By Mike Terrell
If you like cross country skiing laced with nice amenities, an appealing village dressed for winter, and a touch of nearby wilderness boasting the largest elk herd east of the Mississippi, check out the Gaylord area.
Located just a snowball throw off I-75, Gaylord is arguably one of the best cross country towns in the Lower Peninsula. The village has a charming alpine motif that would fit right into the Swiss Alps, and there’s close to 60 miles of trails, both tracked and untracked, to choose from.
Downtown Gaylord resembles an alpine village. Mansard roofs, textured stucco and shake shingles mix with balconies, painted flower boxes, and A-frames to bring a bit of Switzerland to Northern Michigan. The supermarket even boasts a glockenspiel.
TRAILS NEAR THE CITY
Near town there are a couple of groomed state land trails that offer fairly easy skiing: Pine Baron Pathway and Aspen Park, only four blocks from downtown.
It’s impossible not to see elk at Aspen Park, which is adjacent to the city elk pen. It contains a herd of more than 30 of these magnificent large animals, crowned with an unbelievably large rack of antlers. You’re almost guaranteed an up-close and personal look. The park contains about two miles of single-tracked trails, and it’s lit for night skiing. Trails glide gently through a hemlock forest.
Pine Baron Pathway offers a little over six miles of fairly easy gliding through mixed pine and hardwood forest. It’s located about five miles west of the city off Old Alba Road on Lone Pine Road.
There are three loops, each about two miles in length, that you can mix and match.
The outside distance around the loops is 6.2 miles, which passes an old abandoned homestead that dates back to the 1930s. The trails are groomed for double-track skiing.
The other two state land pathways where you have a decent chance of seeing elk are Shingle Mill Pathway, located about 20 minutes north of Gaylord, and Buttles Road Pathway, about 30-some miles east of town off M-72.
The Pigeon River Country State Forest is a rugged land of contrasts in both terrain and weather. Both the highest and lowest temperature recorded in the Wolverine State has occurred here; from a bone chilling -51 to a sultry high of 112. The average mean temperature is a chilly 42. Winter is arguably the Pigeon’s longest season.
For a good dose of solitude there’s Shingle Mill Pathway, which is located about 11 miles east of Vanderbilt off I-75, a little over 20 miles from downtown Gaylord. This is a place Jeremiah Johnson would’ve been proud to roam. The pathway is surrounded by the 98,000-acre Pigeon River Country State Forest, home to elk, deer, wolves and several other critters.
It offers 11 miles of trails that is broken into loops of six, 10 and 11 miles. (There’s also a ¾ mile trail, but I can’t picture anybody driving to the Pigeon for this short loop.) It’s all untracked, but you often find skied-in tracks, unless you’re there after a fresh snowfall.
The trail meanders along the swiftflowing Pigeon River and then climbs into the highlands overlooking the river valley. Along the way you pass small, frozen lakes, some with beaver lodges. The trail finishes along a boardwalk that passes through a cedar swamp.
I’ve seen elk while cross country skiing here. Not as close as Aspen Park, but it’s a thrill to see these magnificent animals in the wild. Trails start in the back of the state forest campground you come to right after crossing the Pigeon River heading east from Vanderbilt. There’s only one road heading east out of the tiny village. You can’t miss it.
LAKES, HILLS – AND MORE ELK
Buttles Road Pathway is located about a half-hour east of Gaylord off of M-72 on Buttles Road. The state-land trail has been groomed off-and-on by local residents with a single-track lane.
The pathway offers three loops totaling a little over six miles. The most challenging terrain is the last loop, which skirts a couple of small scenic lakes on the back portion. The terrain is rolling with small, forested hills. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, and that’s what makes it so appealing. Locals say the elk hang around the area in the winter; the hoof prints I’ve seen would attest to that.
If you decide to spend the night to sample the various trails, there’s an abundance of lodging choices, from resorts to chain motels and quaint “mom and pop” motels, along with a wide variety of restaurants. There’s something to fit just about every budget and ski appetite.
For more information on the Gaylord area, log onto gaylordmichigan.net.