At 9,600 acres, Hartwick Pines State Park is the fifth largest state park in Michigan and the second largest in the lower peninsula. Its claim to fame is one of the last remaining parcels of old-growth forest in Michigan.
The 49* acres of old growth white pine in the park is all that remains of Michigan’s virgin timber after the huge logging boom in the 19th-century. During this time, Michigan led the nation in sawed lumber production. But it resulted in the massive deforestation of millions of acres of 400-year-old hardwoods that stood more than 150 feet tall and 12 to 15 feet around. This period of history is very controversial; it represented wealth and growth, provided jobs and established communities. But it wiped out so much natural beauty in the process. (*It was 85 acres until a windstorm wiped out half the trees in the 1940s.)
Hartwick Pines State Park was created in the 1920s from land donated by Karen Hartwick. The daughter and wife of lumber barons, she grew up around the business. She recognized the destruction and wanted to help preserve what she could. When her father’s business moved on to a different part of the state, she purchased 8,000 acres from his company and donated the land in memory of her husband Edward, who had died of illness during World War I.
During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps was instrumental in the park’s development. Its workers built the original log-cabin visitor’s center, or “Memorial Building.” That visitor’s center was shuttered in 1995 in favor of a newer, larger and expanded center with interactive displays and a gift shop. The day we visited, Memorial Day weekend 2019, was the first time the Memorial Building had been opened to the public in 24 years. While no specific plans for the building are in place yet, they hope to open it up to host educational programs or even private events.
Karen stipulated that not only was the land to be a state park but that a museum dedicated to logging be built on the property. The CCC also helped construct two of the museum buildings. Today, the Hartwick Pines Logging Museum depicts the state’s 19th-century logging era to teach and remind future generations about an important part of Michigan’s history.
Old Growth Trail
Today, you can walk the Old Growth Trail and marvel at the remaining majestic pines while imagining what Michigan would have looked like completely covered in these beauties. Deep in the strand, the stillness is broken only by the birds and other visitors gasping at the sight of the massive trees.
Be sure to take one of the guided trail tours. Our guide provided so much additional information we would never have learned on our own. These include how lightning exploded a tree and how “The Monarch” finally fell. We also learned how to tell a tree’s age without cutting it down and how a hollow tree can survive. Check the visitor’s center for tour times. The trail is approximately 1 mile and is paved. It winds through the Old Growth Forest and leads you to the logging museum.
The Hartwick Pines Logging Museum is actually a series of buildings and large pieces of logging equipment. The buildings house exhibits, photographs, and artifacts to give visitors a sense of what life in a logging camp in the 1800s would have been like. The buildings include a bunkhouse, mess hall, camp office, and camp store.
The equipment on display outside is surreal…especially when you get up close and realize how large everything was. The sheer dimensions of the wheels, cranes, and sleds used for hauling and moving the timber provide a jaw-opening understanding of how large the trees were that were being cut down. The lumber industry was a year-round operation and was not an easy life. It was a lot of hard work and very dangerous, due to the size of the trees that were being sawed and felled by hand.
On summer weekends, the park staff provides historical reenactments of logging camp life. During our visit, we were privileged to taste and enjoy some of their cooking, including biscuits and flapjacks. We learned that a lack of refrigeration meant most baked goods were made with a sourdough base instead of dairy, as it did not require being kept cold.
Hiking Trails and Lakes
If hiking and exploring are your things, Hartwick Pines offers trails of varying length and difficulty. There are five distinct loops for hiking in the summer or cross-country skiing in the winter. A few of them also are for biking. Trails range from 2 miles to 7 Miles. From the visitor center’s parking lot you can access three of the trails. The other two trailheads are a short way down the main road near the park headquarters. The two trails near the headquarters can be a bit wet and muddy during the spring rainy season. Bring boots!
Two small lakes in the park offer visitors fishing and kayaking opportunities. These lakes are known as kettle lakes. When glaciers retreated and left huge ice blocks behind, they dented the ground and eventually melted, filling in the holes.
One of the things that surprised me about Hartwick Pines State Park is that considering how many things are to see and do between the Logging Museum and the hiking trails, the campground is relatively small. There are only 100 campsites and they were full the weekend we visited. We’re guessing that considering this park was created to save the trees, cutting them down to build a large campground was not in the plans.
The way the campground is laid out it seems the sites on the outer loop have a little bit more privacy and trees providing some shade. The sites in the inner loop were more wide open with relatively little privacy and little shade. These would be great if you had a large group camping together, which we did see. They had all their picnic tables, tents, and chairs set up together in a big circle between their sites. What a fun way to spend a weekend!
As of May 2019, the sites only had 20/30amp hookup. Half of the sites are electric only, while the other half are full hook-up.
For the kids, the campground includes one of the new modern playscapes. There also is a volleyball pit and a basketball hoop.
Hartwick Pines is a fantastic state park! We definitely recommend this one, whether you only have time for a day trip or want to spend a week. You won’t get bored with all the hiking trails, Logging Museum, and serenity of the woods.
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