AUSABLE CHASM - For the first time in its 139-year history, AuSable Chasm is open year-round for tourists.
From November through April, visitors can now participate in guided tours along a trail that includes several scenic vistas overlooking the oldest natural attraction in the United States. The wintertime tours offer a unique look at the chasm during a time when it has traditionally been closed to the public.
Mid-winter guests can view the nearly frozen-over Rainbow Falls, enormous ice formations, and icicles of more than 100 feet that form along the chasm walls. During a thaw or in the early spring guests can see the river at levels 10-40 feet higher than summer flows, while giant icicles fall into the turbulent whirlpools below.
Depending on snow accumulation, visitors can either snowshoe, hike, or cross-country ski along the scenic trail. If conditions allow, tour groups may even venture onto the Inner Sanctum trail which offers spectacular views from deep inside the chasm.
"The one thing I always tell people is it's never too cold to snowshoe," said recreation manager Chuck Fries, adding that the brisk hike can keep people warm on even the coldest days.
After working for several summers at AuSable Chasm, Fries said he is excited to be offering tours in the winter, especially considering the number of people who inquire about them during the tourist season.
"Probably one of the most common questions we get on the raft tours is 'are you open during the winter?'" said Fries. Even as late as last summer, the answer was an unfortunate "no," but with the addition of the snowshoe tours just weeks ago, he hopes to get some future summertime visitors to return during other parts of the year.
AuSable Chasm manager Tim Presett said it was that demand for winter activity that led to the decision to add the winter tours. With the completion two years ago of the trail around the rim of the chasm, there arose a suitable place for visitors to safely view the natural landmark in the colder months.
"Prior to that we had no winter option," said Presett.
Also, like many other local tourist attractions, there has been more effort to expand chasm activities into the "shoulder" months of the spring and fall season, thereby offsetting increasing operational costs.
One of the biggest advantages to touring the chasm in winter, Presett said, is the solitude. Smaller tour groups allow for a more unique, intimate setting.
"In the summertime we have around 1,000 people a day," he said, "but in the wintertime, you basically have the place to yourself."
The private guided tours cost $25 per person, which include admission, equipment rental, and guide. The tours last one to two hours. Reservations are required and may be made by calling 834-7454.
"Everybody we've taken out there so far has been wowed," said Presett. "It's great to provide that activity in the winter for those that want it."