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Fred Russ Forest Park
Occasionally while standing on a bridge in Fred Russ Forest Park, and if your timing is right, you can watch small rings suddenly appear on the surface of a stream. What is remarkable isn’t that these are brown trout actively feeding during a hatch of emerging insects. What is really remarkable is where you’re watching this natural event. You are neither on the Au Sable River nor even in northern Michigan, but in Cass County, about as far south as you can drive in this state.
Located on a rural road between Dowagiac and Marcellus, Fred Russ is a 13-acre Cass County park surrounded by Michigan State University’s 580-acre Russ Forest Research Station. The entire area is laced by more than 4 miles of trails, open to hiking and cross-country skiing in the winter, while gently flowing through the middle of it is Dowagiac Creek, a Class A trout stream highly regarded among anglers for brown trout.
Even if you’re not into fishing, the rich history - on the edge of the forest is the historical Newton House built in the 1860s - and natural beauty make Fred Russ one of the most popular parks in Cass County. Among other things, Russ Forest is home of the largest tulip poplar tree in Michigan.
By combining Big Tree Loop and West Loop, you can enjoy a moderately easy walk of 3.2 miles that includes seeing the remnants of a giant tulip tree and, depending on the season, possibly even a trout or two rising to an insect hatch. You can shorten the hike to just 1.6 miles by hiking only Big Tree Loop or West Loop.
At one time the park was part of a farm, and a huge red barn still stands near the parking lot. Nearby is a display containing a third of what was once the largest tulip tree in Michigan. Known simply as the “Big Tree,” it was 200 feet tall with a girth of 23.6 feet when a violent storm blew it down in 1984. Big Tree Loop leads due south out to the rest of the trunk and its massive stump.
The trail begins as a sandy path that is usually marred by deer prints made by white-tails traveling from the forest on one side of you to the cornfield on the other. You will also pass benches along the way and signs that point out stands of Austrian pine, black walnut, white ash, and other plantings by MSU foresters.
You pass a junction with a connector trail to West Loop and then, in less than a mile from the parking lot, arrive at a bench overlooking the Big Tree. It may be lying on the ground in several pieces, but it’s still an impressive piece of lumber. It’s not hard to imagine what it looked like stretched out to the sky at the end of its 300-year life.
Nearby are other towering tulip trees that somehow survived the storm and still forces you to look up. One in particular is stands out. This is currently the largest tulip poplar tree in Michigan. Standing at 180 feet and featuring a 15-foot circumference, the tree is more than 300 years old.
You backtrack 0.4 mile of Big Tree Loop and then head left (west) on the connector trail to West Loop. Within 0.5 mile (Mile 1.7) you reach the first of two bridges across Dowagiac Creek. On the west side of the stream West Loop makes a 1-mile loop through the forest and then heads east for the parking area along Dowagiac Creek.
Just before returning to the trailhead you cross the creek a second time on a bridge with benches built in the center. Here you can sit quietly and study the trout stream in front of you.
Russ Forest Park has three picnic shelters, on both sides of Dowagiac Creek along with a children's play area, horseshoe Pit, toilets, drinking water and a canoe landing.
The park is open year-round from sunrise. There is no fee for entering the park but donations are encouraged.
You can reach the Fred Russ Forest Park from M-60, 2 miles east of Cassopolis. Turn north on Decatur Road and in 6 miles left (east) on Marcellus Highway. The park entrance is posted just to the east on Marcellus Highway.
Contact the Cass County Road Commission (269-445-8611;www.casscountymi.org/CountyParks.aspx).
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