The United States is filled with quaint mountain towns fighting for the prestigious title of “Best Winter Destination.”
Sorry Aspen, Boulder, and Park City, you’ve been beaten by a town you’ve probably never heard of.
Welcome to Traverse City, Michigan.
Far away from any mountain base, this small town of 15,000 sits on a bay of Lake Michigan almost directly between the equator and the North Pole.
From secret speakeasies to dimmed lights lining snow-covered streets and snowshoe prints throughout surrounding pine forests, there isn’t much to deny that it’s the epitome of a Winter Wonderland.
You’ll find miles of frozen lakeshores and sleepy sand dunes battered by winter winds. Delicate snowfields become trails for snowshoes, cross-country skis, or fat tire bikes. The town appears eerily quiet, yet bursting with life and adventure.
Life in Traverse City revolves around one thing: experiencing life in the great outdoors.
A stranger can walk down the street and soon realize this is no ordinary town. Outdoor adventure shops take over many downtown blocks. Clothing stores don’t sell pretty beach dresses or expensive sweaters; instead, they sell apparel that usually looks something like this:
Woven between the downtown adventure shops are tasting rooms, delicious restaurants, and perfectly cozy coffee bars. Whether an outdoor adventurer or a cozy winter traveler, Traverse City has is all.
The Outdoor Adventurer
In the winter the “Kayak Brewery Tour” is easily replaced with the “Snowshoe Brewery Tour.” Although tiny in terms of population, there is no shortage of places to grab a Michigan-made brew. From Seven Monks Tap Room to Mackinaw Brewing Company to North Peak Brewing and many more, after a long day adventuring in the cold, the sure way to warm up in Northern Michigan is beer and warm hospitality.
If Traverse Bay freezes enough during late winter, kite snowboarders will be dotting the horizon on windy days. Behind the Traverse City State Hospital is the Grand Traverse Common Natural Area, which has perfect snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails.
A short drive to Leland offers a unique visit to Fishtown. Visitors often come thinking the village looks more like Maine than Michigan. Crooked docks and old wooden shops line the waterways. The bone-chilling wind often pierces skin as it’s not uncommon for this area to be colder than the shores of Antarctica.
From Leland drive down M22, Michigan’s famed “Most Scenic Highway,” as it passes through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Once voted “The Most Beautiful Place in America,” the area is usually cramped with visitors in the summer, but in the winter iconic spots like Pyramid Point are empty. If you’re feeling up to it, take the plunge and run down the 400ft frozen sand dune to the shores of Lake Michigan.
For those who want to try ‘surf to summit’, there is a rendition of that in these parts. If the lake has yet to freeze, head to the coast to catch the sub-zero swell. It will be a surprise that there are numerous surfers in these parts who take advantage of high swell as long as the lake isn’t frozen solid.
After peeling icicles from your eyelashes, beard, and just about everywhere else, head to one of the many ski resorts in northwest Michigan. The slopes may not be that high, but the terrain parks usually give enough thrills for any winter enthusiast.
The Cozy Adventurer
If a warm matcha latte is preferred over an icy wave or cozying up next to fireplaces rather than running across sheets of ice, you too will find bliss in Traverse City.
Accommodations know how to treat guests in the winter. Cherry Tree Inn & Suites offers warm cookies on your arrival, an outdoor (and indoor) hot tub, and a Jacuzzi in the room. If you have yet to experience an outdoor hot tub in the middle of an arctic blast, add it to your list. It’s a spa-like experience without an extra charge.
A shuttle bus takes you directly downtown, so driving on icy roads is easily avoidable. On nights where the winter wind is full-force, the lobby hosts a selection of board games guests can take up to their room or play in front of the fireplace while drinking Cherry coffee and overlooking the bay.
For those unfamiliar with Traverse City, it’s the “Cherry Capital of The World.” Overall, the town is known for cherries, beer, and wine. Not a bad combination.
Indulge in cherry salsa, cherry wine, cherry jam, or cherry vinaigrette. Head out around town to one of the dozens of wineries located across the Leelanau Peninsula or spend the day window-shopping in the colorful downtown of Sutton’s Bay.
Take your shot at finding the towns two speakeasies without help from the Internet. Look around town for hidden tokens that are able to redeem at one of them for free drinks.
But perhaps one of the best parts for both winter extremists and leisure visitors, Traverse City offers mountain town feels without mountain town prices. Winter is the low season, which means cheaper accommodation and lower overall price.
What are you waiting for?
**Accommodation provided by Cherry Tree Inn & Suites, opinions are my own**