October 2009–On a blustery day in early October, two dozen people gathered to officially open a new hiking trail at Lighthouse West Natural Area near Northport. “This property and the tip of the peninsula in general have irreplaceable coastal values,” Conservancy Director Brian Price told those in attendance as he cut the ribbon. “The whole area has been a priority for protection for the Leelanau Conservancy from the beginning.”
The 42-acre natural area lies southwest of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, thus its name. Cobble shore here provides excellent habitat for birds to stop, feed and rest before crossing the big water. Over 100 species of birds have been sighted along its 640 feet of Lake Michigan undeveloped shoreline. Also found here are car-sized boulders and dramatic topography that tells the tale of receding glaciers.
Heading north from the kiosk at the trail head, one of the first features hikers will see on this three-quarter-mile loop are old blackberry bushes, pear and apple trees. This was once a farmstead and there are reminders along the trail, such as rusting implements and old fence posts. Where hay or potatoes were once cultivated, volunteers have planted over 2,000 native trees and shrubs for wildlife. The trail continues through an area strewn with boulders and dotted with hummocks—sand hills that are created when trees topple over and decay. Then the trail hugs a steep ridge where there are dramatic views of the woodland below. When the leaves are off the trees, Lake Michigan can be also be seen in the distance. One hiker who had been there earlier in the year observed a bear traveling through the woods from the ridge above.
The steep drop levels off to what Director Brian Price called a “boulder terrace.” Stairs off the trail lead down to the terrace, which was formed on an underwater shelf when waters in Lake Michigan were about 20 feet higher than they are today. Leelanau’s geological history is well told at Lighthouse West Natural Area.
The property was acquired by the Conservancy in 2004. Matt Posner, who spent childhood summers nearby, and also helped to build the trail, brought an old aerial photo circa 1960 to the ribbon cutting ceremony, which he shared with the group. The photo showed a wild and rugged landscape with just a few homes. Posner recalled how he and his cousins would begin their day hiking across the peninsula to Cathead Bay in search of the best waves for body surfing. “Our family is very appreciative of the Conservancy’s efforts to preserve some of the wildness I knew as a child here,” said Posner.
Stewardship Director Jenee Rowe acknowledged all the volunteers who helped to build the trail. “It takes many hands pitching in to make trails like these happen,” said Jenee. She called attention to Eagle Scout Frank Leahy and Boy Scout Troop 115, who volunteered a combined 160 hours.
Lee and Candy Gardner helped to fund the trail work and attended the ribbon cutting and hike. “This peninsula is truly magical and remarkable,” says Candy. “It is wonderful to see what the Conservancy has been able to accomplish in terms of preserving so much land now and for the future generations. Lighthouse West is particularly special for us as it is practically in our backyard. It is a beautiful hike through different ecosystems and being Conservancy property, it is dog friendly – which is very important to us and our four legged buddies!”
A dedication for Lighthouse West will be held next summer so that the many summer residents who contributed to the project can also celebrate.