Walk through acres of old-growth pine; follow paths into maple forests and oak groves; loiter and breathe deeply among aromatic cedar. Hartwick Pines has over 9600 acres of varied habitat. The park was established to memorialize Michigan’s pre-industrial forests and rich logging history, and the trails, Visitor Center and Logging Museum are a chance to experience that history.
If you’re exploring upper Michigan, chances are you’re already taking I-75 up toward the Mackinac Bridge. Hartwick Pines, just off the highway near Grayling, is a great option for stretching your legs after a couple of hours in the car. And while you’ll need to purchase a Recreation Passport for your vehicle, that pass will get you into all of Michigan’s state parks throughout the entire year!
Wooded trails take you through various habitats
Getting off the highway and into the woods, you immediately enter another realm. The forest muffles outside noises, and dampens people’s voices. Despite being a popular place to visit, the park is quiet. Several well-marked, guided paths let you stroll for a few minutes, or an afternoon, with up to 7 miles of trails. As you walk along the maintained trails, the landscape changes subtly.
The paths work through several types of forest, all of which have been preserved in their natural state. The land was saved from logging in 1927 when Karen Michelson Hartwick purchased the bulk of the property and later donated it to the State of Michigan. This park is unique in having the largest remaining old-growth pine forest in Lower Michigan. The richness of having so much land protected is evident in the soundscape of the park. Newer forests can’t support so much wildlife. Listen as you stroll or sit on a path-side bench; birdsong cheerily fills the space.
And Hartwick Pines offers interest all year round. The trails are beautiful in the fall, or bring your cross-country skis after the snow falls. Some portions of the park are open to hunting, as well.
Take a quiet moment and sit in the chapel in the pines
One of the park’s most beloved features is the small chapel along one of the trails. It was constructed in 1951 in honor of Donald A. Johnston of the Kiwanis Club. It’s a one-room building with a capacity for just 18 people. On the back wall of the tiny chapel is a large wooden placard, into its surface is carved a prayer in thanksgiving for the natural world. The Chapel in the Pines is reminiscent of the sort of Sunday meeting house one might find in-town during Michigan’s early history.
The only way to find the chapel is to follow the tree-lined paths. People tend to enter just a few at a time. Intuitively, people stop chatting; they communicate in whispers and low voices, if at all. This quiet little woodland chapel with its moss-covered roof has a special energy of calm and contemplation. Its idyllic setting makes it a popular choice for wedding services, albeit small ones.
Explore Michigan’s historic logging industry in the museum
The Logging Museum is a large log cabin building only ¼ mile from the Visitor Center and main entrance. The entire place is carefully decorated to imitate an old logging camp. Long wooden tables are set, ready for the men to come back from a long day of cutting and hauling trees. Bunks are made up, not-so-tidily, where the men would each have had their own space. Offices are stocked with supplies and antique area maps. The entire building is decorated to appear as though it’s still in use, and everyone has just stepped away for a little while.
The museum also has an area dedicated to displays of tools, like saws and axes, and other important logging paraphernalia. Here, informational signs cue visitors in on some of the details of camp life. Scores of old photographs line the walls, most of them depicting men and horses working in deep snow.
Logging equipment at the ready
Scattered around the outside of the Logging Museum are several large pieces of essential logging machinery. Tools for hauling tree stumps and clearing roads are freshly painted and look like they’re ready for use. A large open shed nearby houses an actual steam engine that was used for getting lumber to the mill. Several signs admonish visitors to stay off the equipment, so watch out for park rangers if you’re trying to get a snapshot of yourself riding an old logging tractor!
The Hartwick Pines Visitor Center is a destination unto Itself
The Visitor Center for the park stays open all year round. The large building is part information headquarters and part educational museum. Many rooms of exhibits take visitors on a tour of the diversity and history of Michigan’s natural forests and wildlife. Aside from the main exhibit areas, there is an auditorium and a classroom. Busloads of school kids are brought here on field trips each year. Guests can also take advantage of a bird viewing area and trails that meander close or link up to the larger park trail system.
So come linger in the Pines
While the park has well-established guides, trails, and signs, there’s no particular order to how you access it, and you can pick and choose what you’d like to do. Come for a picnic, or a walk in the woods. Plan on being here at least two hours if you want to see the highlights, three if you want to take your time doing it. If you really want to explore, reserve a camp site. Whether you like museums, spending time with the trees, or you’re an avid birder, Hartwick Pines has something for everyone to enjoy while experiencing Michigan’s forest heritage.
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