It’s February, deep winter in northern Michigan’s woods. And just yards from where two of the Midwest’s most storied trout streams rise out of the old-growth pine and hardwoods near Gaylord, your table awaits.
Candles glow inside a cozy log cabin; a guitarist softly sets the mood. A crackling bonfire welcomes diners who, sipping wine, stroll outside to watch snowflakes lazily add a marshmallow topping to the accumulated white stuff.
You’re about to enjoy a winter evening dining experience like no other in northern Michigan.
The next morning, clad in winter gear, you clamor across your raft’s bouncy bottom and take your seat with your mates. Using your paddle, you ease into the current on a float down one of northern Michigan’s swiftest streams. As your guide deftly sweeps around oxbows and down golden gravel runs that, in a few months, will hold spawning trout and even sturgeon, you keep your eyes and waterproof camera ready for perched eagles or browsing deer along the river banks.
And the following day finds you donning cross-country skis for yet another unique Michigan winter experience, a trek that will take you to the playground of bugling elk that also was once home to Michigan’s most unique—and some would say strangest—zoo.
You can have all of these mini-adventures in the northern Lower Peninsula, a few miles from one of the state’s best family-oriented resorts. Although downhill skiing is a popular option here, these snow season getaways don’t require it. There are plenty of other adventures to color your winter fun palette, and tempt your palate, as well. They range from the romantic to the rigorous, to the scenic. One even includes a plane ride to a spot most visitors see only in summer.
Let’s take a look at some of the best ways to fall in love with Michigan in winter.
INTO THE WOODS
In the forest north of Treetops Resort and Spa near Gaylord awaits, without a doubt, the most romantic winter travel experience in Michigan.
Snuggle into the horse-drawn sleigh for a 20-minute ride to Treetops’ Wilderness Cabin near the Sturgeon River’s headwaters, where your dining adventure begins as you sip wine while a guitar gently plays. You wander to the covered porch or the blazing fire, taking it all in.
The large, renovated log cabin remains from Project Wilderness, a failed attempt at an outdoor zoo that included giraffes wandering the north country’s hardwood hills. It was the vision of Treetops General Manager Barry Owens that brought this evening’s Zhivago-like experience to life, if only on about eight weekends each winter.
Dinner, served at a communal table, begins with lusciously thick cream of morel mushroom soup. Next, salad laced with morsels of smoked trout.
The main course is an eight-ounce filet on a crawfish potato corn cake, topped with béarnaise, onions and served with candied vegetables. It’s accompanied by your choice of Michigan-made or other beers and wines. Dessert is blackberry doublelayered cake with a Michigan blackberry reduction. Before taking the shuttle back to Treetops, spend more time outside around the fire, and look up as snowflakes appear out of the darkness all around you. It’s magical.
The next day, gather your cross-country ski gear and head out to the same area for a 6k (about 3.7 miles) Skiable Feast. Travel at your own pace between five food stations, including a stop at a second renovated riverside cabin, formerly a part of that old zoo.
Up for more? Try Treetops for dog sledding, tubing, snowshoeing, downhill skiing—even winter fat tire biking. You’ll get your fill of winter fun here. treetops.com
RAFT THE STURGEON
Make the drive a few miles north to Indian River and Big Bear Adventures will transport you to a different wintertime experience on the Sturgeon River. Although there’s no white water, it’s one of the swiftest trout streams in the state. You and your raft-mates, dressed for winter weather and in life jackets, scramble into the raft as your guide briefly instructs how to sit and how to paddle when directed.
After push off it’s a 90-minute float through the Sturgeon River valley past winter wildlife that may include deer and eagles, as the river wends its way toward Burt Lake. Trips leave three times daily with a maximum of six persons per raft, and all equipment is included. You bring your camera and a readiness for a mini-winter adventure. bigbearadventures.com
A SNOWSHOE SUPPER
At Boyne Mountain, northern Lower Michigan’s most complete resort, you can make a unique trek via snowshoe to dinner at Stein Eriksen’s, the winter-only restaurant named for the golden-locked late gold medalist Olympian who once headed Boyne’s ski school.
The evening begins with a ride up the slopes on the Hemlock lift chair for spiced wine and cocoa at the Eagle’s Nest overlooking the resort base. A guide helps with the fitting of snowshoes, and everyone sets off to a half-way bonfire for more warm beverages, before continuing down gentle Cold Springs ski run. Then it’s on to the Clock Tower Lodge and Stein Eriksen’s for a dinner of traditional cheese fondue appetizer, a prime rib and shrimp buffet and chocolate fondue dessert. The Summit-to-Stein’s Snowshoe Supper is so popular, Boyne is planning more departures this winter. boyne.com
MACKINAC ISLAND IN WINTER
In the straits between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, the Mackinac Island fudge shops may hibernate until spring and most businesses are shut tight for the season, but the magic of Mackinac is awake in winter, especially on skis.
The island’s forested north side is made for cross-country skiing, with groomed trails throughout the Mackinac Island State Park. You can also cut your own on some of the pathways and trails that have meandered through the woods since the 19th century. Bring your own skis or rent them on the island.
Afterward, hang out with the locals for dinner at the Mustang Lounge or Cawthorne’s Village Inn. Lodging choices are few: the Lilac Tree Suites and Spa and the Cottage Inn close soon after New Year’s; the Bogan Lane Inn and Pontiac Lodge stay open all year. But that’s okay; the crowds are nonexistent, which is part of the appeal of a snowy season stay on the island. Transport in winter is from St. Ignace via Great Lakes Air or, until the harbor freezes, the Arnold Line ferry. mackinacisland.org
Between East Tawas and Oscoda on the state’s Lake Huron side are 44 miles of the Corsair system, lacing the Silver Creek Valley with some of the Midwest’s best cross-country ski trails. After spending a day outdoors, retreat to the splendor of the couples-only Huron House Bed & Breakfast in Oscoda. The 14-room inn, some with in-room fireplace or Jacuzzi, offers a twonight Winter Rendezvous package that includes one day’s ski equipment rental from East Tawas’ Nordic Sports, in-room breakfast service and a dining credit at Tait’s Bill of Fare in Oscoda. huronhouse.com
This article originally appeared in the 2016 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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