Weekend Roving: Alligator Hill Trail (midwinter)

We’d only been on the trail for a few minutes when I stopped to take the first picture. It was not a very colorful picture — the sky overcast, the trees bare, the ground forlorn, covered with lifeless leaves from the distant autumn. It wasn’t the scenery beckoning me to stop, it was the sensation I felt… being there amongst those trees in that quiet place. There was a distinct sense of anticipation, perhaps even longing. The forest crying out for winter to come and cover its dormant deadness, to mask its saddened face.

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It has been a winter without much snow in Leelanau County. Though it’s normally the time of year we’d like to be out snow shoeing, the light dusting of would-be snow all around meant James and I were taking our first IMG_4647hike rather than snowy jaunt down the Alligator Hill Trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

I selected this trail because we’d always heard about the two scenic vistas that are signposted along the route, but mostly I chose this trail because — if you combine enough of the optional loops, you can build quite a bit of mileage into your hike. Since part of my 2012 goals is to finish taking off my excess poundage, I figured we’d get our outdoor time fix and my exercise fix all in one shot. So, for our route, I chose the easy trail, built in a round trip to the Big Glen Lookout, and then a hike down the advanced trail to get us back to the trailhead (a 6.2mi hike).

We’d only been on the trail for about a mile and a half when we came to the first scenic vista: Islands Lookout.

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What a view! Michigan’s entire western coastline is full of scenic wonders, but this is especially true in Northwest Michigan, where glacial sand dunes offer you views from over 1000 ft above sea level. Here, you IMG_4651ramble through the forest on a steady climb until the forest parts on a ridge where you can see far out over the lake. Immediately below you, the treetops of the forest stretch out before you, drawing your eyes to the lake, where you can see both the North and South Manitou Islands. (We actually took a hike on South Manitou, last summer.)

Alligator Hill is known more as a skiing trail than a hiking trail since it really only offers two marked scenic vistas which are relatively close to the trailhead. The remainder of the trail is geared toward the skiers and their need for up and down. Still, the forest is a blissful place to be, and we were happy to be there surrounded by it.

After a little less than another mile, we reached the Big Glen Lookout, which — especially with the wintry, naked trees — offered a sweeping view of Big Glen Lake.

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On a clearer day, the waters of Big Glen are usually crystalline and unimaginably blue, effortlessly attracting your gaze and amazement. On this day, though, with the persistent clouds and grey, I was more enchanted with the beautiful evergreens and birches on the ridge and the way they towered above us. The evergreens with their IMG_4664reassuringly colorful boughs, reminding us that the forest is alive, merely sleeping. The birches with their solemn, silver-white parchment bark on which the secrets of this fickle winter and every season before it have been kept. Every once in a while, a fleck of golden light emerged from a divide in the clouds and enlivened all of these colors in front of us. It’s amazing how the stark scenery of winter can sharpen your awareness of even the smallest of changes.

That’s what winter’s good for, I think. It forces quiet on our over-stimulated, multi-tasking minds. We stare out at a sea of white, brown, grey, and pewter until our eyes see something more. Maybe it isn’t some grand epiphany we find, but it’s something we would have missed if we had not stopped to find it.

Once we made it to the advanced trail, the forest had completely surrounded us and there were no more posted scenic vistas. Still, there was a lot to see and hear. On this sheltered side of the massive hill, the forest’s shade had carefully preserved what little snow had fallen, so far this winter. While stopping for a breather, we found ourselves being observed by a pair of Red-Breasted Nuthatches.

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About halfway down the last leg of the trail, we began a fairly steep climb that instinctively caused us to grow quiet, concentrating on each step. I marveled that anyone would attempt going up such a hill on skis. My thighs burned at the very thought!

Finally, we reached the path to the trailhead, and made our way back to our car. Winter isn’t necessarily the happiest of seasons, but it is miraculous in its own way, I feel. Somehow, if you dare to step outside of your warm and safe confines and walk among its chilly splendor, you somehow feel at one with it — even if only briefly. You can see it as a wise, old visitor who comes to entertain you with his long, drawn-out fables and anecdotes rather than an oppressive invader who steals away summer’s glory.

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~ by Jason on January 23, 2012.

4 Responses to “Weekend Roving: Alligator Hill Trail (midwinter)”

  1. Your writings and pictures are absolutly wonderful. I can picture it all through your descriptions. Hugs, and love,Sally

  2. A wonderful trip as usual Jason.Why does anyone need to take a trip when all they need to do is read your stories ,Makes you feel you are right there…Only thing is I couldn’t keep up.Maybe when I was much much younger LOL. I love ya’ll.

  3. I appreciate this story so much! I live in Leelanau County but am restricted from hiking long paths because of bad knees. The beauty of this area always amazes me. Thank you for your post, as always! As you see, I don’t always get to read right away!- Blessings- Carol

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