About a decade ago, as we sat around a snowy bonfire, I remember Barry Owens — who at the time ran Garland Lodge & Resort, a player in the Gaylord Golf Mecca — telling me how this gateway-to-adventure town was booming as one of Michigan’s favorite winter getaways. He said many visitors seeking to explore the wilds of northern Michigan were telling him the area felt like it was a different world in winter. “Our location along I-75 is so critical. It’s easy to get to, and there’s just so much for everyone to do around here,” he said.
Today, as general manager of Treetops Resort, he’s still working on luring more visitors to enjoy the ever-expanding outdoor gems of Gaylord, located in the middle of mid-Michigan’s snowbelt, which spans from Grayling to Indian River. His pitch hasn’t changed, but the experiences keep getting better every season.
Owens’ longtime promotional partner, Paul Beachnau, executive director of the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau, boasts that over the years, the community has positioned itself as the best winter destination in Michigan.
“We have the most consistent snow conditions and the widest variety of quality winter activities in Michigan,” Beachnau says. “We have winter rafting and two downhill ski resorts. We have cross-country skiing and snowshoeing that ranges from rustic, at the Pigeon River Country State Forest — similar to a big, wild adventure out West — to the best-groomed cross-country trails, along with snowmaking, at Forbush Corner, and everything else in between. We have extreme tubing, more than 300 miles of groomed snowmobile trails where you can ride from our town to the Mackinac Bridge, or venture east to Alpena and west to Petoskey. We have cool winter events such as sleigh ride dinners, skiable feasts, guided hiking, dog-sled rides, and winter wine walks.”
Beachnau doesn’t stop there. “Gaylord has five major rivers — the Black, Sturgeon, Pigeon, Upper Manistee, and North Branch of the Au Sable — and more than 90 small lakes. There are many areas where water actually comes right out of the ground to start these river systems, particularly at Treetops Resort, Otsego Resort, and in the Pigeon River forestland, which exceeds 110,000 acres of managed wildlife habitat.
“With the highest elevation in the Lower Peninsula, the views are breathtaking — especially when you put 153 average inches per year of snow on top. That’s partly why we’re known as the Alpine Village, in addition to our quaint, small-town charm. It’s all very appealing,” he says.
Wintertime in Gaylord brings fun and excitement. That’s why Beachnau and Owens are ever the promoters, inviting snow lovers to visit and partake in the area’s outstanding outdoor pastimes. Read on!
Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau
Time to Play
Book early for these adrenaline-pumping experiences
A wild, roller-coaster-like sprint down a swift run on a tube. A horse-drawn sleigh ride through a winter wonderland. A robust walk through the woods atop deep, fluffy snow.
Those are a few of the winter attractions the folks at Treetops Resort use to keep guests coming back year after year. “We offer one-of-kind experiences that are guaranteed to kick the adrenaline up a notch and get you excited about the outdoors,” says Beth Pittiglio, the resort’s marketing manager.
“We understand that not everyone may ski or snowboard. That’s why we offer extras that visitors can’t find anywhere else, including dog-sledding and our famous Skiable Feast.”
The resort unveiled its new extreme tubing course this season. “Our original tubing hill is 400 feet in length and has an 80-foot vertical drop. Our second tubing hill is more like a run, with turns and twists instead of a straight drop,” she says. “We’re so excited. It definitely will be a highlight this winter. Not only do we have one of the best extreme tubing hills in northern Michigan, but we’ve added another run that will be just as wild.”
PLAN AHEAD: Tubing on either hill is only offered during 55-minute time slots, and times vary. You can tube as much as you want during your designated time. Book your reservations in advance.
Another new tubing addition this year is a magic carpet that takes tubers back to the top to enjoy “the speed, the slope, the run, the high-pitched laughs and screams as you feel like you’re going to be thrown over the bottom hill, but are then shot back up,” Pittiglio says.
Looking for something a little less wild? The resort has extra snowshoeing gear available for all ages and sizes. “It’s a great activity to include the whole family,” Pittiglio says. “Our newest event, Spud-tacular Snowshoe Lunch, was created with the family in mind. We guide groups around the Potato Railroad Trail located on the property; (it’s) a once-booming railroad line that moved potatoes from Alpena to Boyne City. Snowshoers make stops where they feast on different potato dishes prepared by the resort.”
TIPS: Wear a warm pair of boots and layers of clothing you can discard as needed during the outing, because you’ll probably work up a sweat. “There’s terrain around the resort for all skill levels, including hills, woods, and plains. We have trails on trails on trails to explore.”
Sleigh rides along an improved route located on the Jones Masterpiece Golf Course are provided by the local Cook Family Farm, and start after 3 p.m. on weekends. Each ride is about 25 minutes.
“On certain days through the winter, we also offer an unbelievably amazing dinner after the later scheduled times,” Pittiglio says. She advises visitors to check the resort’s website for more details, and recommends booking food-themed events weeks in advance because they often sell out, due to their popularity.
NATURE SIGHTINGS: While out exploring the 1,500-plus acres of Treetops’ winter playland, it’s possible to spot lots of wildlife, from turkeys to deer, bald eagles, elk, and even a black bear if you’re lucky. So, try to keep an eye out during all the excitement. — RG
Engage with nature on a guided winter rafting excursion
Some of the best stories you’ll hear around town come from those who’ve experienced a winter rafting adventure. Many of them say it’s probably the coolest thing they’ve ever done.
In the winter, Sturgeon River Paddlesports offers raft trips with skilled guides on one of the fastest-flowing rivers in lower Michigan. In the summer you’re on your own — but in the cold months, having a captain guiding the ship can make the icy outing twice the fun.
“We float through tunnels of cedar trees blanketed in fresh snow, past incredible ice shelf formations, and among native wildlife that seek out the river’s open water during the winter months. Experienced guides present a captivating narrative that brings the stunning, crystal-clear Sturgeon River to life,” says shop owner Jamie Jacklitch. He’s been running Sturgeon River trips for more than 20 years and has owned the shop since 2014.
The action-packed adventure lasts about 90 minutes, with six passengers and a guide in each raft. Reservations are required for the three daily departure times.
“I’ve never had a customer disappointed with this winter trip,” Jacklitch says. “Guests comment on the exceptional beauty of the experience and how they can re-engage with nature. People love this trip, and it becomes an annual excursion for many because each one is different.”
FOODIE TIP: Warm up with lunch or dinner at The Thirsty Sturgeon, located a mile north of the shop.
“We’ve had paddlers of all ages join us and no experience is necessary, since you’ll be floating with our raft guides,” Jacklitch says. “All we ask is that you bring a sense of adventure.” — RG
Sturgeon River Paddle Sports
Being the mitten’s highest city adds a little kick to the skiing options
With a peak elevation of about 1,348 feet above sea level — some 800 feet greater than Mackinaw City, just an hour north on I-75 — Gaylord is the highest city in Michigan’s mitten.
That, combined with the abundant lake-effect snow from Lake Michigan, about 50 miles away, creates a delightful winter playland.
“The elevation around here can make for challenging skiing for both downhill and cross-country, and the viewscapes throughout town are incredible. Two of the best views in Michigan are from the main lodge at Otsego Resort and Legends on the Hill at Treetops Resort,” claims Paul Beachnau, executive director of the Gaylord tourism bureau.
“We have a wide range of terrain, with two resorts for downhill skiing and 10 places for cross-country skiing,” Beachnau says. He explains that some areas are groomed expertly, while other places — like the Pigeon River Country State Forest — aren’t groomed, but offer what Beachnau calls “real adventures.”
The two big players in town — Otsego Resort and Treetops Resort — entice with multiple downhill runs. Beachnau says Otsego has longer runs, is more spread out, and rarely has lift lines. Treetops ranks among the highest slopes in Michigan.
“Otsego Resort opened to the public three years ago (after being a private club) and the skiing there is amazing. They have five chairlifts and 25 downhill ski runs. It was one of the first ski resorts in Michigan (founded in 1939),” he says. “The River Cabin at the base of the hill is one of the coolest warming cabins and places to get a snack and sit around the fire in Michigan.”
Treetops, a few miles to the east, features 23 runs overlooking the Pigeon River Valley and offers plenty of scenic spots for selfies around the slopes.
“We’ve tripled our snowmaking capacity this season, covering more ski, snowboard, and tubing terrain,” says Barry Owens, Treetops Resort’s general manager. “This gave us the ability to open sooner and get all our trails open sooner, and now we’ll hopefully be able to stay open later.”
The resort also improved its rental equipment fleet by 30 percent, with state-of-the-art gear including new boots, bindings, skis, and snowboards. Owens says there’s something for all abilities and ages.
NIGHT LIGHTS: If you want to see elk and have a fun and easy cross-country ski or snowshoeing adventure, Beachnau recommends Aspen Park, which backs up to the City Elk Park. There are rolling hills and the groomed trails are lit at night (Michawayé Resort also has lighted trails), providing another enjoyable way to stay outdoors longer in Gaylord.
Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau
Hit the Trails
Seasonal adventures await at every turn around the Gaylord area
One step into Casey Buckleitner’s White Birch Outfitters on Main Street in downtown Gaylord and you’ll soon realize how excited his crew is about sharing the region’s great outdoors with everyone.
“It’s very important to us. We’re sharing our community with them, and they’re spending their hard-earned time off with us,” Buckleitner says. His staff’s enthusiasm when it comes to offering tips and ideas on how best to enjoy the countryside is contagious.
“In winter, for example, we rent a lot of snowshoes and cross-country skis. We provide adventure-seekers with a map and everything else they need to have an enjoyable experience. It’s really rare that they come back to our store without a smile,” he says.
The local trails for those adventures are exceptional. “The area offers everything from a groomed and lit cross-country ski and hiking trail in the middle of downtown, at Aspen Park, to world-class cross-country skating opportunities at nearby Forbush Corner. There are literally hundreds of miles of seasonal roads through the wilderness around the Gaylord area that make for great fat-bike rides,” Buckleitner adds.
The outdoorsman says there are 11 nearby groomed cross-country ski trails, and most of those are snowshoe-friendly. A favorite, the High Country Pathway, to the northeast, is an 83-mile loop for biking and hiking only. It’s been designated as an Epic Trail by the International Mountain Bike Association — it’s the only such trail in Michigan, and one of about 50 in the world.
“It’s the snow that makes Gaylord so special. We can never get enough of it,” Buckleitner insists. “Our proximity to Lake Michigan, being far enough away and 750 feet above it, provides fantastic lake-effect snow. (In Gaylord), we get the most snow in the Lower Peninsula. When it gets really windy in other parts of the region, our forests will maintain a nice environment for walks and hikes that won’t blow your hat off. And being at the highest vertical elevation location around, we have about a half-dozen world-class trout streams that start in Otsego County, including the Au Sable.”
Here are a few of Buckleitner’s winter suggestions:
GET OUT AND SKI: “The best all-around cross-country ski trail close to town is the Pine Baron Pathway (8.75 miles of groomed skiing and hiking trails southwest of Gaylord). It’s set up in a shape of a clover leaf, so every so often you can decide if you want to continue or head back to the parking lot. It’s short enough for beginners, hilly enough to make it interesting, but not dangerous.”
SPECIAL TIMES: He says the Beaver Dam trail behind the Otsego Resort is truly special. “We usually host a few hikes a year out there. On a sunny day, the trail along the Au Sable River at Michaywé Resort, south of town, is magic.”
SOMETHING NEW: Buckleitner suggests the trailhead facility at the intersection of Main Street and the Iron Belle Trail (two routes, one for hiking and one for biking, that will span the entire state from north to south). “I’ve been to many trailhead facilities, and this is the crown jewel of the Iron Belle Trail. It’s a huge deal for our community and has been in the works for years. More than seven agencies and organizations contributed to the project.”
DID YOU KNOW?: “Almost 800 acres with lots of beautiful, groomed trails and great facilities were donated to Otsego County by the Groen Family Land Gift. Louis Groen was a major McDonald’s franchisee in the Midwest and the inventor of my favorite sandwich, the Filet-o-Fish. He was an American entrepreneur, and he and his family decided to give back to our community.”
ADVENTURE CYCLING: “The Pigeon River Country State Forest is the definition of adventure. It’s a few miles east of I-75, but stretches almost all the way to Alpena. Riders can take dirt roads from the outskirts of Gaylord almost all the way to Cheboygan, or south to Grayling. It’s remarkable. Ernest Hemmingway hunted there and called it ‘The Big Wild.’” — RG
White Birch Outfitters
Up North Trails
Where to Stay?
Vacation homes offer plenty of room to spread out
Choices abound in this thriving community, with more than 1,357 available rooms thanks to the addition of The Tru by Hilton and Comfort Inn/MainStay last year.
Accommodations are available to suit every taste and budget, from resorts that offer on-site dining, spa services, and outdoor activities to trusted motel chains and independents.
If a visitor wants to book something different, Pine Cone Vacations can help. “First-time guests should stay in one of our vacation homes, cabins, or condos, depending on their vacation needs, and let us handle the rest — from golf tee times to catering, dinner reservations, and more,” says owner Sandy Mattingly.
“I think families and golf groups like vacation homes better because of the option to cook their own meals or have meals catered,” she says. “In the Gaylord area, we have a mix of 32 properties located on golf courses, the lakefront, in resort areas, or tucked into the woods. Depending on the visitor’s vacation plans or adventure, we can help make sure their lodging destination is close by.”
Mattingly’s Pine Cone Properties specializes in short-term vacation homes. For large groups, Pine Cone manages properties that can sleep from four to 16 people in the same house. “We’ve added a couple unique lakefront homes that are fabulous,” she says.
Here’s an example: A 4,500-square-foot home on all-sports Opal Lake, complete with a game room and pool table. “The house will wow you with the views, museum interior, and location just south of Gaylord, making it the perfect destination with 12 individual beds,” Mattingly says. “There’s also a seven-bedroom lodge overlooking the ninth fairway on the Michaywé Pines Golf Course. It’s packed with great amenities.”
ANOTHER OPTION: The small Pine Cone Inn, with beach access to Otsego Lake directly across the street, can be booked for $200 per night (four rooms with baths plus Wi-Fi, refrigerators, and microwaves). — RG
Pine Cone Vacations
Calls from the Wild
Expert tips on how to spot free-roaming elk in their home range
It’s chilling to hear elk bugling while you’re out exploring the woods.
The animals’ loud, high-pitched calls are best heard from late August through mid-October, during mating season. The bugling, which can be heard from great distances away, can mean a variety of things, from attracting mates to advertising their territories during rutting time.
Northeast of Gaylord is prime territory to see and hear these massive creatures. Standing about 5 feet tall at the shoulder, a mature male can weigh more than 700 pounds. Add huge antlers, which can come in at around 40 pounds, and these beauties are majestic sights in the wild.
What makes elk-viewing around Gaylord so special?
“It’s unique. There’s no other place in Michigan to see free-ranging elk, and very few places in the eastern U.S. that you can do so,” says Brian Mastenbrook, of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in Gaylord. He supervises elk habitat and management activities in the range, which is roughly bounded by I-75 on the west, M-68 on the north, M-33 on the east, and M-32 on the south.
Mastenbrook says that as of now, Gaylord’s herd appears stable. Part of the reason for that stability is the large blocks of state land that can be managed to accommodate the animals.
There are between 900 and 1,300 elk roaming northeast of Gaylord. The best opportunities to see them are in the Pigeon River Country State Forest, because it’s the largest block of contiguous undeveloped land in the Lower Peninsula.
While southern Michigan’s elk were wiped out by the late 1800s due to unregulated hunting and habitat changes, the species was translocated from the Western U.S. and re-established around Gaylord in 1918.
Mastenbrook, who spotted his first elk in 1982 (“I was thrilled!”), offers these tips for successful elk-spotting:
- Study the elk-viewing guide and map available on the DNR’s website. It shows the best roads and managed areas to explore. Print a paper version of it, because cell phone/GPS reception may be limited throughout the viewing areas.
- The elk range landscape spans from hardwood to pine forests, and to cedar swamps with fast-flowing cold water streams, all located within a few miles on a quiet road. “Sitting at a viewing area at dawn or dusk in the spring or fall is one of the best ways to see them in the wild. Walking quietly on closed roads or trails can also work.”
- Elk are unpredictable wild animals. “People who aren’t familiar with elk shouldn’t be closer than 25 yards if they’re on foot. In a car, you can approach as closely as the elk will let you. If you’re at a viewing area, please don’t walk out into the field to get closer. You’ll scare the elk away and take away that opportunity from someone else.”
- Your chances of spotting elk depends on how much work you put into it. “Your outing can range from a short drive to a day-long walk. If you can find a field or area where elk are grazing during the day and you can sit quietly at dawn and dusk, when they’re most active, you probably have a pretty good chance. There also will be some luck involved.” – RG
(Scroll to the bottom of the page to access the guide.)
Suggestions to round out your visit
ALL IN: “Families love the Call of the Wild Museum’s educational and interesting mounted wildlife exhibits. It recently added an interactive Great Lakes exhibit. Children and adults love learning about the animals and browsing the gift store. Also, the Gaylord Area Council for the Arts’ downtown location displays and sells local artwork. For entertainment action, the bureau’s online nightlife calendar provides information about comedy shows, live musical performances, and more.”
— Christy Walcott, Gaylord Area CTB
GREAT PICKS: “My top must-visit places are the Pigeon River Country State Forest Visitor Center, located behind the headquarters building; the Pigeon River and the flowing well at the Pigeon Bridge campground; the sinkhole lakes on Osmun Road, north of Hardwood Lake Road; and Inspiration Point at the corner of Osmun and Clark Bridge roads.”
— Brian Mastenbrook, Michigan DNR
A LONG LIST: “Any food event at Treetops is an absolute must. See events on our website for details. Catching a sunrise or sunset on ‘Top of the Hill’ at Treetops is also a must-see; the vistas are unreal and we’re lucky enough to enjoy both at the resort, from either side of the ski slopes.”
— Beth Pittiglio, Treetops Resort
TRAIL-READY: “On Gaylord’s many groomed and scenic trails, remember that proper clothing choices matter. It’s not the bad weather; it’s your bad clothing — jeans and cotton aren’t even close to a good option. Wear suitable gear. Should you go with great friends, or maybe no friends? I think solitude can be pretty special on our cross-country trails. One of my favorites is to spend an afternoon riding the chairlift with one of your kids. You might learn a thing or two.”
— Barry Owens, Treetops
GO DIFFERENT: “Look for Chaga mushrooms growing on the white birch trees. These are only to be harvested in winter, and make a tasty tea. They look like burnt coal, but taste better. The River Cabin at the Otsego Resort is one of the most unique bars in the state. You can only ski or snowshoe in, or take the shuttle bus there. Order a ‘Broken Leg’ (hot cider and whiskey or rum) and walk the groomed trail about a mile to the Beaver Dam, a picnic structure near some beautiful rapids on the headwaters of the Sturgeon River.”
— Casey Buckleitner, White Birch Outfitters
YOUR CHOICE: “If you like moderate terrain and double-tracked cross-country ski trails, go to Pine Baron Pathway. If you like challenging rustic terrain for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, try the Shingle Mill Pathway in the Pigeon River Country State Forest along the Pigeon River. I love to cross-country ski at Pine Baron Pathway. Snowshoeing is such an easy, fun activity. Anyone can do it and it’s not expensive. You see terrain around here in winter that you’ll never see in summer, due to no leaves on the trees. I love winter better than summer around here. It’s my favorite time of year.”
— Paul Beachnau, Gaylord Area CTB