WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
The Lakeshore Trail of Holly State Recreation Area does not qualify as the “path less travelled,” or as wilderness, but if you wish to explore a small slice of the wilder side of Oakland County in the closing weeks of summer, this two-and-a-half mile natural surface loop trail will not disappoint. You need not be a tree-hugging naturalist to enjoy the natural beauty and secrets of the trail, which embraces the shoreline of Wildwood and Valley Lakes, but a spirit of adventure—and a bit of sure-footedness—will help. The State Recreation Area, though located in Oakland County, is managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and a Recreation Passport sticker is required for vehicular entry.
The sun had just been up for a few hours last Saturday morning when I headed to the trail for a lazy day meander in the woods. I was happy to discover that I was the only person in the trailhead parking lot, which is located just a few miles from the intersection of Grange Hall Road and McGinnis Road in Groveland Township. I was well-armed for the adventure with a liter of water, fresh fruit, my camera, a compass, a pack of mosquito repellent wipes, and the Wilderness and Lakeshore Trails map that I acquired at the Michigan DNR contact station. Please note that the map is very basic, with little detail beyond names of lakes and trail marker keys. Don’t consider using the map if you are planning on bushwhacking.
I started my journey a few-hundred feet from Trail Marker Key number 18 on the map, which is the site of the parking lot, a pair of very primitive porta-johns, and a picnic shelter. Most hikers start from here, but the popular Lakeshore Trail may also be accessed from several boat launch parking sites indicated on the map, and from the south end of the six-mile long Wilderness Trail as well.
A short spur trail with well-worn wooden steps takes adventurers downhill to the northern shore of Wildwood Lake. Those steps are the steepest section of the trail and are a powerful reminder of the glacial footprint of the terrain, which is highlighted by a glacier erratic – a boulder from the Canadian Shield deposited by the great sheet of retreating ice. A clear blue sky framed in a sea of woodland green was my welcoming party at the lakeshore.
I decided to follow the trail clockwise, heading southeast toward a pair of lakeside rentable cabins. Within seconds of my start I spooked a great blue heron into flight and sent a few acorn-scavenging squirrels scurrying for the trees. The trail is narrow and minimally maintained. Hikers occasionally need to step over or meander around a downed tree or branches. Those mini-detours are great locations to pause and listen to the sounds of summer. My hike included a few feeble banjo-like plucking sounds from Green Frogs, perhaps forgetting their breeding season is long over, and the shrill cry of a Red-Tailed Hawk that took flight from a tree limb reaching over the water.
After passing the cabins, the trail meanders close to a wetland with colorful flowers of Joe-Pye Weed, New England Aster, and Boneset: three species that are now at peak bloom. Early morning dew still sparkled from the delicate trumpet-shaped flowers of Jewelweed, a wetland-loving plant that grows in great clusters in many trailside locations. In drier areas there is an abundance of bumble bee-pollinated goldenrod. An eye to the woodland floor revealed the emergence of fall fungi and a few wood frogs hopping about in the most shaded areas.
Raccoon prints in the mud suggested that the shoreline of Valley Lake near their boat launch was a perfect site to hunt for frogs, crayfish, and worms. I was happy to see a picnic table placed on the old wooden dock at the launch, the site I chose for a leisurely break to feast on wild grapes and tart berries of autumn olive, which I gathered during my trek. Many edible wild berries are present along the trail, but a photo, even mine, should never be used for positive ID, because there are look-alike berries that can be problematic for novice foragers. The creaky old dock also provides an ideal viewing point to watch a Northern Watersnake swimming near flowering water lilies.
Continuing the trek, I noticed three more signs of the impending change of season: a few red maple leaves were already tinged with red, black walnuts had reached peak size, and the large webbed nests of the Fall Webworm enveloped some tree branches. A large bald-faced hornet nest dangled high up on a trailside tree: an end of summer sign I would have missed had it not been the flight of a Pileated Woodpecker that drew my attention.
If you hike the trail, be sure to look for two highlights that excite kids and draw the attention of adults. One section of “wetland embracing” trail that’s about 60 feet long is often a mix of mud and water for a week or two after heavy rains. Hikers tend to walk across on the planks, while little kids splash through. The famed “serpent” tree, a tree bent to the horizontal years ago by a fallen larger tree, always draws attention. The serpent still grows and is a favorite lakeside photo-op.
When going clockwise, the final stretch of the trail brings the eastern tip of Heron Lake, the largest of the numerous lakes at Holly State Recreation Area, into view. Heron Lake has a boat launch and is the site for one of the most popular swimming beaches in Oakland County. The beach area also has a new inflatable feature at the multi-use Holly State Recreation Area called “Jump Island.” Zooming in with my telephoto lens, I could sense the excitement from the level of activity. After ascending the wooden steps, I finished my hike where I started: back at the trailhead. I rewarded myself with an apple from a tree next to the picnic shelter. Other hikers reward themselves with a spirited leap into the air.
There’s far more to Holly State Recreation Area than the small wilder side section I hiked. Here’s what Pure Michigan wrote: “Nearly 8,000 acres of rolling woodlands, several lakes and open fields provide scenic overlooks and excellent fall color viewing. McGinnis Lake campground has 159 modern and rustic, heavily wooded to open and sunny campsites and cabins. Picnicking, swimming, fishing, boat launch. Ten miles of hiking and cross-country ski trails and an extensive mountain bike trail system. Rowboat, canoe and paddle boat rentals.” For a slide show of other amenities of this multi-section state recreation area, be sure to view the slide show created by Groveland Township.
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.