Heather's Hangout

Sharing the people, places & little moments that make a difference.

10 things to love about Alaska August 16, 2016

Filed under: Random Travels & Exploring — Heather @ 4:00 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
KenaiGlacierAK_hh2009

Alaska is beautiful!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve encountered several friends and acquaintances who mentioned they are planning to visit Alaska. It brings back memories of my amazing trip several years ago to this great state. I was fortunate to have two friends move to Alaska and extend an invitation to visit. Never one to turn down the chance to travel and create new adventures, I took them up on the invitation (along with my friend, Marie) to visit our biggest state!

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My friends lived in Anchorage so we decided to spend our seven-day trip exploring that area, as well as traveling south to Kenai National Forest and Seward. We weren’t disappointed as this area is breathtaking, full of great places to explore and wonderful people to meet. The natural beauty of Alaska stunned me every time I turned my head.

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As the 49th state of the United States, Alaska has the largest coastline (over 6,600 miles) with more than 3,000 rivers and 3 million lakes! Of the 20 highest peaks in the U.S., 17 are in Alaska (Denali is the tallest in the U.S. at 20,320 feet above sea level). Alaska was always the state that I’d love to visit because I love the outdoors but admittedly it wasn’t high on my list (and I can’t remember why!). Until the opportunity to visit arose and I realized what a great experience this would be! Everything kind of fell into place for our trip and soon we were heading to Anchorage. We traveled to Alaska in mid-August when the weather is fairly mild and daylight extends until close to midnight (which was a bit weird to my body that couldn’t figure when it was time to sleep).

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There were so many moments that I loved. It’s hard to describe the beauty and respect you feel about the land unless you’re standing in front of the water watching a bald eagle catch a fish or a moose eating alongside the road or looking down into a valley from atop a glacier field. Alaska reminds you that the world is so much grander than what we truly know. It reminds you that nature is awesome and should be respected, and man can appreciate it and live in it.

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There is so much to remember about that trip so I thought I’d share some of my favorite things about Alaska:

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AKbear2009

Close but not too close!

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1. Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Portage): This center offers a permanent home to orphaned and injured animals that can’t be released into the wild. You can see animals, such as bears, moose and eagles in up-close, natural environments. Special programs let you watch certain animals be fed (we watched the black bears eat…..definitely don’t want to encounter a hungry bear!). This center provides a great opportunity to learn about a variety of animals.

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2. Camping in Kenai Fjords National Park (Seward): Alaska hosts more than half of our national park lands with 17 national parks. Kenai is one of the beauties. We started the day with a boat tour. While we didn’t see the whales we were hoping to, we did see a lot of wildlife and a few glaciers. More than 50 percent of this park is covered in glaciers! We pitched our tent along a river with views of glaciers – certainly don’t get those views in Michigan!

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HH_Kenai2009

Hiking the glacier field (with my bear bell!).

3. Exit Glacier hike (in Kenai Fjords National Park): It was still light at 8pm when we set up camp in Kenai so we started a hike to Exit Glacier, which is part of the Harding Icefield. A series of trails start at the Exit Glacier Nature Center that allow you to check out different views of the glacier. We were able to get close enough to the glacier to hear it shifting. At one point, we saw cracks forming as the ice shifted (we were safely away; it was so cool!). This was an eye-opening hike as there are signs along the trail that mark the glacier’s recession over the past 120 years. It is glaringly obvious that the ice is quickly melting away.

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4. Flattop Mountain Trail: It’s no surprise that this is Alaska’s most visited peak – the location near Anchorage makes it easy to access and the beautiful views are addicting. We hiked to the top and it was worth the views. The trails are busy though, with some steep drops down the side, so don’t be in a rush (although in a beautiful place like Alaska, you shouldn’t be in a rush!). Some of the trails had an abundance of blueberries but, while we sampled a few fresh fruits, we left the bulk for the bears to eat. Better to let them eat the food way up high rather than wander into the populated towns.

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5. Alaska Native Heritage Center (Anchorage): I love learning about the history of places that I visit so was happy that we found this cultural center and museum focused on Alaska’s indigenous people. There were some great exhibits featuring five different local cultures. We were able to watch some live programs and see hands-on demonstrations.

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6. Alaska SeaLife Center (Seward): This is another great opportunity to see Alaska’s animals up close and personal. We saw lots of marine mammals, fish, birds and invertebrates. You also get to learn about the research and conservation being undertaken in the state. When we visited, there was a fascinating, albeit sad, exhibit on the long-term effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. We really need to appreciate and protect our natural habitats more than we do.

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IdtarodtrailAK_hh2009

Hiking part of the Iditarod trail!

7. Winner Creek Trail: One of the best parts of this trail in the Chugach Mountains is that you hike through the northernmost rainforest in North America…while in Alaska! The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska and is a fun hike because of the cool vegetation and experiences. First, you cross a wooden bridge over the Winner Creek Gorge. Then you get to a hand tram where you get inside a metal cage and pull yourself over Glacier Creek, more than a hundred feet below! I’m not going to lie – this took guts for me to do (I dislike heights, especially in a rickety-feeling metal cage!), but it was awesome (once over!)! This trail is also part of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, Alaska’s only National Historic Trail. At the end of this hike, we stumbled upon a great little coffee and book shop.

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8. Seward Highway: This 125-mile highway goes from Anchorage to Seward and is worth noting because the drive is So.Darn.Beautiful. The highway runs through the Kenai Peninsula, Chugach National Forest, Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Mountains, which caused me to turn my head in pretty much every direction, exclaiming, “oh how beautiful” every 90-seconds. Or hang my mouth open in awe over the views!

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9. Seafood: I wasn’t a big seafood fan until I visited Alaska. I guess it just wasn’t fresh enough. Our friends welcomed us with a delicious scallops dinner, then we were introduced to several friendly Alaskans at a neighbor’s dinner complete with fresh grilled salmon (and Alaskan craft beer!). I indulged a few more times on fresh seafood during my visit. And I haven’t tasted it that good since the trip.

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PortageGlacierAK_2009

Portage Glacier field

10. Portage: When the Great Alaska Earthquake occurred in 1964, the ground sank below sea level causing a ‘ghost forest’ of trees. These ghostly looking trees are very eery and amazing. Some of the original buildings can still be seen. Definitely worth a stop to explore the past. The wildlife conservation center and Portage Glacier are popular spots to visit here.

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This trip was also a great reminder that the people you travel with can truly make or break a trip. I had an amazing trip, mostly due to the wonderful friends who shared the experience with me. Even when we hit our exhausted phase due to the time change and busy schedule, we spent most of the day laughing and being silly rather than cranky (who likes to be cranky on vacation?!). We giggled while swapping stories every night before falling asleep. When I got frustrated because my titanium rod forced me to turn around on a slippery glacier trail, my friend soon had me laughing and focused on all that I was accomplishing while I reciprocated in her moments of needed humor.

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Alaska is one of our country’s treasures and I highly recommend you visit!

HH_AK moose2009

How often do you see moose on the side of the road?

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10 tips to enjoy hiking on the trails June 4, 2016

trails

Beautiful trail to enjoy!

Today is National Trails Day. This annual event started in the early ’90s by the American Hiking Society to celebrate our country’s amazing trail system and introduce citizens to the variety of trail activities available, including hiking, biking, geocaching, horseback riding, bird watching, paddling and more.

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There are more than 200,000 miles of trails in the United States! Many park staff and thousands of volunteers work hard every year to ensure these trails stay maintained and available for use by millions of visitors.

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Besides my love of the outdoors, I enjoy hiking because it’s usually free (some parks charge a minimal entrance fee) and almost everyone can go. Many parks are creating easily accessible trails to enable strollers and some wheelchairs. It probably won’t surprise you that I also enjoy that hiking is ‘easy’ exercise to me, in the sense that I’m enjoying myself so forget that I’m burning calories and toning my muscles (that’s the BEST kind of exercise!).

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One of my friends recently shared that she’s never been hiking on the trails in the woods, and she wouldn’t know where to start. It got me thinking that there only a few basic necessities if you’re going on a day hike. Here’s a short list of suggestions to get you started:

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Sturdy shoes. Make sure you have good treads on your shoes to provide solid footing on loose dirt, wood chips and other ground cover. No need to get fancy hiking shoes if you’re doing short day hikes without a backpack, but if you plan to do more strenuous and/or frequent hikes, you might want to consider a sturdy trail shoe or boot. I love my Merrell trail shoes (I’m on my third pair!).

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Dress comfortably. Wear layers as your body temp will most likely change as you start moving or the weather changes. Many people recommend polyester as it ‘wicks’ away moisture if you start to get hot (or it rains). I admittedly sometimes wear cotton if I’m on a day hike. I don’t recommend hiking in jeans as the denim tends to stay wet and dry slowly so if your pants get wet, it might get uncomfortable.

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MtHood_hh92010

I love the outdoors.

Sun protection. Slather up with sunscreen, even if you’re hiking in the woods. You’d be surprised how easily the sun’s rays can find you between the tree tops. Wear a hat if you’ll be hiking in the direct sun. Don’t forget sunglasses to protect your eyes.

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Bring water. Staying hydrated is important no matter what you’re doing. You may think you won’t get thirsty if you’re taking a short hike but you’d be surprised. I carry a water bottle or use a water hydration pack for easy drinking while hiking.

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Keep the bugs away. You’re in the woods so bugs are around. I’m not a fan of bug spray but I’m even less a fan of bug bites. I try to wear long sleeves/pants when hiking but sometimes in the summer weather, I need to wear less clothes. I carry a small bottle of my essential oil bug spray to keep mosquitoes and other pests away.

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Food. Even if you ate right before heading to the trails, it’s good to carry a granola bar, protein bar, trail mix or some snack. You’re burning calories on the trail, plus you never know if something may delay you from getting back to the car later than you planned. You don’t want to get light-headed from lack of nutrition or turn into a diva because you’re hungry. I always pack a variety of snacks when hiking with my nieces and nephew (yep, that day pack gets a tad heavy when out with them!)…..one of our favorite parts of a hike is stopping to enjoy water, snacks and fun conversation (and it’s good bribery, er, motivation to keep them moving!).

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First aid supplies. You never know a branch might scratch you or your niece will run her finger along a fence and get a splinter. For day hikes, I carry a small first aid kit (that I actually keep in my car on a daily basis) that includes band-aids, tweezers, alcohol wipes and Benadryl.

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kidstrail

The kids are prepared!

Know where you’re going. You can usually get a map of the trail system online or at the park’s entrance. Check it out before you leave the trailhead and pay attention to markers on the trail. It might seem hard to get lost in a small park/local trails but you should be prepared. You might carry your cellphone (on silent/vibrate please) but service isn’t always available in the woods.

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Check out a local park’s trails. You don’t need to hike a mountain to enjoy the trails (although depending where you live, your local park may be in the mountains. In that case, I’m jealous!), or drive hours away from home. Odds are there is a park with trails somewhere near your home – you might not even know it! I recently mentioned the trails by my home to a local resident who had never visited it, but now plans to.

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Enjoy yourself! Unless you’re training for a trip, there’s no need to race through the trails. You’re in nature to enjoy it so look around at the beauty, listen to the animals and trees, and breathe in the fresh air!

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For more suggestions on what to carry on a hike, check out a “10 essentials” list as a starting point.

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Now I’m off to take my friend hiking. Get outside and enjoy the day. Happy hiking!

 

Explore museums and more when you check out Michigan Activity Pass May 27, 2016

festival

Lots of fun destinations!

If you’re looking for some fun, yet inexpensive destinations to explore this summer, get to your local library. You can pick up some books to fuel your summer adventures. And you can check out a pass to hundreds of local destinations…..literally check it out.

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Yes, my fellow Michiganders are lucky – did you know that you can get free or discounted admission to many local cultural attractions, parks and more? It’s so easy! Simply visit your local library to ‘check out’ a Michigan Activity Pass, then get busy exploring parks, museums, cultural destinations and more. There are more than 420 destinations available through the Michigan Activity Pass!

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Cardholders of participating libraries are also able to print a free one-day pass to use at any of Michigan’s 102 state parks or 138 state forest campgrounds. This summer, there are seven National Parks on the pass list. Even more reason to start exploring the outdoors.

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With more than 11 library cooperatives participating in this program, thousands of Michigan residents can enjoy these benefits. I think this is a great program offered to library patrons. In fact, more than $50,000 was saved in 2015 by library patrons using the Michigan Activity Pass to visit hundreds of attractions!

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Here are just a few of the many places to visit:

  • Waterloo Recreation Area, Chelsea
  • Michigan Renaissance Festival, Holly
  • Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Munising
  • Arts & Scraps, Detroit
  • Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit
  • Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills
  • Seven Lakes State Park, Holly
  • Sea Life Michigan Aquarium, Auburn Hills
  • Cobblestone Farm Museum, Ann Arbor
  • Holland Museum, Hollander
  • Belle Isle Park, Detroit
  • Yankee Air Museum, Belleville
  • Michigan Science Center, Detroit
  • Stagecrafters Theater, Royal Oak
  • 2Per the Michigan Activity Pass website, there are a few guidelines to follow:

Per the Michigan Activity Pass website, here are a few guidelines to know:

  • Patrons may check out one Michigan Activity Pass per library card every 7 days.
  • When you print out a pass, you have 7 days from the date it was reserved to use it.
  • Please note that if you choose to print your pass on a library printer, you may be charged the regular fee that is assessed by the library for printing.
  • Photocopies of a Michigan Activity Pass will not be accepted at designated destinations. Only passes printed from the MAP website can be redeemed at participating destinations.
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Be sure to check out the full list of guidelines on their website or at your local library. If you don’t live in Michigan, ask your library if they participate in a similar program in your area.

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So what are you waiting for? Start exploring!

 

Gratitude project – week 4 February 29, 2016

Filed under: Life Lessons — Heather @ 4:00 pm
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As I wrap up the final week of my gratitude photography project, I feel…..grateful! Every night I lay in bed reflecting on the day’s events, conversations and moments. I am so fortunate that the positive greatly outweighs the negative in my days. I try to maintain a positive, optimistic outlook on life and I’m grateful that so much goodness helps me accomplish this goal.

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I am also grateful to all of you who read this blog, whether once, randomly or regularly. I appreciate the opportunity to share my experiences and outlook. I hear from many of you that this blog motivates and inspires you in different aspects of life. This makes me SO HAPPY! Thank you for following me on this gratitude project. Stay tuned for more fun to come!

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Fall colors paint the trails at Wolcott Mill park October 26, 2015

WolcottMill_trees_blogIt was another beautiful fall day in Michigan when I ventured to my next hiking destination. Wolcott Mill is part of the Huron-Clinton Metropark system. Located in Ray Township in north Macomb County, the 2,625-acre park has much to offer visitors. In addition to the amazing beauty of the colorful fall leaves, Wolcott Mill has a late 20th century working farm, historic mill, golf course, event facilities, equestrian trails, fishing opportunities, and nature trails.

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I met up with a small group from my outdoor club for the hike. I’ve been trying to get more involved in the Meetup groups I joined years ago. It’s nice to participate in activities, such as hiking, with people who enjoy the outdoors too, plus I like meeting new friends. We met at Wolcott Mill’s Camp Rotary. This area offers a camping space for scout and youth groups, but also a large activity building and pavilion that are available for day/evening rental use.

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From Camp Rotary’s parking lot, we crossed a wooden suspension bridge over the Clinton River to the woods and trails. A short hike led us to the historic Wolcott Mill, one of the few remaining grist mills in Michigan. Built in 1847, the mill was once known for producing high-quality flour. Many of the buildings are original, including the barn which now serves as a museum.

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WolcottMill_blogAfter exploring the mill area, our group set off for the trails. The individual nature trails aren’t very long (the Settler’s Trail is 2 miles) so we combined a few trails for a nice hike. We all kept ‘ooohing’ and ‘aaahing’ over the beautiful tree colors we encountered. The trails are well-groomed and easy to follow. There are wooden markers along the trails too. There is very little elevation gain. Some parts of the Settler’s Trail go along the river, which is very pretty. However, some areas have a drop off so use caution when hiking there, especially with young children.

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The equestrian trails combine to form 10 miles. Use caution and respect if hiking with horses, please. While pedestrians have the right of way, you can still be courteous by not making loud or sudden movements around a horse (especially the rear end). As someone who has experience riding a horse on trails with an occasional walker, I thank you on behalf of riders for your thoughtfulness.

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The 250-acre farm center provides another nice visitor spot. The dairy barn offers opportunities to watch the cows getting milked, a sheep barn houses sheep, goats and pigs, the chicken coop is home to many different small animals (chickens, ducks, rabbits, quail and more). The farm also includes a greenhouse, a barn that houses the draft horses, and a farmhouse that serves as the park office and a location of classrooms and exhibits.

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WolcottMill_trailmarker_blogLots of activities occur throughout the year at the farm center – an annual sheep shearing event occurs in the spring, hay rides in the fall, holiday events, and more. Check the park’s website for event information and schedules.

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I enjoyed visiting another great Michigan park and look forward to returning to hike and attend some events in the future. You can still catch the beautiful fall colors on the trees but hurry!

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Wolcott Mill is located in Ray Township, Mich. There is a vehicle entrance fee (daily or annual pass). Check the hours before heading out.

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What’s your favorite local park?

 

Nature center offers great outdoor escape in Troy October 17, 2015

Filed under: Random Travels & Exploring — Heather @ 2:48 pm
Tags: , , , , ,
StageNC_trail

Which trail? Maybe all!

When the sun is shining on a crisp fall day, there’s not much better than taking a hike in the woods. So I decided to do just that and headed to the Stage Nature Center in north Troy. Several friends have recently mentioned this conveniently located nature center and surrounding trails. I have never personally checked it out but with its easy access and location, it seemed a great choice. And I happily discovered a nice quiet wooded getaway in the city.

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The nature center is operated by the Troy Nature Society, a nonprofit that oversees the daily operation and maintenance of the nature center, as well as hosting numerous school, scout and public programs throughout the year. The nature society also offers a Junior Naturalist program for ages 4 – 5th grade.

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The nature center is a nice size with exhibits, a cozy library, aquariums housing toads, snakes and more, and classrooms/meeting rooms. A mastodon dig near the lobby is great for young children to imagine being a paleontologist. In the back of the center, a large live bee hive is on display. I love that there are benches and chairs placed along the back wall windows inside the nature center, encouraging patrons to relax and watch the many birds and wildlife outside. Once outside, you’ll find a maple syrup shed for teaching programs, bird houses that attract a lot of birds (and a few rogue squirrels), and the trails.

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StageNC_deer

Want to hike with me?

The trails are easy to hike with a few mild hills, wooden steps and boardwalk. The longest trail, the Blackbird Loop, is .70 mile. I hiked all of the trails to get a feel for the land and enjoy the fresh air. The Rouge River cuts through the property trails, although it’s a very mild, slow-moving section. There is ample signage and the trails are well-groomed.

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As I was thinking that I hadn’t seen much wildlife, I walked around a curve and stopped short as a young deer was standing in the middle of the trail! I stood very still, softly talking to her, then noticed two other deer wandering closer. We all watched each for a few more minutes before the deer must have decided I wasn’t a threat as she wandered off the trail and began munching on a bush.

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I came across an outdoor classroom, perfect for hosting education programs. As I sat on a bench to enjoy the vibrant colors of the trees, another deer wandered through the front of the “classroom.” I chuckled as she paused to look at me – maybe she was going to teach a class!

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StageNC_meclassroom

I’m ready to learn!

I really enjoyed my visit to the Stage Nature Center and will definitely return to hike and see what’s new with the wildlife.

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The Stage Nature Center is open to the public on Saturdays from 10am-4pm and Tuesday-Friday from 9am-3pm (closed holidays). Trails are open dawn to dusk. There is no fee to visit the nature center or trails – donations are accepted. Membership and volunteer opportunities are also available.

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Do you have a favorite local park? If so, which one?

 

Hiking Stony Creek Metropark’s nature center trails October 12, 2015

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Relax and unwind on these trails.

I’m on a health kick lately, trying to drop some weight, eat healthy and relax my mind and soul. So it’s been a great pleasure to get some exercise while enjoying Michigan’s amazing fall weather. The past two weekends, I’ve visited one of my favorite local metroparks to hike the trails and enjoy the changing colors on the trees. I love hiking along a nice trail in the woods. I can breathe in fresh air, listen for the playfulness or hard work of the animals, and let my mind release tension and stress that my day-to-day life brings all too often.

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You’ve previously read that I love taking my nieces and nephew to Stony Creek Metropark. We particularly love the nature center and surrounding trails. However, since I’m usually with the little ones, I haven’t been able to really explore the trails. I was happy to do so the past two weekends as I hiked with my older sister and my husband.

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The trails surrounding the nature center are well-groomed and quiet. There are no pets or mountain bikes allowed on these trails, which are reasons I enjoy exploring these trails. I have often hiked the trails that are shared with the mountain bikers and that can be a bit chaos if it’s a busy day. Most bikers are polite and let you know they’re coming, but others are not so I’ve encountered some precarious situations.

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Stony Creek Metropark covers more than 4,400 acres (and two counties!), however, plenty of signage easily directs you to the nature center. Entrance into Stony Creek Metropark requires a vehicle pass (this is different from the Michigan state park pass). You can park in the lot at the nature center. Bathrooms and a drinking fountain are located inside the nature center so plan accordingly with the nature center’s hours. There are several trail options ranging from .5 mile to 2.5 miles. Stony Creek provides some maps on their website so you should check them out before heading out. We decided to hike a few loops of the Reflection, Habitat and Landscape Trails.

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The Habitat Trail is two miles and is marked at the beginning, but not as well once you’re into it. There are a few forks on the trail without signs so we took a guess on which direction to go. The good news is that I don’t believe you can get lost on these trails, just add more miles! The first guess took us in a circle back to almost the beginning of the trail so we started fresh. The second guess kept us on the main trail. The Landscape Trail is one mile and gives a nice leg workout with varying hills that explore an ancient glacial area. The Reflection Trail is only .5 mile but goes along the river and has several information markers that share a lot about the land you’re walking on.

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A cool find on the trail.

A cool find on the trail.

The Habitat Trail and Landscape Trail are among the trails with markers along the route sharing history and points of interest. I enjoy pausing to read these to learn about the land around me. A lot of the land we hiked along is a former glacier and the shifting and melting of the glacier developed the landscape. We also encountered a glorious white oak tree that is more than 200 years old.

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There are benches throughout the trails, offering quiet places to rest, watch the river flow or birds play, and feel the soft breeze. Every time I’ve been on these trails, I encountered only a few people (so use caution should you ever decide to hike alone). While there are some open spots along the trails, for the most part you are under the tree canopy. I find this to be so peaceful and relaxing.

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There are many activities to check out at Stony Creek Metropark so get outdoors and have some fun!

 

 
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