The Mystique of Alligator Hill in Winter
19 December 2018
By Paul Baumbusch | Trail Genius
The clouds were rolling in, but that was ok – ideal, even – because I was headed to Alligator Hill.
This majestic 9-mile national park trail was hit hard by straight-line winds from the great storm of ’15. Today it boasts a haunting mystique, as well as breathtaking overlooks of Lake Michigan and Glen Lake. If you’re in the mood to contemplate the sublime power of nature, and you’re also craving uplifting vistas, you’ve found the right trail.
To my surprise, the parking lot was packed, and there was a table set up with snacks and wine. Who were these people? A lady explained that the group is called Northwoods Ski & Spree, and they gather at trailheads for refreshments and cross-country skiing. Some of them had brought their skis, but there wasn’t enough of a snow base quite yet, so they were hiking instead.
What a festive contrast to the atmospheric hike that lay ahead of me!
As you set out on the trail, you’ll see a row of odd cave-like structures. They’re concrete kilns which used to convert waste from a nearby sawmill into charcoal. The mill was built by lumberman and visionary Pierce Stocking, namesake of the national park’s famed scenic drive.
Proceed and you’ll be climbing a long, steep ascent, past gothic tableaus of trees that didn’t manage to elude the wrath of the ’15 storm. You’ll see plenty of beeches with beautiful marcescent copper leaves, which hang tight and keep us company through the winter. You might pass by colorful frozen fungi, or milkweed pods releasing feathery floss.
Finally you’ll reach my favorite part of the hike, the iconic approach to the Lake Michigan overlook. Something about that lone bench and lone oak tree, with the horizon beyond, makes you gasp and realize that you’re in for a dazzling treat. That view of the Manitou islands and Sleeping Bear Point is among the finest vistas in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Standing there, I once saw a bald eagle soaring below me.
Tear yourself away and continue toward the Big Glen Overlook. You’ll pass through a sacred (to me) grove of old red pines, and you’ll come the trail’s second climax: a serene view of pristine Big Glen.
Ambitious hikers and skiers could then take the long loop back to the trailhead, but the sun was drooping and my phone was out of battery; I was ready to return to civilization. I wondered whether my new friends would still be sipping and snacking in the parking lot. But my car was alone. Oh well…To be honest, after a substantial workout, what I was really wanting was a martini at Art’s Tavern to warm me up. I had earned it.
P.S. For cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing enthusiasts, the Trail Genius also highly recommends the Bay View Trail, the Heritage Trail, and Palmer Woods. We just need a bit more of the white stuff. Then it’s game time till spring!