A Scenic Drive Becomes a Scenic Ski
Sometimes when people go cross-country skiing, they ski. Sometimes they race, sometimes they are exercising, sometimes they’re just shuffling across a golf course, hoping not to fall. But when there is a group of friends and the day is theirs and the sun is out and they wake up to a powdery layer of new lake-effect snow, they go touring.
Touring is the winter art of enjoying the woods and the company you’re with. You stop often to take pictures, to admire the views, to talk, to laugh, to eat, to sip warm spiced wine from a sack that somebody stores inside their parka.
You just happen to do this on cross-country skis.
The most important aspect of any good tour is the route you choose and for that Scenic Drive Ski Trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is ideal.
Actually, Scenic Drive is not a trail but a road built by Pierce Stocking in the early 1960s. Stocking operated the 7.4-mile loop, charging $2 a car, until his death in 1976 when the National Park Service renamed it in his honor and upgraded it with picnic areas, observation platforms and a bike lane.
For most of the year Scenic Drive is true to its name featuring a procession of slow-moving vehicles. But after the first snowfall the road becomes the heart of an 8.75-mile trail system that includes three crossover spurs and Shauger Hill Trail, a challenging loop in its own right. At that point Scenic Drive is one of the most popular destinations in the park for both Nordic skiers and snowshoers.
Scenic Drive Ski Trail is a 6.3-mile loop with long downhills and some brutal uphill climbs. It begins in the parking area near the contact station with a short segment on the Shauger Hill Trail. Scenic Hill is not tracked or groomed in the winter but nearby Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is and the two are connected by a spur to the trailhead parking lot also.
Crossover spurs allows Scenic Drive to be split into a pair of loops. Dunes Overlook at post No. 3 is the destination for what is occasionally referred to as the Easy Loop, a 3.9-mile ski. Many skiers, however, want to reach the Lake Michigan Overlook, posts No. 9 and No. 10, and follow Scenic Drive in a counter-clockwise direction. A crossover spur turns this portion of Scenic Drive into a 3.5-mile loop rated intermediate while another allows skiers to incorporate the southern half of Shauger Hill to extend the outing to 4.1 miles.
The Easy Loop
This 3.9-mile outing is often followed in a counter-clockwise direction with skiers enduring a mile-long climb of 250-foot climb in the first half. Skiers who follow the loop in a counter-clockwise direction enjoy a easier climb to Dunes Overlook but face a long downhill run on the return where more control is required to avoid run-away speed on the way to the covered bridge.
The loop begins at the back of the parking lot with a short portion of the Shauger Hill Trail to reach Scenic Drive. You pop out at a wide snow-covered road and follow it north to the Scenic Drive “V,” the junction with the return traffic. Head right to warm up with a level stretch. At Mile 0.8 you pass the first crossover spur and then encounter a sharp downhill, bottoming out at the covered bridge. Be careful on both this hill and the bridge! The covered bridge is scenic but that roof limits the amount of snow inside and often results in unsuspected skiers suddenly screeching across asphalt.
Beyond the covered bridge is one long climb to Picnic Mountain and Dunes Overlook. The steepest segment ends at the Glen Lake overlook, a great place to catch your breath, and then at Mile 2.1 you arrive at a winter trail junction sign in the middle of Scenic Drive. Just beyond it is the parking area and short trail to the Dunes Overlook platform. Even if this area has been scoured of snow by steady Lake Michigan winds, don’t pass up the opportunity to clip out of your skis and walk the 500 yards to the viewing deck. The barren plateau of rolling dunes spread out in front of you is an amazing view in the winter.
At the Scenic Drive Ski Trail junction you leave the roadway and head south on a much more narrow trail. This segment bypasses a mile-long stretch of road that winds through open dunes, includes two steep slopes and doesn’t hold snow very well. The bypass is gentle downhill run through the woods with a slight curve at the end. Within a third of a mile you return to the road and head left.
The gentle downhill run continues for another half mile until you return to the first crossover spur at Mile 3. Head left and backtrack the first mile to return to the trailhead parking lot. Head right to continue with Scenic Drive Ski Trail. To reach the Lake Michigan Overlook from this direction, skiers face two very steep uphill climbs.
Hours & Fees
The National Park System closes the road to vehicles just before firearm deer season when hunters invaded the rolling wooded dunes. In a normal year, skiers can expect snow from Christmas to early March and often powdery conditions due to the road’s close proximity to Lake Michigan. By mid-April they re-open the gates to cars.
From Empire head north on M-22 and then veer to the left on M-109. Within 1.5 miles you pass the posted entrance to Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive to the west.
For Call the Philip Hart Visitor Center (231-326-5134) or check the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore website (www.nps.gov/slbe). For lodging or additional travel information contact Traverse City Tourism (800-872-8377; www.traversecity.com).