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Warren Woods Natural Area
In 1879 and only seven years after the country’s first national park, Yellowstone, was established, Edward K. Warren purchased Warren Woods. Warren at the time was a partner of a general store in Three Oaks and knew that the woods represented one of the last surviving stands of virgin beech and maple left in the state. Everything else had been logged.
Warren held onto the area, despite financial problems, and eventually he developed a process that substituted turkey-wing feathers for the increasingly scarce whalebone in women’s corsets. He set up the Warren Featherbone Company and made a fortune at the turn of the century. He promptly used much of his profits to buy duneland along Lake Michigan, which bankrupt farmers were letting go to the state for back taxes of less than $25.
The vision of this general-store merchant was incredible. Today the dunes that were worthless in the early 1900s are Warren Dunes State Park. That state park also manages his other acquisition; Warren Woods Natural Area.
Located 7 miles inland, this 311-acre wooded tract is a complete contrast to the state park on Lake Michigan; no towering dunes, but also no crowds, overflowing parking lots, and filled-to-capacity campgrounds. Amazingly, the natural area can be a quiet spot even at the height of the summer season when rangers are turning away visitors at the state park.
From the Elm Valley Road parking area, the trail begins as a wide, wood-chip path just east of the display map. It skirts a wooded ridge, and in 0.3 mile arrives at a pair of benches that sit on a bluff overlooking the Galien River and a wooden bridge across it. Steps descend to the bridge, and on the other side the trail splits.
Head west (left), so that the blue DNR pathway triangles face you. The trail follows the bank of the river for a short spell, then ascends a bluff for an overview of the water. These stretches along the river are where birders look for warblers and thrushes and Warren Woods is one of the best in Michigan to see a yellow-throated warbler, a small, gray bird with a distinct yellow bib.
A half mile from the start, the trail takes a sharp swing north and enters for the first time the rare stand of virgin hardwoods. At Mile 0.7, you arrive at the junction with the return trail to the bridge. But don’t skip the quarter mile to the trailhead at Warren Woods Road. This is where the largest trees are seen and it's mind-boggling that at one time all of southern Michigan was covered by a forest like this. Most trees are so large that two people can’t link their arms around them.
The return trail is a level walk that follows a ridge from the junction and in a quarter mile comes to a view of the Galien River, which most of the year, especially in the summer, is a slow-moving and muddy waterway. Eventually the trail descends the low bluff and hugs the riverbank for 0.3 mile before arriving at the bridge at Mile 1.7, which is crossed to return to the parking area.
The Elm Valley Road trailhead features a parking area with vault toilets, tables, and a large display map.
The natural area is open daily from 8 am–dusk year-round, but the best time to come is late September through mid-November when the leaves take on their autumn colors. Birders arrive in the spring, however, to look for warblers and other songbirds, while skiers enjoy the trails during the winter when there is sufficient snow.
To enter Warren Woods you need either a daily vehicle entry permit or an annual state park pass.
The natural area can be reached from I-94 by departing at Union Pier (exit 6) and heading east on Union Pier Road, which quickly becomes Elm Valley Road, for 2.5 miles to an unmarked entrance that resembles a dirt road. There is also a posted trailhead on Warren Woods Road, 7 miles east of Warren Dunes State Park, but the southern entrance is the best place to begin the hike. From Elm Valley Road, it’s a quarter-mile drive to the trailhead. a parking area with vault toilets, tables, and a large display map.
For more information contact Warren Dunes State Park (269-426-4013).
For lodging or additional travel information contact the West Michigan Travel Association (616-246-2217; www.WMTA.org).
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