Walking in a (Snowless) Winter Wonderland

A Hazy December Day at the Clinch Park Marina
A Hazy December Day at the Clinch Park Marina

By MIKE NORTON

It was a beautiful weekend here in Traverse City. Too windy for kayaking, but with enough sunshine to warm the soul and make for some really fine walks along the Bay. I even took my bike out again on Sunday and pedaled around the Old Mission Peninsula a bit.

The only problem, of course, is that it’s mid-December and it’s time to get some snow.  Today it’s in the 40s and there’s a light gray mist over the water – comfortable weather in a sort of melancholy werewolf-on-the-moor way, but not the glittery white wonderland I really want to see. My skis are itching to hit the trails, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s getting a little impatient. My philosophy toward winter is simple: get outside and enjoy it, or you’ll go batty.

I know the snow is coming, but the question remains: what’s an increasingly restless outdoorsperson to do until it gets here?

Fortunately, you can always take a walk. You don’t even need any special equipment — just put on mittens and a hat and a warm coat. Until the snow comes, you won’t even need boots. Anyway, here are five winter walks I’ve thought up  for people who want to enjoy the beauties of Traverse City’s “fourth season.” They’re all pretty easy, and don’t require a lot of deep-country slogging, but they’re lovely and interesting — snow or no snow.

Christmas Lights on Front Street at Night
Christmas Lights on Front Street at Night

City Sidewalks, Pretty Sidewalks: Front Street and the Boardman Neighborhood

This “urban walk” is a good introduction to Traverse City’s historic downtown shopping district and one of its oldest residential neighborhoods: the splendid 19th-century homes along tree-lined Washington Street. It’s a particularly fine walk on a calm winter evening, when the holiday lights in the downtown trees and the turn-of-the-century streetlamps along Washington give the night a magical glow.

Directions: Starting at the corner of Union and Front, walk east for four blocks to Wellington Avenue. Turn right and go up two blocks to Washington Street, then go left and stroll as far as you like. (The street with its fine Victorian homes extends for six blocks, past charming F&M Park to Garfield Avenue.) To return, simply cross the street and go back the way you came.

A Stroll Along the Bay: Old Mission Point

At the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula, which separates Grand Traverse Bay into its east and west arms, you can stand precisely halfway between the equator and the North Pole and feel as though you’re in the last place on earth. There’s a cozy 19th-century lighthouse, a picnic area and a series of walking trails that wander through deep evergreen forest, along rock-strewn  beaches and up to a highland plateau where you can look out over the bay to the distant shores beyond.

Directions: Take M-37 (Center Road) north from Traverse City. At its very end is Lighthouse Park, where there’s a parking lot and the trailhead for the lowland Old Mission trails. High country trailheads are located on Murray Road, at the north end of Brinkman, and at the end of Ridgewood Road. Maps are posted at regular intervals on all the trails.

Berries Provide Early Winter Color at Grass River
Berries Provide Early Winter Color at Grass River

A Walk on the Wildlife Side: The Grass River Natural Area

Just minutes from bustling Shanty Creek Resort, there’s a quiet spot where a tiny creek flows into a wide shallow river – and in wintertime this is the perfect place to catch a glimpse of some of our shyest wild creatures: deer, snowshoe hares, fox, coyote and bobcat. The 1,143-acre Grass River Natural Area has a well-developed network of trails, boardwalks and observation platforms where you can watch ducks, swans, owls, eagles and other birds.

Directions: Drive east on M-72 for 10 miles, past Acme and Williamsburg,to the turnoff for Rapid City. Continue through Rapid City and Alden; north of Alden turn right onto Alden Highway and follow it for about three miles. The entrance to the Natural Area is on the left.

Strolling though tall trees at the Seven Bridges
Strolling though tall trees at the Seven Bridges

An Enchanted Forest: The Seven Bridges

About 20 miles east of Traverse City, in the hills of western Kalkaska County, the fast little Rapid River pauses on its way down a steep valley. Here in a forest of quiet cedars the river briefly divides into several branches that go wandering through the trees, crossed by a series of footbridges. It’s an enchanted, intimate place for a walk, and it’s at its very best when there’s a light snow falling.

Directions: Drive east on M-72 past Acme and Williamsburg to Valley Road, about a mile west of Kalkaska. Turn left and follow the road, which winds through a beautiful valley and past scenic Rugg Pond. After three miles, keep an eye open for the Seven Bridges parking area, on the right-hand side of the road. After your walk, continue west on Valley Road to the village of Rapid City or retrace your route to the top of the valley.

Traverse City‘s Central Park: The Grand Traverse Commons

Behind the creamy brick castles of the former Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital (now being transformed into the swanky Grand Traverse Commons development) is a network of wonderful public walking trails. Some wander through deep woods and across open meadows; other climb high into the western hills above the city, providing splendid views of the surrounding area.

Directions: There are several trailheads within the Commons campus, but the easiest way to access the trail system is to take Front Street west out of town and follow it uphill. About a half-mile past Cedar Run Road, look for a turn-off on the left; it will lead to a small parking lot and trailhead kiosk.

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About mikelovestc

These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job! I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland. What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
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