No matter where your loyalty lies in the pancake-or-waffle debate, few would dispute maple syrup is a must-have for breakfast. The folks in Michigan—the nation’s eighth largest producer of the stuff—have gone so far as to dub March “Maple Syrup Month.” While the tree sap is a-flowing, they host a variety of activities: tree-tapping demonstrations, maple syrup festivals, sugaring tours, and, of course, plenty of sampling. Whether you’re as zealous about the sweet stuff as they are (maple cotton candy, anyone?) or just really like pancakes, there are plenty of reasons to bundle up and head north to maple territory this month.
Tree Tappin’ Good Time
Maple syrup farms, which often boast saccharine monikers like Doodles Sugar Bush and Butternut Creek Sugar Shack, are scattered throughout the state. In March, many will allow you to observe the sap-tapping process up close. While the season can last anywhere from four to six weeks, the heaviest sap flow, called a “run,” lasts only about 10 to 20 days.
Some devote an entire weekend to tours of the “sugar bush” to showcase syrup production: inserting the spile, collecting sap, and sending it to the pump house, where it’s boiled into syrup or sugar and put to good use. See for yourself at family-owned-and-operated Maple Row Sugarhouse in Jones, a small (the 2010 census pegs the population of the entire township—which includes two other towns—at 1,632), lake-adjacent town in the state’s southwest corner on March 14 and 15.
Maple Row Sugarhouse, maplerowsugarhouse.com
If you’d rather bypass the hard work and get right to the sampling, mosey on over to the Vermontville Maple Syrup Festival, home to the original—and at 75 years and counting, longest-running—maple syrup festival in the state, which takes place April 24–26 this year. Munch on some maple-infused goodies like fudge, coffee, or barbecue while you stroll around the arts and crafts show, flea market, and petting zoo—not to mention the Little Miss Maple Syrup pageant, talent show, parades, 5k race, and pancake derby.
Vermontville Maple Syrup Festival, vermontvillemaplesyrupfestival.org
For those who prefer finer dining, the café and winery at Sandhill Crane Vineyards in Jackson has a delicious variety of house-made menu items, like the apple, brie, and apricot-jam panini or their famed bacon chocolate-chip cookies. Of course, there’s an even larger selection of straight-from-the-vineyard wine offerings. During the Big 400 Maple Festival on March 21, the award-winning winery releases the current vintage of their Sugar Snow dessert wine, made with—you guessed it—maple sap and syrup. Try it with the maple cookie–topped Sugar Snow sorbet. They’ll be selling fresh maple cream and syrup then, too, so you can always get your maple goodies to go.
Sandhill Crane Vineyards, sandhillcranevineyards.com
Burn it off
All that sweet stuff means a sugar high is sure to follow. Burn off the extra energy by snowshoeing at one of Michigan’s state parks. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, roughly 25 miles west of Traverse City, offers park ranger–guided snowshoe tours for beginners (free snowshoe rental included) on Saturdays through March 7.
If you’d rather explore the park’s 100-plus miles of trails yourself, nearby Crystal River Outfitters in Glen Arbor rents snowshoes and other outdoorsy gear you may need. Take the ferry to Sleeping Bear’s South Manitou Island for points of interest like the Valley of the Giants (a grove with some of the largest old-growth white cedars in the state), a shipwrecked Liberian freighter from the 1960s, and the 100-foot-tall Island Lighthouse. The park also has some of the largest sand dunes around, including a 110-foot doozy in an area of the park dubbed the Dune Climb. Thrill seekers take note: It’s open for tobogganing during the wintry months.
Sleeping Bear Dunes, National Lakeshore, nps.gov/slbe
How well do you really know real maple syrup from Aunt Jemima’s? Here’s some maple trivia to know before you go:
- Moldy syrup? Don’t pitch it. Just boil the syrup and skim off the fuzz, and you’re in the clear to pour it over those pancakes.
- Tapping trees for syrup doesn’t affect the health or longevity of trees at all—they just grow slightly less quickly.
- A maple tree is at least 40 years old and 10 inches in diameter before it’s tapped.
- USDA-approved maple syrup has five grades: Grade A Light Amber, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, Grade B, and Commercial Grade. The darker the color, the more maple-y the taste.
- There’s been a Maple Syrup Festival Queen crowned every year since at least 1980.
- Michigan produced an average of about 101,000 gallons of maple syrup over the last three years—it’s one of the few agricultural crops where the demand outweighs supply.
- The largest agricultural heist ever was the theft of 6 million pounds of maple syrup—worth $18 million—from a warehouse in Canada in 2012.
Photographs courtesy of Maple Row Sugarhouse and Erika Eggleston/ Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau
Originally published in the March 2015 issue.