At 3,800 acres, the expansive Arcadia Dunes: The C.S. Mott Nature Preserve, which sprawls out on both sides of scenic M-22 between Manistee and Frankfort, offers a four-season oasis for outdoor recreation.
One of the largest privately owned preserves on the Lake Michigan coast (west of Crystal Mountain Resort and south of Frankfort) is a wonderful, less-traveled escape, especially if you enjoy hiking, mountain biking, birding, or savoring Lake Michigan vistas.
In the spring, the preserve pops with colorful wildflowers and elusive morel mushrooms. You can enjoy a quiet woodland walk, tackle an 11-mile mountain bike ride, or listen for the sounds and sights of migrating birds.
AllTrails.com, the popular crowd-sourced, worldwide collection of online hiking reviews, gives high marks to seven trails (both long and short) within the preserve’s 15-mile network. Trails near the lakeshore traverse sand dunes, while those on interior protected public land include hardwood forests and grassland landscapes.
Even better, the preserve is free and draws fewer crowds than Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 30 miles up the coast, and the views looking out over Lake Michigan are equally as stunning as those at Sleeping Bear.
Why Visit?: “The property is amazing,” says Glen Chown, executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, which oversees the preserve. “It has everything we love about Michigan — two miles of waterfront shoreline and coastal dunes that are world-class and rise straight out of Lake Michigan.”
The process of acquiring the Arcadia Dunes property, the largest preserve in its system, is a real David and Goliath story. Chown explains that from 2003 to 2005, large and small donors, foundations, and other conservationists raised $35 million to protect the former Consumers Energy property from development.
“It’s one of the great conservation success stories in the United States,” he says. “It was such a daunting challenge.”
The land conservancy has invested millions of dollars in trails, signage, and the universally accessible Overlook Trail. That award-winning, half-mile trail is accessible from the Baldy Trail parking lot, just off M-22 north of the Inspiration Point overlook.
Visitors with limited mobility or families pushing strollers can enjoy a short nature walk to see Lake Michigan, the Chippewa Basin, and the surrounding sand dunes. “You’re on a platform on top of a 360-foot dune overlooking Lake Michigan,” Chown says. “It happens to be overlooking the deepest point of Lake Michigan.”
If you’re short on time, the Baldy Trail loop is an easy to moderate hike that continues on to the Old Baldy dune. Visitors can pack a picnic lunch and catch some rays on the dune bluff, then loop back through fields and beech-maple forests to the parking lot.
Colors Galore: “The outer, easternmost trail to Baldy is a hot spot for wildflowers,” says volunteer preserve steward Paula Dreeszen, who grew up hiking the Baldy dune ridge before it was part of Arcadia Dunes.
“You go through a higher-quality forest that’s good for spring wildflowers, and you’ll hear the wood thrush singing,” she adds.
The Dry Hill Trails see plenty of use in the warmer months as mountain bikers, hikers, and trail runners share the unique trail system. The conservancy worked with the International Mountain Bicycling Association, based in Boulder, Colo., to build the sustainable multiuse trail. The annual Arcadia Grit & Gravel Mountain Bike Race attracts racers from across the Midwest.
“This is one of the premier mountain bike trails in all of Michigan,” Chown says. “It’s a huge attraction. It’s a very flowy trail with great sight lines, and people love it.”
The shorter Chestnut Loop and Camp Trail cover relatively flat terrain, making them popular with beginners and intermediate bikers.
About four miles inland, the Dry Hill Grasslands property and Pete’s Woods Trail offer a different experience. Dreeszen, who has volunteered for 15 years, has helped build trails, monitor invasive plants, and develop wildflower guides. She leads guided wildflower hikes at Pete’s Woods throughout the spring, and hops on her bike during the peak trillium bloom. She recommends downloading the Spring Woodland Wild Flowers Guide and Dune Wildflowers Guide, along with trail maps, from the preserve’s website before venturing out.
A Birder’s Delight: Arcadia Dunes also includes stops along the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail, including the Baldy Trail and Grassland property off Keillor Road. Grasslands have nearly disappeared in recent decades, and the once-fallow field features diverse habitats that attract more than 150 bird species year-round. The 123-mile birding trail, a renowned migratory flyway, runs from Manistee to Traverse City along M-22.
“It’s unique having such a large preserved area where, if you like to hike trails, there are plenty of trails,” Dreeszen says. “For those who are mushroom or deer hunters, there’s plenty of (that) off trail. It’s a big place, similar to Sleeping Bear Dunes, but smaller than that.”
Arcadia Dunes: The C.S. Mott Nature Preserve