The Great Lakes State is home to unparalleled waterways, shorelines, woodlands, forests, and rural areas. Picturesque gardens, nature areas, and quiet sanctuaries provide opportunities for tranquil escapes and silent reflection set against the backdrop of colorful flora and fauna.
As one of Michigan’s longest operating natural areas, the W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary has been welcoming visitors since 1927 when cereal maker W.K. Kellogg purchased the 180 acres around Wintergreen Lake in Augusta to preserve the natural beauty of the native wildlife while also providing an environment for game birds to breed. Today, the Sanctuary serves as a practical training school for animal care and land management as the outreach arm of Michigan State University’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station. Visitors will find “Birds of Prey” enclosures with raptors like Bald Eagles, Eastern Screech Owls, and Red-tailed Hawks; the Leslie E. Tassel upland game bird display which houses threatened and endangered species; a paved, three-quarter mile accessible trail to the lake where Canada Geese, Trumpeter Swans, and other waterfowl can be observed in their natural habitat; and a Pollinator Garden which attracts butterflies and hummingbirds during the warm-weather season. Visit the website for days and hours of operation. And, if time permits, swing by the MSU W.K. Kellogg Experimental Forest and check out the August Covered Bridge, built in 1973 (one of about a dozen such bridges in the state).
Central West Michigan
Each spring, more than 100,00 tulips show their true colors as they blossom within Holland’s Windmill Island Gardens. Blending beauty with history, the park is also home to DeZwaan – the only authentic Dutch windmill operating in the United States (still grinding locally-grown wheat into flour, which is available for purchase). As you explore the gardens, you’re likely to encounter guides dressed in traditional Dutch garb, as well as a hand-painted carousel, children’s playground, Amsterdam street organ, and more. Plan on two hours to adequately tour the gardens, and if you can’t make it in person check out the Sky Cam online.
Blending art with nature, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids is rated as one of the top attractions of its kind in America. Breathtaking horticultural displays – both inside and out – showcase plants from the Midwest as well as global regions. The Gwen Frostic Woodland Shade Garden is named for Michigan nature artist Gwen Frostic (whose studio still operates in Benzonia and for whom the School of Art at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo is named). Other garden spaces include the Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory – featuring over 500 species from five continents as well as streams, bridges, waterfalls, tropical birds, and butterflies (March and April each year); the Kenneth E. Nelson Carnivorous Plant House – the only exclusive public display of its kind in the country; the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden; Lena Meijer Children’s Garden; Michigan Farm Garden, and more. A variety of nature-based programs and events are also offered throughout the year.
The nearly 1500-acre Grass River Natural Area near Bellaire in Antrim County is an outdoor lover’s paradise. This four-season destination (open daily from dusk to dawn) features seven miles of maintained trails, including a 1.5-mile boardwalk that “floats” above cedar wetlands. Bring your binoculars or camera as you’re likely to see a variety of birds, as well as over 500 species of plants, animals, insects and more. For an insiders look into this unique area, pick up a copy of the regional best-selling “Field Guide to Northwest Michigan” (now in an expanded second edition) by James Dake.
The Lake Michigan shoreline, from Elk Rapids to Mackinaw City, is a rock hunters paradise – especially Petoskey Stones. Spring is an ideal time to walk the beach in search of Michigan’s State Stone, as the water under the ice moves the fossilized choral near the shore for months on end. After storms have rolled through is another prime time for finding them. Fisherman’s Island State Park in Charlevoix is known as one of the “hot spots” for finding these treasured stones. A reminder that there is a limit of 25 pounds per person, per year, for harvesting Petoskey Stones. A Recreation Passport is required for entry to the state park as well.
There’s nothing quite like Castle Farms in Charlevoix, a historic and expansive stone complex first built in 1918 and regarded today as one of the top event venues in northern Michigan. The grounds are adorned with lush and colorful gardens, with meandering paths that take you throughout. Be on the lookout for the dragons! You’ll also find Michigan’s largest outdoor model railroad, with over 2,500 feet of track, open Memorial Day through mid-October, weather permitting. The castle is also open for tours and is well worth the visit.
Raven Hill Discovery Center offers a blend of science, history, and art on a rural 157-acre parcel in Charlevoix County. Families will find both indoor and outdoor exhibits and hands-on learning meant to stimulate the brain and inspire creative thinking. The year-round facility offers a fiber studio, print shop, schoolhouse, wood shop, alternative energy house, and unique features like the wetlands boardwalk, music garden, medicinal gardens, architectural spaces, and more.
For a list of additional outdoor destinations focused on Michigan’s natural wonders, visit WMTA.org.