Getting Wild on the Sunrise Side

Negwegon State Park and Rockport State Recreation Area — all are known for deserted beaches, lush forests, fall color and isolation. Together they comprise 13,000 acres of accessible public land and 22 miles of public shoreline where Mother Nature’s wonders are left largely alone.
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Kayaking Besser Natural Area
Kayakers enjoy the calm waters off the Besser Natural Area at Rockport State Recreation Area - (Photography) by Bob Grochowski

Lake Huron’s calm waters lapped gently at the cobble beach. There were no cottages, houses or buildings for miles. It was the perfect place to kayak, or to stroll, explore and enjoy the wildflowers — a nature lover’s dream accessed readily by gravel road.

“It’s pretty much a wild park,” said Blake Gingrich, manager of Thompson’s Harbor State Park.

Gingrich said describing a 5,309-acre piece of wild on Lake Huron with 7.5 miles of deserted shoreline.  “A lot of people hunt here in the fall, but others come out for the birding and wildflowers. The flowers are just amazing.” 

Gingrich was speaking of the magnificent wood lilies, daisies, columbine and wild rose that grow in abundance, saying nothing of the world’s largest colony of dwarf lake iris, Michigan’s state wildflower and a state and federal threatened species.

Lake Huron’s waters were cold and clear; submerged rock formations were visible from shore. A slight haze obscured the horizon. Prevailing southwest winds touched down off shore, creating a sheltered envelope of calm water that was perfect for paddling.  

Fall Foliage at Big Sinkhole Lake
Naturally occurring sinkholes are found in the area – (Photography) by Bob Grochowski

Thompson’s Harbor, between Rogers City and Alpena, is one of three unusual state parks on the northeast Sunrise Side shoreline. While most state parks are busy during travel seasons, this and two others — Negwegon State Park and Rockport State Recreation Area — all are known for deserted beaches, lush forests, fall color and isolation. Together they comprise 13,000 acres of accessible public land and 22 miles of public shoreline where Mother Nature’s wonders are left largely alone. Each was dedicated this year as a state dark sky preserve.

“There is no better place to view the night sky,” Gingrich declared.

Thompson’s Harbor State Park was established in 1988. Its land was acquired from U.S. Steel. It has seven miles of hiking trail, two rustic rental cabins and a 307-acre dedicated natural area named after E. Genevieve Gillette, the noted Michigan conservationist. Her $260,000 bequest purchased its first 1,000 acres. The remaining land was acquired with funds from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. 

“(Gillette) was instrumental in having the land set aside and developed as a park,” Gingrich explained. “It’s definitely a nature lover’s park and place to hunt and hike in the woods. People come from all over the state to rent the cabins.” 

Thompson’s Harbor and Negwegon will remain undeveloped, according to state officials. Rockport, Michigan’s 100th state park, was dedicated in 2012. It is a work in progress. Its deep-water harbor was used for shipping stone and limestone that was mined on the property until 1948. Today the quarry is a geologic attraction. Hikers also can also set out on the park’s yet unmarked trails and find several deep, naturally occurring sinkholes. Fossils are abundant on the property, and fossil hunting is a popular pastime. 

Fossil hunting in Rockport Quarry
Fossil hunting is popular at Rockport State Recreation area – (photography) by Bob Grochowski

Rockport will be developed in time, Gingrich said. Its future may include a campground, marked trails and other typical state park amenities. A few backcountry campsites are scheduled to be built this year. Meanwhile, anglers and paddlers access its Lake Huron shoreline from the boat launch in the harbor.  

Carol Dodge Grochowski, president of Friends of Rockport, the grassroots group that assists the Michigan DNR, says the 4,237-acre park remains largely unknown. She and others annually sponsor events to bring attention to it. 

“A lot of local people know it’s there but don’t know much about it,” Grochowski said. “A big push for us is to get the (area) community to know what the property is.”

Yellow Lady's Slipper Orchids
Where yellow lady slipper orchids grow – (Photography) by William Grigg

Nature lovers at Rockport can also enjoy the easy and scenic one-mile hiking loop in the Besser Natural Area. The 134-acre parcel stretches 4,000 feet along Lake Huron and contains stands of virgin red and white pine. It is a peaceful walk through towering timbers, and its trail system provides easy access to the Lake Huron shoreline. 

Negwegon State Park, 20 miles south of Alpena on U.S. 23, is also a paddling and nature lover’s mecca. It has 3,738 acres of mixed forest, lowlands and meadows. There are four backcountry campsites and six to seven miles of sandy beachfront. Hikers have 11.6 miles of trail to explore. While camping is not permitted at Thompson’s Harbor, Negwegon offers backpackers and kayak campers an opportunity to get away from it all. 

“Of the three, Rockport will be the major development,” Gingrich said. “Thompson’s Harbor and Negwegon are going to be protected.”  — Howard Meyerson

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