By Bob Downing
Special to the Beacon Journal
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.: Few outsiders ever see one of America’s most impressive floral displays.
Every May, about 2.6 million cherry trees are adorned with fragrant creamy white blossoms that fill ridges above the region’s cobalt blue waters. It is one of Michigan’s great secrets, because it happens a few weeks before tourists typically head to Traverse City, in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
The area celebrates on May 19 at Blossom Days.
Traverse City proudly calls itself the Cherry Capital of the World with 75 percent of the country’s tart cherries — used in pies, pastries and jams — being produced within a few miles.
It’s home to a weeklong 150-event National Cherry Festival in July, and stores like the Cherry Republic sell lots of goods. It has been reported that visitors can purchase 370 cherry food and drink items in Traverse City.
The first cherry trees were planted on the Old Mission Peninsula outside Traverse City by Presbyterian missionary Peter Dougherty, who came in 1839 to work with the Ottawa tribe.
First to blossom in May are 600,000 sweet cherries. A few days later, 2 million tart cherry trees follow.
Unlike the ornamental cherries that are familiar to visitors of Washington, D.C., the Michigan blossoms are pure white. From a distance, some trees seem to have a pink hue from red twigs, while others look greenish from emerging leaves.
Typically, within a week, the colorful cherry trees are joined by the light pink blossoms of 670,000 apple trees. Apples are behind one of the newest attractions in the area: two-year-old Suttons Bay Ciders just north of Traverse City. It features handcrafted hard ciders devised by owners Mark and Madelynn Korzon.
They use different types of apples including Northern Spy, Ida Red, Honeycrisp, McIntosh, Jonathan and Rhode Island Green plus ingredients like sumac, lavender, cherries, pears, berries, ginger root, mint, mosaic hops and maple syrup to come up with palate-pleasing options.
Typically, more than a dozen ciders are available, and flights are a great way to sample them. Most are slightly carbonated through the fermentation process.
The lodge-like main building off state Route 22 features decks that offer some of the best up-high views of West Grand Traverse Bay. For information, go to http://www.suttonsbaycider.com.
The Korons are not alone. Other cideries have sprung up in the Traverse City region.
But grapes, not apples, are the biggest draw in the Traverse City region.
The area is also home to 33 wineries (nine on the Old Mission Peninsula and 24 on the Leelanau Peninsula), tasting rooms, designated wine trails and vineyards, plus a few distilleries. That’s up from 19 wineries in 2006.
The region is at the epicenter of Michigan’s booming wine business. In 2018, Michigan gained eight new wineries to bring its statewide total to 138, producing about 2.7 million gallons of wine annually. That’s up 34 percent in the last five years, says the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council.
Growers harvest about 13,100 acres of grapes, the fourth highest state total in the U.S. They also grow 3,050 acres of wine grapes, in the Top 10 in the country. Michigan wineries get 2 million visitors a year, the council reported.
Most of them are within 25 miles of Lake Michigan. The lake protects the vines from snow in the winter and from late spring frosts. The water also extends the growing season up to four weeks.
My wife Pat and I have our favorites after multiple trips to Traverse City over the years: Chateau Chantal, 2 Lads, Peninsula Cellars, 45 North and Brengman Brothers.
In addition to cider and wineries, Traverse City is known for sugar-sand beaches, aquamarine waters, casinos and golf courses. It is Michigan’s No. 1 summer beach resort and a growing foodie town, with 4,200 motel and hotel rooms for summer visiting families.
It is a winter sports center with up to 150 inches of snow every winter, and lots of venues. There are many trails, with some of the most spectacular 25 miles west at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
The 71,199-acre federal park features sand bluffs that stand hundreds of feet above Lake Michigan. They are especially stunning at sunrise and sunset.
They’re the largest freshwater dunes in the world and the beaches are among the very best on the Great Lakes.
Glaciers left behind rubble and fine-grained sands. The southern part of the lakeshore features beach dunes, created by winds blowing sand onto low-lying dunes. Perched dunes, built by wind-blown sand accumulating atop piles of glacial debris, sit high on the bluffs. The dunes cover four square miles.
The park’s signature hike is the Dune Climb. It’s 110 feet, equal to the height of a 10-story building. It provides up-high views of Lake Michigan, an inland lake and trees. It takes about 10 minutes and is surprisingly tough.
You can then slide and tumble your way down the sand to where you started. That’s half of the fun.
At the very top, you can continue 1.75 miles on a blue-blazed trail to a spot above Lake Michigan or you can simply drop down the face of the dune. Wear shoes and bring drinking water for sand hikes, the National Park Service says.
A favorite hike is the 2.7-mile loop to Pyramid Point. You’ll be 260 feet above Lake Michigan on a perched dune. In all, the park offers 105 miles of trails.
The park also features a ghost forest where sand has partially buried trees, a historic farming district, 26 inland lakes, 12 miles of streams, forests, an 1871 lighthouse, three old Coast Guard stations and a Great Lakes maritime museum at Grand Haven.
A new 27-mile bike-and-hike trail stretches 35 miles along the Michigan shoreline. You can also drive the 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive that is open from early May through mid-November.
It’s named after a Michigan lumberman. He developed a road to the top of the dunes in 1967 to share the views he loved with the public. He operated the road until his death in 1976. The following year, the road became part of the federal lakeshore.
Stop No. 9 on the drive may the most scenic spot in the lakeshore. You are high on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan with steep banks of sand dropping 450 feet down to the water. It is not climbable and warnings are posted. The views from the wooden observation deck are impressive.
The park includes two offshore wilderness islands, North and South Manitou, accessible by private boat or by ferry from Leland from May to October. It is also home to shipwrecks.
The lakeshore gets 1.1 million visitors a year. Park admission is $10 for seven days.
For information on Traverse City, write to 101 W. Grandview Parkway, Traverse City, MI 49684, or call 800-TRAVERSE. You can also check out http://www.visittraversecity.com.
For Sleeping Bear Dunes information, write to 9920 Front St., Highway M-72, Empire, MI 49630, or call 231-326-5134. The Web site is http://www.nps.gov/slbe.