When this old world starts getting you down, there’s a place that’s way up high and trouble-free.
“There’s a sense of smallness I feel being there. I’m completely embraced by the forest. It’s comforting,” says Carolynn Paten, assistant director of Dow Gardens’ guest operations in Midland, home to the nation’s longest ADA Accessible canopy walk.
She echoes the experience of many who feel peace in the woods as their cares fall away: “There’s a calm there I really appreciate.”
The Whiting Forest canopy walk is set amid a white pine forest dotted with apple, paw paw, and cherry trees. It spreads out in three directions for 1,400 feet (about the height of the Empire State Building), more than a quarter of a mile. Open since late 2018, it has attracted visitors from across the U.S. — especially people who have been shut out of other canopy adventures because of physical challenges.
“Young families with small children, holding the hand of grandma in the wheelchair, make it a family experience anyone can do together,” Paten says.
Whiting Forest isn’t competing with loud zip line parks or rope courses that cater to fit and agile guests. Instead, it welcomes everyone, young and old, accessibility issues or not. “We’re making the forest accessible,” Paten says.
Starting at the “nut,” or central entrance, one arm of the canopy walk takes visitors to a lookout over Lake Margrador, a small pond. Another arm leads to a 40-foot-high glass overlook of orchards that’s particularly spectacular in the fall. The third arm leads to a “hammock” cargo net structure that can hold 30 people.
On the canopy walk, deep calm reigns. Breathe. Relax. Repeat. The psychological benefits of walking in a forest — or, as the Japanese call it, Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing” — are many. Even 15 minutes spent wandering among trees leads to less anxiety and stress while creating a sense of peace and well-being, multiple studies have found.
The walkways themselves show the great pains Whiting Forest has taken to preserve every tree possible, because “we knew without the canopy we didn’t have a canopy walk,” Paten says. Only six trees were removed during construction, and designers even modified the walkway around one strangely growing tree to preserve it.
The additions included an education center, café, a large accessible playground, and two scenic bridges. Dow Gardens is also home to an award-winning Children’s Garden, Estate Garden, and coming this summer, a remodeled and reimagined conservatory. It’s an extension of the experience at Dow Gardens itself, with a total of 110 acres of luxuriant gardens, bridges, and flowers. Visitors enter through the main Dow Gardens entrance at 1809 Eastman Ave.
The backstory of this nature-rich attraction starts with chemist Herbert Dow. In 1890, attracted by rivers in Midland that are naturally rich in bromine (used in many medicines and photographic processes), he moved to the city and started a chemical company. Soon, he and his wife, Grace, built a home in Midland and accumulated more than 600 acres (about the area of Central Park in New York City), where they raised seven children.
The founder of Dow Chemical was “a scientist by profession, but he was a horticulturist at heart,” Paten says, so part of his vast property was planted with orchards and gardens. After Herbert Dow died in 1930, his wife began a philanthropic family foundation. Today, Dow Gardens is its signature gift.
The canopy walk is a friendly place. It’s ADA-compliant, so it’s good for strollers, slow walkers, and wheelchairs, as well as the young and old, the tired, and the nature-starved.
When it opened, it became wildly popular, but lost momentum during the pandemic. Now, officials expect crowds to be out again. Many locals come multiple times a year, but Midland, which is about a two-hour drive from Detroit or Grand Rapids, also is an easy stop for travelers headed up north. Dow Gardens is open year-round, “and we do our best to keep the paths clear,” Paten says.
Admission is $10 for adults, and $2 for children ages 6-17 and college students, and gives visitors access to both Dow Gardens and Whiting Forest. An annual pass is available for $20. Those who are unable to make the walk to the forest, due to mobility issues, are encouraged to call to arrange parking.
Once there, canopy visitors will experience what many others already know: stress evaporates when you’re up high in the trees.
Photo Courtesy of Dow Gardens