Spring has officially sprung in Northern Michigan and our forests are showing their appreciation with some gorgeous blooms. If you’re ready to head out to see these native-to-Michigan flowers for yourself, check out three of our favorite hikes to inspire your trip.
Each spring, like the burgeoning flora along the forest floor, we bend toward the light—stretching our limbs in the warm sunshine and breathing in the heady aroma of fresh flowers, finally in bloom.
I often dreamt of this moment on winter days—feverishly planning wildflower road trips while quarantined in my Traverse City apartment. The fresh Northwoods air, sweet songbird melodies and lush landscapes dappled with pops of color would be a much-needed respite from a waning winter, marred by the pandemic, that hung heavy on the heart.
Spring brought renewed hope and its signature sense of rebirth. I picked three woods where I could find a wide array of spring ephemerals (including our beloved trillium)—Pete’s Woods in Arcadia Dunes: The C.S. Mott Nature Preserve, Clay Cliffs Natural Area in Lake Leelanau and Grass River Natural Area in Bellaire. With blue skies overhead and warmth in the air, I wandered these preserves and their meandering pathways, reassured by the prismatic blanket of wildflowers sprouting from the thawed earth. Each vibrant, perfumed petal was a gift—a precious reminder to always make time to stop and smell the flowers.
Grass River Natural Area
The first stop on my wildflower tour was Grass River Natural Area—a lush mixture of wetlands and upland forests spanning 1,492 acres along Antrim County’s Chain of Lakes.
Seven miles of trails (open from dawn ‘til dusk) weave through the natural area, giving you the option to mix and match shorter hikes. Boardwalks covering the Sedge Meadow and Fern Trails provide access to wetland flora and fauna and are wheelchair and stroller friendly, while the Woodland, Chippewa, Nipissing, Algonquin and Rail Trails are upland forested dirt footpaths.
I opted to stroll the boardwalk trails, hovering above the verdant wetland below. It was a meditative mid-May afternoon—the sun’s rays, streaming through the budding trees, danced across the path ahead while Finch Creek babbled in the distance (the creek is one of three cold spring-fed streams that run through the area and empty into Grass River). I felt my naturally fast-paced gait begin to slow, enjoying the sound of each step along the wooden boardwalk.
Early spring ephemerals are often the shortest wildflowers, and this rang true at Grass River. I crouched down to examine the petite pops of color tucked among the moss and groundcover. Delicate pastel pink trailing arbutus hid under large waxy leaves. Purple and white wild violets peeked through last fall’s leaf litter. But the patches of bold marsh marigolds stole the spotlight that particular afternoon, their bright bursts of yellow beaming atop the grassy forest floor. A member of the buttercup family, marsh marigolds are true harbingers of spring, often blooming at the beginning of May in the Antrim County area.
Marsh Marigold, Grass River Natural Area
While marsh marigold petals look entirely yellow to humans, to insects, the upper part appears as a mixture of yellow and an ultraviolet color—“bee’s purple”—and the lower part is yellow. The flowers have 50-100 stamens and are most commonly pollinated by hoverflies.
Pro Tip | Grab A Pamphlet
Before you go, check out Grass River’s self-guided flower walk pamphlets, complete with average bloom times for each species found in the area. The non-profit has individual guides for each month, May through August, on its website: grassriver.org. And if you can swing it, try getting out for a hike (at any of these areas) on a weekly basis this spring and summer—new flowers will be popping up daily!
Nearby Sweet Spot | Alden Muffin Tin
Whether you’re fueling up before your hike or looking to pack a trail snack, Alden Muffin Tin (9110 Helena Rd., Alden) has you covered. Just a six-minute drive from Grass River, this local favorite is known for their delectable muffins, cookies and scones—but their breakfast sandwiches and lunch offerings have a loyal following, too. Top it off with a coffee or tea to go.
Wild Violets, Clay Cliffs Natural Area
Clay Cliffs Natural Area
Stop number two—Clay Cliffs Natural Area—features a hardwood forested 1.5-mile trail nestled between Lake Leelanau and Lake Michigan. A more moderate hike with some hills, this path leads to a viewing platform perched atop the bluffs, with breathtaking panoramic views from 200 feet above Lake Michigan (i.e. sparkling open water as far as the eye can see). Later on in the hike—about halfway through—a meadow offers clear views of Lake Leelanau.
The 104.5-acre natural area includes 1,700 feet of lake frontage between the two bodies of water, but in the spring, its claim to fame is its assortment of wildflowers—from trillium and Dutchman’s breeches to trout lilies and Carolina spring beauty.
Newly opened trillium lined the winding trail in numbers far greater than I’ve ever seen, dancing in the warm spring breeze, with towering trout lilies and shy white and purple violets sprinkled throughout. I was so mesmerized by the sea of color that the Lake Michigan overlook nearly snuck up on me. Not to be outdone by the flowers, the crystal clear water shimmered below as it lapped up against the shore.
But perhaps my favorite moment of this late-afternoon hike was toward the end, as I strolled along steep, forested slopes that caught the slanting light just right, illuminating a cascade of trillium. The glowing tissue paper petals created an ethereal scene that I could’ve basked in for hours.
Trillium, Clay Cliffs Natural Area
Trout Lilies, Clay Cliffs Natural Area
Pro Tip | Nearby Spot to Flower Hunt
Houdek Dunes Natural Area, only three miles north of Clay Cliffs, is another prime spot to peep wildflowers. Last spring—despite the close proximity—much of the natural area’s flora bloomed later than Clay Cliffs (I didn’t see many flowers in mid-May). But by early June, pink lady’s slipper peppered the dunes’ sandy trails.
Nearby Sweet Spot | Dam Candy Store & Village Cheese Shanty
Travel a mere two miles to Leland’s Fishtown and you’ll stumble upon the Dam Candy Store (197 River St., Leland). Delight in an array of old-fashioned candies and hand-scooped ice cream. Next door, Village Cheese Shanty is a must if you’re looking to balance out your sugar rush with a savory pretzel- bread sammie.damcandystore.com, villagecheeseshanty.com
Dutchman’s Breeches, Pete’s Woods
Pete’s Wood Trail
Last, but certainly not least, I journeyed to Pete’s Woods— one of the most popular spots in the region for wildflower viewing. Tucked away in Arcadia Dunes: The C.S. Mott Nature Preserve, this 1.5-mile looped trail wends through 140 wooded acres—an experience that’s about as close as one can get to walking through an enchanted forest.
The botanical diversity of the woods, and the abundance of flora throughout, were mind-boggling at first glance—fields of trillium as far as the eye can see, swaths of yellow bellwort, trout lilies and celandine poppies, and what seemed like countless patches of Dutch- man’s breeches and squirrel corn commingling. Carolina springbeauty and wild violets added pops of pink and purple, and I even spotted my first Jack-in-the-pulpit.
Bellwort, Pete’s Woods
Springbeauty, Pete’s Woods
The 1.5-mile hike would no doubt be a quick jaunt for most—several groups passed me on the narrow dirt path as I fawned over the gorgeous scenery around every bend—but you’ll be rewarded if you slow down and really soak in the sights and sounds of the forest. The trail buzzes with life in May—butterflies float leisurely about while bees, coated in pollen, wiggle in and out of the multicolored all-you-can-eat buffet. I recommend bringing some water on this hike—you’re going to want to spend a chunk of time getting acquainted with the flora here.
Jack in the Pulpit, Pete’s Woods
Pro Tip | Allergies, Tick Prevention & Invasive Species
Pollinators— namely very busy bumblebees— were out in full force during my hike. If you’re allergic, be sure to bring an EpiPen. During tick season, cover your legs by tucking your pants into your socks, and do a tick check after you exit the woods. Lastly, make sure to utilize the boot brush station at the entrance of the woods—this will help prevent the spread of invasive species such as garlic mustard.
Nearby Sweet Spot | Arcadia Ice House
Head about seven miles to downtown Arcadia for sweet treats at Arcadia Ice House (17073 Northwood Hwy.)—a nostalgic ice cream parlor built from recycled lumber in the early 1900s. Choose from flavors like Mackinaw Fudge and Arcadia Maple Nut, made from Arcadia maple syrup and maple candy. arcadiaicehouse.com
On the hunt for more information on wildflower hikes? View our supplemental article, How to Plan 3 Wildflower Hikes Across Northern Michigan.
Find this article and more in the May 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe and get Traverse Magazine delivered to your door each month.