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It's Summer; Go Climb A Dune
It’s summer, it’s hot and this is Michigan. Head north and take a hike in dune country. We have the greatest collection of freshwater dunes in the world and at this time of year they’re an ideal destination for a trek. This month’s Trail Mix newsletter is devoted to Arcadia Dunes, a wonderful preserve that offers both hiking and mountain biking opportunities. But don’t forget MichiganTrailMaps.com also has extensive coverage of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with detailed maps and in our e-shop you can order Jim DuFresne's The Complete Guide to Michigan Sand Dunes.
The Road To Arcadia Dunes
By Jim DuFresne
One of the prettiest roads you’ll ever drive is M-22, 115 miles that hug the Lake Michigan shoreline from Manistee to almost the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula before swinging south to Traverse City. The state highway is so spectacular that National Geographic Magazine named it one of the 10 most scenic drives in the country and somebody once tried to trademark the road sign.
A beautiful highway for motorists, but an even better avenue for those who like to ditch pavement for trails.
Public land abounds on both sides of M-22, including Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and almost a dozen Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC) natural areas, providing access to trails and paths into some of Michigan’s most spectacular dune country. That includes Arcadia Dunes, a GTRLC preserve that saved one of the largest remaining undeveloped tracts of Lake Michigan coast when it was established in 2003.
Also known as the C.S. Mott Preserve, Arcadia Dunes is spread across 3,600 acres just north of the Manistee/Benzie County line and is spilt in half by the state highway. The preserve includes 2 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, coastal bluffs with impressive perched dunes, hardwood forests and grasslands. The adjacent working farms, totaling an additional 2,500 acres, have also been permanently protected, making Arcadia Dunes one of the largest conservation projects ever completed by a local land trust in the Midwest.
Winding from one end of the preserve to the other is 15 miles of trails with the major trailheads conveniently located just off M-22. On the east side of the state highway is Dry Hill Trail, a 10-mile loop that was designed by the International Mountain Biking Association and has become one of the premier off-road rides in Northern Michigan. On the west side of M-22 is Old Baldy Trail, a 3.7-mile network that leads to sweeping views on top of a perched dune.
Together, they give trail users following M-22 another reason to park their cars and head into the woods.
Click on the map to the right to view a larger version or print.
Old Baldy Trail
The favorite destination for most hikers at Arcadia Dunes is Old Baldy, an open dune perched almost 400 feet above Lake Michigan for sweeping views of the Great Lake. Mountain bikers are allowed on portions of Old Baldy Trail but the open dunes and short segments make this system is best suited for hikers and trail runners.
The straight trails on the west side of the system are old gravel roads that were built in the 1960s for a subdivision that never materialized. Future plans involve developing them into trails with a scenic overlook and a segment of handicapped accessible path. Currently they are fun to explore but not signposted and at times could be challenging to follow.
The east half of the system is well developed and makes for a 2.8-mile loop to Old Baldy. When followed in a counterclockwise direction you begin with an easy and surprisingly level hike through a mature mesic hardwood forest that is carpeted with trillium and other wildflowers in the spring. At Mile 1.5 is the first of two spurs that heads north to the open dunes. Both merge at a set of steps that climb steeply to the open dune that is Old Baldy.
There is no beach access from the dune nor anywhere in the preserve because of the towering bluffs. But there are magnificent views. A sandy trail heads due north and at Mile 1.8 reaches the top of Old Baldy, where you can spot the Frankfort Lighthouse along the Lake Michigan coastline or view a portion of Lower Herring Lake. Along the way a second trail heads west through a distinctive notch to an overlook of the lake and perched dunes stretching to the south.
The quickest return is 0.8 miles — along the way are two of the old gravel roads that can be followed for additional mileage.
Dry Hill Trail
The bulk of the Arcadia Dunes trail system is Dry Hill Trail, a glacial moraine ridge that runs inland several miles from Old Baldy and Lake Michigan. South of the moraine are steep-forested back dunes and together they give the preserve a rugged interior, much to the delight of the mountain bikers who laid out the trail.
Although open to all trail users, Dry Hill was designed as a classic single track, a flowing trail rated “intermediate” with quick rolling hills, numerous long uphill sestions and naturally banked turns. The main trailhead is located on Saint Pierre Road just off M-22 and from there the loop is marked with mileposts in a clockwise direction. The main loop measures 9.4 miles while Chestnut Trail is a cross-over spur that reduces the ride to 2 miles.
Dry Hill winds through a hardwood forest of predominately sugar maple and American beech, making it a stunning ride in the fall, and a half-dozen meadows. From the trailhead through Mile 3 are numerous climbs as the trail dips in and out of the ravines along the northern edge of the moraine. At times there are quick views of orchards along the hillsides and even a brief glimpse of Upper Herring Lake.
Near Mile 4 the trail climbs out of the forest into a large meadow and then leads you on one of its longest downhill runs. Taylor Road is crossed just before Mile 5 and again at Mile 6.3 and can be combined with Matzinger Road to bailout of the ride and return to the trailhead.
Just before the second junction with the Chestnut Trail the main loop crosses Matzinger Road. Head left at the junction and the trail makes one more long climb to the Mile 9 post and then heads downhill almost all the way to the Saint Pierre Road parking lot, reaching it at Mile 9.4.
Pete’s Woods Trail
Another part of the preserve is Pete’s Woods Trail. Reached from the Swamp Road Trailhead, this 1.5-mile loop winds through a heavily forested area with moderate climbs. The impressive hardwood forest makes this easy hike a favorite in the fall while a fusion of wildflowers will bring you back in April and May.
At the trailheads are parking areas and information kiosks. However there are no toilets nor drinking water there.
Baldy Trailhead is posted along M-22, 8 miles south of Elberta or 2.7 miles north of Arcadia. If heading south, the trailhead entrance is on the west side of the state highway, 0.7 miles south of Joyfield Road. To reach the Saint Pierre Trailhead turn onto Saint Pierre Road — Dry Hill Trail is posted along M-22 a quarter mile south of Joyfield Road. The parking lot is 100 yards south along the gravel road. Pete’s Woods Trailhead is posted along Swamp Road a quarter mile south of Joyfield Road and 3.5 miles east of M-22.
Contact the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy at (231) 929-7911 or online at www.gtrlc.org.