Awe-inspiring Traverse City hikes—and mystical fairy houses— await you at the Grand Traverse Commons Natural Area. Explore this area with your kids, friends or on a date to experience all of the magic Northern Michigan has to offer.

Pass through a parking lot next to a water tower, enter a trail system in the middle of Traverse City, and those able to think a bit magically are easily convinced they’ve crossed under a tree canopy into Narnia. From hidden streams to meticulously built fairy houses, these trails offer the kind of magic that you expect to see less in an urban center and more in stories of enchantment and mystery. Follow where the weathered, curved fence leads, up a leaf-covered staircase under a canopy of colorful oaks and maples. Then leave the time schedule behind.
Village at Grand Traverse Commons

Photo by Dave Weidner

Related Read: Find more outdoor activites on our Northern Michigan Outdoors page.

Pass through a parking lot next to a water tower, enter a trail system in the middle of Traverse City, and those able to think a bit magically are easily convinced they’ve crossed under a tree canopy into Narnia. From hidden streams to meticulously built fairy houses, these trails offer the kind of magic that you expect to see less in an urban center and more in stories of enchantment and mystery. Follow where the weathered, curved fence leads, up a leaf-covered staircase under a canopy of colorful oaks and maples. Then leave the time schedule behind.

As you meander the ever-changing trails known as the Grand Traverse Commons Natural Area, you’ll pass springs that bubble up from the earth, orchards holding the promise of a single sweet pear, and a helicopter’s height overlook of Traverse City, its two bays and some hilly farmland well beyond. But later, look down. One particularly enchanting section features tiny bungalows made just for fairies and the forest creatures that enjoy the shelter or nibble on the acorn roofs.

The trails at the Village of Grand Traverse Commons

Photo by Dave Weidner

The magic of these 140 acres of trails dates back to at least the late 1800s. Before forest bathing was a popular concept, a man named Thomas Kirkbride believed immersion in the outdoors was essential for mental health. The 19th-century psychiatrist built villages like the one now known as the Grand Traverse Commons (then the Grand Traverse Asylum) in which those seeking treatment for mental illness would find it amid castle-style architecture, airy light-filled spaces and park-like settings.

Patients and staff, and later generations of people drawn to nature, have passed through these forests—first on foot, then adding bikes and skis. But it’s especially fun to check out specific markers like the cistern—now a kind of communal art sculpture coated with colorful graffiti—and think back to the way it once provided water to those state hospital residents. The main walking paths were once roads back to working barns that housed dairy cattle including Traverse Colantha Walker, a grand champion milk cow whose grave is marked with a big tombstone on site.
Kids looking at fairy houses at the Village of Grand Traverse Commons

Photo by Allison Jarrell

That trees were key to the philosophy is evident in the way the Commons has a map of some 661 individual trees and where they can be found on the grounds—trees like a catalpa and a ginkgo biloba, horse chestnut and sweet gum. Stephanie Witala, venue manager for the Cathedral Barns at the on-site Historic Barns Park and owner of the village’s Sugar 2 Salt (S2S) cafe, says she’s on a private scavenger hunt to find every tree on the map. She also ventures onto the trails regularly—easy because they’re a few steps from her busy restaurant, and the trails make a more natural route to the grocery store if she’s out of an item.
“With all the chaos business life can provide, especially in a restaurant, it’s great to go out in nature and push a reset button,” says Stephanie. “What I love most is the diversity of the trails. There are flat areas, there are hills, there’s a creek and pine trees and cedars, and it opens up to glorious meadows, where it’s breezy and open and sunny. It’s different every single time. It’s different in every season.”
Fairy house at the Village of Grand Traverse Commons

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Pink fairy house at the Village of Grand Traverse Commons

Photo by Allison Jarrell

The woods also have fairy trails.

Heather Harrington, one-half of the husband-and-wife team behind Life and Whim, was looking for a way to inspire her three then-toddlers—and other families— to spend more time outdoors when she learned of an island in Maine dotted with fairy houses, or miniature dollhouses of a sort created with materials found in nature and made to be particularly attractive to woodland fairies, should they actually exist. Harrington started a Fairy Fest in Traverse City that at first drew just enough families to make 15 houses along the Commons trails near the water tower. As it grew, the houses moved to more sheltered trails near the botanical gardens. At the most recent fest, some 2,000 people came and 40 or 50 signed up to build houses. Many of the houses you’ll see lining tiny trail paths (safe from bike traffic) were inspired by themes like “Community in Bloom” and “What People Love about Traverse City.” This year’s theme was “A Trip Around the World.” Other fairy houses are crafted over time by anyone who’s interested—school children, groups of friends, sometimes families as a memorial to a loved one lost.

The outdoor trails at the Village of Grand Traverse Commons

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Look closely along the trails nearest to the gardens, and see if you can find a colorful “Desert Haven” home or a mossy castle built especially for swamp fairies across the way. Then spot a neighboring two-story “Fairy Cafe” made of bark and moss, or search for the entire “street” of houses, anchored by the “White o Mornin’ Bed and Breakfast,” complete with a pinecone bed.

For Harrington’s own kids and many others who’ve reached out over the years, working on and playing caretaker of the fairy trails instilled an early love for nature. “For children, fairies are magical,” she says. “I think they learned to love just the whole experience of being outside. They love playing with sticks and rocks, any little thing they find, and they create this imaginative world of their own.”

There’s material for fairy mansions—and magical thinking—naturally scattered throughout the trail system, meticulously maintained by Garfield Township and on trails shared by mountain bikers, commuters, school children on study outings and homeschoolers on lunch picnics.

Girl looking at fairy house at the Village of Grand Traverse Commons

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Search for the fairy houses or find magic in the fallen trees that create tree tunnels, and the tucked-away benches that dot trails near hidden streams. There’s even a “Grandmother Willow” of sorts with a groovy edge. “The Hippie Tree,” this day visited only by some noisy pileated woodpeckers, has its own spot on the trail map—it’s become a destination for those who love looking at colorful art others have painted on limbs, playing under the sprawling branches or (as visionaries and mystics supposedly do regularly) staying awhile to meditate beneath.

Wherever you find magic, even if it’s just in the warm sunlight spilling through Northern Michigan’s lush green leaves, chances are good you’ll find it on these trails.

How to Enjoy Grand Traverse Commons After Your Hike

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is just that—a village that makes it oh so easy to go from hike to dinner, or to pick up your picnic lunch (and vintage picnic basket and sketch pad) before heading out onto the trails. Developers successfully sought to create a thriving multi-generational community, and knowing the story behind the places you’ll stop in and around this castle-style complex that once housed the “Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane” adds another element of cool. Here, some ideas:

Post-Hike Fun with Kids

  • Eat dessert first with a cookie to go from Pleasanton Bakery. This tiny brick building was once the fire station. Or try a double chocolate almond scone, baked fresh daily, at Cuppa Joe inside Building 50.
Walking on the trail at at the Village of Grand Traverse Commons

Photo by Allison Jarrell

  • Pick up dinner to-go at family-friendly Spanglish and take it (if you wish) next door to Left Foot Charley. Kids like playing in the on-site sandbox near the creek while parents sip wines, like their nationally acclaimed Blaufränkisch, inside a window-walled building that once housed the complex’s laundry operation.
  • Head to the water tower, the complex’s newest residential neighborhood, because it’s both an easy landmark for meet-ups, being only a few steps from the trailhead, and extra popular for the safe space it allows for little ones to run. Choose between a microbrew at Earthen Ales or a freshly squeezed juice treat at S2S, and on weekend nights, the Commons provides firewood for starting your own warming blaze in the on-site fire pit.

Post-Hike Activities with Friends or a Date

  • Earthen Ales and S2S have teamed up to offer a shared outdoor dining space. Take the partnership theme even further by ordering a crowler of Charley from Earthen Ales, brewed with Blaufränkisch grape pomace from Left Foot Charley, or a Pembroke Stout brewed with a blend of Ethiopian and Peruvian coffee from Higher Grounds. Pair with S2S bread loaves, pastries or anything from the fresh, local menu.
  • Break into teams and say the first round is on whoever comes up short on the village bocce court. Left Foot Charley loans out bocce sets for free with a driver’s license. There’s bonus exploring when Saturday’s indoor farmers market is in progress (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
  • Craft a romantic picnic with Italian specialties from PepeNero or Trattoria Stella (and/or dine in when you get back, inside hidden nooks with buttery yellow brick walls). Sanctuary Handcrafted Goods sells a picnic basket so deluxe there’s a quilt and table folded inside.
  • Sketch and reflect by shopping first inside the Building 50 commercial corridor. Pick up a Field Notes notebook at Moonstruck Gardens, a cool journal and colored pencils at Sanctuary Handcrafted Goods (and for fun, a hand-crafted wooden slingshot and a “100 Things to Do in a Forest” book). Chilly? Pick up a Spire or Tunnel Vision sweatshirt from the B50 store and maybe a ticket, as well, to a guided walking tour. Engaging guides bring to life the tales of former asylum employees and the “beauty is therapy” philosophy of the founders—and you can even venture into underground steam tunnels.

Photo(s) by Allison Jarrell