If you look at the map of Michigan like a mitten, as the locals has been taught to since childhood, Traverse City sits on the pinkie, at the northern end of the lake. Its tucked into the fold of two peninsulas lined with stretches of coastline on either side.
I hadn’t heard of Traverse City until a recent travel blogging conference where I was introduced to the lakeside town through stunning brochures full of wine tours, busy beaches, a blossoming restaurant and bar scene, and families with big smiles enjoying it all under sunny skies.
It was a terribly tempting display of midwestern charm — the perfect escape for someone like me who regularly needs to abandon the bustle of New York City for sanity maintenance trips to smaller places with fresher air.
But I wasn’t sure if the right “escape” could be accomplished in all the hoopla of the high season.
I decided to visit Traverse City, Michigan in November — after the lifeguards had taken their leave and the foliage would presumably be coating the paths with blustery whispers of winter, having abandoned their Fall colors in late October.
Would there be anything worth doing while bundled up against the Northern Michigan chill? I wasn’t sure… but a friend’s wedding in Chicago made it a plausible detour and I packed extra layers to hopefully enjoy whatever (quiet) surprises Traverse City had in store for me.
I was really looking forward to some hiking — its something I enjoy in any destination (especially when it doesn’t involve pavement and traffic) and Traverse City has an extensive collection of trails to choose from.
The trails I explored with Mike Norton, who handles media relations for Traverse City Tourism and so graciously guided me to the best hiking spots, allowed us to experience a mix of beach, forest, and sand dunes. We ventured just outside of Traverse City for some trails near the shoreline in the National Lakeshore Park, where we meandered through forest paths, snaking gently skywards to overlooks that exposed the impressive breadth of beaches and the seemingly endless blue of Lake Michigan.
I have to admit, I’m not much of a beach person. A summer visit to the beach usually loses it lustre before I’ve found a square of sand to grab amongst the quilted collection of claimed property. Its exhausting.
What I discovered on my Michigan hikes was that an empty, autumnal beach is right up my alley. The sounds that accompany your typical beach scene — the squeal of children, the shouts of a volleyball match, the concerned scolding of parents — are all absent, amplifying the more discrete sounds of crashing waves and the breeze rustling nearby trees.
Experiencing a quiet, empty shore and the paths that lead there allowed me to smile and breathe and soak in the beautiful lakeside without the manic nature that typically accompanies shoreline destinations.
I could go on about this, but I think the following photos do that for me. Take a digital walk with me along the serene trails of the National Lakeshore Park where sand dunes are dusted off by a chilly Fall breeze, framing the world’s fourth largest lake that’s just waiting for someone to take solitary ownership of of its incredible views…
The leaves held on late this this year — just for me, of course. This was the beginning of the Empire Bluff Trail which begins at the former Air Force Base on Wilco Road. It was a leisurely walk that only took about twenty minutes, but in that short time, we enjoyed a colorful forest and eventually more great views of the Lake.
Our second hike brought us to the Sleeping Bear Point Trail.
The story behind the Sleeping Bear Dunes is a little heartbreaking, so obviously, I’m going to tell you…
Many years ago a Mama Bear and her cubs were driven off the Wisconsin coastline by a raging forest fire. Mama and the cubs had to swim all the way across Lake Michigan. The cubs grew tired (and gazing across the ocean-like expanse, you can easily imagine why) and Mama Bear went ahead to wait for them. She climbed to the top of a lookout to watch her cubs arrive, but they had grown too tired and drowned within site of the shore.
What a bummer, huh? (I can’t help but judge Mama Bear for leaving her cubs.)
But anyways… two islands sprung up where the cubs had drowned, and a lonely dune was left in the Mama Bear’s spot where she could look over her cubs forever.
The Sleeping Bear Point Trail brings you along the back of the Mama Bear where you can help her watch over her cubs. (If you actually see a bear cub though, you might want to hightail it outta there before Mama Bear arrives…)
We came across a ghost forest along the Sleeping Bear Point Trail, which occurs when sand dunes shift and trees are burried for many years. Eventually the winds moves the dunes again, revealing these bizarre tree skeletons. They really add to the surreal emptiness of the landscape, as you’re transported into a Salvador Dali interpretation of Northern Michigan sand dunes…
My cheeks were rosy and my shoes full of sand at the end of our hike. I felt refreshed, relaxed, and convinced that the key to enjoying popular beaches and trails is to simply make the crowds disappear — or to visit them in November.