WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Bald Mountain State Recreation Area is a 4,637-acre multi-use wildland managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The DNR describes the landscape accurately with their frequently used sentence of, “The Park contains some of the steepest hills and most rugged terrain in southeast Michigan and features fifteen miles of marked hiking trails.” I knew that. I thought I knew all of the Bald Mountain State Recreation Area trails very well. I did not. Somehow, in all my many adventures at Bald Mountain, I missed four miles of forested trail that circles West Graham Lake, East Graham Lake, and hidden vernal ponds. As John Muir wrote, and I have shared before, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” Once again his words were accurate, and they will be for you as well, if you walk slowly, stop often, look and listen.
A bit of background first for those that only know Bald Mountain by its prominent Exit 81 sign along I-75. This extremely popular state recreation area is split into three units that attract hikers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, photographers, birders, swimmers, sunbathers, picnickers, paddlers, campers, fishers, and hunters. A hike in February has an added bonus, it bathes a hiker in forest solitude.
The two lower units are located in Orion Township and bisected by M-24. The North Unit is almost completely in Oakland Township. View the DNR’s website for general information on the entire Bald Mountain site. An excellent map, that includes roads and trails can be found there as well. A State of Michigan Recreation Passport is required for vehicular access. The $11 yearly passport fee also permits entry into 103 state park and recreation areas, 138 State Forest rustic campgrounds, parking for hundreds of miles of trails, fee-based boat launches, and family-friendly events.
Back in the days when winter was real, and deep snow would blanket the glacially sculpted hills of Bald Mountain, I would frequent an extremely hilly trail in the northern unit. The trail encircles Heart and Carpenter Lakes and the Tamarack Cabins and is perfect for the high adventure, tree-dodging type of cross-country skiing. Last week I started my adventure at the small, but well-marked, Heart Lake parking area at the intersection of Harmon and Predmore Roads. This time, instead of heading for the hills, I walked across Harmon Road, meandered north a few hundred feet and accessed the Graham Lakes Trail, officially named the “Orange Loop”, from the east side of Harmon Road.
Before you set out to explore Bald Mountain yourself, I recommend that you don’t make your hike a fast paced trek. Hike slowly, in ‘the now’. You will discover more than you seek with that plan, and the experience will be enlightening. Consider closing your eyes and taking a deep breath. It will refresh you. A caution is needed: In February, the trails are often icy from the freeze/thaw cycles. Consider Yak Tracks or similar products for the soles of your hiking boots, or use a hiking stick.
Trail intersections have colorful maps that indicate present location and options of travel. Don’t bushwhack or take “easy” shortcuts. Crossing the ice of these spring fed lakes could lead to tragedy. The trail is well-marked and depending on conditions, may be shared by cross-country skiers or mountain bikers, so stay alert. Colorful shelf fungi capped with snow, and downed trees harboring turkey tail fungi will add to the beauty of the adventure. Hints of green appearing on mossy logs remind us spring will come, in due time. Stopping along the trail produces other pleasures: silence and the opportunity to listen to the forest. For me, a distant Pileated Woodpecker, the red-crested forest giant, announced its hidden presence with a loud “Wuk, Wuk Wuk” call.
A colorful interpretive sign describing “Cold-Blooded Hunters – The Reptiles of Southeast Michigan” is located at Trail Marker #14, the location where the trail crosses an access road to the boat launch for East Graham Lake. When I came across it, I remembered that I had driven to the lake several years ago to kayak on a sultry summer day with the Six Rivers Regional Land Conservancy. During my hike last week, I crossed over weathered wooded footbridges, slippery with snow. During the six rivers adventure, we kayaked under those same bridges, and explored the shorelines of these interconnected lakes, with me blissfully unaware of the encircling trails.
A few more months will slip by until turtles sun, snakes slither, and wildflowers bloom along this DNR managed slice of the Wilder Side of Oakland County. If real snow returns first, the Orange Loop trail would be perfect for an easy cross-county ski adventure. By ski or boot, consider creating your own memories near the giant windfalls that span vernal ponds and present perfect places to pause and just listen to the whispers of the surrounding forest. Do that and your adventure will be more than a walk in the woods.
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.