WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
“From her somber, sullenness on a misty morning in autumn, to the excitement and bustle of life on a warm summer day, there is always something interesting to see at Rose Oaks.” Those words of Kegan Schildberg, the Natural Areas Stewardship Lead for Oakland County Parks, paints the near perfect picture of a park that was designed by retreating glaciers some 11,000 years ago and now offers peaceful and passive recreation on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.
Rose Oaks County Parks is a 640-acre matrix of woodlands, wetlands, meadows, glacially created kettle lakes and rolling hills. It’s a landscape that was once home to lumbering mastodons, and giant ice age beavers that weighed in at 250 pounds. Wander the trails in the dawn’s early light with thoughts of the great sheet of ice that changed the shape of our landscape and you too may be captivated by the quiet, radiant beauty of Rose Oaks. This park is for those with a love of the wild, and the ways of nature, and is also a critical part of the Shiawassee River watershed that provides habitat for creatures of all sorts, some common, some rare. In the words of Jon Noyes, Principal Planer of Oakland County Parks, “This is a landscape of magic.”
Swings, slides, playgrounds, golf courses, ball fields, and waterparks will not be found at Rose Oaks. And you certainly won’t find a concession stand at this wildland gem managed by Oakland County Parks and Recreation. Here is some of what you will find: fascinating topography, intact forest and wetland ecosystems, small lakes, two fishing piers (one on Cogger Lake and one on Mallett Lake), equestrian friendly trails, tranquility, peace, and solitude. Perhaps most notable, memories will be made if you walk slowly, stop to absorb your surroundings, and pay attention to the journey as much as the destination.
Wildlife is abundant. The list of some of the more notable and recognizable species includes eastern coyote, red fox, gray fox, northern water snake, eastern massasauga rattlesnake, Blanding’s turtle, painted turtle, snapping turtle, sandhill crane, great horned owl, screech-owl, barred owl, red-tailed hawk, Cooper’s hawk, turkey, turkey vulture, tree swallow, eastern bluebird, muskrat, beaver, white-tailed deer, osprey and every once in a while, an American bald eagle soars overhead. I skipped well over a hundred bird species, dozens of smaller mammals and other creatures including numerous frogs and salamanders. Yet, I can’t leave out the Monarch Butterfly, attracted to the prairie plants for nectar and milkweed that will assure a new generation. Now is a great time to see them. The native flora is diverse, and as is the case in all landscapes that humans inhabited, dozens of naturalized and invasive species are present.
Evidence of old farmsteads and human activity is clear. Remnants of old fence lines, trees planted in rows, stone walls and rocks piled to clear fields will be noted. An abandoned Scots Pine plantation still stands, a challenge for stewardship. It was at the edge of that plantation last summer that I had the pleasure of a daylight encounter with a Barred Owl that watched my silent passing, a testament that nature often finds a way to thrive at the edge of altered landscapes. Present day, unsanctioned human “footprints” may also be seen and stone cairns have appeared along a few sections of my favorite trail segment at Rose Oaks. The Oakland County Parks website has an excellent PDF of the entire trail system of Rose Oaks. I would suggest first time visitors print it out and bring it along, for although the trails are easy to follow, and most trail junctions have sign post maps, trail sections are minimally marked, and that’s good for a parkland that wishes to maintain its natural footprint.
There are two entrances to the park, one on the west side on Fish Lake Road (used mostly by equestrians) and one on the east side on Buckhorn Lake Road, the location where I start most of my “nature-embracing” Rose Oaks hikes. Its trailhead designated #15 on the map, and also a great location to begin an introductory two-mile route that shares many of the natural features of the park. A small kiosk with general information is located there and a dock protrudes out into the lake. Walk out and enjoy the splendor.
For the two-mile hike option, walk past the kiosk and head for the boardwalk across the marsh, but first stop to read the colorful interpretive sign with the eye-catching header of “Cold Blooded Killers”. The text and drawings present a lively introduction to many of the creatures that live in or visit the wetland. After crossing the boardwalk, you’ll reach the Forestview Trail; it’s shown in purple on the map. Stay to the right and begin your “wilder side” hike; the trail is a pleasure to the human eye as it meanders along with gentle curves and changes in terrain. It is also the section where coyote tracks are often seen in the winter, and those savvy of nature’s way may note scat now. A note of extra importance here: Dogs must be on a leash at all times. Although coyotes ignore humans and leashed dogs, if a dog was to run off and approach a hidden coyote den, the coyote will stand its ground to protect its pups as surely as you would stand your ground to protect your child. After hiking for about 1/2 mile, Richardson Lake will come into view and that is where you’ll start the Richardson Loop, blue in color on the map. Two small foot bridges will take you over a small island. Those bridges are perfect perches for humans to scan the waters for wildlife. Snapping turtles emerge here to lay eggs, and painted turtles sun on logs.
A small, almost hidden beaver dam is also at that location and is almost obscured by vegetation. The natural surface trail meanders around the shoreline of the lake, and at the north end of the lake a large beaver lodge will be noted. The moist meadows along the edge of the path in this location is prime habitat for Leopard Frogs that leap away at human approach. Eastern Bluebirds also favor this location and flit around the meadow. The trail then gains elevation and follows a glacial moraine along the west shore of the lake, a trail section also favored by equestrians. If encountering riders, step to the side but do not ‘hide’ from the horses. Horses are unpredictable when startled. Talk to the approaching riders and the encounter will go well as soon as the horse realizes you are just another human, not some strange creature lurking in the woods. An old picnic table is perched on the ridge on the western side of the lake, a perfect place to enjoy a snack and admire the surroundings before continuing along the trail to where it reconnects with Forestview Trail and back to your starting point. If you choose to keep going, take a look at the map and then meander on the Wilder side of Oakland County for another three or four miles.
Kegan Schildberg of Oakland County Parks summed up the Rose Oaks experience well when she said, “If you ever want to see what was, what is, and what could be done with our natural areas in SE Michigan, Rose Oaks is a great place to do so. Its landscape and plant communities still hold much of the romance and mystery that has captivated so many of us who have chosen the Natural Resources field as our profession.”
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.