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An Uncommonly Good Day: Adventurous Fun at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons

With three high energy little ones, it’s almost never an option to spend a leisurely day lounging around the house. That is, unless your idea of leisure is dealing with constant fighting, screaming and whining while picking up toys, clothes and household goods strewn about the house. So we try to get out – preferably outside – as much as possible with the kids.

In fact, most of the decisions we make on the weekends are run through the following filter: Will this activity make our children tired and more likely to go to bed early? If so, we do it. If the activity happens to be fun for them, great. If it’s also fun for us? Rare, but that’s the sweet spot of quality family time.

We had ridiculously beautiful weather in Traverse City this past fall; unseasonably warm with lots of crystal clear skies. Confronted with 50 degrees and sun one Saturday in early December, it was time to make a game plan. The snow would come, we knew, so laundry could wait while we ventured out on borrowed time.

After stuffing a backpack with Goldfish and sippy cups, we headed over to one of our favorite spots in town, The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

The Commons is a short walk, bike ride or drive from downtown (just to the west, near Munson Hospital). Cupolas, capped in red, pierce the sky above the treeline, making the Commons identifiable from elevated vantage points throughout the region. Large, sprawling, Victorian structures – some renovated, some not – are spread throughout the 480-acre campus. What is now the Commons was previously the site of the Traverse City State Psychiatric Hospital (before that the Northern Michigan Asylum), which adds historical charm and intrigue to the property (as well as a bit of a creepiness if you ever find yourself among the unrenovated buildings after dark).

Come for the Tacos, Stay for the Trails

Tacos first drew Heather and I to the Commons. Craving our favorite comfort food following a night enjoying a few too many craft beers (okay, that may have been me, but Heather really loves tacos, so she was game), we Googled “best tacos in Traverse City.” This is a taco town, so that didn’t narrow things down all that much.

So we picked a spot on a whim which led us to the rear of the Commons in an area called “The Backyard,” where an authentic Mexican restaurant called Spanglish is located in a quaint outbuilding. We soon – and satisfyingly – learned that Spanglish serves some of the freshest, most delicious tacos, tamales, tostadas, burritos, chips, guacamole and salsa verde that we’ve ever tasted. It’s just one of the many cool shops and restaurants in the Commons.

It was also on this initial visit that we discovered that the Commons is surrounded by preserved parkland, woodland, and wetland conservation areas, and that an extensive hiking trail system winds its way throughout the property. One trailhead is located just steps from Spanglish’s front door, which was fortuitous given how gluttonously we indulged. Nothing like fresh air and an elevated heart rate to emerge from a food coma.

We were thrilled. Easy access to trails was something we looked forward to when planning our move, as there are no trail systems near our old home. The fact that there were great trails five minutes from downtown was an added bonus. It’s a rare thing to be able to immerse in nature so close to the heart of a city.

A December Hike, No Snowshoes Necessary

Now, back to that glorious Saturday in December. While there’s a big difference between hiking with your spouse, and hiking (hauling?) with your spouse and three little kids, it’s a “sweet spot” activity nonetheless that we engage in as much as possible. Two out of the three girls are relatively self sufficient on the trails, albeit at times ungraceful given the root, rock and wet leaf obstacles, and Heather and I trade off carrying Emma (80/20 Heather – Emma’s preference). A little bicep work to go with the cardio.

There are a few noteworthy landmarks along the way. One is an old concrete structure – we are unsure of its origin or original purpose – that is covered with, depending on your perspective, either vandalistic graffiti or beautiful trail art. We think it’s pretty striking, a stark creative contrast against the natural backdrop.

As you hike deeper into the system, you come across the “Hippie Tree,” which lies just beyond a natural spring. The Hippie Tree is a huge fallen tree that has been crowd-painted by visitors in vivid colors and is a great spot for climbing and exploration for kids of all ages. On a slightly darker note, and for all you supernaturalists out there, there is rumored to be a “gate to Hell” that can be found near the base of the tree. Given the amount of recreational drugs that have likely been consumed at this spot over the years, I’m sure more than a few people believe they have encountered Hell in this otherwise serene setting.

If you venture past the Hippie Tree, you can reach an area that offers some of the most breathtaking views in town. A rugged hike up what has been dubbed “Heartbreak Hill” spills into meadows of long grasses and wildflowers. The elevation affords a panoramic view of downtown, West Bay, Old Mission Peninsula, West Bay, and beyond.

Each season welcomes new delights to the trails – soft blankets of wildflowers emerging in spring, lush green landscapes in summer, vibrant canopies of color in fall, and snow kissed (and often smothered) trails in the winter.

After an invigorating hike we headed indoors to the Mercato (Italian for “Marketplace”) in the lower level of the Commons. With its brick lined walls and arched doorways, the Mercato is as close as you’ll get in Northern Michigan to a stroll through the catacombs of Paris or Rome.

The Sara Hardy Downtown Farmer Market, where you can get your hands on some amazing locally grown and raised agricultural products, is located downtown along the waterfront in the summer. But in the fall/winter it’s housed in the Mercato area of the Commons. We grazed through the vendors, sampling various cheeses, jams and baked goods, and picked up some apple cinnamon pancake mix, along with some fresh produce, for Sunday brunch.

Despite some close calls, our kids did not break any of the wares being displayed by the various retailers and galleries in the hallways of the Mercato. So we rewarded them with an almond danish from 9 Bean Rows from Suttons Bay.

We were, in turn, rewarded when the twins dozed off on the short ride home, and remained asleep as we gingerly transitioned the precious little ticking time bombs from the car to their beds for a hearty nap. Mission accomplished.

It was a great day at the Commons. So great that Heather and I returned that evening for a date night dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in town – one of our favorites anywhere, in fact – Trattoria Stella.

I could go on and on about the incredible farm to table excellence that Stella dishes up, but you really have to experience it for yourself. The menu is constantly changing to reflect seasonal variations in ingredients, but everything is always fresh, delicious and homemade. Whatever you order for dinner, make sure to save room for the caramel sea salt gelato. It’s a great way to cap a sweet day at the Commons.