Naturally Beautiful Refuges

Visitors can enjoy national wildlife refuges by car, on foot, bike, boat or kayak.
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Great Lakes Piping Plover
Great Lakes Piping Plover // Photography by Jeremy Maslowski/USFWS

Explore spectacular birding hotspots, climb a granite island to see a historic lighthouse and take a driving tour that leads from one scenic vista to another — and do it all at Michigan’s national wildlife refuges. Michigan BLUE consulted the experts — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel who spend their days in the refuges — to find the best ways to experience these spectacular Michigan venues. Here are their suggestions:

Visit by Boat

Although off the beaten path, several refuge islands are worth the trip. Lighthouse Island (aka West Huron Island) is located in Lake Superior 3 miles north of the western Marquette County mainland and is part of the Huron National Wildlife Refuge. A trail from the dock leads over the island’s solid granite foundation and through uncommon-in-Michigan boreal forest habitat to a stately lighthouse at the top of the island. Several other historic buildings are set at a lower elevation. Be sure to look for the unusual bright orange patches of elegant sunburst lichen on the granite, as well as beard lichens hanging from the trees, advised Sara Giles, visitor services manager at Seney National Wildlife Refuge, which oversees Huron National Wildlife Refuge and Harbor Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Gib Bay Landscape
Photography by Sara Giles/USFWS

Harbor Island is about a mile north of Drummond Island in Lake Huron’s Potagannissing Bay. Reachable even by paddlers (on a calm day), Harbor Island has a picturesque harbor area, including secluded, sandy beaches that are perfect for relaxing on a sunny summer afternoon. The island has no permanent trails, but adventurous sorts are welcome to make their own way through the island’s hardwood forest. Giles suggested scouting around on the shoreline for puddingstones, which are red-spotted rocks unique to the region. Leave your finds, however, as rock collecting is not allowed on refuge property.

If you are a paddler, you can find day trips down the Cass, Shiawassee and Tittabawassee rivers through the Shiawassee refuge (about a three-hour trip) and along the Manistique River at Seney (about four hours). Grant said, “One of the best ways to experience the refuge is from the water.”

Kayakers and Grebe
Photography by Sara Giles/USFWS (left); Richard Borth/USFWS (right)

How to get there: For paddling the Manistique at Seney, rentals are available at various outfitters in Germfask, or if you have your own boat, Giles suggested putting in at Manistique River Roadside Park on M-77 about a mile south of town and taking out at Mead Creek State Forest Campground. Launch your boat for the Shiawassee paddle on the Cass River at M-13 north of Evon Road in Spaulding Township and take out at the Department of Natural Resources’ James Township boat launch on the Shiawassee River south of the intersection of Hart and Miller roads.

Bald Eagle
Photography by Timothy H. Kaufman/USFWS

Take a Quick Hike

Nature buffs and anglers are anxiously awaiting the yet-to-be-announced opening of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge’s new visitors center, fishing pier and trail system into the 410-acre Humbug Marsh, which represents the last mile of undeveloped shoreline along the U.S. side of the Detroit River. Until then, the refuge has several open sites that showcase the diversity of the region. One is the Gibraltar Bay Unit, which offers a short hike through forest and native prairie to views of the Detroit River’s Gibraltar Bay. Jennie Braatz, the refuge’s naturalist park ranger, recommended peeking through the new spotting scope to spy the abundant wildlife of the coastal wetland and bringing your camera to the newly constructed photography blind to get up-close-and-personal views of skittish water birds.

How to get there: The Gibraltar Bay Unit is at 28820 E. River Road in Grosse Ile. The photography blind is located on the unit’s quarry pond next to the parking lot.

Take an Auto Tour

The 7-mile Marshland Wildlife Drive and 3.5-mile fishing loop at the Upper Peninsula’s Seney National Wildlife Refuge meander through forests and wetlands, and past numerous ponds. Along the way, you’ll find 50-100 juvenile trumpeter swans congregating on the beautiful, if unimaginatively named, E-Pool; you may well catch a glimpse of the world’s oldest loon of known age (the handsome black-and-white male turns 31 this year) on F-Pool; or you possibly could hear the decidedly un-birdlike “gunk-a-chunk” call of the elusive American bittern. The slower you drive, the more you will experience, said refuge manager Sara Siekierski, who recommended two to three hours and frequent stops to truly experience the sights, sounds and smells of the refuge. The fishing loop also has plenty of places, including a fishing pier, to cast a line for pike or panfish.

How to get there: Take M-77 to the refuge entrance road south of the town of Seney to the wildlife drive, which is open from May 15-Oct. 15. Note: The wildlife drive is a narrow dirt road and not suitable for recreational vehicles more than 29 feet long.

Photography by Jake Bonello/USFWS

In the Lower Peninsula, the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge near Saginaw has its own 6.5-mile wildlife drive, where sightings may include the state-threatened Blanding’s turtle — with its yellow throat — relaxing near a wetland, a rainbow of colorful butterflies and dragonflies in an open field, playful river otters romping beside the Shiawassee River shoreline, a golden or bald eagle perched in the treetops and, if you’re especially lucky, a spring or autumn view of a rare short-eared owl. The must-see first observation tower overlooks 900 acres of newly restored wetlands. “We completed the transformation from agricultural land back to wetland just last summer, and now, it is full of life,” said Visitor Services Manager Lionel Grant. “You’ll see hundreds of ducks, geese and egrets. It’s a really cool opportunity.”

How to get there: In Spaulding Township, take Curtis Road west off M-13 to reach the entrance to the drive, which is open from June 1-Sept. 30.

Look for Interesting Plants

Photography by Lionel D. Grant/USFWS (left); Jake Bonello/USFWS (right)

Unusual plants flourish at the refuges. At the Strong Unit of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, for instance, look for the state-threatened giant arrowhead with its arrowhead-shaped leaves and white-petaled flowers. On the bridge along Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge’s 2.5-mile-long Green Point Trail, watch for the bright red spikes of cardinal flowers, especially near the bridge, which is a short distance from serene views of the Tittabawassee River. Ask the staff at the center (open weekdays) for tips on other wildflowers that might be in bloom while you’re visiting. When on Lighthouse Island, scan for colorful native wildflowers along the trail and for domestic varieties once planted by lighthouse keepers and still surviving many decades later.

How to get there: The Strong Unit is located at the intersection of Port Sunlight and Masserant roads, about a mile south of U.S. Turnpike Road in Berlin Charter Township. The Green Point Trail begins at the Green Point Environmental Learning Center, 3010 Maple St. in Saginaw.

Go Birding

Great Blue Heron
Photography by Ronald Chrcek/USFWS

Every refuge is a haven for birds, and one of the most-noted sites is the Whitefish Point Unit of the Seney National Wildlife Refuge. Jutting out into Lake Superior at the edge of Whitefish Bay, this property at Whitefish Point has a short, handicap-accessible path past a jack pine forest and through dunes to the Lake Superior shoreline. Neotropical birds, as well as a variety of hawks and other raptors, migrate through the area in spring and fall. Water birds abound and two pairs of the adorable and exceedingly rare piping plovers — only 76 pairs were recorded in the entire Great Lakes region in 2017 — have been nesting on the Whitefish Point beach.

How to get there: Take North Whitefish Point Road north out of the U.P. community of Paradise and continue about 11 miles until the road ends.

Explore the Backcountry

Harbor Island Hiking
Photography by Jake Bonello/USFWS

Seney National Wildlife Refuge has miles of hiking and biking trails. A good option is the 10-mile Northern Hardwoods Trail system, which includes deciduous and coniferous forests, and wet lowlands. Bear Hollow Trail is a favorite. Trails off Driggs River Road run through coniferous forest and open field, as well as some prescribed burn areas that host black-backed woodpeckers. Especially intrepid — and prepared — hikers also may navigate their own way into the Strangmoor Bog, a very remote and rare patterned or string bog, where small “islands” of peat rise above the water to give the area a patterned appearance. Strangmoor Bog represents the southernmost site of string bogs on the continent.

How to get there: For the Northern Hardwoods Cross Country Ski Area, take Robinson Road off M-77 on the south end of Germfask. To reach Driggs River Road, take M-28 about 8 miles west of Seney to the road intersection and head south into the refuge. For Strangmoor Bog, check in at the Seney visitors center for information.


Leslie Mertz is a freelance science writer and environmental educator. She lives Up North near a branch of the Au Sable River.

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