The majestic white pine may be the state tree, but few virgin stands remain today. One of the last can be seen at the Hartwick Pines State Park (4216 Ranger Rd., 989/348-7068, state park vehicle permit required), one of the largest parks in the state. A century ago, more than 13 million of the state’s 38 million acres were covered with the majestic trees, but by the early 1900s more than 160 billion board feet of timber had been harvested. By the 1920s, these once majestic forests were denuded wastelands.
More than 250,000 visitors stroll through the pines annually, marveling at trees that have been here since before the Revolutionary War. Long a popular stop for vacationers heading north, Hartwick Pines State Park has been improved over the years, with a superb visitors center, a walkway to the pines that’s accessible to both wheelchairs and strollers, and a steam sawmill that’s part of an extensive logging museum area.
Hartwick Pines State Parkk is also the site of the Hartwick Pines State Forest Festivals: four different events held throughout the summer, including Sawdust Days, Wood Shaving Days, Black Iron Days, and Old Time Days.
The park’s Michigan Forest Visitors Center boasts a 100-seat auditorium; a 14-minute audiovisual show on “The Forest: Michigan’s Renewable Resource,” which is presented every 30 minutes; and an exhibit hall that concentrates on forest management. Ironically, many of the displays were funded by forestry products companies, so don’t expect to see explorations of the negative environmental effects of logging.
The 49-acre virgin tract of white and red pines is the main attraction. Reaching as high as 10 stories, the majestic trees were slated for cutting in the mid-1890s. Fortunately for us, the logging company charged with felling the trees was forced to suspend operations due to economic problems. In 1927, the trees and the surrounding 8,000 acres were purchased from the lumber company and donated to the state for a park.
The self-guided Old Growth Forest Trail connects the pines with the visitors center, a 1.25-mile blacktopped path that weaves among the regal giants, including the Monarch. Once the tract’s largest specimen at 155 feet, a windstorm destroyed the top 40 feet of the now-diseased and dying tree. Part of nature’s cycle, several other immense white pines tower nearby, ready to take its place in the record books.
The pines and museums overshadow the rest of the park, but don’t overlook it yourself. With more than 9,600 acres, it offers plenty to do besides admire tall trees. Signs and other displays mark the eight-mile Scenic Drive, about two miles north of the main entrance, encouraging visitors to explore the woods and natural world around them. Hiking and biking trails include 17 miles of easy trails open to mountain bikes in summer and cross-country skiers in winter.
The Au Sable River Trail (no bikes) is one of the loveliest. It crosses the East Branch of the legendary river and passes a rare forest of virgin hemlock, saved from the saw by a sudden drop in the price of its bark, which was once used for tanning leather. The two-mile Mertz Grade Nature Trail loops through the park and past an old logging railroad grade before linking up with the Virgin Pines Trail behind the visitors center.
Open year-round, Hartwick Pines State Park is especially popular in the spring, when wildflowers bloom, and in the early fall, when the colorful hardwoods explode in a riot of fiery reds, yellows, and oranges.