Winter Hiking Adventures and Safety

Snowshoers hiking on trail in snowy weather


Winter hiking is an exhilarating experience, especially after a blanket of overnight fresh snow. Don’t let cold weather hold you back! The “dead of winter” is an oxymoron. Winter is never dead; it only looks that way to those who don’t explore the great outdoors. Join me on the trails in Oakland County!

Our woodlands and wetlands take on a special beauty in winter. Wildlife tracks expose the hidden travel routes of coyotes, wild turkey, opossums, and deer. The drumming of woodpeckers adds rhythm to woodland treks. Icy creeks and rivers create their special music of flowing water. While the wilder side of Oakland County has transformed into a mesmerizing winter wonderland, the woodlands can be unforgiving for those who forget one essential item that’s needed for all winter adventures: situational awareness.

Situational awareness and emergency preparedness is a must in winter adventures, especially for those that hike in Oakland County’s expansive and hilly state recreation areas managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources or explore trails in Michigan’s northwoods. The same holds true along primitive, unmaintained trails that meander through woodlands and wetlands managed by a wide array of our park agencies and nature conservancies in Oakland County.

The cardinal rule for a beginner entering the exciting world of winter hiking is to never trek alone, with the exception of following well-marked, well-traversed loop trails such as the trails around Crooked Lake at Independence Oaks County Park, Buhl Lake at Addison Oaks County Park or Kent Lake at Kensington Metropark.

The obvious advantage to a clearly marked loop trail is that if you stay on the trail, you finish where you start and there is no chance of getting lost, and if something does goes wrong, you will be quickly noticed by others. If you are new to the world of winter hiking or winter trail running, a primitive multi-mile trail with multiple junction points along the way should not be your first solo adventure. It can even be risky for experienced hikers when wind-blown snow hides directional arrows, covers trailside maps and sometimes buries the trail itself.

I have a strong preference for primitive trails both within Oakland County and at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a favorite winter exploration destination of mine for over a decade, and I always wear a small backpack with seasonal appropriate essentials for a trail emergency or an unexpected night out.

Distractions can lure one off a trail. It happens to me – a lot. I take pleasure in trailside distractions, whether it’s the tracks of a mouse bounding through the snow leaving tail drag marks, or a close up encounter with a coyote disturbed by my cross country skiing intrusions. Distractions can also lead to a sudden case of “Where am I now?” confusion in a world of white. In winter, you do not want to ‘lose’ your trail. Be wary of distractions.

Before you head for a primitive or isolated trail alone or with others, try to research the basics of the trail and pack essentials. Here are a few tips for added safety: 

  • Daylight hours are shorter in winter. Plan ahead and have a headlamp just in case.
  • Let a friend know where you are going and when you are expected back.
  • Dress in layers and pack a simple emergency shelter. Toss in toilet paper too.
  • Pack snacks and fruit and stay hydrated. Dehydration can hasten the onset of hypothermia.
  • Wear or bring a brightly colored hat or vest. It will make it easier for you to be seen.
  • Always pack a whistle. A slip and fall might lead to broken ankle and lungs get tired hollering for help. Three blasts on a whistle signals distress and works better than hollering if lost.
  • Have a means to start a fire and bring dry tinder. Practice at home in snowy conditions.
  • Packing a trail map and a compass is an excellent idea. Knowing how to use that compass is also essential.
  • Don’t even think about crossing ice. No ice is safe ice and thin, snow covered ice may hide deep water.
  • Don’t assume your cell phone will snag a signal in all locations.

Here are six Oakland County sites I know well that you may wish to explore this season:  

Independence Oaks County Park

The very popular 2.4 mile Lakeshore Loop and 2.2 mile River Loop are favorites of mine for an early morning winter hike. They are both trails and can be easily accessed from the boat house parking area. The boat house has heated restrooms and a popular and sometimes busy cross country ski rental that’s in operation on Saturday and Sunday, but only when there is a least six inches of natural snow to groom and roll the trails. Independence Oaks also has interconnected and hilly trails that can be challenging in winter. Explore early and you may see Pileated Woodpeckers and perhaps Eastern Bluebirds. Eastern Bluebirds overwinter at the park and I’ve spotted them near the southwest corner of Crooked Lake.

Don’t forgot to explore 188-acre Independence Oaks North. It’s located one and a half miles north of the main park entrance. You can drive there or follow the safety path along Sashabaw Road. It’s a beautiful landscape of wetlands and woodlands and nature’s windy winter song. 

Indian Springs Metropark

If you are looking for a place to get lost and forget to pack your situational awareness, the 3.25 mile Woodland Trail of Indian Springs might just be the place. Caution is needed if you trek this meandering trail on a snowy and heavily overcast day as I did in the first week of January. My goal was Timberland Lake, where I was rewarded with the solitude of silence, swirling snow, and increased wind speed. The relatively flat natural surface trail traverses a section of the Great Huron Swamp, a primitive area with tall trees, fallen logs, snags, and hidden vernal pools. Unlike my many previous treks on that trail, it was hard to see the trail once I walked more than a few dozen feet off the trail – something I often do to explore wildlife tracks and their trails.

I’m also lured off trail by massive windthrows, of which there were many. Bushwhacking back to the trail would be a risky endeavor with no distinguishing landmarks to use as a guide. Once off the trail, I followed my prints in the snow to find the trail again. Indian Springs has other trails that are more heavily trekked and easier to follow, and a plowed paved trail that follows part of the entrance road. 

Nels Kimball Sanctuary

This 41-acre winter wonderland with narrow primitive trails is managed by the North Oakland Headwaters Land Conservancy. It’s located near the village of Clarkston off of M-15 near the intersection of Northview Road and Perry Lake Road. I-75 is the eastern border of the preserve, which creates road noise distraction if you are listening for birds. However, just viewing and crossing the arched wooden bridge over a tributary of the Clinton River makes the trek worthwhile.

Keep in mind – there are no facilities and you are likely to be a solitary hiker. There are colorful interpretive signs along the trails, and small trail map signs at junction points that make navigation easy. My winter visits usually lead to fox track discoveries, and you may even spot evidence of beavers that emerge from the river to harvest additional saplings for their winter pantry.

Addison Oaks County Park

If you don’t want to be alone, go to Addison Oaks County Park. It can be a busy place even in winter, for humans and wildlife. The 2.5 mile paved Buhl Lake Loop is a four season favorite and includes views of the lake and several steep ascents. It winds through the park, past the campgrounds and takes you back to your starting point. Oakland County Parks and Recreation’s website states, “Activities include a 20+ mile trail system for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and winter fat tire biking.” Waterfowl often take winter rest stops in open areas of Buhl Lake, and when winter wanes, Sandhill Cranes appear strutting about the snow. Don’t forget to explore Addison East. A 1.5-mile connector trail (green on the map) will take you there, and it’s a beautiful journey on a snowy day.

Seven Lakes State Park

Seven Lakes State Park seems much larger than its 1,434 acres. Hike there in the winter and you will find out why. The terrain is hilly with many twists and turns and plenty of opportunity to make the wrong turn and extend your hike, or perhaps even end up off trail not knowing where you are. That happened to me a few winters ago. I thought through my dilemma as the snowfall accelerated and followed a creek, which brought me to a clearing and a lake and trail. I finally knew all would be fine when I reached a parking lot and could see a Michigan DNR vehicle plowing the drifting snow.

There are sign post trail maps along the way at trail junctions to indicate your present location. However, as was the case during my hike that did not go as planned, snow obscured the actual trail in a few locations. Winter bushwhacking can be dangerous. In addition to the named lakes of the park, there are small vernal ponds and wetlands that may be iced over and snow-covered tripping hazards to the unwary.  Is it a great place to hike in winter? Absolutely – just bring your situational awareness and a companion.

Innovation Hills

Innovation Hills is one of the newest parks in Oakland County. It’s a wonderful place – a real gem when it comes to creativity in design and accessibility. The park is managed by the City of Rochester Hills and totals 110 acres, 48 of which are “dedicated green space.” It has an amazing outdoor play area for young children, which can be extremely busy in summer and is designed with inclusivity in mind. The play area remains open in the winter so take a look!

Spacious boardwalks, which are cleared after a snowfall, lead visitors over marshes and wetlands and connects to paved trails that are also kept clear. Grab your camera, arrive early (gate opens at 8 a.m. in winter) walk slowly, stop often, look, and listen. I was there last week in the early morning and encountered flocks of robins near the river, deer in the woods, and listened to the magical music of the Clinton River. The best early bird benefit for hikers? Peaceful solitude framed with natural beauty on their easy-to-follow trails on the wilder side of Oakland County.

Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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