An Evening Walk in Saugatuck Dunes

The landscape unfolds and opens up on the shore of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River. In a State of forests and farms, a walk with wide vistas in a pure and undisturbed place is rare, but the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area offers it. Several miles of trail roll through dunes, reveal surprise looks into small wetlands, and set a coastal tableau for swimming, birding, or orange sunsets. This gem of a place was recently secured from an uncertain future, is being gently restored, and now can be explored and enjoyed.

On a recent Sunday evening I was fortunate to go on a guided walk through the 171-acre natural area and enjoyed both the feel of an expansive sky and an undulating landscape. Being out in the open in Michigan usually means a farm field, a restored prairie, or an open boat in an inland lake. These surfaces are flat; the Saugatuck dunes are not. As one climbs over a small rise, or around a low dune, new scenes appear: a lone oak tree standing in dune grass, a pair of monarch butterflies rising, or a small marsh adding texture and color. These inter-dune wetlands are home to some unique plants as well as the rare Blanchard’s cricket frog. The backdrop to these low coastal dunes are, on the one side, high, tree covered dunes, and on the other, limitless Lake Michigan.

Natural Features Create Economic Value. The Saugatuck-Douglas area is one of several special summer destinations on Lake Michigan, and its success and charm would not exist if it were not for the ancient and ongoing collision of land and water that occurs here; nor would its character persist if not for the care that people have exercised for more than a century to preserve this special place. Since the ice age, the inexorable force of wind and waves have moved sand east while the inevitable flow of the Kalamazoo River has moved water west. The result is a twisting watercourse set among dunes of increasing heights. The oldest and tallest of the dunes are now well forested, while the newest one rise up from one of the best beaches of the Great Lakes. Importantly, the mouth of the River, now fixed by human engineering, has given entrance to a harbor that has supported many years of commerce, fishing, pleasure boating and the transport of vacationers from Chicago.
The Nature Conservancy talks of ecological services like potable water, food and fiber that have monetary value, but the success of resort communities throughout the Great Lakes is perhaps the clearest case of the economic benefits derived from a healthy ecosystem. Without clean beaches, desirable waterways, and scenic landscapes, places like Saugatuck and Douglas (and many other places on all five Great Lakes) would not be the economic success they are. Not only do these nature-based economies support businesses that employ thousands of people, they also support the arts, strengthen families, and even feed our spiritual selves. It is not by accident that art institutes, vacation homes, and church camps are drawn to these interesting places of water and sand, wind and sun, flora and fauna.

The Long Work of Protection. The Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area is only the latest, and perhaps most hard won, act of preservation in this area. Starting in 1882 with the purchase of the signature dune called Mt. Baldhead by the City of Saugatuck, the local residents of this piece of Lake Michigan coast have worked hard to preserve the environmental prizes of their community. Private institutions and land owners, land conservancies, local government, and state agencies have all taken steps large and small to secure this special place. Together they have created an 1800 acre coastal zone that provides important habitat for resident and migratory animals, plant communities largely free of invasive species, and humans in need of re-creation.
For decades, there has been an effort to preserve the coastal dunes that were the location of my recent hike. Only in the last few years has The Nature Conservancy and the Land Conservancy of West Michigan finally helped secure $22 million to preserve the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area. The biggest single source of funds is the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, a powerful preservation tool supported by the revenues of oil and gas leases sold on public land, but significant personal donations as well as funding from foundations and other grants have also been raised; a final few thousand dollars are needed to complete the acquisition (click on the link above to donate).
Conservation takes persistence, and I was impressed to have as a guide April Scholtz of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan who has been working literally for decades to preserve the unique natural areas that make Saugatuck-Douglas and the west shore of Lake Michigan the very important place they are. Not surprisingly, she calls this area “one of my most favorite places.” I can see why.
To Visit. The Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area can be accessed from the City of Saugatuck’s Oval Beach (click here for map). There is a $6 fee to enter the park, then head to the north of the parking lot and walk along the beach to enter the preserve. Work is diligently underway to reduce the erosion of the dunes, so please stay on the several miles of trail. Dogs and motorized vehicles are not allowed; no camping or fires.
The area is open and exposed, so on a summer day the heat can be intense. While Lake Michigan offers relief, a morning or evening walk can be the best time to experience the dunes (though the area is closed from dusk to dawn). In fall and spring, migratory bird sitings will be common. One guest on our hike told of an enjoyable winter snowshoe trip through the preserve. Soon the preserve will become the property of the City of Saugatuck and with the ongoing stewardship assistance of two land conservancies, the value of this place will grow and be appreciated for generations to come.

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