7 things to do outside in Metro Detroit this winter

In the warmer months of 2020, some of Metro Detroit’s parks and outdoor spaces were full of visitors, as people looked for safe ways to get out of their homes during the pandemic. The temperatures have dropped, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay cooped up indoors all winter, even if you’re cold-intolerant.


“This year, we’re expecting to see a lot more people out in the parks that would typically be your indoor people in the winter,” says Danielle Mauter, chief of marketing and communications for the Huron-Clinton Metroparks. “All of us are looking for more things to do outside of our houses during the pandemic.”

Sometimes, the gray of winter can weigh on you, but “getting out in more natural areas, you actually get to see the beauty of winter,” says Jac Kyle, a naturalist with Detroit Parks & Recreation, who describes herself as a “recently reformed winter hater.” You might notice the shape of the trees and more dramatic shadows than usual, and “there's a stillness in the winter that's not always present in the spring and summer and fall,” she says.


The key to enjoying your time outdoors is to be prepared. Dress in layers that you can take off as you warm up, and try to avoid cotton, which doesn’t wick moisture away and leaves you damp and cold. Wool and wicking fabrics are better, and you can tuck your layers in to trap more of your body heat. Wear a hat, scarf, and gloves (you can always take them off later), and boots with a good tread on the bottom.


“Remember your body is a furnace,” Kyle says, “so make sure you have the calories and the fuel in your own body to generate heat.” She also recommends bringing snacks, and maybe a hot drink in a thermos, like hot cocoa or tea. A backpack is also a good idea for carrying all those snacks, beverages, and any layers that you take off.


From trying a new winter sport to a walk in the woods, or even just having dinner in a heated igloo, below are some ways to enjoy being outside this winter. For many of these activities, social distancing and masks are required, as well as reservations. Check with the venue first to make sure you’re prepared.

1. Hit the trails


Many city, county, and regional parks in and around Detroit have trails perfect for getting exercise, whether you want to take a brief stroll or a long hike — and in boots or snowshoes. “The winter is actually a really great time, in my opinion, because there's less leaves, and when there is snow, you can kind of have evidence of who's been walking around,” Kyle says. When she has led school-based programs, “I felt that wintertime was some of the most exciting times, because kids would just find a set of tracks and follow them.”


In Detroit, Rouge Park and Eliza Howell Park are good options for nature trails, and on Belle Isle, you can see waterfowl and other species you might not see away from the river, Kyle says.

In the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, paved hiking/biking trails are cleared of snow and salt, if you want to go for a walk without tromping through the snow. The Metroparks’ nature trails are not cleared, so they are good for winter hiking and snowshoeing.

If you plan ahead, you can rent snowshoes and other outdoor gear through Arrive Outdoors and have them delivered to you. Arrive Outdoors is one of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources “These Goods are Good for Michigan” partners.

Outside of the parks, there are trail systems across Metro Detroit, including those along the Great Lake to Lake Trail.

Photo courtesy Huron-Clinton Metroparks

2. Learn about nature

Many of the local park systems and other groups are holding outdoor nature events this winter, incorporating COVID-19 precautions. Some upcoming Metroparks events are focused on beavers, eagles, sketching, and geocaching, for example.


Even on your own, you can use apps like eBird, iNaturalist, and Seek to explore and identify what’s around you. And if you take a camera, nature photography “is a nice way to have an activity or a purpose when you're out there,” Kyle says.

3. Find a foothold in downhill or cross-country skiing


Downhill skiiers can head to Alpine Valley or Pine Knob. If you want to stick closer to home, cross-country skiing can be more accessible, as well as more beginner-friendly and cheaper. You can rent cross-country skis at Independence Oaks, as well as Huron Meadows, Kensington, and Stony Creek Metroparks, whose cross-country trails are open when there’s enough snow.


At Huron Meadows, the Bucks Run trail uses manmade snow, so it’s sometimes open when other trails don’t have enough snow. Also, “It is a lighted trail, so you can use it even as it starts to get dark outside,” which provides a different kind of experience, says Mauter. The rental center closes at 7 p.m. 

Photo courtesy Huron-Clinton Metroparks

4. Glide across the ice


Amid the city lights, the ice rink at Campus Martius is open for skaters, but be sure to make reservations first. You can also rent skates there. In the suburbs, you can ice skate at Lake St. Clair and Stony Creek if the lakes are frozen enough.


5. Come out and play


Warm up next to oversized outdoor fire chimneys, enjoy warm drinks and marshmallow roasters, go sledding, feast on sushi and barbecue, and more at Valade Park. Check out the website for special events such as ice carving and carriage rides on certain weekends. The riverfront park is open for winter fun 5-9 p.m. Fridays, 12-9 p.m. Saturdays, and 12-7 p.m. Sundays (Geisha Grils Sushi and Smokey G’s Smokehouse is open from 12-8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday).

6. Dine outdoors


Many restaurants have gotten creative in order to stay afloat during the indoor dining ban prompted by the pandemic. Some have installed igloos, but others have heated patios and other setups that allow you to eat outdoors without being enclosed. And there’s just something about eating al fresco.


The Detroit Shipping Company has outdoor seating, a heated tent, and fire pits. Also in Detroit, Flowers of Vietnam, Grey Ghost, and Marrow Detroit have heated patios. Green Dot Stables is open for carry-out, and you can eat your carry-out on their patio, where they also have a bar set up. In Southwest Detroit, the Southwest Detroit Business Association is highlighting (literally) local restaurants through the “Luminarias of Southwest Detroit,” outdoor life-size lanterns so diners can enjoy the neighborhood’s diverse food scene during the winter. The luminarias are being installed throughout January as a Phase I rollout followed by more in subsequent phases.

7. At the drive-in

Drive-ins are no longer just for summer nights. Emagine Entertainment and Bedrock Detroit are teaming up on the Monroe Street Drive-In Powered By Emagine, a new drive-in theater that makes its debut Jan. 22 with a screening of the 1993 classic popcorn flick “Jurassic Park.” Showtimes will begin at 7 p.m. every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday beginning Jan. 22 with “Jurassic Park” on Friday, “Shrek” on Saturday, and “Back to the Future” on Sunday. The drive-in is located on Monroe Block, which was home to Detroit’s first theater district and is the site of the future Monroe Blocks development. It’s part of Bedrock’s larger “Decked Out Detroit” initiative. Tickets will cost $20 per vehicle and will be available on emagine-entertainment.com. Tickets can also be purchased in-person at the drive-in when gates open at 6 p.m. starting Jan. 22.