The great parks of Ottawa County

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View overlooking the dune trails at Rosy Mound Park. Image: Marie Orttenburger

By Jim DuFresne

This story originally appeared on MichiganTrailMaps.com and is republished here with permission.

Jim DuFresne

Ottawa County has built one of the best systems of parks and open spaces in the state and there are four reasons why.

Sand dunes, shoreline, sustainable funding and support.

You can’t have great parks without outstanding natural resources to preserve. Ottawa County does. Located due west of Grand Rapids, the county is part of Michigan’s famed Gold Coast with more than 25 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, acres of dune country and some the widest and best beaches in Midwest.

But you also can’t have a great park system without the funding. Ottawa County’s parks are possible because in 1996 locals approved a county parks millage with 53.5 percent of the vote. Ten years later residents renewed it with 67 percent of the vote and overwhelmingly again last year with by more than 70 percent.

Funding and local support is why since 2008 Ottawa County Parks has added 1,200 acres of land, increased public access to Lake Michigan with new parks like Olive Shores, built the impressive Nature Education Center at Hemlock Crossing and established the Grand River Heritage Water Trail that includes a series of universally accessible kayak docks.

But you don’t have to be a local to enjoy the 26 county parks or the 12 lightly developed open space areas Ottawa County maintains. You just need an appreciation for the natural beauty that’s been preserved from the unrelenting spread of condos, resorts and summer homes so common on this side of the state.

Trail Guide

Here are but five interesting Ottawa County parks worth visiting:

Rosy Mound Natural Area: Despite a history of logging, sand mining and uncontrolled recreational use, this park appears as natural and pristine as if you were standing in a remote corner of Sleeping Bear Dunes. Instead you’re on the edge of Grand Haven yet the only man-made object you can see is a boardwalk across the sand.

Dedicated in 2004, the 164-acre natural area was a $1.1 million effort by Ottawa County to not only save the sensitive ecosystem but to shield and protect it from future visitors. Access to Rosy Mound is strictly on foot and all the trails are either boardwalks, cement or compacted, crushed stone. Lining the trails are signs asking you not to wander off them.

Rosy Mound is a classic Great Lakes dune system including high wooded dunes, foredunes, beach and a dune blowout. It’s a 0.7-mile hike from the parking area to Lake Michigan but includes 1,000 feet of stairs up and down the dunes. Make sure that cooler is light. The entire trail system makes for a 2.5-mile trek that passes three viewing points and provides several opportunities to descend to the beach for a cool dip in Lake Michigan.

View from the boardwalk overlooking the dog beach at Kirk Park. Image: Marie Orttenburger

Kirk Park: For many visitors this park is a 200-yard dash from the parking lot to beautiful Lake Michigan or a quarter-mile hike with Fido to a unique off-lease dog beach along the Great Lake.

But the heart of this 68-acre park – in fact most of it – is a large dune that raises 160 feet above Lake Michigan and covered on its west side by marram grasses. The rest of the dune is forested in beech, maple, oak and black cherry that are brilliant when peaking in fall colors.

Wrapped around the dune is a 2-mile trail featuring stairways, boardwalks and scenic overlooks that give way to views of sand, surf and the blue horizon that is Lake Michigan on a clear day. This towering hill of sand is definitely kid’s stuff. Pack swim suits and a picnic for after the family-friendly hike.

Pigeon Creek Park: Not every Ottawa County park is on Lake Michigan. Tucked away in the middle of the county, Pigeon Creek is 282 acres with another 130 adjacent acres of county open space land. Winding across the acreage are more than 10 miles of trails through old pine plantations, mature deciduous forests and through bottomland forests along the Pigeon River.

In the summer, the trails carter to hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. After the county’s famed lake-effect snow falls, Pigeon Creek becomes a winter wonderland. Most of the trail system is groomed for both classic and ski skating and 3 miles of it is lit for night skiing. There is also a snowshoe trail and a sledding hill while the Pigeon Creek Lodge provides ski rental, a food concession and a place to warm up on those cold February afternoons before heading back out again.

Upper Macatawa Natural Area: A campaign to re-create wetlands surrounding the Upper Macatawa River began in the mid-1990s and involved groups as diverse as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Ducks Unlimited to the Holland Audubon Society. Located northeast of Holland, the first parcel was purchased by Ottawa County in 2000 and the bulk of the preserve was added three years later.

But beginning in 2012 the 612-acre park was transformed into a haven for trail users, particularly cyclists. In a three-year period, a 5.5-mile network of mountain bike trails, most of it single track, was built along with the Upper Macatawa Greenway Trail, a 2.8-mile paved path linking the Macatawa Greenway Trail from Holland with the Fred Meijer Kenowa Trail that extends east towards Grandville.

The result is an unusual opportunity for biking and birding. The natural area is split in half by the Macatawa River and, despite being within view of an interstate highway, has become a natural oasis that attracts an array of birds and waterfowl to its many pools and ponds.

The mountain bike trail, one of the newest on the west side of the state, is officially known as the Upper Macatawa Mountain Bike Trail and affectionately as the Upper Mac. Rated intermediate in difficulty, the Upper Mac is flowing single track that utilizes the ravines on the east side of a ridge to create a handful of technical turns and fast sections. Five times the mountain bike trail intersects the Greenway allowing whipped bikers to bail out for an easy ride back to the trailhead on the paved trail.

Tunnel Park: Okay this park is small – only 22 acres – and has a very limited trail system. But it does have a really cool tunnel that passes through a dune to a beautiful Lake Michigan beach. And it has a dune climb! What seven-year-old wouldn’t love this park?

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