WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” That often quoted sentence from John Muir takes on a special meaning for me in May, for May is the month that I am most often asked, “Where should I hike?” There is no easy answer, but May is the perfect season to enter the world of hiking for pleasure, and if the word “hiking” sounds too rigorous, just call it “meandering.” The results will be the same; for hiking is fun, healthful and there are bonuses in May: The beauty of ephemeral woodland wildflowers, the delightful songs of birds, and the choruses of frogs and trilling of toads will be your trail companions. Meander along slowly on your new adventure, stop often, look and listen and you will find more than you seek.
Today I share snippets of seven trails that are perfect for Oakland County trail meanderers, trails where the magic and music of nature’s way in May unfolds.
My favorite close to home, northernmost nature-embracing trail is managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and offers solitude, and creates a good workout for legs and lungs at the same time – and sometimes a chance to slip on muddy trails. And depending on the time of day, pace of your trek, and your willingness to look about, encounters with deer, wild turkeys and our magnificent Pileated Woodpeckers are likely in the Bloomer Unit loop. The sounds of spring are very much alive in the woods of “Bloomer,” the section of the 5,480-acre Ortonville State Recreation Area that is located in its southwest corner and is accessible off of State Park Road. Delicate round-lobed hepatic blossoms have appeared along the southern slopes of this very hilly trail, and in another week or two morel mushrooms emerge, often amidst patches of poison ivy. I would not advise this trail for a first time meanderers and even experienced hikers should pack along their “situational awareness.”
Looking for a place where you are very unlikely to hike or bike alone? May is the month cyclists, joggers, trail-trekkers, nature-lovers, photographers and baby-carriage pushing parents flock to the Paint Creek Trail, a trail system gem of the ever-expanding network of trails that link Oakland County together with non-motorized use. The Paint Creek Trail opened in 1983 as the first rails-to-trails project in the State of Michigan, and remains one of the most popular multi-use trails in Oakland County. The trail runs north from the City of Rochester to the Village of Orion, an 8.9 mile long route of eight foot wide crushed limestone built on a former Penn Central Railway bed. Its route embraces the banks of Paint Creek, a cold water trout steam and has numerous access points. There is excellent signage along the route and it meanders through woodlands with emerging ephemeral wildflowers including trout lily and trillium. Some sections of the trail present opportunities to pause at wetlands and listen to courting toads, and all parts offer a tempting taste of the Wilder Side of Oakland County, making it a perfect trail for the family. It also passes just yards from Paint Creek Cider Mill in the Village of Goodison, a great place for cider and donuts and light lunches. You’ll find bike racks there too.
The Polly Ann Trail is the other major non-motorized trail in Oakland County. This increasingly popular trail has a mostly crushed stone surface and runs for 16.9 miles from Orion Township to the Oakland–Lapeer County line when it joins the more primitive Polly Ann Trail – Lapeer County. Certain sections of the trail in Oakland County urban areas have an improved asphalt surface. Trail users pass through the communities of Orion Township, Oxford Township, the Village of Oxford, Addison Township and the Village of Leonard. The trail corridor, especially near Oxford and Orion Townships also provides great habitat for Eastern Bluebirds and it’s also not at all unusual to see Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed hawks soaring overhead. Sightings of deer, turtles and turkeys are likely where the trail passes through the Bald Mountain State Recreation Area. Evergreen’s Café, just a few hundred yards from where the Polly Ann crosses over M-24 in downtown Oxford, is trail-user friendly and has great breakfast and lunch delights. Polly Ann is more than a trail to explore in May. It connects you with people and places!
Indian Springs Metropark is a true wildland treasure and protects part of the great Huron Swamp. Their popular paved bike trail embraces prairie areas and woodlands, and the environmental discovery center is a nature-lover’s delight. This 2,454-acre metropark, located just nine miles northwest of Pontiac, is managed by Huron-Clinton Metroparks and has something for everyone that wishes to bike, hike or just walk a short trail with children. Wildlife is abundant and includes 13-lined ground squirrels and eastern massasauga rattlesnakes as well as deer, fox, coyotes and mink. My favorite trail is their 3.4 mile Woodland Trail, a primitive surface foot path that is almost totally flat. The trailhead is located behind the park office. It meanders through woodlands and skunk cabbage rich wooded swamps to the secluded shoreline of Timberland Lake. There you may be treated to the bugling of Sandhill Cranes, the trilling of toads and perhaps the sight of a Bald Eagle soaring overhead.
Seven Lakes State Park is a 1,434-acre Michigan State Park that is managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. It’s a wondrous place in May with places to wander, picnic, hike and even camp. For a first timer who likes primitive trails with stellar views I would suggest the “Green Trail,” a well-marked 2.1 mile looped primitive surface trail that can be easily accessed adjacent to the Dickinson Shelter. The Green Trail is a great portal to the ways of nature at Seven Lakes and connects to other natural surface trails. The trail is hilly and descends rapidly from the Dickinson Shelter to Dickinson Lake, and meanders near Big Seven Lake and Little Seven Lake. The story of glacial geology will spring to life along the trail, especially in early May before the large boulders, properly named glacial erratics, are obscured from view by forested hillsides. Wildlife is abundant and osprey are sometimes sighted fishing the lakes. The shoreline habitat is also ideal for northern watersnakes and young fishermen, two other species that, like the osprey, hope for a good catch.
Looking for an easy trail that’s beautiful, paved, family-friendly and nature-embracing? Then I suggest the 2.2 mile River Loop Trail of Independence Oaks County Park. It’s truly a wonderful trail, especially in early May. And if hills are not your thing, this trail is for you. It’s just about level and provides some great views of the headwaters of the Clinton River. When you cross the big wooden boardwalk over the river, I suggest stopping and listening to the music of amphibians. You may also spot the yellow petals of marsh marigolds and hear the not so distant gobbling of Wild Turkeys, or the song of the Pileated Woodpecker. Excellent quality, colorful interpretive signs share the story of the riverside habitat and some of the less common species including Blanding’s turtles and eastern massasauga rattlesnakes. This rather recluse rattler, the only venomous reptile of Michigan, is very much at home here. It’s also the site where I was thrilled to be able to photograph this beauty sunning peacefully just off the River Loop Trail three years ago.
The 162-acre West Bloomfield Woods Nature Preserve, managed by West Bloomfield Parks and Recreation, is awash in a sea of native and introduced wildflowers in the early days of May. It’s a beautiful place, complete with trailside benches. The preserve is also the first site in Michigan to be recognized as an “Urban Wildlife Sanctuary” from the National Institute of Urban Wildlife and is also the location where I first saw a coyote in Oakland County. That was about two decades ago. Hike the preserves connected and looped trails and you have a visually rewarding two-mile somewhat hilly trek. Hike early in the morning and the woods are alive with a symphony of bird song. You are also sure to see great carpets of trailside scilla (Scilla siberica), a European wildflower with blue pollen that thrives along part of the trail. The presence of scilla is a classic case of gardening gone awry. It was brought to Michigan as an ornamental, but has escaped into the wilds and not so wilds of the county. It readily spreads itself and is left untouched by deer.
Take a walk in nature and see if you receive more than you seek in the beautiful days of May. And then share your trail tale and photos with us if you trek one of these seven locations for the first time.
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.