A trail with a little Native American history and mountain lion mystery, Old Indian Trail also offers an incredible view of Lake Michigan and access to some of the Lakeshore’s most out-of-the-way stretch of beach. But if you happen to be hiking with loved ones who insist on bringing the family dog, here’s a word of advice from writer Bob Butz: Don’t get stuck holding the leash.
Back in 2003, there was a captivating debate brewing all across Michigan involving the presence of mountain lions in the state. A number of striking photos and at least one illegally killed cougar in 2013 has since confirmed that at least a couple mountain lions do exist in some parts of the Upper Peninsula.
No concrete evidence, however, has ever been produced in the Lower Peninsula. But that hasn’t stopped hundreds of people from claiming they’ve seen the animals, and one place locals and weekend visitors commonly reported run-ins with these long-tailed, 100 pound, deer-killing wildcats was the Sleeping Bear Dunes—specifically the country in and around Old Indian Trail.
If The Squirrels Could Talk
Located on the southern boundary of the Lakeshore, south of the Platte River on Route M-22, Old Indian Hill Trial is a place where in 2003 a volunteer naturalist for the Sleeping Bear Dunes claimed a super-close encounter with a mountain lion.
Out walking on the trail one September day, the woman remembered the squirrels began chattering incessantly in the trees around her when suddenly a tan, seven-foot long cat with a very thick, very long tail appeared on the trail in front of her. “So close I could have pet its back,” she told me later in an interview for a book I was writing on the mystery of Michigan mountain lions.
Anyway, the woman claimed the animal—supposedly so big it straddled the entire trail—coldly considered her before disappearing under the waist-tall ferns. Since this is a family-oriented blog, let’s just describe her reaction as “quite shocked.”
Deciding a hasty retreat for the trailhead was in order, she radioed headquarters while beating feet back to her car. But then it got even more scary—or weird, (depending on your prerogative)—when she suddenly realized the thing was following her.
Over the years, the Lakeshore had documented more than a few sightings of mountain lions in this secluded bit 'o real estate comprised of dense forest and dark swamps. Some of the more interesting ones actually came from Lakeshore rangers themselves. But none were as compelling as this one.
Unfortunately, without any clear photographs or solid evidence of tracks (eyewitness accounts are not considered hard evidence), officials were never able to determine if the animal that supposedly followed the woman was hungry or just curious. Or, indeed, if the creature was truly a mountain lion.
Call In The Dog
The possibility of running across a Michigan mountain lions had nothing to do with the decision to bring the family dog for our hike on Old Indian Trail. A typical Labrador retriever, Floyd is hardly fierce or particularly intimidating. He’s a family dog, a friend and playmate of my nine- and 13-year-old and, for my wife who treats him like a child in a fur suit, a four legged stand-in for the third baby she would love to have had.
Guidebooks describe Old Indian Trail as the route local Native Americans once used to access their fish camps along Lake Michigan. The path is comprised of two loops—each around 2.5-miles, round trip—and is a popular destination for cross-country skiers who particularly enjoy the “Black Loop” segment that dips and climbs a series of old, now forested, beach dunes.
An easy, shady walk through mature hardwoods, some rolling hills and swampy bottoms, the trail is one I’ve hiked several times in the past, never without seeing a variety of wildlife. Everything from whitetail deer to barred owls. In fact, I’ve never hiked Old Indian Trail without seeing owl. On this day, Sallie spotted one sitting in the shade on the low bough of a white pine almost immediately after leaving the car.
Like all 13 of the mainland hiking and ski trails, dogs have to be on a leash when walking Old Indian Trail. I hate hiking with dogs on a leash—there I said it—but respect the rule as good park policy. And, really, it’s not a problem if you’re a dog-loving hiker who likes to hit the trail in the early morning. We, however, got started late and found our progress significantly slowed by having to stop every 20 feet to make way for another dog-walking hiker or to do the whole “oh-what-a-pretty-Lab-you-have-meet-and-greet.”
Stopping for another dog meant a tense few seconds and, if the other dog wasn’t as well trained as our obedient little angel, a lively game of tug-of-war would ensue until we could kindly make our leave. Since Nancy wanted to bring the dog, the burden was hers. But then we reached the halfway point, a little spur trail that leads out to the beach. There we found a place to take off our shoes and a sign—presumably to protect piping plovers that nest here—pointedly noting that dogs on a leash or otherwise could go no further.
Not wanting to deprive my wife of the view, I took over babysitting duties for the dog while they left to frolic over the sand dunes set against some stunning scenery that look like this…
Following the Black Loop path back to the trailhead, we passed a number of little unmarked side trails leading up over the barrier dunes to what is presumably some of the most secluded beachfront in Sleeping Bear. There were also a number of small ponds—more like sinkholes in the swamp filled with algae covered water—where the kids paused to look for frogs.
The whole hike would normally take around an hour, even with frog stops and sparing time to take in the view of Lake Michigan. With the dog along, and having to stop for other hikers, the round trip took a half-hour more.