Parking restrooms and drinking water is available at the Saginaw Bay Visitor Center inside Bay City State Recreation Area. Originally one of the state’s oldest interpretive centers, the Saginaw Bay Visitor Center extensively renovated in 1996 into a 10,000-square foot facility that features displays on the history and ecology of the marsh, a life-size diorama of a duck hunter and his layout boat and an audio-video theater. But the most important exhibits for anybody venturing into Tobico are those devoted to identifying wildlife. They include a collection mounted birds, a photographic birdlist for the area and a hands-on exhibit that teaches you to recognize waterfowl by their calls.
Outside the visitor center, marked along Euclid Road is the start of the Frank N. Andersen Nature Trail, a 1.25-mile point-to-point paved path. This outing begins by following the first half mile of the rail-trail, crossing Killarney Beach Road at Mile 0.5 and passing a handful of interpretive plaques along the way and two wildlife observation blinds along the way.
Just beyond Killarney Beach Road, the trail splits and the heart of Tobico Marsh is reached by heading west (left) on a paved path that is a bit rough in places. This spur skirts the lagoon for a third of a mile and passes two more observation decks, the first being the best one in the park. The huge deck features benches two spotting scopes and large plagues that help you identify what’s dabbling in the open water in front of you.
This is where you search for wildlife at Tobico. Beavers and muskrats skim its surface on the way to their lodges. Mink and otter have been seen early in the morning hunting along the edge. And in October thousands of birds arrive with puddle ducks; mallards, pintails, green-winged teals and widgeons, passing through early in the month followed by diving ducks, mergansers and geese later on. In a major staging area like Tobico ducks and geese will rest and feed for a few days before moving on, the reason the numbers fluctuate almost daily. Serious birders will pack along their own high-powered binoculars as the majority of the birds will often be in the middle of the lagoon.
At Mile 1, the asphalt ends and you arrive the first of Tobico’s two observation towers. Both towers rise 40 feet into the hardwood trees and recently were renovated in 2012 thanks to the Friends of Bay City State Recreation Area.
A wide dirt path continues west into the woods from the tower to quickly reach a junction with the Tobico Marsh Big Loop Trail. This 2.7-mile loop winds through the wooded interior of Tobico Marsh and is a level and easy ride on a mountain bike and a stunning hike in the fall as you begin by passing through a brilliant canopy of white and red oaks, maples and poplars.
At Mile 1.75 you arrive at a second tower while nearby is a 300-foot boardwalk that leads you through into an amazing thicket of cattails but little or no view of the open water of the marsh. This was the site of the Tobico Hunt Club, which, according to the extant records, never had more than eight members during its existence from 1907 to 1956. The exclusive club was never lacking, however, for it featured cottages with porches and fireplaces, boathouses, blinds scattered throughout the marsh, and a caretaker who lived here year-round with his wife and children. It was Frank N. Andersen, one of only two surviving members of the club, that offered the marsh to the state as a wildlife refuge in 1956.
Just past Mile 2 you begin the backside of the loop, a mostly level trail that winds through the woods and crosses a pair of small wooden bridges. Keep an eye out here for whitetail deer, gray and red fox, coyote or even gobbling wild turkeys. The Killarney Beach Road trailhead is reached at Mile 3.5.
The trail departs from the shelter and quickly comes to a junction. Head east (right) and follow the trail as it crosses three bridges, each spanning an old beachline left behind by a retreating Lake Huron centuries ago. In less than a half mile, you come to the paved path at the south end of the lagoon. The last leg of the hike is to retrace your steps back along Andersen Nature Trail to return to the Saginaw Bay Visitor Center reached at Mile 4.8. For more opportunities to look for birdlife on the lagoon, continue north on the paved rail-trail and look for sandy paths that head west. Most of them will take you to an open spot to scan the water.