Sometimes what you need to escape from are large parks. From overcrowded campgrounds and beaches lined with sun bunnies and coolers. From family reunions and water slides and over-priced concession stands, from lakes packed with pedal boats.
What you need to escape to is a small nature preserve whose amenities are a trail, a map stapled to board and an observation deck overlooking only what Mother Nature has provided. Throughout Michigan, land conservancies provide such nooks and crannies on water and in the woods. Here are my top five.
Whaleback Natural Area. Just south of Leland, this 40-acre preserve of the Leelanau Conservancy is a bluff rising almost 300 feet above Lake Michigan. Its 1.5-mile hike begins with a steady climb up, past a vineyard no less, and tops off at a viewing deck with a panorama of Lake Michigan, Pyramid Point and the Manitou Islands. You then skirt the bluff to views of the shoreline north to Leland and Lake Leelanau. For those who are more focused on the ground than the horizon you might spot thimbleberries, a giant raspberry-like fruit that is extremely rare in the Lower Peninsula (leelanauconservancy.org).
Seven Bridges. Tucked away in the northwest corner of Kalkaska County, Seven Bridges was the site of a sawmill in 1882 and a potential subdivision during the 1990s before the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy lead the campaign to preserve the 314-acre tract. Seven Bridges is where the Rapid River descends into a valley and divides into several branches that wander through stands of quiet cedars. Hikers and fly fishermen alike are drawn to this enchanted forest and use a mile of trail and a series of bridges — thus its name — to explore the blue ribbon trout stream (gtrlc.org).
John Arthur Woollam Preserve. Michigan’s newest preserve, dedicated only last fall by The Nature Conservancy, is 185 acres of beautiful cedar forest and almost a mile of rocky Lake Huron shoreline overlooking the scenic Les Cheneaux Islands. The sanctuary is a haven for birders who follow short trails in the spring to view the thousands of migrating songbirds and waterfowl. In June, wildflower enthusiasts arrive to see the rare dwarf lake iris. But the best moment to be here is on a still morning to witness the sun rise over Lake Huron (nature.org/michigan).
The Riverwalk. Not every conservancy focuses on wooded plots up north but offers renewal of the spirit just the same. Such is the case of the Riverwalk. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy is developing this 5.5-mile walkway in the heart of the Motor City from the Ambassador Bridge to Belle Isle, one of two state parks that it will connect. More than three miles are completed and provide panoramic views of Windsor, opportunities to drop a line for walleye and access to parks, Hart Plaza, wetlands, even a lighthouse (detroitriverfront.org).
Estivant Pines Sanctuary. Saved from loggers by the Michigan Nature Association in 1973, this 508-acre preserve lies near the Keweenaw Peninsula’s tip and contains rare stands of virgin white pine. Many of the trees towering 150 feet above you are more than 300 years old and feature trunks so big they require three people to hug them. The sanctuary is accessed by a 2.1-mile trail that passes through Cathedral Grove (michigannature.org).
Kneel and give thanks.
BLUE “Top 5” columnist Jim DuFresne is a Clarkston-based travel writer and a frequent contributor to michigantrailmaps.com.