The Mitten State is renowned locally, nationally, and, in some cases, worldwide for its beauty, which can be found all over the state. Tucked into different corners of the state and adding to that natural beauty is a connection to the past: Michigan old-growth forests.
Michigan has a proud logging tradition, but the old-growth forests in Michigan are protected to preserve plant life, animals, and trees, many of which are hundreds of years old.
Michigan’s old-growth forests can be found on college campuses, on the shores of Lake Michigan, in the heart of Detroit, and in many other places.
What is an Old Growth Forest?
Quite simply, an old-growth forest is one that has grown over a long period of time and has been free of disturbances, such as insects, diseases, and severe weather events.
These unique forests offer an important living connection to the past because their ecosystems have flourished for a long time, allowing native species to live and thrive without outside threats.
A forest doesn’t have to be old, age-wise, to be considered an old-growth forest. The most important factor is that the forests have been largely undisturbed by humans or other outside factors.
Because they’ve been largely undisturbed, old-growth forests can boast many unique and positive ecological features. They can support a diverse array of wildlife, they can absorb stormwater and release it as clean, sparkling water and they can exist as stable communities for plant and animal populations.
A Great Benefit to the Environment
Old-growth forests not only provide a connection to the past, but they provide a great many benefits to the environment. These forests help improve air quality by absorbing greenhouse gases such as ozone and nitrogen dioxide.
Since the forest is full of healthy trees, the forests acts as a natural treatment system. They catch stormwater and rainfall and absorb pollution to produce healthy, clean drinking water that is used in places all over the world.
Old-growth forests have their own unique ecosystems and are able to support insects, birds, mosses, tree seedlings, and more. Sensitive animal species are also protected by these forests, able to adapt to changing climate and protected from competing species.
Trees in old-growth forests can also store large amounts of carbon. Some estimates say the oldest and largest trees in the world store up to 50% of the world’s aboveground carbon. When old-world trees store carbon, animal and plant life in the surrounding area has a better opportunity to flourish.
How Does an Old Growth Forest Get Classified?
So how many old-growth forests are there in the US? It’s an interesting question with no clear answer. Debates are ongoing about how old-growth and mature forests should be categorized, so there’s no framework for taking an inventory of the country’s old-growth forests.
Where to Find Old Growth Forests in Michigan
Twelve forests in Michigan have been given old-world designation by the Old-Growth Forest Network, a non-profit dedicated to preserving the nation’s old-growth forests. Visitors can find them as well as a few other old-growth spots all over the state.
Hartwick Pines State Park | Grayling
As one of the biggest parks in the Lower Peninsula, the rolling hills of Hartwick Pines State Park offer a majestic view of the Au Sable River. The park is also home to an old-growth forest, campgrounds, nearly two dozen miles of trails, and more.
The old-growth forest part of the park is best viewed on its namesake Old Growth Forest Trail, a 1.25-mile paved trail, that takes trekkers through 49 acres of forest with towering white pines, some of which are estimated to be more than 400 years old.
The trail is absolutely beautiful in the warmer months but is also a popular winter destination for those who enjoy snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Oden Island Nature Preserve | Emmet County
This 50-acre natural forest area sits right on Crooked Lake in Emmet County and was dedicated as an old-growth forest in October 2022.
Portions of the forest here are approaching old-growth characteristics and it contains large maples, pine, and hemlock trees. Officials estimate that some of the trees found in the preserve’s forests predate the 1800s logging boom, giving it signs of being an old-growth forest.
It is open year-round from sunrise to sunset and has a little more than a half mile of trails.
Flower Creek Dunes Nature Preserve | Muskegon County
Situated on the Lake Michigan shoreline in northwest Muskegon County, the preserve offers incredible views of the shoreline and protects dunes, wetlands, and 64 acres of mesic forest.
The forest is considered to still be developing old-growth characteristics but already includes an abundance of tree species, including sugar maple, wine pine, American beech, red oak, and eastern hemlock.
The forest has also shown a high rate of second growth with an abundance of dead trees on the forest floor, along with fungi, and is home to several forest bird species, including woodpeckers.
Parking can be found at Meinert Park in Montague and visitors can stroll through the forest on a 1.2-mile round-trip trail through the park.
MSU Baker Woodlot | East Lansing
Baker Woodlot, situated on the Michigan State University campus, is the first forest in the network to be located on a college campus. Because of its location, it is an important green space and a unique training ground for researchers, biologists, and students studying forestry.
The newest member of the Old Growth Forest Network was inducted in October 2023, becoming the 12th such forest in the Mitten.
Spread out across 78 acres, the lot has been preserved on campus for more than 150 years. It is well-known among researchers and nature enthusiasts for its diverse tree species, including sugar maples, Northern red oaks, and American beeches.
It is open year-round and includes two miles of trails.
Valley of the Giants | Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
The Valley of the Giants on South Manitou Island is home to a historic grove of northern white cedar trees. Not only does the grove contain some of the world’s oldest cedar trees, but these trees are also some of the tallest and include a former national champion.
The grove’s proximity to Sleeping Bear Dunes is believed to be the reason it has flourished over time and many of the trees are estimated to be between 300 and 500 years old.
Sleeping Bear Dunes is a must-visit spot for Michiganders of any age and South Manitou Island is one of many islands around the state that’s perfect for adventuring, and the towering pines serve are a reminder of how majestic preserved forests can be.
Au Sable State Forest | Roscommon
The Au Sable State Forest in Northern Michigan was created as a byproduct of the state’s 19th-century lumbering boom and is now home to a scenic 34-acre grove of old-growth forest that contains red pines.
Visitors can walk along a 1.7-mile mostly flat trail and marvel at red pine trees that are estimated to be at least 200 years old. The grove also includes a former national champion red pine tree.
Warren Woods State Park | Three Oaks
Nestled into the southwesternmost corner of the Mitten, Warren Woods State Park is home to Michigan’s last climax beech-maple forest, which spreads out across 200 acres.
A climax forest refers to a forest where there is a stabilization of a major tree species. In the case of Warren Woods, beech and maple trees are the dominant tree species due to their tolerance of shade and height.
The beech-maple forest includes trees that are more than 100 feet tall and more than 5 feet around. To protect the rarity of the forest and its ecosystem, the area was designated in 1967.
Though the park has only a few amenities, it is a favorite among visitors for its hiking trails, which cover 3.5 miles.
Witherell Woods in Palmer Park | Wayne County
The Witherell Woods in Palmer Park spans 70 acres and is home to the largest old-growth forest in the Tri-County area in Southeast Michigan and is just one of seven forests found in Detroit.
The park is home to an Oak-Beech Climax forest, with some of the oaks being at least 300 years old. Visitors can marvel at three different natural communities that include dozens of native plant species as well as oak, hickory, and maple trees.
The park has recently become the site of efforts to make both the woods and Lake Frances healthier and received grant money from the state to be used for projects which include cleaning the lake, restoring native plants, improving bike and walking paths in the park, and much more.
Duncan Memorial Park | Ottawa County
Duncan Memorial Park, also known as Duncan Woods, is home to 40 acres of unspoiled forest and includes a variety of trails as well as a picnic area.
The acreage was purchased by Robert Duncan in the 1850s as a move to protect trees there for prosperity during the infancy of the area’s lumber industry.
Aman Park | Grand Rapids
Aman Park is located just six miles west of Grand Rapids and is home to a 331-acre preserve, which was donated to the city by Jacob Aman in 1926.
The park is a recent addition to Michigan’s OGF network and was honored in May 2023.
The park is frequented for its natural surface trails that go through maturing growth forests, and both dry-mesic and southern mesic forests. Tree species found in the forest include northern red oak, black cherry, and white oak.
The park is also frequented in the spring for its displays of ephemeral plants, which include Dutchman’s breeches, trillium, and bluebells. Ephemeral plants are those that are short-lived and only grown during certain times of the year.
The park is open year-round and features more than six miles of trails.
Otto Nature Preserve | Oceana County
Spread out over 80 acres, the forest is unevenly aged and is “moving toward old-growth forest conditions” according to the OGFN.
The oldest trees in the preserve are estimated to be nearly 150 years old and visitors can see a variety of trees, including sugar maples, American beeches, yellow birches, and Northern red oaks.
Visitors can traverse two year-round trails, which are 0.7 and 1.5 miles long respectively.
Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area | Mason County
The Nordhouse Dunes Area is federally protected by Congress and spreads out over 3,500 acres along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
The area was once a logging site, but federal protections have allowed the forests here to recover and grow. The wilderness area includes freshwater wetlands, inland lakes, and forested areas that include hemlock, maple, and beech trees.
Its natural beauty has made the wilderness area a popular spot for camping, picnicking, and hiking with nearly 10 miles of trails, and wildlife study and viewing.
Sand Point Nature Preserve | Emmet County
None of the 220 acres that encompass the Sand Point Nature Preserve is technically considered to be old-growth. But the forest, which contains black cherry trees as well as maples, oaks, hemlocks, and pines, has trees that are approaching more than 100 years old.
Visitors can traverse nearly five miles of trails and keep an eye out for dozens of bird species, including eagles, sandhill cranes, ducks, herons, and more. Visitors can also walk along a rustic boardwalk or view two different protected wetlands.
Newton Woods | Cass County
Newton Woods in SW Michigan is MSU’s Fred Russ Experimental Forest and is the site of one of the last remaining oak-mixed hardwood stands in the state. In 1976, 40 acres of the forest were designated as a national landmark.
Newton Woods can be accessed through Newton Woods-Russ Forest County Park, which includes amenities like parking, picnic tables, bathrooms, and shelters that can be rented out. The park is open year-round and includes a nearly two-mile trail loop.
Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary | Keweenaw County
The northernmost old-growth forest in Michigan can be found way up in the Keweenaw Peninsula near the shores of Lake Superior. Esitivant Pines Nature Sanctuary sits on more than 500 acres and protects one of the state’s last old-growth stands of wine pine trees.
Some of the white pines in the sanctuary are more than 300 years old and stand more than 125 feet tall. Visitors can see majestic pines as well as sugar maples and balsam fir trees.
All of the sanctuary’s wonders can be seen via a pair of connected loop trails, which span a mile and 1.2 miles respectively. This allows visitors to see the stunning variety of plants and wildlife within the sanctuary, including dozens of bird species, violets, ferns, and more.
Take a Trip to Explore a Michigan Old Growth Forest
Whether you’re a nature enthusiast who can’t get enough of seeing towering white pine trees and colorful mixed forests or you can’t tell a maple tree from a beech tree, Michigan old-growth forests have something to offer everyone.
These living connections to the past are filled with giant trees and flourishing plant and animal species, but they also serve as living proof of the beauty of Michigan and the importance of maintaining that natural beauty.
With 12 old-growth forests scattered all over the state, you probably don’t have to go far to find one. Visiting one and spending time surrounded by ancient trees is enough to make any visitor stand in awe and gain even more appreciation for the beauty of The Mitten.