Benzie County has more than just beaches
By Nicole Bates
Summer has been good to us this year. Plenty of warm days and lots of sunshine have made for great beach days and comfortable water temperatures. If you are anything like me, the floor of your vehicle now has enough sand to fill a decent-sized sandbox. This area is known for its white sand beaches and water sports, but what do you do when everyone is sunburned, waterlogged, or your beach plans simply get rained out? We have some ideas!
Visit a Nearby Library
Our local libraries work hard to provide a kid-friendly atmosphere, as well as child-centered activities, on a weekly basis. The Benzie Shores District Library in downtown Frankfort offers a weekly Circle Time for infants and toddlers and their caregivers on Mondays, as well as a preschool playtime on Fridays. The Darcy Library of Beulah offers a great variety of activities for toddlers to teens: Teen book and movie clubs, Minecraft Club, Writing Club, and two different family story time options. The Benzonia Public Library hosts a variety of events like Baby Play Time with Miss Mary Kay, in addition to performances by the hilarious puppets, followed by hands-on creative and learning activities. The Mills Community House, which houses BPL, also allows you to host your own event, with the option of renting their great basement space. The Almira Township Library in Lake Ann is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Betsie Valley District Library in Thompsonville offers a summer story and activity hour on Wednesdays through August 3. All of Benzie County’s libraries offer summer reading programs to keep kids engaged and learning. (Details of youth programming and other offerings can be found on each library’s website: BenzieShoresLibrary.org, DarcyLibraryOfBeulah.org, BenzoniaLibrary.org, AlmiraTownship.org/Library, and BetsieValleyDistrictLibrary.org.)
The Benzie Area Historical Museum is another great option, with hours from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Tuesday through Saturday and family-friendly events such as “Pirates in Benzie” and “I was the only 4th Grader,” which includes stories and photos from former students and teachers of historical one-room schoolhouses.
The Hale Auto Museum in Frankfort is an automotive gem that is tucked away in the backstreets of Frankfort. Three adjacent barns house a treasure trove of classic General Motors cars, vintage Ford models, and other assorted brands. This collection of 50-plus cars belongs to Larry Hale and his family, who live on nearby Crystal Lake. Larry’s son, Jeff, manages the collection and works on restoring the cars, acquiring new models, and related hobbies when he is not at his regular marketing job with a Traverse City publishing company. Part of the charm of the Hale barns is the automotive paraphernalia that adorns the walls and hangs from the rafters. As well as numerous dealer signs, advertising banners, and other car-related visual material, the Hales fill some of the spaces around the cars with vintage pinball machines and miniature wooden bowling alleys. A large collection of Texaco model cars also takes up the wall space in one of the buildings. And in case visitors are into boats, the Hales have six classic hydroplane racers that can be found amidst the cars. (The Hale car collection at 395 Park View Lane is not normally open to the public, but visitors are welcomed by arrangement. 231-352-7720)
Semi-guided and self-guided tours are available at Point Betsie Lighthouse, located on the shores of Lake Michigan, just off M-22, between the Congregational Summer Assembly and Crystal Downs Country Club. On stormy days when the rain pierces like daggers and an angry wind whips the coastline, you can look out into the darkness and imagine a ship running aground just off the shore of Point Betsie as a crew lashes themselves to the bobbing wreckage and prays that their cries for help will reach human ears. Though the light still beams 15 miles into Lake Michigan, the lifesaving crews have long since left Point Betsie. The Lighthouse no longer saves lives, but it still shines in a new role: to illuminate Great Lakes maritime history and enlighten visitors about the importance of lighthouses to trade and commerce throughout early American history. This particular lighthouse was built in 1858 and added a foghorn in 1891. There is a new exhibit room and a gift shop in the Boat House, which opened in July 2014, that recount the dramatic recues but also the tranquil, everyday scenes from the community who once lived there. (Maps to the Lighthouse, times for tours, and prices can be found at PointBetsie.org.)
Popcorn and a Movie
The Garden Theater in Frankfort, built in 1923, has seen ongoing renovations to its art-deco decor over the past decade, and it is really looking beautiful! The Garden provides sheltered entertainment every day of the week with a double feature on Saturdays and Sundays. Ask for “real butter” added to your popcorn: a special treat!
Indoor Swimming Option
If the kids are begging to swim, but there are thunderstorms at the beach, try the Best Western in Beulah! The pool is open to the public for $8 per person.
You mean the ski hill? Yes, the ski hill! During the summer, Crystal Mountain Resort in Thompsonville offers an incredible variety of summer activities, including The Crystal Coaster (a slide down the ski hill), The Park at Water’s Edge, the Edge Adventure ropes course, mountain biking, paintball, disc golf, and a climbing wall.
Additionally, there is the Michigan Legacy Art Park, featuring more than 45 sculptures and 30 poetry stones along its nearly two-mile hiking trail in a 30-acre preserve. Opening in September 1995, the Art Park has art ranging in style from stark to whimsical and black to colorful, all by artists from Michigan or with ties to Michigan. Patrons to the Art Park will witness the unique and intended evolution of a sculpture and how nature contributes to and creates art all its own. Go for a hike through the park and check out the art—you are even allowed to touch and interact with it! (Learn more at CrystalMountain.com and MichiganLegacyArtPark.org.)
The Oliver Art Center in Frankfort is another great, recently renovated space. The building dates back to 1934 and was used as the Coast Guard station until they consolidated and moved into the building across the street. You can check out the upstairs, where the classrooms now are, to pretend that you were a Coastie living in the building. You can also participate twice a week: open art studio on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a $2 a donation, and open clay studio on Thursdays from 3-6 p.m. with $60 fees covering one adult and one child for four visits (a total of 12 hours, used as you like). It can be as fun or focused as each student prefers, and all skill levels should consider taking part!
Take a Drive Down River Road
For your first stop, turn into the Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm at 4907 River Road to see adorable adult and baby alpacas grazing on lush green grass or relaxing in the shade of their barn. Make sure to step inside the Alpaca Boutique to admire the beautiful products, made from incredibly soft alpaca fur.
Next, take a right out of the farm and drive 4.5 miles, until you see signs for Gwen Frostic Prints, the former home of the world-renowned artist at 5140 River Road. There is a “living roof” with moss and other plants on the building’s exterior, and the inside has working fountains. My son calls it “the hobbit house,” and if you visit, you will see why. Make sure to check out the print shop, where there are often people working on vintage machines that church out the beautiful nature-inspired stationery that you can purchase to write to a pen pal or an overseas grandma. Browse the bird carvings displayed throughout the store.
Continue your drive for 1.2 miles further and then turn right at 6289 River Road to visit BeeDazzled for some organic, hand-made soaps, candles, and natural body care products. The complex is the brainchild of Kirk and Sharon Jones, one of their three Benzie businesses dedicated to bees. (Read our story on The Joneses here.) Sharon raises bees on site, and she grows a garden of bee-preferred flowers that you can tour.
A Different Kind of Airshow
On August 27, you can join the Benzie Area Radio Control Club for their 19th annual air show! From 10 a.m. to 3 pm. at the Thompsonville Airport, the club will be flying radio-controlled model aircraft including fixed-wing, helicopters, warbirds, and jets. Hot dogs and refreshments will be provided, and there is a special candy drop for the kids! (Find out more at BenziareARC.com.)
Have you ever had the sensation of rolling uphill backwards? You can do that by visiting a spot that is known to Benzie County locals as “gravity hill.” Throw your car into neutral at a certain spot along Putney Road, near the Blaine Christian Church, and experience this strange sensation for yourself!
Some claim that a spiritual magnet pulls sinners back towards the church along the road, but the more scientific explanation is that visitors experience an optical illusion which causes them to believe they are rolling uphill and backwards when they actually roll down a slight grade. This hilly section of road has a slightly obscured horizon, making it difficult to judge slopes, because there is not a reliable reference point, and people often overestimate the degree of a grade. Trees that are not exactly vertical can also help to trick visitors into thinking that they are going uphill when they are really going downhill. (The illusion is similar to the Ames room, in which balls can also appear to roll against gravity.)
To get to gravity hill, turn south on Putney Road from Joyfield Road and drive about 100 yards to what appears to be a slight dip at the bottom of a gentle downhill grade. This spot is just before a curve in the road and near a stand of pine trees. Stop the car, put it into neutral, take your foot off of the gas pedal, and you will most likely feel like you are rolling uphill backwards—just remember that it is all an optical illusion! (Note: Wikipedia says that there are hundreds of recognized gravity hills around the world, but only two in Michigan—Blaine Township and Rose City.)
Stop and Smell the Lilies
For the garden lovers, there are some wonderful options. The Betsie River Centennial Lily Farm, located at 17745 Moore Road in Thompsonville, offers group tours to admire hundreds of varieties of lilies. Keep an eye out for glass and steel garden art, made right on the farm!
Crystal Gardens, located at 1299 Pilgrim Highway just a few miles outside of Frankfort, provides entertainment for the whole family. Not only your one-stop shop for all of your gardening and landscaping needs, they have expanded to include a nature exhibit, rock shop, and an antique and gift shop called Barn Swallow. Take a stroll through the sun-lovers section and the shade plants, and visit the fairy garden in the nature exhibit. Keep an eye out for the three peacocks who live on site! (Learn more at BetsieRiverLilyFarm.com and CrystalGardensM22.com)
Nature and the National Park
Operated by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Platte River State Fish Hatchery is located four miles northeast of Honor, just across from Jodi’s Tangled Antler, at the corner of US-31 and 669 (Maple City Highway). There is a facility that raises Coho and Chinook salmon; it is the main egg-taking station for Coho in the Upper Great Lakes. Renovated in 2005 after its establishment in 1928 as a satellite rearing station, the hatchery is a great place to learn about fish biology and conservation. The grounds are open to the public at no charge from dawn to dusk, and the hatchery itself is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays. Self-guided tour maps and interpretive signs are provided for you to use along the “bluefish” pathway as you explore. This is one of the most significant tourist attractions in Benzie County, and it’s free! You can see indoor rearing tanks and learn about the process of egg collection, hatching, growing, and releasing salmon. This activity is great for kids of all ages. (231-325-4611.)
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers a variety of indoor and outdoor spots to visit on any summer day, whether or not it’s a good beach day.
Glen Haven’s Maritime Museum (alias the “Coast Guard station”) has been restored to resemble what it was about 100 years ago, so you can pretend that you lived there as a sailor. Then go outside and witness a lifesaving demonstration—complete with firing a real cannon—called “Heroes of the Storm,” which takes place daily at 3 p.m. Half of a mile to the east is the restored village of Glen Haven, including a pictorial museum, the boathouse, and a blacksmith’s shop—all with Park volunteers, happy to tell you about the way things were and how things worked way back when.
Head south on M-109 past the Dune Climb (if you can do that without the obligatory stop) to the Village of Empire, where you will hang a left onto M-72 and then another left into the parking lot of the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center, where you can obtain park passes, maps, and brochures. See lifelike displays of natural fauna and geological forms from our area. Watch fascinating movies and videos, such as one about how the dunes and lakes were formed by the glaciers. Enroll your kids in the Junior Ranger Program; if they complete enough of the prescribed activities, they become junior rangers and earn a badge and/or a patch.
You can also attend ranger-guided kayak trips, bike rides, and hikes, but call ahead for a reservation. Evening programs occur every night at 8 p.m. at the Platte and D. H. Day campgrounds or, in the case of rain, at the D. H. Day log cabin—the 45-minute presentations are provided by rangers who speak on a variety of topics, from lighthouses and maritime history to cultural history and natural history.
There are also evening hikes at the different trailheads, as well as various other outings. A monthly solar viewing occurs from 4 to 6 p.m. followed by “star parties” from 9 to 11 p.m. for those who can stay up late. Check the Visitor Center for a schedule of the week’s activities.
(Visit NPS.gov/slbe/Learn/KidsYouth/index.htm for more information and a schedule of events. Or call the Visitor Center at 231-326-4700.)
If you are in the mood to just stay home but still need some ideas to keep the kids entertained, I asked members of one of our local playgroups for their favorite rainy day activities. Answers included a family talent show, fort building, family game or puzzle day, and watercolor paints on the driveway!
I know some days as a parent feel like the postman’s creed, “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night” shall keep you from being called upon by multiple energetic and enthusiastic people to provide food, as well as entertainment. Hopefully, this will help!
Feature photo: Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm and Boutique. Photo by Stephanie Ong.