A Welcome Stillness in the North Woods

Peggy Dolane is a digital writer who lives in Seattle and shares each summer, and her heart, with Antrim County Michigan. Today, Peggy shares with us a recent experience she had at the Glacial Hills Pathway Natural Area, where she was able to quietly enjoy the beautiful Michigan landscape.

Read about her experience below, and tell us in the comments section some of your favorite places to enjoy a peaceful afternoon in Pure Michigan.

There’s a stillness in the woods that you can’t find on any mediation retreat. Walking along a quiet path the trees stretch up into the sky and embrace you in their canopy.

It’s easy when summer finally arrives in Antrim County to sit all day long on the shore of a sparkling, aqua lake and never venture into the forest. But on grey days when the North wind blows, a hike deep into the woods is a welcomed outing.

For years I’d driven by Glacial Hills Pathway and Natural Area near the Village of Bellaire without giving it a second thought. This summer I heard Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy has partnered with Antrim County and Forest Home Township to develop a series of hiking and biking trails in this 763 acre upland forest. So on a grey July day I decided to check it out.

You’d hardly guess that these woods were logged off more than 100 years ago by Maine investors looking to grow their riches out “west”.  After the lands were logged clear and the lumber barons gone, nature took care of reforestation.

Eventually maples, beech and oak grew up into a high canopy. You’ll also find random groves of red pine evenly spaced like soldiers in their rows. These trees were planted in the 30s by the Civilian Conservation Corp, bringing depression-era jobs to this impoverished region as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Farm houses and back-road single wides have changed little over the past 50 years, and the quiet forests of one of the nation’s most beautiful regions have been left untouched.

Trail designer, Brad Gerlach of Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, expects the 20 miles of trails — featuring rolling hills, wild flower meadows, brilliant fall colors, and stunning territorial vistas — will make this local treasure a mountain biking destination.

It’s easy to get lost in the quiet of the place even with well-marked paths and despite it being just a quick ride down the road from Bellaire. Not having my bike with me, I was happy to wander awhile and listen to the sound of the wind in the tree tops. Drinking in the lush green surroundings, for one precious moment, I sat alone, in the presence of the woods.

Peggy Dolane is a digital writer who lives in Seattle and shares each summer, and her heart, with Antrim County Michigan. You can follow her @PeggyDolane.

The Beauty of Sleeping Bear Dunes

After 34 years as a resident of Traverse City, writer Mike Norton has come to love his adopted hometown’s natural beauty, its many opportunities for outdoor recreation and its generous array of tasty things to eat and drink. But most of all, he loves the big sprawling national park just a few miles west of town: the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The dream is always the same. It’s evening, and I’m standing at the edge of the great dune, looking out over Lake Michigan. The sun is low in the sky, the distant water like a sheet of beaten brass, and the sand-warmed wind makes the leaves hiss in the cottonwoods behind me. Far below, a single tiny gull wheels over the beach. Everything is as it should be, nothing is out of place, and when I awaken I am always refreshed.

All too often, places and things that once impressed me with their size and power seem sadly diminished when I visit them later in life — larger in memory than they are in reality.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is not one of them.

Thanks to my job, I get out to the Dunes pretty regularly (lucky me!) and if I was ever going to get tired of the place, I’m sure it would have happened by now.  But it hasn’t. Whether I’m wandering around in the pine barrens near Platte Bay or getting lost on South Manitou Island, walking the long beach by Pyramid Point or cruising the Pierce  Stocking Scenic Drive for the umpteenth time, there’s always at least one moment when I’m rocked back on my heels by the beauty of it all.

There are a lot of ways to enjoy this magnificent landscape. Visitors often get their first overview on the Scenic Drive, a 7.1-mile self-guided route that offers great views of the surrounding dunes and lakes.  But some people can’t resist the famous Dune Climb at the west shore of Little Glen Lake. (It’s a hard climb, but the view from the top is worth it!)

Others visit the nearby “ghost port” of Glen Haven, where there’s a working blacksmith shop, a boat museum and a well-preserved Lifesaving Service station that’s open for tours, and the once-thriving German settlement at Port Oneida, where 19th century farms are being rescued from the ravages of time.

Me, I like to hike – and Sleeping Bear is full of hiking trails. My personal  favorite? The 2.8-mile Dunes Trail, which takes you out along Sleeping Bear Point through a landscape of wind-scoured dunes and vegetation. One of its strangest features is a “ghost forest:” a stand of huge bleached cedars that were buried by sand and then uncovered by the winds. Walking through them, especially at dusk, is an eerie experience — like being stranded on another planet.

I think one of the best things about my job is that it gives me the opportunity to introduce other people to Sleeping Bear for the very first time. I love to watch the light come into their eyes as they step out onto one of those high overlooks above the lake, where you’re so high above the sand and sky and water that you might as well be flying.  Ninety percent of the time, the first words out of their mouths will be “I had no idea!”

That’s right, I think. But now you do.

Sometimes I wonder if we Traverse City folks get so caught up in all of our town’s great food and wine, entertainment and shopping that we start to forget what brought most of us here in the first place: the sheer beauty that surrounds us on every side.

That’s the true value of things like the recent vote by viewers of Good Morning America who named Sleeping Bear the “most beautiful place in America.” People can quibble with the results (there are lots of beautiful places, after all) and people can talk about how much good such things do for the local economy. But I think the best part of it is to serve as a reminder that we’re all — visitors and residents alike — members of a privileged group and custodians of a very special part of the world.

Some people seem to think we can best protect these wonders by keeping them a secret, known only to the privileged few. For my part, I want to do what I can to let the world know about them. I’ve come to believe that when other people see what an amazing place this is, they’ll be motivated to guard and protect it — just as I was when I first stepped out on that overlook above the lake.

Mike Norton, a native of Grand Rapids, spent 25 years as newspaper writer and columnist before starting a second career as media relations director at the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. An avid hiker, cyclist and kayaker, he lives in the village of Old Mission.

Family Fun at the Kalamazoo Nature Center

Discover plants, birds, barn animals and more at the Kalamazoo Nature Center, a fun, informative environment for the entire family. The editors of Michigan Travel Ideas share this springtime find, as well as other kid-friendly stops in Kalamazoo.

Interpretive Center: Young children love to push display buttons to release animal odors and bird calls. They can see fish live in area waters in the aquarium. Before heading out walk the trails, learn plant names in the domed greenhouse.

Barn: In May, the timber-framed barn opens for weekends. See baby farm animals: ponies, chicks, sheep and goats.

Trails: More than a dozen gravel footpaths wind through pine and hardwood forest and alongside ponds and marshes. Though trails range in difficulty, most are less than a mile long. A few highlights:

    • Beach Maple Trail: Take this .7-mile trail to see spring wildflowers in all their blooming beauty.
    • Habitat Haven Trail: Just over a half a mile, this winding woodland path loops around a pond where marshy plants like Joe Pye weed harbor frogs and turtles.
    • Bluebird Trail: A bit longer (2.7 miles each way) and more challenging, this trail goes through a variety of habitats, including a 144-acre tallgrass prairie. You’ll see lots of daisies, purple coneflower and big bluestem grasses.

Events: There are events planned for almost every day of the week and many on weekends. Kid-friendly activities include Small Wonders (stop at interactive stations geared to the under-5 set), Creature Features (where the animals come out from behind glass), Groovy Growing (kids under the age of 5 can visit the Learning Garden to see what’s growing in the sustainable farm project) and story times.

More to explore: Want to make a weekend of your trip?

  • Kalamazoo Valley Museum: This three-story museum blends history and science, with tons of hands-on activities (free!). At the “Science in Motion” exhibit, build a race car using supplied parts and race it around a track (kids love this, but we saw plenty of dads having fun, too). In the nature exhibits, kids can create a miniature tornado or tidal wave.
  • Food Dance: Funky Food Dance restaurant specializes in local food. The kids’ menu includes polka-dot cakes for breakfast and a pint-size burger for lunch and dinner.
  • Radisson Hotel: The 5,000-gallon saltwater aquarium on the lower level will entertain.
  • Air Zoo: Kalamazoo’s signature attraction features airplanes from the earliest fliers to advanced military craft and eight amusement park-style rides, including a 3-D space shuttle ride.