Photograph Courtesy Crystal Mountain
Just because the snow starts to fly doesn’t mean you need to hunker down until spring—nor do you have to fight the crowds at Perfect North. Here are some of the best opportunities in the Midwest to turn winter into the season for outdoor exploration.
The great thing about snowshoeing? You can do anything from a benign stroll through the snow-dusted woods to an epic multi-day trek across the countryside. For an easy weekend getaway, check out Cuyahoga Valley National Park just south of Cleveland. With roughly 50 miles of recommended snowshoe trails, and rentals available for just $5, Cuyahoga Valley is one of the best places in the region to strap up for the first time. If you’re looking to delve into the wilderness, 129 miles of the North Country National Scenic Trail run through Manistee National Forest in Michigan, just waiting for oversized footprints from your decking.
Nordic skiing is an efficient way to cover miles of snowy trail—and provides an unbeatable endurance workout. Some of the best cross-country skiing in the country is around the Indiana-Michigan border, about four hours away by car. Pokagon State Park, considered an official “winter wonderland” in Indiana, offers ski rentals, a beginner-friendly loop trail, and an advanced trail that skirts the shores of Snow Lake. Just north of the border in Love Creek, part of the Berrien County Parks system, you can find more challenging wooded trails with steep slopes and sharp turns. For the most acreage, pick up a Berrien County Parks Daily Trail Permit and take advantage of trails in Love Creek, Madeline Bertrand, and adjacent St. Patrick’s County Park in Indiana.
The best way to get below the frozen surface is to head up I-75 to Lake Mitchell and Muskegon Lake, both about six hours north in Michigan. For beginners, we recommend Lake Mitchell, where locals drill a 20-foot public fishing hole, giving ice fishermen easy access to a variety of fish: bluegills, sunfish, walleyes, black crappies, and northern pike. If you’re ready to drill your own hole with an auger, check out Muskegon Lake. During first ice (when the ice reaches three inches thick), Snug Harbor is full of panfish and the more elusive giant northern pike.
Wintertime need not be the end of your mountain biking season, and the number of winter singletrack trails in Michigan is exploding. If you need some wheels, try Crystal Mountain in Benzie County, where they rent bikes for six miles of groomed winter trails. Around Rockford and Yankee Springs, the West Michigan Mountain Biking Alliance maintains about 10 miles of trail for snow bikes. For enthusiasts, the Noquemanon Trail Network in Marquette boasts more than nine miles of winter trails that fat bikers can ride every day and 30 miles that can be ridden in the late afternoon and evening on Wednesdays and Sundays.
If you are intimately familiar with an ice screw, then you already have a favorite frozen waterfall. But if you’re looking to strap on crampons for the first time, then there is no place better than the Michigan Ice Fest in Munising. Held February 10–14, the ice climbing festival offers classes and clinics from professional climbers, with demo ropes set up for beginners on Saturday and Sunday. At night, some of the world’s best climbers will share stories and photos from their adventures in the mountains. For $40, you can even try out some of the newest and best gear from brands like Black Diamond and La Sportiva (but bring your own helmet and harness if you don’t want to wait in line).
Side Trip: Beer Break
There’s a decent chance that your winter adventure will take you close to Grand Rapids, Michigan—and even if you won’t pass close by, it’s worth making the extra trip for some of the country’s finest brews. Founders Brewing Company was recently awarded a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for their reDANKulous Imperial Red IPA. For something a little lighter, try their nitrogen-infused pale ale (only available on tap), or head over to Brewery Vivant and grab a French-style farmhouse ale. Tis the season for heavy beers, so don’t miss the Mitten Brewing Company—where the baseball talk stops for no weather—and enjoy a Black Betsy coffee stout or a Dock’s No-No double IPA. Good to know: The 2016 GR Beer Week runs February 21–27.