WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Oakland County has a diverse array of protected wildlands and hundreds of miles of trails, thanks first to the forces of nature, and then to the dedicated work of planners and civil engineers, and finally the support of trail advocates and the general public. And so today, on this Thanksgiving week, I’ll profile ten of my favorite wilder side sites for outdoor adventure and “nature embracing” in any season of the year, starting with Kensington Metropark.
Kensington Metropark is, without a doubt, one of the most popular parks in Southeast Michigan. It is a four season wonderland for all ages. Kensington’s 4,481 sprawling acres of wooded, hilly terrain surrounds Kent Lake and is home to an abundance of wildlife, waterfowl and song birds, and is a mecca for wildlife photographers. A hike along the ever-popular nature center trails provides unique opportunities for those that are patient to photograph birds landing on outreached hands to snatch sunflower seeds. Although their Sandhill Cranes have mostly departed for the season, the woodlands are alive with wild turkeys, woodpeckers and squirrels in overdrive mode as winter approaches. Their seemingly endless trails offer opportunities for hiking, biking and one day soon, cross-country skiing. Be sure to visit the nature center before you explore to be best prepared for your adventure.
The Lakeville Swamp Nature Sanctuary, managed by the Michigan Nature Association, is one the highest quality wetland complexes found on the Wilder Side of Oakland County and one of my most-loved sites to seek peace and tranquility, and perhaps the ghostly company of a Barred Owl. Cedar swamp habitat takes on a special beauty that is mysterious, captivating and full of wonder during the heat of summer or the biting cold of winter. They are also vital for rare species of flora and fauna and offer sites for deer to hunker down during severe storms. I wander the Lakeville Swamp trails at least once every winter with Henry David Thoreau’s words as my silent companion, “I enter the swamp as a sacred place.” NOTE: The accessible section of this pristine and protected 76-acre sanctuary with narrow primitive trails is on the west side of Rochester Road, just south of Lakeville Road.
Proud Lake State Recreation Area embraces the banks of the scenic Huron River and offers plentiful recreational opportunities for all seasons amidst its 4,700 acres of diverse landscapes. In addition to 20 miles of trails to hike, there are mini-cabins and 130 campsites available for public use. During winter, cross-country skiers head for back-country trails and some experienced kayakers will suit up for the season and enjoy the tranquility of the Huron River. In the spring, the woodlands come to life with wildflowers of all sorts as wood ducks return to their ponds and birders stalk the woodlands and meadows.
Red Oaks Nature Center is a peaceful place tucked away amidst the noise and bustle of Madison Heights. This 37-acre site, also known as Friendship Woods, is part of the Red Oaks County Park 163-acre complex. Oakland County Parks describes Red Oaks correctly as “a unique example of repurposing urban land for recreational use – the park is located atop the enclosed George W. Kuhn Drain. Red Oaks is a busy place, with five unique recreation facilities: Dog Park; Golf Course; Nature Center and trails; Youth Soccer Complex; and Red Oaks Waterpark.” A walk along the 1.3 mile paved Red Oaks nature trail will reconfirm the belief that nature is not just found in wilderness areas and even a short woodland walk in an urban area refreshes the soul.
Seven Lakes State Park in northwestern Oakland County has some of the most diverse terrain found in our county and a variety of wildlife, including massasauga rattlesnakes, coyotes, deer, and numerous species of raptors. There are about seven miles of trails that present endless opportunities to enjoy near total solitude if you hike early in the day. There are creeks to cross, shorelines of lakes to explore and challenging cross-country skiing in this 1,434-acre multi-use area. The serpentine-like trails that meander over hills provide beautiful views of the lakes, majestic trees and the large boulders deposited by the last glacial retreat. An inexperienced hiker could get lost wandering off trail so it’s best to check the map sign post at each trail junction and bring your situational awareness. Seven Lakes is the wilder side of our county!
At 1,286 acres, Independence Oaks County Park is the largest of the parks managed by Oakland County Parks and Recreation and a personal favorite of mine when I feel a need to head to the woods, and that happens often. Hardly a week goes by without me wandering one of their trails, and there are about 12 miles of trail to wander. One of the most popular trails, the Lakeshore Loop, circles around Crooked Lake and is favored by casual hikers, joggers and folks with leashed dogs, while others such as the Ted Gray, Springlake and Rockridge Trails give the legs and lungs a great workout. If you want to see deer or wild turkey, consider Independence Oaks and head for the hills. Stop and look about often; you won’t be disappointed.
Paint Creek Trail was the first former rail bed converted to a trail that I explored after moving to Oakland County. It’s a gem and every hike, bike or cross-county ski adventure on the trail brings wildlife encounters if your adventure is shortly after dawn or in the hours before dusk. Their website description sums it up very well. “Owned and managed by the Paint Creek Trailways Commission (PCTC), the Paint Creek Trail is an 8.9 mile linear park, located in northeast Oakland County. It was the first Non-Motorized Rail-to-Trail in the State of Michigan, as it was converted to a trail from the former Penn Central Railroad. Open to the public since 1983, the Paint Creek Trail receives over 100,000 visitors annually. The non-motorized Trail is 8-feet wide, and traverses through Rochester, Rochester Hills, Oakland Township, Orion Township and the Village of Lake Orion.” Travel on the Paint Creek Trail and you will seldom be alone. And be sure to stop at the trailside Paint Creek Cider Mill, they offer more than just cider and donuts.
Hawk Woods is the kind of place where you can take a break from holiday hustling and meander near a babbling brook, wander quietly under stately trees and just relax. You might even see a Red-tailed or Cooper’s hawk if you watch the edge of the woodlands. Return in the spring and a surprising variety of waterfowl will be seen in the ponds. This 80-acre, rather hidden site on Bald Mountain Road is just east of the “Palace of Auburn Hills.” It’s managed by Auburn Hills Parks and Recreation and offers a wide variety of public programs. Their website shares details on other amenities including a heated restroom, overnight camping cabins and special events.
The Lost Lake Nature Preserve is a 538-acre sanctuary in northernmost Oakland County that spans the border well into Genesee County. The land is protected under the management of the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy (SEMLC) with a conservation easement on the property held by the Six Rivers Land Conservancy. It is not a true wilderness area by any means, but it is rich with wildness and has a great diversity of wildlife and provides habitat for diminishing species of prairie flora and a wide array of amphibians. The 2.5-mile Preserve Loop Trail meanders through forest habitat which opens up to an old private airport runway that is now grassland being converted to prairie habitat. A scenic overlook at Slack Lake is unforgettable in autumn.
Addison Oaks is a 1,140-acre, extremely popular Oakland County Park with over 20 miles of trails, some for mountain biking, others for equestrian use, and once snow falls, the cross-country skiing is superb, and at times, perhaps challenging. I find pleasure any time of the year when hiking the hills above Buhl Lake just after sunrise to see what I can see, and I never go home disappointed. A scenic connector trail connects the main park to Addison Oaks East and from there one can follow trails and pathways to other nearby nature-embracing outdoor recreation areas.
Find a trail, park or nature sanctuary near you to explore and be thankful for. The words of John Muir may come to mind. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares drop off like autumn leaves.”
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.