The national champion mountain paper birch, near Empire.
Come along on a Northern Michigan color tour that leads you to some of the biggest, oldest trees in the country—and steers you to small-town interludes along the way.
We love our giant trees, but not just because they are props and backdrops for play. Perhaps we gain a peculiar comfort knowing they lived before us and will live long beyond, a sort of affirmation of life’s continuance.
Now that autumn has rolled round, what better time to venture forth on a colorful daytrip that celebrates some of our stalwart arboreal neighbors. You see, Northwest Michigan lays claim to a number of the state’s—even the world’s—champion trees. So let us take you on a treasure hunt to discover these titans in their autumn finery.
Don’t risk a road trip without provisions. The first stop is Good Harbor Coffee and Bakery, Front Street, Traverse City (231-935-4166). No trees here, but the scones make up for that. Slightly sweet, flaky but not dry. Favorites: Dried cranberry with walnut or dried cherry with pecan. Coffee’s great too.
Head west a few blocks to the former Traverse City State Hospital Grounds, now the Grand Traverse Commons. Back about the turn of the 20th century, two black willow shoots sprouted beside Kidd’s Creek on what would eventually become the grounds of the Traverse City State Hospital. The hearty siblings have since seen 36,000 (give or take) sunrises together and now reign as the largest black willows in the world. Today the trees stand on either side of an obscure hospital service road, so rugged and weathered, they seem more rock than wood.
The black willows became just one of many tree attractions on the state hospital grounds when, in the early years of the 20th century, the director of the Traverse City State Hospital planted over 50 general varieties on the hospital grounds. Roam the lawn in front of the massive Building 50. Make it a game and bring your tree identification book. Find a magnificent copper beech, a pin oak (so named because its sturdy twigs were used as pins to fasten barn beams), horse chestnut and many more—all handsome in their autumn hues.
Back in your car, wend your way west to the Dune Climb at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, but don’t stop there. Keep on north to Harwood Street, the first left. Hop out at the second curve. See that commanding birch with branches like giant white tentacles above? It’s called a mountain paper birch and it too sports a national champion crown. One of the birch’s strategies for Nordic survival is the white bark that preserves moisture in winter by reflecting the drying rays of the sun. Catch this tree right and witness the leaves’ golden glow.
Now, backtrack a bit to downtown Empire. Right there on Front Street, four houses east of the post office, stands the nation’s largest known Norway maple (look for the plaque). Charmed by the tree’s adaptability, luxuriant foliage and resistance to pollution, city planners across the country lined neighborhood streets with this European species. A note of caution: view this tree from the sidewalk, it’s on private property.
The next champions live 60 miles down the coast in Manistee. Lucky you because M-22 from Empire to Manistee delivers one of the most delightful autumn color drives you’ll ever find. As you head south, pull into a dirt road of your choosing that cuts into the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore forests—maybe a right on Trail’s End Road, for example. Stop your car and breathe in the incense of autumn. Listen to the wind off the lake and the crows cawing in the coolness. Pull out that tree identification book and see what you can name.
Continue south till you land in Frankfort and find the A&W, just east of town on the corner of M-115 and M-22. Go ahead, stay in your car and make ’em come to you. Keep with the day’s theme—all things tree—and order the soda that began with sassafras roots. Suck down a giant root beer and top it off with a buffalo chicken sandwich (photographer Brian Confer’s favorite A&W treat).
Swing round Betsie Lake and pick up M-22 in Elberta. Southward ho! Go slow to appreciate the sweeping estuary and the view up the ridge. You’re on a curvaceous strip o’ asphalt here, so enjoy its gentle motion. Don’t even think of passing by Lake Michigan’s highest lookout, between Elberta and Arcadia. Climb the steps and feel the wind snap you back. Hundreds of feet below, and as far as you can see, the water dominates. Maybe slate gray. Maybe azure. Maybe a million other moods. Back in your car, you’re on a roll, literally, as you rocket down the steep hill that falls away from the overlook.
Another 15 minutes drive down M-22 and you’re at the outer edge of Manistee. Keep a keen eye out for the Lake Bluff Audubon Center (231-723-4042). Turn right into the drive and be prepared for serenity. Flawless lawns and manicured gardens of what used to be the Morton family (the salt people) estate make the world seem in order. Rising above it all is the state’s biggest Sequoia. OK, this towering guy doesn’t turn color with the season, but it’s still a worthy sight—resonant red bark and precise conical shape. Sequoias are among the world’s biggest trees and some of these West Coast natives, when cut, have revealed 3,800 rings—each indicating a year of life—and delivered 600,000 board feet of timber. Wander around to the manor house’s rear patio and size up the state’s biggest sycamore maple. Take time to meander to the bluff where another Lake Michigan view awaits.
Pull yourself away from this peaceable kingdom and continue into downtown Manistee. Proper Victorian neighborhoods accented in autumn reds and golds, and a historic downtown give this lumber-era town righteous autumn pride. Strut along the boardwalk that edges the Manistee River downtown.
Time to head home and let these champions finish preparations for yet another winter’s nap.