Traverse City Highlands Beckon Winter Visitors with Lakes, Trails and Woods

Traverse CityJanuary 27, 2015
Snowshoeing at Ranch Rudolf
Snowshoeing at Ranch Rudolf

In summertime this Lake Michigan resort community is best known for its miles of sugar-sand beaches. But when winter arrives around, the focus shifts inland – to the heavily wooded highlands that lie to the south.

Minutes from the bustle of downtown Traverse City and the glitter of its beachfront resorts, the highlands – which include wide swathes of the Pere Marquette State Forest — evoke an older time of hunting and fishing lodges, wilderness camps and solitary paths.  It’s “Up North” Michigan, dotted with dozens of lakes, deep forests of evergreens and hardwoods, and the majestic valley of the Boardman River.

Densely timbered and protected from winter winds, the highlands also get significantly more snowfall than Traverse City’s coastal areas. As a result, they’re home to the region’s top snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross-country ski trails, as well as several resorts and lodges that cater to the needs of winter sports enthusiasts. They’re small family-run places for the most part, but they’ve won a loyal following among lovers of the Great Outdoors.

The busiest part of this broad recreational region lies just southeast of the city, in the Forest Lakes area (known locally as the “Arbutus Triangle” because of its baffling labyrinth of winding woodland roads and near-hidden lakes) and the scenic Boardman Valley with its miles of trails and wilderness.

Highlights of this area include the Boardman Valley Trail, an 80-mile network of scenic snowmobile routes, the groomed 11.5-mile Muncie Lakes Pathway for skiers, the 2,800-acre Sand Lakes Quiet Area and the charming 1,300-acre Brown Bridge Quiet Area and local sections of the North Country Trail, which stretches from eastern New York to North Dakota.

Many of these trails come together near Ranch Rudolf, a historic lodge on the north slope of the Boardman Valley.  Established in the 1920s, the 195-acre ranch is a winter mecca, especially for snowmobilers. (One local snowmobile rental company, Snowblitz, even operates out of the resort.) Some spend a night or two in one of the lodge’s 16 rooms or the nearby bunkhouse, but others just drop by for lunch or dinner and spend an hour or two by the fireplace swapping tales about their day on the trail, or sign up for their popular horse-drawn sleigh rides.

“We’re right in the middle of things, so we get a lot of winter business,” says ranch owner Melody Hamill.

Those who prefer non-mechanized winter sports tend to congregate a few miles to the north, at the Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort, which has leveraged its location at the edge of the 16-mile Vasa Pathway skiing and hiking trail to become the area’s major center for Nordic skiers, snowshoers and snowbike cyclists.

Timber Ridge has its own lighted trails for night skiers, and an extensive ski and snowshoe rental operation; snowbikes are also available for rent. The resort hosts several major winter events each year, including the North American Vasa ski race, the Bigfoot Snowshoe Race and a craft beer/snowshoe mixer called Suds & Snow, and it has winterized 17 of its 30 “park home” luxury cabins for winter guests.

Nearby, the spiraling coves and inlets of Spider and Arbutus Lakes provide a draw not just for skiers and snowmobilers but for ice fishermen, as well. The lakes are served by several winter vacation properties – from the rustic cabins and cottages available at the Shoestring and Moonlight Bay resorts and Lake Arbutus Rentals to the posh Spider Lake Retreat – a 16-room lodge that rents out in its entirety for corporate meetings or family reunions.

The western side of Traverse City’s wooded highlands is centered around the village of Interlochen, best known as the home of the famed Interlochen Center for the Arts. Snowmobilers love this area, too, in spite of its lack of dedicated sledding trails (it’s home to the annual TC250 vintage snowmobile race). But it’s also popular with skiers and snowshoers because of the nearby Lost Lake and Lake Ann pathways, while ice fishermen favor the frozen waters of Green, Long and Duck Lakes.

Here, the lodging choices include the 14-room Interlochen Motel (popular with snowmobilers), the cozy Lake ‘N Pines Lodge, tucked away on a cove of remote Lake Dubonnet – a designated wildlife preserve — and the classic Ellis Lake Resort, whose 11 units include a cluster of seven little log cabins built in 1939 and a three-bedroom chalet on its own tiny lake. The resort rents snowshoes and cross-country skis, and has an outdoor hot tub that’s especially popular on winter nights. Owners Steve and Becky Johnson describe it as a “blue jeans and sweatshirt kind of place.”

Which, when you come down to it, could apply to this entire part of the Traverse City area. Especially in wintertime.

To learn more about winter activities in the Traverse City area, as well as lodging, dining and entertainment options in Michigan’s “True North,” contact Traverse City Tourism at www.traversecity.comor (800) 872-8377.

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