Picture yourself on a beautiful trail, trees ablaze on either side. As you hike through filtered sunlight, bright orange, yellow and garnet colored leaves drift down, dotting your path. The Leelanau Conservancy’s natural areas, with their 15 miles of trails, offer ample opportunities to immerse yourself in the annual color show. How to choose where to go? If you’d like the added bonus of taking in a panoramic view of lakeside color, we’ve got three places you’ll want to add to your fall color tour.
Clay Cliffs Natural Area:
On Lake Michigan and N Lake Leelanau
Trail Info: Moderate
Distance: 1.5 miles
The spectacular Clay Cliffs Natural Area is one of the Conservancy’s newest properties and offers stunning views of both Lake Leelanau and Lake Michigan. It’s great in every season, but particularly beautiful come fall. Created in partnership with Leland Township, Clay Cliffs provides ample recreation opportunities and takes in 1,700 feet of shoreline on both Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau. The trail here takes in flat to hilly terrain.
The sheer clay bluff below the Lake Michigan overlook hosts a rare and fragile ecosystem. Eagles that nest here swoop over the lake in search of prey. The steep, forested slopes are particularly beautiful when decked out in fall color; in spring this hardwood forest shelters one of Leelanau’s most prolific wildflower sites.
Autumn’s Attraction: An overlook at the bluff top shows off panoramic lake views while a meadow located midway along the trail features sparkling views of Lake Leelanau. In fall, that lake is ringed with brilliant hardwoods ablaze in color. Pack a snack to enjoy from the bench overlooking North Lake Leelanau and enjoy this one-of-a-kind view.
DeYoung Natural Area:
On Cedar Lake
Trail Info: Easy to Moderate
Distance: 2 miles
DeYoung, with its historic farmstead and old barns, provides a quintessential rural fall scene. The land and its mile of protected shoreline on Cedar Lake were preserved in partnership with Elmwood Township. The farmstead dates back to 1870 and serves as a gateway to Leelanau’s agricultural corridor. Recreation opportunities abound at this natural area, named for Louis DeYoung, an innovative farmer who died at 104 and dreamed of protecting his land. The Leelanau Trail, part of the TART system, bisects the property—adding to its accessibility for all generations. Kids pedal in on bikes while older visitors often come via wheelchair from near Orchard Creek. Be sure to visit the Edible Trails Garden next to the Leelanau Trail.
There are a couple of options to view panoramic fall color at DeYoung. You can park on Strang Road and hike the upland trail which winds past heritage-variety apple trees and over a small stream, and offers sweeping views of the farm and Cedar Lake. A second option is to hike the lakeside portion of DeYoung. Here, a Universal Access trail leads through a magical forest full of giant old cedar trees.
Autumn Addition: The Universal Access trail leads to a lakeside fishing and viewing platform and from here, you will encounter the expanse of Cedar Lake, mirroring the colorful trees that surround it. You’ll want to spend some time here, sitting on the benches, taking in the view, or bring along a fishing pole if you are so inclined. While the upland trail is 1.5 miles long, a half mile will get you to the fishing pier and back from the parking area by the big barn.
On Little Traverse Lake
Trail info: Easy
Distance: About a mile total
The Conservancy had two goals when it purchased this property: first to protect 2,000 feet of shoreline on Little Traverse Lake and its two distinct wetland communities. The second goal: to revitalize the adjacent iconic farmstead known as “Sonny’s Farm.”
Swanson Preserve is one of the Conservancy’s most ecologically diverse properties and is home to 207 documented plant species. A series of boardwalks winds through a mature cedar forest and over two cold groundwater streams where brook trout spawn. The 13-acre farm was restricted with a conservation easement and sold to a young farmer. Towering white pines and giant cedar trees dominate this property, with colorful hardwoods interspersed.
Autumn Bonus: Make your way to the shores of Little Traverse Lake and take in the fall color surrounding the lake from a bench at the shore. Here a nearby stream provides the soothing sounds of rushing water as it enters the lake. Finish your hike by taking the brand new “Lakeside Loop” which hugs the shoreline and connects Swanson’s two spur trails, and provides glimpses of lakeside color as you make your way from one spur to the other.
Know before you go:
Visit our Natural Areas page! Learn about all 26 properties, download trail maps and get directions. Also, the Conservancy published a beautiful 68-page Natural Areas Guide which is free and available at the Conservancy’s office in Leland (105 N. First St.) Dogs (on a leash) are welcome. There are no restrooms except for a porta-John off the Leelanau (TART) trail at DeYoung Natural Area. Finally, the Conservancy offers guided hikes with their friendly and knowledgeable docents; see our Hikes and Events page for more information.
P.S.: The newest of the Leelanau Conservancy’s 26 Natural Areas and Preserves, Palmer Woods Forest Reserve, offers over 700 acres to hike. You can literally spend the whole day traversing this forest, which has been managed for sustainable forestry for years. Read more about Palmer Woods here.