Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Spring 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
Strolling through the Old Growth Forest at Hartwick Pines State Park it’s not a stretch to think it required the might of Paul Bunyan to log northern Michigan woodlands. The park’s 45 acres of 350- to 400-year-old pines reach 150 feet skyward, offering a living view of the state as it was before the great lumbering era.
Park Interpreter Craig Kasmer has one word to describe the experience of hiking the Old Growth Forest Trail: “humbling.” The 1.25-mile paved forest path weaves through the Lower Peninsula’s largest old growth pine stand which has endured the arc of history.
“It’s a step back in time to see what Native Americans saw before European settlers arrived,” Kasmer said.
The nearly 10,000-acre park near Grayling also includes a Visitor Center and Logging Museum. Visitors explore the life of lumberjacks, the labor force behind Michigan’s economic timber boom of the late 1800s, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, dubbed “Roosevelt’s Free Army.” CCC kick-started the state’s conservation movement by replanting clear-cut lands, developing state parks and fish hatcheries.
“For those of us from the area, it’s really our story and legacy,” said Hillary Pine, northern Lower Peninsula historian with the DNR and the Michigan History Center.
Pine, based at Hartwick Pines, said there exists convincing evidence that Fabian “Joe” Fournier. the model for the fabled Paul Bunyan, logged near Grayling. Folklore claims the French-Canadian could “make pines whimper.”
Hartwick Pines’ museum opens for the season in early May as soon as snow melt makes way for the outdoor collection display. The historical logging equipment and its recreated bunkhouse reveal the rough-and-tumble woodsmen’s life. The bunkhouse table is set as it was when lumberjacks, called shanty boys, satisfied their hearty appetites after swinging axes and crossbows to fell Michigan’s green giants.
As spring awakens, nature’s glory shines throughout the park CCC helped build. More than 1,000 CCC workers were stationed locally during the mid-1930s. They served six-month stints in which they contributed to the park’s development. CCC workers constructed the museum and first visitor center, dug firebreaks and built trails through the untamed landscape.
The park’s diverse forest types, four lakes and the East Branch of the AuSable River attracted more than 55 bird species in 2018. Spring migration and nesting periods bring birds and birders from near and far. The ruffed grouses’ spring mating call, a distinct drumming, reverberates through the park, while evening and rose-breasted grosbeaks sing. Warblers, waterfowl, raptors and wading birds are active and visitors flock to the park to catch a glimpse of them.
“We’re bombarded with birders armed with binoculars,” Kasmer said.
The AuSable Birding Trail unveiled last June elevates Hartwick Pines State Park’s reputation as a birding destination.
“The AuSable trail takes in Crawford and Roscommon counties,” said trail volunteer Adele Woskobojnik. “Hartwick Pines, because of the Kirtland warbler, is one of the hot spots.”
Spring brings the forest floor to life. Wildflowers erupt across the park as a warm spring sun coaxes them from the earth. Jack-in-the-pulpits and arethusa balboa, known as Dragon’s Mouth, are among the park’s wild beauties.
More than 20 miles of trails showcase park flora and fauna diversity. Catch the trail head for the Old Growth Forest Trail at the Logging Museum. The Visitor Center provides an interpretive brochure for self-guided tours along the easy looped trail.
Highlights of this, the park’s most popular trail, include the “king of the forest” named Monarch. Once a standout among the pine forest, the previously 155-foot-tall tree with a 12-foot circumference saw better days. The star tree lost its top 50 feet in a 1992 storm and died four years later. A plaque marks the stump as a reminder of the preserved forest’s vulnerability to nature.
Freed from late ice cover, Glory Lake and Bright Lake — named for Bright the logging ox and the animal’s contribution to the area’s early timber industry — open for pier fishing and inland waters can be explored by kayak.
“Because the lakes are non-motorized, they’re calm and serene,” said Kasmer. “It’s one of the park’s allures.”
If you go
• Campers can claim a campsite as soon as the snow blanket clears. The park’s 100 modern campsites provide for extended visits and more time to investigate, discover, recreate and learn.
• Memorial Day week-end kicks off the season’s museum activities with interpreters costumed in period outfits.
• Park staff, along with Michigan Audubon, present Kirtland warbler tours in May and June, starting from the park. Tours run daily at 7 a.m. from May 27-June 30. The schedule also includes 11 a.m. weekend tours.
• Ranger-led tours and interpreter programs begin a regular schedule in June. But Hartwick Pines gets a head-start on summer fun celebrating National Kids to Parks Day on May 18 with the Art of Nature drawing workshop for youth. Free sessions kick off at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
• Rent a single or double kayak at the ranger station to explore Hartwick Pines’ inland waters.
Remember to pack bug repellant and note that a Michigan Recreation Passport is required for park entry.