A string of spring days gifted us with exceptionally warm weather—sunshine and mid-70s in April!—but on the day we planned a couple of hikes in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in search of wildflowers, the day is crisp, in the low 50s. The sky, though, is cloudless and bright, the shade of blue you can’t help but stare at, and comment on, for its perfection. It is an ideal day for wandering in the woods, we decide.
Our family is well acquainted with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, having explored countless of its beloved (and more-hidden) gems over the years. Picnics at Little Glen Lake after conquering the Dune Climb were June traditions for me while growing up in nearby Traverse City, and then it was my own kids’ turns—as toddlers and babies, lazy Lake Michigan beach days peppered our summer; then it was elementary school field trips to historic Glen Haven for all three; and as they’ve grown, long bike rides, hilly hikes, shoreline strolls and kayak and tubing trips down winding rivers are part of our all-seasons treks to the Lakeshore.
What we hadn’t yet checked off our list until recently? Seeking out—and identifying—the Lakeshore’s abundant wildflowers. We knew of the park’s varied plant life, and have enjoyed the changing landscape each season we are there exploring, but knowing just how numerous the wildflowers are in the Lakeshore, and the best places to view them? All new to us.
To understand Sleeping Bear’s lovely array of wildflowers—and where to find them—I turned to Craig Olsen, a park ranger entering his ninth season with the Lakeshore. “It’s like seeing an old friend again,” Craig tells me of hiking in search of trout lilies, violets, Dutchman’s breeches and Carolina Springbeauty, to name just a few that peek out this time of year. His knowledge is vast and impressive; the names and spots along the various trails I’ll find the flowers roll off his tongue quickly and easily.
When he gets to the ever-popular white trillium, whose prime time is late April to mid-May, we swap stories of stumbling upon this stunning spring flower (a few mountain biking and trail running adventures revealed their beauty to me). “I get so excited seeing the carpet of trillium on the forest floors,” Craig says. “That spectacle lasts for a few weeks and then they fade. I just like that idea of seeing a long, lost friend after not seeing them for a year.”
I like that idea, too—spending time with treasured friends, in the quiet of the forest. On this cool, early spring day, my then 18-year-old son, Andrew, and I head out together to hunt for these friendly perennials.
Sunday Hike on Windy Moraine
Craig had suggested four trails for our weekend wildflower excursion. I’m intrigued when he mentions the Windy Moraine Trail, a 1.5-mile loop off Welch Road, near Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. I realize, as Andrew and I pull into the trailhead parking lot, that I’ve driven past this lot dozens and dozens of times and never stopped. We’re both a little amazed we’d missed this spot before today.
We’ve brought our phones along, for picture-taking as well as wildflower-identifying—Andrew recently discovered a new app called Seek by iNaturalist that uses image recognition technology to identify the plants and animals around you. We figure we’ll match up what the app identifies with the list of wildflowers we can expect to see on this particular trail (thank you, Craig!).
The Windy Moraine Trail takes you through a field to the moraine left from when the last glaciers melted about 10,000 years ago. (In case you’re wondering what a moraine is exactly, I looked it up for us: a mass of rocks and sediment carried down and deposited by a glacier, typically as ridges at its edges or extremity.) The trail includes a climb to the top of the hill on a modest incline through a beech-maple forest and a pine plantation. From the top of the moraine, you will get a few good views of Glen Lake—this time of year, before leaves are on the trees, the views are gorgeous, particularly at the top.
It doesn’t take us long to see our first wildflowers alongside the dirt-and-root-covered path, though the green plants aren’t yet in bloom. “Look at that one—I wonder what that is,” we take turns saying to each other before crouching down at eye level with a plant and snapping a picture. We identify a Canada mayflower, a white trillium and a few patches of wild leeks. Then, Andrew spots a delicate purple flower—a Carolina springbeauty!—pushing through a mound of brown leaves, a sure sign of spring’s awakening.
The closer we get to the hilltop, the greener the forest floor. The trail narrows into a single-track and the view stops us in our tracks. Here, we see another wildflower in bloom, the white-petaled Dutchman’s breeches. As we make our way back toward the trailhead, the path winds through towering trees, some felled and laying crisscrossed and quiet. We wonder if windstorms took them down, or if it was just their time.
At one point we cross paths with a family of four. A young boy, maybe two or three years of age, walks ahead of his mom and abruptly, shyly, stops when he sees us approaching. He stands still while waiting for his mom to catch up. We wave hello and he slowly smiles. A backpack-clad man follows behind, a younger child on his hip. I fight the urge to tell them, “Just wait. It only gets better. Someday your little boy will be over 6-feet tall and will be on a wildflower hike with you.”
Back at the trailhead, we’re famished and ready for our stop at Anderson’s Market in Glen Arbor for sandwiches and cold drinks. From there, we’ll head to “can’t-not-visit” Pyramid Point to witness that expansive Lake Michigan view on such a glorious Northern Michigan spring day.
Tips for your spring wildflower hike:
Courtesy of Craig Olsen of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
- Be sure to purchase a park pass for your visit. You can buy seven-day or year-round passes. We got ours—it was time to get our annual pass—at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire, which is open year-round.
- These four trails are especially great spots for spotting spring wildflowers: Windy Moraine, Shauger Hill Trail, Old Indian Trail and Pyramid Point.
- Be sure to stay on the trail during your hike—you don’t want to inadvertently trample plant life or contribute to erosion. Also, there’s been an uptick in, well, ticks. Poison ivy is also always a possibility.
- Learn more at nps.gov/slbe.