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Lake Michigan’s Frozen Winter Wonderland

When the air turns frosty and well below freezing, Lake Michigan turns into an otherworldly landscape of ice and snow. The beaches are nearly deserted. It’s silent except for the clinking thud of slushy waves on the ice shelf. Just a block away are warm cafes and cozy shops stocked with nick-nacks and bric-a-brac. Yet standing on the frozen sand, looking out into the vast, white and blue of a wintery Great Lake, it’s easy to imagine oneself an explorer on some faraway, frozen orb in another galaxy.

We always venture out to the beach at least once every winter to see the strange beauty of the frozen inland sea. The cold of winter changes it so dramatically it’s almost unrecognizable as a familiar summer playground. But the Big Lake is gorgeous, powerful and awe-inspiring in every season. We visited Sliver Beach in St. Joeseph recently, and it didn’t disappoint.

Lake Michigan St. Joe Winter

The wind was biting. It was bitterly cold. So cold my DSLR camera froze and refused to work. I think my cell phone worked only because it was snug in my pocket. We were snug too, under all our layers. This is on the lighthouse pier at Tiscornia Beach. Look at all that ice on the guard rail!

Lake Michigan St. Joe Winter

St. Joe Lighthouse Winter

St. Joe Lighthouse Winter

St. Joe Lighthouse Winter

My cell phone pics don’t do the gorgeous, icy lighthouse justice. It’s famous thanks to photographer Joshua Nowicki. His viral photos and videos, like the one below, of the ice-encased lighthouse awe the world every winter.

The iceballs that form in the lake are some of the otherworldly phenomenon we found at Lake Michigan the day we visited.

Ice balls Lake Michigan

Ice balls Lake Michigan

Ice balls Lake Michigan

In the photo above, you can even see a big ice boulder. These form when chunks break off the ice covering the lake. Then the waves smooth the chunks into balls as they wash the ice toward shore.

pancake ice lake Michigan

We saw pancake ice too. The rounds form when slush sitting on top of the water starts to stick together as the waves toss it around. There were some resourceful seagulls that day who were using the pancake ice to ride the waves.

pancake ice lake Michigan sea gulls

The waves were crashing and breaking onshore that day also. Waves have reached over 40 feet during a few storms. They weren’t anywhere near that high when we visited, but it was still an awesome sight.

silver beach

silver beach

Tiscornia Park

Here’s a video of the sights and sounds we saw that day.

What to know if you go:

  • Bundle up, it’s cold!
  • Stay off the ice. Stick to the beach and pier. The ice may not be as solid at it looks. There are often hollow spaces under the ice shelf.
  • Beware of waves. If the waves are big enough to wash over the pier, they’re big enough to wash you off the pier. Stay on the beach when conditions are dangerous.
  • Silver Beach County Park is on the south side of the river channel with a pier overlooking the lighthouse. The lighthouse is located on the pier at Tisconia Park on the North Side of the channel.
  • Eat at Silver Beach Pizza. It’s just a short walk or drive from the beach and some of the best pizza in Michigan.
  • If you have kids, warm up with a visit to the historic Silver Beach Carousel located in a building behind the beach. It’s open all winter except for a short time when it’s closed for maintenance in January. The Curious Kids’ Discovery Center is in the same building and features hands-on activities for kids. You can also venture up the bluff to downtown where you’ll find The Curious Kids’ Museum. Both are worth a visit.

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