Experience nature on a lantern-lit, wintertime trail

A snow-covered, wooded trail at night, lit by lanterns

Jan. 12, 2017

Taking a walk down a dark woodland road on a quiet winter’s evening can be a fabulous event, especially if the night is cold, clear and still.

Under those conditions, the sounds of owls, foxes or other animals, like the crunching from your boots, seem to crack and split in the air. The darkness and the stillness work to heighten your senses.

Inhaling the air, so cold and fresh, seems to open your spirit to the dark woodland surroundings. The countless stars, arranged in their primitive constellations, appear bright and close.

With a gentle whoosh of a breeze, moving the branches, a twirling curtain of snow drifts to the ground. Far in the distance, among the silent hills, perhaps the light of a home or cabin is glowing.

These are some of the fascinating stimuli awaiting your senses in the wintertime woods.

A lighted lantern sits along the trail beside the Peshekee River in Marquette County at Van Riper State Park.To this imagery, add the soft swooshing from cross-country skis or envision the almost-silent steps a snowshoe hiker takes as his beavertails make tracks through a freshly fallen snow.

Then, as the frosting on this wintry, white layer cake, add the warm glow of light flickering along the edges of the trail, cast from dozens of old-style lanterns.

The orange light seems to warm the night, comforting you as you look up at your shadow, stretching high into the canopy of pines.

This is the experience available at several Michigan state parks each winter as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources offers lantern-lit snowshoeing and cross-country skiing events.

“We started the lantern-lit ski trail about 20 years ago, here at the Porkies,” said Bob Wild, interpreter at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. “This is my 12th year doing it here, and I took it over from my predecessor who did it for close to 10 years. He got the idea from someone in Colorado who was doing it at the time.”

The Porcupine Mountains’ roughly 1-mile lantern-lit ski trail loop is located across a county highway from the park’s downhill skiing facility. Check out a cool DNR video about the trail.

“It has really grown in popularity,” Wild said. “Here we offer it every Saturday night from late December through February, and on New Year’s Eve.”

It takes park staff about an hour to light the roughly 80 lanterns lining the loop.

Check out a cool video about the trail.

Wild said 50-80 people per night is pretty typical, but well over 100 participants is not uncommon, depending on the weather.

“You’ve really got to experience the park at night,” Wild said.

Van Riper State Park in Marquette County offers a monthly lantern-lit snowshoe hike during January, February and March, which has also become very popular.

Last winter, two of the three walks drew between 200 and 300 people. Cars were parked down the side of U.S. 41, with the parking lot overflowed and park staff directing traffic with flashlights.

Van Riper’s loop is 1.25 miles long and skirts the edge of the Peshekee River. The trail winds underneath towering trees and, despite the large number of snowshoe hikers, remains mostly quiet.

“The cold weather never seems to keep people away,” said Melanie Brand, who works for the DNR at Van Riper and Craig Lake state parks.

This is the sixth year Van Riper is hosting its lantern-lit snowshoe trail. Snowshoeing is scheduled for 7-9 p.m. Jan. 21, Feb. 18 and March 18.A trail lantern being lit at Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Luce County.

Like in the Porcupine Mountains, the lighted loop trail at Van Riper – which starts and ends at the park’s rustic Peshekee Cabin – also features an outdoor fire and a warming hut stocked with hot chocolate, coffee, marshmallows, cookies and other treats.

Farther east in the Upper Peninsula, Tahquamenon Falls State Park hosts a 1-mile lantern-lit trail from 6-8:30 p.m. every Saturday in February. The trail is located at the Upper Tahquamenon Falls in Luce County.

These events have been held since 2006 at Tahquamenon, and like at the other state parks, attendance has been increasing each year. An average of about 90 park visitors take part in the lantern-lit hike or ski events at Tahquamenon Falls.

“I always try to remind people to bring a headlamp or flashlight to assist their hike or ski,” said Theresa Neal, park interpreter at Tahquamenon Falls. “Some visitors have the impression the trail will be lit up like a Walmart parking lot. Truthfully, the lanterns are more like directional beacons, guiding visitors along the trail.”

Tahquamenon Falls park staff also provides a bonfire and refreshments, along with free snowshoe rental during the events. Fayette Historic State Park in Delta County also will have a lantern-lit ski and snowshoe hike at 6 p.m. Jan. 28.

However, lantern-lit skiing and snowshoeing is not limited to a few state parks in the Upper Peninsula.

Michigan’s Lower Peninsula also has parks offering similar events, including Ludington State Park in Mason County, where lantern-lit trails are available on select Saturdays in January and February. The next event there is set for 6-8 p.m. Jan. 21.

“We’ve been hosting Ludington’s lantern-lit ski and snowshoe hike for four years. We started it in the winter of 2013 after the Friends of Ludington State Park agreed to purchase the lanterns and shepherd hooks for the route," said Ludington State Park manager Jim Gallie. "Since that first season, despite some evenings when we haven’t had enough snow for skiing or snowshoeing, the nights have become extremely popular. We started off with a handful of visitors and now it isn’t uncommon to have 200 people show up."

The park has 50 pairs of snowshoes that are loaned out for the hikes on a first-come, first-served basis.

"There’s just something special about hiking at night in the snow," Gallie said. "The lanterns are spaced far enough apart that you experience walking from pool of light into the dark and back into a pool of light. It’s a great experience, especially with new snowfall on the evergreens. Our visitors love it.”

The Metamora-Hadley Recreation Area in Lapeer County offers a candlelight ski (Jan. 21/Feb. 11), while the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Van Buren County has a lantern-lit snowshoe walk (Feb. 11).

The DNR offers other snowshoe and ski events each year, including a historical snowshoe hike at Leelanau State Park in Leelanau County, and Shoe Year’s Hikes at Rockport, Ludington and Mitchell state parks.

Snowshoe hikers enjoy a trail at Van Riper State Park in Marquette County.Check the DNR’s events schedule to find out about lantern-lit ski and snowshoe events in your area.

Get more information on Michigan trails.

Taking a walk in the woods on a Michigan winter’s night, can be a fantastic experience.

However, that experience may be enhanced decidedly by adding snowshoes, skis, a lantern-lit trail and, with a little luck, a beautiful night sky full of twinkling stars, the howl of a wolf or the distant sound of a northern saw-whet owl, echoing through the hemlocks and firs.

There is a whole world of incredible experiences waiting out there in nature to discover, explore, enjoy and appreciate – the fascinating feeling of hiking or skiing a lantern-lit trail on a dark, cold winter’s night is one you likely won’t soon forget.

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