Exploring some of Washtenaw County’s lesser-known nature preserves
For many Washtenaw County residents, one of the great joys of living in the area is the easy access to a plethora of hiking trails and nature preserves. Just moments from downtown Ann Arbor are areas where one can find peace and tranquility, look for birds and wildlife, and enjoy beautiful spring wildflowers and vibrant fall colors. Some of the larger and more well-known preserves are fairly popular -- you’re almost guaranteed to encounter runners, dog-walkers, and explorers in Bird Hills or at Argo Nature Area at any time of year. But, many of the smaller preserves in Washtenaw County are less trafficked and are the perfect place to find some moments of solitude and natural beauty, especially during times when gathering in crowded areas isn’t recommended. Unsure where to begin? Here are a few of the more remote preserves in the area that might be new to you.
Draper-Houston Meadows Preserve
I was a little skeptical of how peaceful the Draper-Houston Meadows Preserve might be, mostly because it’s walking distance from downtown Milan. But with almost 2.5 miles of trails, some wooded and some through fields, and over half a mile of Saline River waterfront winding its way through the preserve, I was excited to check it out anyway. When we pulled into the small parking lot, we were the only car there -- always a good sign. I was pleasantly surprised by the wide trails, stunning fall colors, and a lovely, quiet river. We stood on a bridge over the river for several minutes admiring the quiet landscape and watching the falling leaves drift along on the surface of the water. We also loved the somewhat abrupt transition of walking through tall fields of grass and then finding ourselves in a dense wood that eventually took us back down to the riverfront. Overall, I was thrilled by the Draper-Houston Meadows Preserve and think that it’s well worth the short drive from Ann Arbor to check it out.
Scio Woods Preserve
This small preserve off of Scio Church Road is an easy drive from downtown Ann Arbor or Dexter. It’s easy to miss on the north side of the road, near Wagner and Zeeb, so slow down slightly as you look for it. The preserve is almost completely woodland, although there’s a small wetland area in the eastern part with some unique swamp plants. The nicest aspect of this preserve is the slightly over two-mile loop trail that makes for a lovely stroll. Running enthusiasts can repeat the trail several times for a nice, shady run in hot summer months -- it’s one of my go-to spots when the temperatures climb over 80 degrees. Last time I was running there, I saw a stunning -- and enormous -- pileated woodpecker.
Fox Science Preserve
This is perhaps the weirdest and one of the most hidden preserves in the county. Fox Science Preserve is a former gravel pit located off Peters Road, near Miller soon after it intersects with Zeeb. Those interested in geology will almost certainly want to make a stop here, as it features ancient, giant boulders from the glacier-era around the base of the former gravel pit, which has been untouched for almost 50 years. It’s one of the only places in Washtenaw County that observers can get an idea of what the landscape might have looked like after the retreat of the glaciers 12,000 years ago. It’s not a large preserve, and only boasts a half-mile of “trail,” but visitors can wander the whole area in search of unique rocks -- and sometimes fossils pop up, too.
This lovely space off Parker Road is one of the county’s best-kept secrets. Trails circle around cornfields and then enter a beautiful flooded woods. We visited in the middle of winter, after a recent snow, and saw dozens of animal tracks, including deer, rabbits, foxes, and coyotes. The flooded woods was particularly amazing since it was all ice. In the far southern corner of the preserve is a large pond perfect for fishing or ice fishing. It was frozen over when we went, and we enjoyed following a coyote’s tracks out into the center of the pond until I got too scared of crashing through the ice. This is certainly the most peaceful preserve I’ve visited, and I’ve gone back many times since my first visit, though I still haven’t been able to actually see the elusive coyote -- just their tracks.
Lloyd and Mabel Johnson Preserve
I stumbled upon the Johnson Preserve when attempting to run in Lillie Park, on the southeast side of Ann Arbor. Lillie is lovely, but on this particular day, it was too crowded for my taste during pandemic times. We split off onto a trail that led into the beautiful, completely deserted Johnson Preserve and I was delighted. There’s a great trail loop there that’s a bit over a mile that leads through woods, a field, and -- the coolest part -- through the middle of a swamp on a boardwalk. I’ve gone back several times since then at various times of the day and it is always stunning. Johnson Preserve is a great place to find blue-spotted salamanders in the spring and summer -- flip some logs over and see if you can find any.
I hadn’t heard of the Goodrich Preserve until this year and went there when my partner heard it was a good spot to find snakes and salamanders. The preserve connects to U-M’s Horner Woods and between the two there are several miles of beautiful trails to hike. The old-growth forests in the preserve provide alternating parts of shade and sun and there is a large swamp as well as several smaller wetlands where we heard hundreds of frogs. If you visit in spring, as we did, there were stunning wildflowers everywhere as we got further into the forest. In fact, U-M has preserved part of Horner Woods as a plant sanctuary. We didn’t see a single person during the hour and a half we hiked there, and sure enough, we found a garter snake and lots of redback and yellow-spotted salamanders.
Elizabeth Pearce is a librarian at AADL.