Midwest Day Trip: Southern MI – Pt. 1

Summary

Just a few miles north of the Indiana/Michigan border lies the bedroom community of New Buffalo, MI. New Buffalo is the first coastal town upon entering Michigan, known for its beaches and as a weekend getaway for Chicagoans. However, the area surrounding New Buffalo hosts a great many natural treats. Fernwood Botanical Gardens and Nature Preserve, Grand Mere State Park, and Galien River County Park offer three unique experiences showing the incredible natural diversity within a 25 mile radius, and those will be the focus of this post.

Logistics

Each of these locations require making the drive from Chicago to southern Michigan. Summer traffic on weekends can be an ordeal, but if you can get on the road by 7:30 AM CST, you should be in good shape. Once you’ve crossed into Indiana, you should be about 40 minutes from 2 of these locations – Fernwood requires an additional 20 minutes of driving.

Since you’ll be in and around New Buffalo, there are plenty of food options, though keep in mind summer is peak season. New Buffalo also has many other amenities, including a fruit stand which sells mighty tasty blueberries, along with an array of seasonal produce grown in Michigan.

Finally, a quick reminder that Michigan is Eastern time zone, an hour ahead of Chicago.

Galien River County Park

Galien River County Park (GRCP) is one of the random finds we’ve happened to stumble across online. We make the trek to southern MI fairly often but had never heard or read about GRCP. We happened to be up early one morning on the last weekend of August, and just decided to give GRCP a go.

In brief, GRCP is a forest path that winds downhill to a planked platform walkway, leading through a lily covered marsh/wetland. This path, perhaps a 1/4 mile long, ends with a lookout point in the Galien River, providing beautiful omnidirectional views of the river. The boardwalk through the marsh is a reasonably unique midwestern experience.

Visible from the boardwalk is a raised walking bridge with an observation deck, jutting out from the forest above. To be clear, when I say raised, I’m guessing the bridge hovers a minimum of 50 feet over the marsh below.

Though the climb takes a little time and effort, the raised platform is the star of the show. Viewing distances from both sides of the platform are extensive, and seeing the river and marsh with a bird’s eye view is something we’ve really only done by plane before.

The park contains a few other wooded trails, but the marshlands, from both the boardwalk and the observation deck, are what make GRCP worth the visit, which in total was about an hour. Just off of the Red Arrow Highway, a few miles opposite New Buffalo, GRCP is a don’t miss.

Grand Mere State Park

I suppose Grand Mere is less known than the other local state park, Warren Dunes (which we have not been to). However, on this mid-August morning Grand Mere provided a few amazing sites to be seen in our hour and a half visit.

The park, located a few miles north of New Buffalo off of I-94, was an add-on after visiting Galien River Park, but was unsurprisingly well worth the extra minutes in the car.

The park’s main path encompasses two very distinct environments – the first half is forest-like, with a pond hugging near the path. After a fifteen minute walk, the dirt path grows sandy, and before long, you’re staring at the intimidating trail heading up a sand dune.

During any other weekend we may not have been so enthralled with the forest portion, but luck and timing proved to be on our side as we gently made our way through hundreds of butterflies dancing from flower to flower along the perimeter of the path. While we may have had experiences in butterfly gardens before, this was other-worldly – it literally felt as if it could have been a Tim Burton film. Thankfully the path was in and out, so we got to live through this surreal experience twice.

The dunes were just as amazing, though perhaps lacking the uniqueness given this part of Michigan. The initial climb was definitely a bit of a workout and there was a second climb just a little later. The dunes were pristine and, luckily, the park was not crowded.

After the second climb Lake Michigan is visible, and before you know it, you have the choice of climbing down to the shore itself, depending on the tide. Beautiful – that’s all that needs to be said.

Grand Mere is worth the quick trip from New Buffalo. If you could match up the timing to see the butterflies as we did, I promise the experience will be a unique one.

Fernwood Botanicals Gardens

Fernwood Botanical Gardens, a bit further off the beaten path, is about 30 minutes east of New Buffalo. It is the ultimate diamond in the rough. Again, another place we just happened to read about, but wow – simply wow!

For those unfamiliar with botanic gardens, they often do their best to provide visitors an opportunity to learn about and see plants, both native and exotic, in a variety of well-manicured landscapes. Though some may offer natural settings (in midwestern gardens we’ll often see prairies,) Fernwood excels at providing a mix of the manicured gardens, dense forest paths, lily pad ponds, walks along the St. Joe’s River and prairies.

Our recent trip, in the first week of September, was our second visit to the gardens. Though our timing was a little off — peak time for summer flowers was at its end and fall colors had not yet begun — the diversity at Fernwood is simply a best of the Midwest, all in a few hours stroll through the gardens.

There are a number of paths which lead out from the main building, and, depending on the season, the sensory herb garden is a perfect place to start. Loaded with herbs, familiar and not, it’s a treat to see and smell this incredible variety.

Nearby are the educational center, Asian gardens (probably the only part not up to par,) and an outdoor model train built of all natural materials. It’s pretty neat and they are in the process of building a kids’ garden right near the train as well.

For us, the real treat began as we headed downhill toward the ponds and river, through one of the denser forests we’ve been in locally. The downhill path, for which decent hiking boots are a huge help but not a necessity, makes its way past a cabin with a water wheel, before finally winding to the shore of the St. Joe’s River. Near the dock you’ll also find a small but impressive bamboo patch.

Once at the river there are a few look-outs, and even a dock with benches from where we found ourselves surrounded by large fish in the waters below. Though the parking lot at the beginning was fairly crowded, we hardly encountered others on the paths, and none while we chilled at the dock for 15 minutes.

The grounds themselves are quite extensive, and though maps are available, we had quite bit of fun simply wandering and getting lost and found.

We spent some time near the prairies whose flowers were blooming, before finally heading back to the main entrance area.

In all, on this visit we spent about two hours, which would probably be the minimum you would want to allot for a visit. My hunch is we could have spent another two hours walking the trails we had not explored.

A few logistic notes about Fernwood. Admission is $10 per adult. If you are interested in gardens or arboretums, you can purchase a Membership for a local garden/arboretum and in the case of Fernwood, they have reciprocity, meaning admission is free.

There is a small restaurant on the grounds which we ate at on our first visit. Additionally drinks are available for purchase, as are plants grown at the gardens.

Fernwood, though requiring additional time (and backwoods navigation) to get to, is really the CAN’T MISS gem in our opinion, and one we foresee making frequent visits to in the future.

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