Nature Worth the Trip

When asked why they love it here, Michiganders invariably praise the state’s natural beauty. Heck, nature is why we head Up North. It’s why folks from other states vacation on the Mitten. Natural beauty, however, is not always where you expect to find it. More than just serving as a backdrop to other activities—four-wheeling, paddling, hiking, etc.—there are natural areas in the state that are fascinating destinations in their own right. They feature rare flora and fauna, interesting geology, and pockets of forests that once covered the Great Lakes. They can be an expression of creativity and a refuge for wildlife.

Compiled here are five often-overlooked nature areas. A few are close to popular vacation spots; others will take you off the beaten path. All are worth the trip!

Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Grass River Natural Area, Sinkhole Pathway, Warren Woods, Hidden Lake Gardens

Seney National Wildlife Refuge
1674 Refuge Entrance Road. Seney, Michigan | (906) 586-9851

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANorth of US 2 on MI-77—almost half-way between Lake Michigan and Lake Superior—the Seney National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most remote nature preserves. And yet, it’s pretty accessible to folks traveling across the U.P. The refuge is wildly popular with birdwatchers. Large populations of migrating birds that are drawn by a  scattering of connected pools—small shallow lakes, if you will. There you will see herons, sandhill cranes, loons, trumpeter swans, and Canada geese.

With more 95,000 acres, it would be impossible to explore the entire refuge in a short visit, even if there were roads open to the general public. So unless you’re hunting the back half of the preserve, you’re likely to never to roam far from the main visitor area.

To get to the Refuge Visitor Center, drive about four miles north of Germfask on MI-77. Refuge Entrance Road is on the west side of the state highway. From the visitor center, there are two driving loops that will take you back around some of the refuge’s many ponds. The Marshland Wildlife Drive is roughly seven miles, which can seem like an eternity if you are behind a van making stops every 100 yards for photos. The other route, the Fishing Loop, is actually an extra loop added onto the first and totals up to 8.5 miles.

Grass River Natural Area
6500 Alden Highway, Bellaire, Michigan | (231) 533-8576

Grass River Natural Area, Bellaire, Torch Lake, Clam Lake, Lake Bellaire, Antrim CountyIt’s hard to imagine anything more beautiful than Grand Traverse Bay in the summer—blue-green waters of Lake Michigan, sandy beaches, rolling orchards and vineyards—but the region has natural charms beyond the Great Lake. The Elk River, which empties into the bay in Elk Rapids, is the final piece of a 75-mile stretch of connected water that winds through eleven lakes, beginning with Six Mile Lake southeast of Ellsworth. This is the famed Chain O’ Lakes. The lower lakes, which include Intermediate Lake, Lake Bellaire, Clam Lake, Torch Lake, Lake Skegemog, and Elk Lake. It’s no surprise that most of these lakes are surrounded by cottages and lake houses.

The Grass River Natural Area, however, offers a more pristine look at the waterway. Surrounding the Grass River, which connects Lake Bellaire with Clam Lake, the nature area stretches east and west beyond the river and includes nearly 1,500 acres of wetland meadows and upland forests. The property is especially attractive to waterfowl and other birds. Bald eagles nest nearby Grass River and have become a regular sight for visitors.

You can begin your visit by hiking one of the park’s six trail loops. They range from less than a half mile to just over a mile in length, but a combination of loops could easily add up to a hardy walk in the woods. During the summer, a naturalist is on staff everyday but Monday, and on Tuesdays there’s a guided wildflower hike for adults. Check the website for more educational opportunities, or just head out and take it as it comes. Either way, Grass River is worth a visit.

Sinkholes Pathway, Atlanta State Forest Area
M-33 and Tomahawk Lake Highway, Onaway, Michigan | (989) 732-3541

The Mackinaw State Forest southeast of Onaway features one of the state’s more unique geological features—an extensive region of karst topography known as the Sinkholes Area. Several state forest campgrounds on a series of small lakes comprise the sum total of regional development, and it is just north of the Shoepac Lake campground that you find the Sinkholes Pathway.

The longest loop is an easy 2 miles around the top of four large sinkholes. Paths into the sinkholes—which appear as steep forested valleys—can make a hike much more strenuous. It can be a hundred feet to the bottom, but wooden steps make the descent and return climb more bearable. Great signage explains the route and educated visitors on karst topography.

Warren Woods State Park
12032 Red Arrow Highway, Sawyer, Michigan | (269) 426-4013

Warren Woods is a 311-acre park that preserves the state’s last known beech-maple forest. Scientists call this a climax forest, meaning, in a series of ecological progressions that typify eastern woodlands, the beech-maple is the final stage. Some of the trees here are over 450 years old. The silver beeches soar a hundred feet and are recognizable by their smooth bark. The maples are shorter, picking up rays of sun that make it through the canopy above.

A 3.5-mile trail leads back into the woods, following and cross the Galien River. There are few facilities—pit toilets and a rustic picnic area. The park is especially popular in the fall with the changing of the colors.

Warren Woods is administered by the Warren Dunes State Park. Located in the far southwest corner of the state, it is just northeast a ways from New Buffalo.

Hidden Lake Gardens
6214 Monroe Road, Tipton, Michigan | (517) 431-2060

IMG_9601Our final destination is less natural in its presentation of nature. Hidden Lakes Gardens is a 755-acre botanical garden and arboretum managed by Michigan State University. As such it is landscaped, in the grandest sense of that word. An onsite conservatory features plants more comfortable in a warmer climate. Along Hidden Lake itself is an impressive garden of hostas.

The park offers both roads for touring the property by car as well as trails for folks who want to get out and hike a little. Depending on your level of interest, a family could spend a few hours to an entire day exploring the gardens and trees of Hidden Lake.

Graphic and images courtesy of Big Words.

About Matt Forster

A native of Michigan, Matt Forster has lived in various parts of the country and written five books based on his travel and experiences—Colorado: An Explorer’s Guide, Backroads & Byways of Michigan, Best Tent Camping Michigan, Best Hikes Near Detroit and Ann Arbor, and Backroads & Byways of Ohio. Matt recently completed his Master Naturalist certification. To find out more, visit his website

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