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Hiking with Edsel Ford
History and nature at Highland Recreation Area is the subject of this month’s Trail Talk Newsletter from MichiganTrailMaps.com. Late fall is the best time to hike the park’s Haven Hill Natural Area to see the Edsel Ford ruins and enjoy the views from the top of Haven Hill.
Mark it on your calendar: Our favorite author, Jim DuFresne, has two shows schedule in November. On Nov. 8 he will be at Backcountry North, 2820 N. US-31 in Traverse City, to give his newest show, Alaska Marine Highway: High Adventure and Easy Travel, beginning at 7 p.m. The Alaska Marine Highway system of ferry boats will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2013 and Jim will focus on using the famous “blue canoes” to enjoy great Alaskan wilderness adventures.
On Nov. 20 Jim explain - and show with outstanding photography - why New Zealand is such a paradise for hikers and backpackers in his presentation Wondrous Wilderness: Tramping In New Zealand. The presentation, co-sponsored by the Huron Valley Group of the Sierra Club and MichiganTrailMaps.com, will begin at 7:30 p.m. at Matthaei Botanical Gardens near Ann Arbor.
Park Introduction: Haven Hill Natural Area
By Jim DuFresne
Looking to escape the pressures of being Henry Ford’s only son and thus, sole heir to the Ford Motor Company, Edsel Ford began purchasing the hilly property in northwest Oakland County in 1923 and the following year had broken ground on his rural estate. He chose the area because it contained one of the county’s highest points, a 1,134-foot high ridge known as Heaven Hill. Ford renamed it Haven Hill, reflecting the sanctuary that the auto magnate had sought.
By 1931 Ford had completed his 6,900-square foot hilltop lodge and surrounded it with such amenities as a pool, clay tennis courts, a horse-riding stable, a working farm, trails through woods and a quarter-mile-long toboggan run with a motorized tow rope. Ford and his wife raised their four children at Haven Hill, using the retreat until his death in 1943. Three years later Eleanor Ford sold the estate to the state Michigan and eventually Haven Hill became part of the Highland Recreation Area, a 5,903-acre state park unit created in 1972.
The buildings and ruins from the Ford estate were the reason Haven Hill was named a state historic site. But the 721-acre tract — that has remained largely undisturbed for the past 75 years — was also designated as a natural area because it contains every principal forest type in southern Michigan, including cedar and tamarack swamps, beech-maple forests and oak-hickory forests.
In 1976, Haven Hill was registered as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service, one of only 12 in Michigan. This combination of history and nature in a setting accessible mostly by trails is what makes Haven Hill so unique and one of the most interesting destinations in southern Michigan for day hikers and history buffs.
Most of the hiking in Highland Recreation Area, roughly nine miles of trail, is located in Haven Hill, which represents about a third of Ford’s original 2,400-acre estate. The park also features 12 miles of equestrian trails and a commercial riding stable and one of the most challenging mountain bike trail systems in southern Michigan. The 15-mile network is composed of four loops and accessed from a trailhead on Livingston Road south of M-59 via Duck Lake Road. Loop D, which includes climbing 1,120-foot Mount Omich, is often called the "hardest 4 miles of mountain biking in Michigan."
Click on the map to the right to view a larger version or print.
Blue Trail: The principal trail is a loop that circles the Haven Hill Natural Area, with two cutoff spurs that create shorter trails. The entire loop is a 5.2-mile hike marked as the Green Trail. Slightly shorter is the 4.8-mile loop marked as the Blue Trail while the Red Trail is 2.15 miles.
Mountain bikes are banned from the system and during the winter the loops are popular cross-country ski trails when there is sufficient snow. The drawback is that equestrians share short segments of the system with hikers and Highland Recreation Area is extremely popular with horseback riders. Be prepared for a few horses on the weekends and a more than a few mounds of droppings in the middle of the trail.
Of the three loops, the Blue Trail is the most scenic and drier than the Green Trail. All three loops begin at the Edsel Ford Barn parking area. When Ford built the 15,000-square foot barn in the early 1930s it was one of the largest east of the Mississippi River and could house 1,500 sheep. In 2008, two-thirds of the building was blown down by high winds in 2008, but the rest is being restored through the efforts of the Friends of Highland Recreation Area.
From the parking area, the loop heads west across a field and into the woods. In less than half mile the Green Trail peels off and the Blue Trail swings north. The scenery gets interesting here with a long descent to post No. 10 where in the fall you occasionally see the Carriage House on top of Haven Hill. Wetlands and wooded hollows follow and even a bit of seclusion. When you reach post No. 12 at Mile 1.7 you are in the heart of the natural area.
Wetlands and rolling hills dominate the 1.5-mile stretch between posts No. 12 and post No. 14. There are occasional sounds of traffic from nearby M-59 but for the most part the natural beauty and quiet remoteness you encounter in one of Michigan’s most overdeveloped counties is amazing.
At post No. 14, reached at Mile 3.2, the loop swings to the south, leaves the natural area and winds past the dam that Ford installed in 1926 to convert a small stream and marshy pond into a waterfowl sanctuary he named Haven Hill Lake. You cross the paved park road at Mile 4 and again just before returning to the Edsel Ford Barn.
Goose Meadow Trail: This 2.5-mile loop lies almost entirely in the Haven Hill Natural Area and begins at post No. 22 in the Goose Meadow Picnic Area. For three-quarters of a mile, from post No. 22 to past post No. 17, you skirt the lake and at one point cross Cedar Creek on Ford Dam. The trail then swings north into the wooded hills and low-lying wetlands that characterize most of the natural area. At post No. 16 the trail merges into the Green/Blue loops before peeling away at post No. 18 and retracing the segment back across Ford Dam to the picnic area.
Historic Haven Hill Trail: To view the ruins of the Ford estate, follow the former entrance drive up Haven Hill. The road is closed to traffic just beyond the park maintenance buildings and parking is not now allowed at the gate. Thus, a round-trip hike of 1.4 miles is required from the Circle Parking Lot to the top of the hill to view the ruins.
It’s a bit of a climb at the end but well worth the view of the Carriage House, an impressive log lodge still standing. A little further up the hill is the foundation of the sprawling Haven Hill Lodge, reminiscent of ancient Roman or Greek ruins with one of the five massive Vermont fireplaces still standing. Foot trails lead down the ridge to what remains of the pool, tennis courts and toboggan run. Foliage now blocks much of the view on top but at the time Ford built his estate he enjoyed a 360-degree view that included Haven Hill Lake and many of the other lakes and forested ridges in the surrounding area.
The day-use area at Teeple Lake features a beach and designated swimming area, boat launch on the lake, picnic area and a rental shelter. At the Goose Meadow, on the shores of Haven Hill Lake, there is a picnic area with a shelter. Scattered throughout the old pine plantation of Dodge Park No.10 are picnic tables and a shelter. This day-use area is a picturesque spot overlooking Pickerel Lake.
The park drive through Haven Hill Natural Area to Teeple Lake is reached from M-59 (Highland Road) 15 miles west of Pontiac. Also providing access into the recreation area further west along M-59 is Duck Lake Road, from which Lower Pettibone and Beaumont roads are reached by turning west onto Livingston Road.
Contact Highland Recreation Area (248-889-3750; www.michigan.gov/highland) or Friends of Highland Recreation Area (www.friendsofhighlandrec.org).
the Traverse City DNRE Field Office at (231) 922-5280.