Trail Tales: Five underrated Southwest Michigan nature trails make the travel worthwhile

Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy has made a profound and enduring impact on our regional community. With steadfast commitments to protecting 18 public natural areas, 36 refuge preserves with limited access, 112 conservation easements on private property, and fostering public engagement, SWMLC has firmly established itself as a leading local conservation organization.

While renowned preserves like Bow in the Clouds and Chipman Preserve capture the hearts of Kalamazoo residents and attract numerous visitors, it's important to shed light on the lesser-known treasures within SWMLC's impressive portfolio. Here are five underrated SWMLC properties deserving of attention:
1.     Hidden Pond Preserve, Barry County
Nestled just outside of Hastings lies Hidden Pond, a great detour for travelers journeying between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. A regal oak stands guard at its entrance, seemingly watching over the land to ensure its sanctity. Embracing nature's gentle contours, two inviting grass trails, neither exceeding a mile in length, entice exploration. The southern trail ascends a rather steep hill, leading to an unforeseen upland pond while the northern loop traverses open, flat prairie. 
After years of being concealed beneath drainage tiles the pond is finally revealed.Walking the trails, one will come across an array of prairie flora and fauna. Milkweed is a common sight, serving as the sole sustenance for endangered Monarch butterfly caterpillars. In the spring, peepers (a tiny chorus frog) sing their cacophonous song at a near-deafening tone. For the keen observer, a fortuitous encounter may reveal the elusive Henslow's sparrow. Wild lupine graces the trails, its fan-shaped leaves and delicate blueish bell-like flowers suspended from slender stems, beautifully adorn the landscape.
Whispering winds sway the majestic prairie grasses at Hidden Pond.According to SWMLC, the acquisition of this preserve in 2010 was instrumental in averting a potential housing development, having previously been used for corn fields and pasture for dairy cows. ‘Undeveloping’ the property, or the process of converting used land back into some semblance of its natural state, is ongoing. Only after drainage tiles used by the previous owners were removed did the pond reveal itself, harboring multiple frog species. To reestablish the area’s previous prairie habitat, SWMLC has conducted prescribed burns, removed invasive species, and planted native grasses and other forbs. Furthermore, meticulous efforts have been undertaken to reinstate the property's original hydrology, breathing life back into the land's natural rhythm.
2.     Kesling Nature Preserve,  Berrien County
A small, roadside property, Kesling Nature Preserve beckons as an idyllic haven for weary travelers seeking respite on their journey between Kalamazoo and Chicago. Situated just east of New Buffalo, this preserve occupies a near-perfect midpoint between these two cities. While boasting two scenic trails, only one falls completely within SWMLC bounds. The eastern trail winds through both conservancy property and Three Oaks Conservation Area while the western trail is located solely in SWMLC's preserve. Both trails include earthen pathways that gently guide hikers through their looped courses. Embarking from the western trailhead, one finds themselves next to the Galien River, ascending a subtle incline that soon levels. 
Redbuds flank the Galien River.
In the spring, this enchanting property becomes a veritable tapestry of native wildflowers, dotting the landscape with a kaleidoscope of colors. Phlox, prairie trillium, and rue-anemone are just a few of the species found here. A group of SWMLC volunteers known as the ‘Wednesday Warriors,’ just happened to be at the property when Southwest Michigan Second Wave visited. Their weekly mission focuses on combating the dangerous encroachment of invasive plants, with a particular focus on tackling the tenacious garlic mustard and multiflora rose. Among them, Sharon Olvera comments that the “wildflowers that grow here are really beautiful.” Another member, Kristi Chapman, notes that it “makes it easy to pull out invasives when you know good plants are filling in the space.” As the invasive plants are painstakingly removed, the forest edges ever closer to its native state.
Wednesday Warriors a volunteer group that removes invasive vegetation from different SMWLC preserves every Wednesday. 
3.     Hidden Marsh Sanctuary, St. Joseph County
A Three Rivers gem, Hidden Marsh Sanctuary offers a gentle stroll through lush vegetation, providing picturesque views of the Portage River and surrounding marsh. The sanctuary boasts a well-constructed, looped earthen trail, intersected by several pathways that allow one to become fully immersed in the natural environment. While not large, the property has enough paths for a modest walk and includes strategically placed benches that invite appreciation of the surroundings. 
A bench at Hidden Marsh Sanctuary provides scenic views of Portage River.Wetland plants abound, with species like lizard’s tail and buttonbush ever-present. Delicate ferns decorate the forest floor while witch hazel and dogwood can be found sporadically. The preserve is an excellent birding spot with ducks, warblers, and herons frequenting the property. The industrious beaver is active in the area as evidenced by whittled tree stumps. Other common marsh animals like muskrats, turtles, and frogs can also be found here. 
Possessing an interesting natural history, SWMLC notes that Hidden Marsh was first platted in 1826 only to be subsequently sold by the state in 1853. Changing hands a few times over, it eventually blossomed into a prosperous strawberry farm in the late 1800s. As the years passed, the property was subdivided and sold in the 1950s. Generous private owners recognized its inherent value and magnanimously donated the land in 1998.
4.     Corey Lake North Bay Preserve, St. Joseph County 
Not far from Hidden Marsh Sanctuary is another captivating SWMLC property. Corey Lake North Bay Preserve is perched gracefully along the northern edge of the lake. While this preserve may be modest in size when compared to its counterparts, Corey Lake is not without its enchanting qualities. Possessing a small, quarter-mile loop through oak woods, this preserve is ideal for a brief, rejuvenating hike. Be prepared for the undulating landscape, as the trail gracefully ascends and descends, keeping the calves tender. However, the uneven terrain should not be enough to deter one as the elevation provides a glimpse of Corey Lake through majestic trees.
Corey Lake filtering through the trees from atop a hill.Another haven for woodland wildflowers, Corey Lake provides a suitable habitat for mayapple, wild columbine, and wild geranium. Woodland creatures that can be regularly spotted in the preserve include scurrying chipmunks, drumming woodpeckers, and melodious chickadees. While the property does contain wetland, the access point is elusive and is separated from the woodland by a paved road. 
5.     Spirit Springs Sanctuary, Cass County
Another SWMLC property in the vicinity of Three Rivers, Spirit Springs Sanctuary provides a cornucopia of natural wonders. Six distinct earthen trails intertwine through the incredibly diverse landscape. While occasionally hilly, the trails are rather modest and provide over two miles of pristine hiking, taking one by a pond, through a swamp, and into a peninsula of magnificent oaks. This preserves harmoniously blends a few of Michigan’s characteristic ecosystems in one convenient location. 
The shed marks the entrance of Spirit Springs Sanctuary.The pond is teeming with life, hosting an array of amphibians, including bullfrogs, Fowler’s toads, and spring peepers. Crayfish are abundant along the periphery and northern water snakes glide across the water. Beavers and muskrats also make their homes along the shore. According to SWMLC, state-threatened Virginia bluebells make their home near the pond by a beaver-blocked brook. The swamp contains an assortment of plants, from delicate ferns to vibrant marsh marigolds. White trillium can also be found in parts of the forest. 
A North American bullfrog enjoying the pond.Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy has left an indelible mark on our regional community, tirelessly working to protect and preserve the natural beauty of the area. While their well-known preserves garner most of the attention, other properties stewarded by SWMLC deserve recognition. All the properties mentioned offer unique experiences and showcase the remarkable biodiversity of Southwest Michigan. From serene prairie landscapes to enchanting woodlands, these areas invite visitors to explore and appreciate the wonders of nature.

Find details, maps, and directions on the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy website.
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Read more articles by Sam Kapp.

Sam Kapp is an independent historian with a passion for the environment. Sam graduated from Northern Michigan University in 2021. He has also served on the Board of Directors of the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy since 2018. New to Southwest Michigan, Sam is eager to immerse himself in his new community and its natural wonders.