HOUGHTON, Mich. — You’re not much of a skier, and jouncing through the woods on a roaring snowmobile isn’t your idea of fun. Is there any other reason to take a winter trip to Michigan’s cold, snowy Upper Peninsula?
Actually, there are many. The lightly populated area is dotted with villages that cater to tourists, featuring gift shops, restaurants and B&Bs where you can curl up with coffee and a book in front of a huge stone fireplace. If you hanker for gambling and showroom entertainment, check out one of the tribal casinos in towns such as Baraga and Watersmeet.
Above all, the Upper Peninsula is renowned for its vast woodlands, rivers large and small and proximity to three of the Great Lakes – Superior to the north, Michigan and Huron to the south. It’s hard to think of vacationing here without enjoying the outdoors. While it might feel like spring already in many parts of the country, this region has snow, cold weather and winter activities for at least another month.
Here are a few suggestions for enjoying the Upper Peninsula in ways you might not have considered before – at least not this time of year.
For Pat Szubielak, winter was always a time to take a reluctant break from his cherished sport of off-road bicycling. No longer.
On a recent afternoon, he and a half-dozen buddies cruised along a snow-covered, tree-lined trail on bicycles. With oddly plump tires and wide frames designed for a relatively new sport that’s fast gaining popularity in the North: snow biking.
“It’s a great way to keep your fitness, so when the early biking season comes you’re a little ahead of the game,” said Szubielak, who lives near Houghton, where Michigan Tech University has opened its cross-country ski trails to snow bikers.
Ordinary mountain bikes, with their deep treads, are unwelcome on most groomed trails.
That’s where the so-called “fat bike” comes in. This innovative vehicle, which can be used on any terrain but is ideal for snow, first popped up in Alaska in the late 1990s. Mass production and distribution have come more recently.
Its flabby tires can be twice the width of those on a mountain bike and are inflated with only 6 to 8 pounds of air, producing an almost balloon-like effect.
“It’s real soft,” Szubielak said, pausing for a break. “The tire’s actually flattening out on the snow and making a big footprint.”
Snow biking is easy on trails that have been smoothed for cross-country skiing or snowmobiling. It requires more legwork when you pull onto ungroomed trails, where it can feel a bit like pushing through loose sand. But if you enjoy mountain biking, you should find this cold-weather alternative worth trying.
Because the sport is so young, finding a way to experiment with it can be challenging. Few if any shops in the Upper Peninsula rent fat bikes, which retail for $1,600 or more. But drop by Lakeshore Bike in Marquette, the area’s largest city, where demo models are available for test rides.
The 28-mile-long Noquemanon Trail network near Marquette is among those open to fat bikes.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is named for a 15-mile-long stretch of sandstone cliffs, some up to 200 feet high, overlooking Lake Superior in the central Upper Peninsula. During the winter, water seeps from the porous rock and freezes, forming towering pillars of ice that are lovely to behold. Now, try climbing one.
Ice climbing is another “silent sport” taking hold the peninsula, which boasts hundreds of waterfalls, some of which freeze over during particularly cold winters. But Pictured Rocks is the mecca. Bill Thompson, who organizes the annual Michigan Ice Fest there each February, says the area has more ice suitable for climbing than anywhere else in the Midwest. It sticks around a long time, too. In a typical year, climbing can continue into early May.
You can rent the necessary equipment – mountaineering boots, crampons (claw-like footwear attachments), helmet and climbing tools – at Thompson’s Down Wind Sports in Marquette, downwindsports.
Lessons are essential for first-timers. Down Wind Sports offers group outings for $99 per person.
Climbers wear harnesses anchored to a tree or something equally secure at the top of the ice formation. They drive pickaxes deeply into crevices and pull themselves upward, digging in with their feet for balance and support. It doesn’t require exceptional strength, Thompson said; in fact, it’s more brain than brawn.
“If you like puzzles, you’ll like ice climbing,” he said. “It’s all about figuring out how you’re going to work your way to the top.”
Whitefish Point, on the Lake Superior shore in the eastern Upper Peninsula, is a leading stopover for birds crossing the giant lake during migration seasons. Birdwatchers flock to the area in fall and spring. But a smaller, hardier set turns up in winter, when there’s a surprisingly rich variety of birds to be seen if you know where to look.
The Whitefish Point Bird Observatory – www.wpbo.org – sponsors winter tours and offers advice to birders going it alone.
“The tours are quite popular, with most of the people coming from out of state,” said Tony Janisch, the executive director. In addition to revealing some of the best places to go, they provide tips on spotting and identifying birds.
The navigational lock complex at Sault Ste. Marie and the nearby Sugar Island ferry landing offer fair prospects for observing bald eagles. The nearby rural community of Rudyard, with open fields that in winter resemble the frozen Arctic tundra, is popular with large owls that drift down from Canada.
During a January tour, Janisch and a dozen companions spotted 42 bird varieties. Among them: the tundra swan, ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse, several types of woodpeckers, the evening grosbeak and even wild turkeys.
The campgrounds at Tahquamenon Falls State Park – www.exploringthenorth.com/tahqua/tahqua.html – are busy in summer. In winter, there’s plenty of room – which suits Dan Green and Carolyn Wilson just fine. They’re members of a small but dedicated fraternity: cold-weather campers.
The retirees from Bokeelia, Fla., come up every winter in their insulated recreational vehicle.
Avid snowshoers, they treasure the quiet woods where the occasional moose can be spotted, and the spectacular view of the 50-foot-high Upper Falls. They also enjoy the Upper Peninsula’s quaint lineup of winter festivals.
“It’s a completely different world up here this time of year,” Wilson said over dinner at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub – www.tahquamenonfalls brewery.com – where the menu features local delicacies such as Lake Superior whitefish and wild rice.
A number of other campgrounds are open in winter. Hard-core types can venture into the backwoods at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park – www.exploringthenorth.com/porkiesum/intro.html – where a permit costs $14 for a group of four or fewer.
There are also seven rustic lodges, including cabins and yurts heated with wood stoves.