a lot more snow, ice and lower temperatures. Come along with us on our adventure.

Day 1: Mackinac City

            Early afternoon, my wife and I arrived in Mackinac City and went to the park at the base of the Mackinac Bridge and looked at the lighthouse. It was a beautiful sunny day with great views of the straits of Mackinac, Mackinac Island and the Upper Peninsula. When we drove around town, we quickly discovered the lively summer town is a ghost town during the winter. Most of the hotels and stores are closed.  We drove past the ferry docks and found a number of the ferry’s out of the water and on the dock. You can’t get to Mackinac Island from Mackinac City during the winter, you either have to go across the bridge to St. Ignace and take one of the ferry’s there or there is a airplane shuttle service to the island.

Old Mackinac Point Light Station, built in 1889 and it was operational until 1957.

“The Mighty Mac” aka The Mackinac Bridge
Mackinac Island in the distance
Mackinac City Harbor
Island ferries on the docks

We came to Mackinac City in hopes of witnessing the Northern lights and do some star gazing. We headed to the Headlands International Sky Park while it was still light out to see where we were going. It is located to the west of main town area and is on the Lake Michigan side of the straits of Mackinac surrounded by acres of woods. At the main observation area along the beach is an observatory, I got a Jurassic Park feel to the building.  Next to the building is an amphitheater area that faces west out over the water. We were one of the few people there that day, it was very peaceful and quiet. The beach area is also a great place to go for a walk, even in the winter. Driving into the park at night is a little spooky because you drive on this narrow road through the woods and every so often there are these wood cut-out-silhouettes of people along the road. They look pretty real at first glance at night.  When we came back at night the moon was really bright making star gazing and looking for the Northern Lights difficult. We didn’t even need flashlights because of the moon and the red light, light posts lighting the way. That night, turns out the solar conditions weren’t right for us to see the Northern Lights where we were anyway. The night sky also got cloudier and cloudier the later it got. One day I will see the Northern Lights, there are many places throughout Michigan that are good places to see the Northern Lights, the conditions just have to be right.

The event building reminded me of the observatory from Jurassic Park
Mackinac Bridge at night

Day 2: Driving to Traverse City and the Sleeping Bear Dunes

Good Morning from our hotel room porch

Traverse City is a 2-hour drive from Mackinac City and is a scenic drive down U.S. 31 that wind through the towns of Petoskey and Charlevoix. Our next hotel was in Traverse City and it would be our base for exploring the Sleeping Bear Dunes. On our drive south to Traverse City, we stopped briefly in Petoskey at the Bayfront park to take in the views of Little Traverse Bay and to scout out where to come back in the summer. The park has a baseball field right next to the bay, I wonder how many homeruns have gone over the fence and into the bay? The towns of Petoskey and Charlevoix are both year-round towns, as opposed to the ghost town at the base of the bridge. The drive down U.S. 31 is very pleasant and scenic.   

Little Traverse Bay

After stopping in Traverse City for lunch, we continued on to the small town of Empire, where the National Park welcome center is located and got a pass to the park for the week for $20. From there we stopped at Empire’s town beach. It is not actual part of the national park but is sandwiched in between two very large sand dunes. The Great Lakes are still beautiful in the winter and it seems like a great summer spot. I hope to come back in the summer and go swimming.

Empire town beach Lake Michigan
Manning Memorial Light

Our next stop was the Empire Bluffs trail in the National Park. From the trailhead, it is a 1.5 mile hike round trip through the woods and it is total worth it. From the bluff, you have unobstructed views of Lake Michigan from about 500 feet above it. You can see for miles in every direction. To the north, you can see the previously mentioned Empire Beach and beyond that is the rest of Sleeping Bear Dunes. One thing to be careful of in the winter is the trail can be icy and there are a series of stairs to navigate. Not all of the Park is open during the winter, but the parts that are open have amazing views worth the hike.

First opening in the woods view. In the middle between Lake Michigan and the frozen lake is Empire Beach. Past that, is the main section of Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Now we have reached the end of the trail to the bluff

From the bluffs, we went to climbing area of the sand dunes. Is it technically open? The parking lot was partially blocked but there were other people climbing the dunes. Most of the dunes were snow free. If it was covered in snow, I would love to go sledding down the dunes. During the summer, it is a very popular spot for families.

After the climbing area we went to the former Coast Guard saving station near Glenn Arbor. It is a collection of a few builds that were closed for the winter. That didn’t bother us because we were there to walk the beach. The beach had beautiful teal colored water near the shore and the lake was surprisingly calm that day. I was amazed how quiet this beautiful area was even on a grey, cloudy day. To the north, are views of North and South Manitou islands. I definitely want to come back in the summer. Could be a great place to go swimming. 

I love the color of the water, even on this grey day.

Day 3: Traverse City

            Our second day in Traverse City, the weather wasn’t as favorable as the previous day. This day was rainy, colder and windy, so we decided not to go back to the dunes. So, we decided to check out the old Psychiatric- hospital in town, because what else would you?  This hospital was built in 1885 in a Victorian style and has some amazing architecture. Former known as the Traverse City State Hospital, Northern Michigan Asylum and the Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital eventually was abandoned when it was no longer needed. After it had fallen into disrepair, it was then turned into shops, restaurants, offices and apartments because what else do you do with an old psychiatric hospital? You can even have a wedding reception at this facility. It is now called The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. I did get a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vibe from the build and I wouldn’t want to come back at night. There are historical tours of the buildings, but they weren’t available the day we went. The main part that is open to the general public, is the basement of the large building. In the basement there are a number of shops and restaurants. They are a collection of specialty, art and gift shops, nothing really caught our eye. Next to the main building, you can see another one of the buildings that hasn’t been refurbished yet and really get a few of how spooky it is. An odd part of the now mini-mall, is that parking is a bit hard to come by, there is a functional medical hospital next door and remaining buildings are close together. This is one thing they could improve on.

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