The goldenrod is browning. Queen Anne’s lace is closing up shop. The milkweed pods are bursting. Bloodroot — one of the earliest and loveliest spring wildflowers, the heart-shaped leaves of which stand tall through summer heat and storms — is starting to collapse under its own weight. Fall is coming. If it’s not already here.
To quote the American bard, Emily Dickinson:
“Gone — Mr. Bryant’s ‘Golden Rod’ —
And Mr. Thomson’s ‘sheaves.’
Still, is the bustle in the Brook —
Sealed are the spicy valves —
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The Eyes of many Elves.”
Yes, the mesmeric fingers of fall are upon our eyes, and our inner sight is gazing toward a near future of crimson, purple, mustard, tangerine. We’re in a pause, a moment of reflection, between the end of one grand season and the beginning of another. It’s as though the stage lights have dimmed and the backstage crew is rearranging the sets in preparation for the next scene.
Peak colors will come early this year, the projections say. I’m of the school that believes no one knows what the heck is going to happen. And yet, there’s no denying that fall is in the air as I write, and the tips of some trees are beginning to blush.
Another thing that can’t be denied: fall is the best time for hiking. Less sweat, fewer bugs, and the freshest air. Here are two off-the-beaten-path trails that are particularly well-suited to the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”
1. Krumwiede (pronounced crumb-WIDEY) Forest Reserve, a Leelanau Conservancy natural area. From the Leelanau Conservancy’s website description: “A glacial moraine formed this high ridge between two scenic wooded and pastoral valleys. It is part of the magnificent hillside that is visible to travelers as they pass through the historic Port Oneida district…Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is located less than a mile away.” The Krumwiede trailhead is easy to miss. You’ll probably drive past it, realize you’ve missed it, and do a U-turn. That’s a rite of passage!
The start of the hike is inviting and dramatic. You’ve beckoned up a ramp-like ascent, through some of the brightest fall foliage on the whole trail. Then you reach the ridge, and you’re looping through a world of red, green, and gold. The first time I did Krumwiede, I got lost. How do you get lost on a simple loop with one crossover?? And yet I did. I had one of those moments hikers dread, in which you realize you’ve been going in a circle, and you’re seeing things you’ve seen before. Hopefully, I was abducted by aliens or something. Otherwise, I have no excuse! Be warned: take a photo of the trail map. Be cognizant of where you are on the trail. Krumwiede has an enchanting, vortex-like quality. It perhaps wants you to get lost within it.
Even in late fall, Krumwiede is spectacular. That’s when the mustard-yellows glow. A myth about fall is that there’s one specific week of “peak” color. Some things peak earlier, and some later. In the last couple of years, we’ve had a rich golden late fall. Don’t be depressed if you think your pre-scheduled getaway is going to miss the peak. You might actually be arriving for a second, more mature peak, which could be all the sweeter because of more opportunities for solitude.
2. Kehl Lake Natural Area, also a Leelanau Conservancy trail. If you’re visiting the Sleeping Bear Dunes area for more than just a day or two, you may want to drive all the way to the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula (Michigan’s pinkie) and see the splendid lighthouse there. En route, you’ll pass through Leland — with historic Fishtown — and then Northport, which has its own charm and history. And then, as you continue north toward the lighthouse, Kehl Lake will sort of be on the way. I recommend the detour. Especially in fall.
In preparation for this post, I re-visited the Kehl Lake trail today. Today was cold and damp, with a light drizzle. As I drove north, I could almost feel the leaves changing with each passing minute, each passing mile. The stressed trees are already approaching apotheosis. I was expecting to be previewing fall today. Instead, I was viewing it, and feeling it. It’s happening.
There’s something about a rainy fall day…It’s chill, meditative, relaxing. As much as I love the iconic summers up here, there’s always a FOMO pressure to be out in the fun of the sun, soaking up Vitamin D, partying with friends, before the season comes crashing down. So when the denouement does come, and the cold rains arrive, there’s a relief — a rebirth of and return to self. You exhale, and you say to yourself, “Now I can just be me — cozy with my own company.”
My hike at Kehl Lake today was a continuation, an extension of the chill mood I was in. There are no hills, no ups, and downs. It’s a great trail for people who hate hiking, actually. You just zone out and let your mind wander, and take it all in.
A gauntlet of sumacs guards the entrance to the forest. Enter, and you’re walking alongside the lake. If you’re feeling an eeriness, an ancientness, you’re not crazy. The Ottawa and Chippewa used the lake for “seasonal gatherings and camps” before the arrival of settlers. You’ll encounter what remains of a “marker tree” (a tree intentionally shaped by Native Americans).
Soon after I passed the marker tree, something startled me and literally made me stop in my tracks — snapped me out of my autumn reverie. It was the cardinal flowers. They grow along riverbanks this time of year, and they were flanking a little stream that fed into Kehl Lake. Dependent on hummingbirds for pollination, they possess the reddest red I’ve ever seen in nature. Photos can’t capture their shocking brightness. You almost need sunglasses when you’re looking at them up-close. It’s fascinating to me that such a tropical-looking plant helps ring in autumn — as though they’re passing their red to the maples, which then spread color to the rest of the trees. In my imagination, they’re the mystical flame that triggers fall color. Go kayaking on the Crystal River on Labor Day weekend (shoutout to Crystal River Outfitters for making that possible or me this year!), and you’ll see the cardinal flowers. They’re a fitting red bookend to the saintly white bloodroot flowers of early spring.
Once I’d gathered my wits, I continued on the trail toward the climax: the observation platform that juts out into Kehl Lake. Leading up to that platform, there’s a wonderful boardwalk that winds around trees and over a fern-crowded wetland. Both the boardwalk and platform were recently rebuilt by YouthCorps. Read about it here. They did an incredible job! That snaking boardwalk is now one of the coolest features of any trail in Leelanau County. It’s something to savor.
As I approached the platform, I disturbed a majestic great blue heron, which took flight. Kehl Lake is a major birding spot. Walk out onto the platform; be silent; and listen to the splash of a fish jumping or the cry of an eagle.
From there, you loop back through a virgin forest featuring 200-year-old eastern white pines. Today I was grateful for the blue trail markers painted on trees. The path isn’t always obvious. Indeed, that’s one thing Kehl Lake has in common with Krumwiede: the trail maps look stupidly simple, yet I’ve gotten a little lost on both trails before.
But then, fall is a time to get lost. I once asked a friend, a born-and-raised local, which country roads I should traverse to experience the ultimate Leelanau color tour. His advice? “Just drive. Don’t look at a map. Turn wherever you feel like turning.” That’s the great thing about a peninsula. You can never get too lost. You’ll reach water eventually. And if your whimsical meanderings lead you to either Krumwiede or Kehl Lake…then it was meant to be.