Alpenfest-ing in Gaylord, Michigan

Bands play Swiss and German music during Gaylord’s Alpenfest.

Never heard of  Gaylord, Michigan?  Neither had I until last summer, but let me just say this: a resident herd of elk, one cool microbrewery, and a festival where they carve parsnips into lanterns, burn an effigy called Boogg, and have contests for best ladies’ ankles and men’s knees.

They had me at microbrewery!

In Your Bucket Because…

  • It’s wholesome, quirky fun.
  • The area offers lots in the way of summer outdoor sports
  • Good for families with a sense of fun and mild adventure.

Sister city to Pontresina in Switzerland, Gaylord wears its Alpine look like lederhosen year-round. During  Gaylord Alpenfest, five days in mid-July, they dial it up a digit, and everyone dons their Swiss costumes and sense of community for festivities that revolve around a legend of William Tell’s nemesis, villainous Herr Gessler, who defected to Gaylord.

The evil ruler Gessler, as legend has it, forced Tell to shoot that storied apple off his son’s head. A few hundred years later after defection, he surfaces in Gaylord, thanks to the magic of communal imagination.

Gaylord Attractions

I can proudly say I Alpen-fested – all-inclusive button and all — in 2011. This year’s event, the 48th annual, takes place July 17-21 in the center of the compact downtown area.

Gaylord is about a an hour’s drive from the Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City in northern Michigan. It’s other claim-to-fame on the radar of vacationers is Treetops resort, a year-round, top-notch golfing and skiing destination conveniently located close to a vast variety of summer water sports opportunities including flyfishing, kayaking, tubing, and boating. That’s where I based my Gaylord gallivanting. Besides its vital watersports scene, northern Michigan touts its golf, and Treetops claims five of the region’s best courses. The sheer elevation and piney beauty feels like Midwest summer incarnate. And I particularly loved lunching at its Legends on the Hill and Sports Bar overlooking the then-green ski slopes and serving fresh Michigan walleye and hand-thrown pizza.

Alpenfest Activities

Treetops is a couple of hills away from downtown Gaylord and its homey air of summer festivities. I discovered on a recent trip that about every small northern Michigan town invents one reason or another to celebrate summer. Alpenfest, however, may be the most original. Take Boogg, for instance: Like the hundreds of other festival-goers, I wrote down my woes and worries on a slip of paper and tucked it inside the giant snowman made of cotton wool, and then followed the crowd that paraded him down the street.

Once in an open lot, he gets torched, along with everyone’s troubles, as the local fire station stands ready. Poof! That bit of stress over deadlines and a teenage son… gone! Beats a therapist any day, if you have any pyro instinct in you.

As for the parsnip lanterns, the transplanted Swiss tradition known as “lampion parades” involves hollowed-out and carved (think miniature, white jack-o-lanterns) vegetables, colored tissue paper, and flashlights carried down the street to accompany Boogg to his fiery fate.

The ankles and knees contests? Well, I won’t elaborate upon that. Need I? Just some of the quirkier ingredients of a celebration filled with the more typical carny rides, queen pageant, and live music.

Prepare to stuff yourself with sausage, or choose instead to hit one of the small but diverse selections of sit-down spots to taste regional Great Lakes cuisine. Smack dab in the middle of Main Street (a.k.a. Alpenstrasse during festivities), the Sugar Bowl Restaurant has been a Gaylord tradition since 1919.

Legendary, stern Herr Gessler still stands watch over downtown Gaylord.

I tasted the sampler of perch, walleye, and Lake Superior whitefish, all tenderly seared; then stopped next store at the  Alpine Chocolat Haus for ice cream and a handful of chocolate-covered raspberries.

Off the beaten Alpenstrasse, the newer Bearded Dogg Lounge has Midwest flavor with inventive pop. I chose the sinfully rich steak stuffed with shrimp and feta under creamy pesto sauce.

The Big Buck microbrewery, outside the main downtown area, is worth finding. There I relished a pint of Buck Naked Light beer with a tender, tasty venison Rueben in an atmosphere of antlers and skins.

Bear, deer, and elk motifs are huge in northern Michigan. Gaylord’s Elk View Park affords an opportunity to see some of the natives up close. Here, the city maintains a herd of about 70 fenced within 108 acres. Look for them next to the Elk’s Lodge (ironic?) or from Aspen Park trails.

So, if you’re looking for a refreshing plunge into quirky hometown revelry with a twist of old Europe this summer, grab your Alpine hat or flowered head wreath. Willkommen to the Alpenfest party.



  • Alpine Chocolat Haus, 989-732-1077
  • Bearded Dogg Lounge, 989-619-0298
  • Big Buck Brewery & Steakhouse, 989-732-5781
  • Gaylord Alpenfest, 800-345-8621
  • Sugar Bowl Restaurant, 989-732-5524
  • Treetops, 888-TREETOPS

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