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Explore 195 acres of wilderness—right on campus.

natural area tour

North Central's Natural Area is 195 acres of relatively wild land adjoining and south of the developed campus in Petoskey.  It is bordered by the Bear River to the south (except for about 7.2 acres south of the river), farmland to the east, and woodland to the west.  Access is available at the southeast corner of the parking lot near the Student and Community Resource Center.

The landscape itself gives a record of the environmental changes since the last Ice Age: mainly glacial deposits associated with retreating glaciers and remnants of floodplains abandoned by the Bear River as the water levels in Lake Michigan have dropped. A dozen different biotic communities, both upland and wetland, can be found within the boundaries of the Natural Area, making it an excellent place for environmental studies, photography, and wildlife observation.

In August 2021, the 80-foot Iron Belle Bridge opened to the public, connecting North Central's Natural Area to the River Road Sports Complex and providing a link between 4.5 miles of trails in Petoskey and an 8-mile trail system in Bear Creek Township.

You can help preserve the beauty and solitude of the North Central Natural Area for all to enjoy by remembering the following:

  • Pets must be leashed, according to Emmet County Ordinance.
  • Carry out all that you carry in.
  • Use established trails and boardwalks.
  • Leave wild plants and animals for others to enjoy.
  • Enjoy your visit!

The following activities are not allowed in the North Central Natural Area:

  • Camping
  • Building Fires
  • Driving Motorized Vehicles
  • Hunting
  • Consuming Alcoholic Beverages
  • Swimming
  • No Bikes

North Central Michigan College has dedicated this land as a natural area to be utilized by the following:

  1. Area students, so that they are able to learn more about the natural history of northern Michigan ecosystems and organisms
  2. Wildlife, so that wild creatures are able to seek a natural place in an increasingly unnatural world
  3. The community, so that visitors are able to enjoy the beauty and solitude of its forest, fields, streams and wetlands.


Areas of Interest

Find more information posted at the entrance to the Natural Area, including trail maps, interpretive materials, permitted activities, scheduled programs, areas of interest and community activities.

In this harsh, exposed habitat, cedars and cherries struggle to reclaim the land. With sunlight abundant, grasses and wildflowers thrive, attracting insects. Many species of birds and small mammals dine on the ample supply of seeds and bugs. Openings like this are important foraging areas for many animal species.

Unlike many of its Northern Michigan relatives, the Backen Fern prefers well-drained, upland soils. In this area, Bracken Ferns are thick and knee-high by mid-summer, providing excellent cover for small animals as they seek food. Bracken Ferns actually inhibit the growth of sun-loving tree seedlings by shading the ground. Openings like this result from a disturbance that removes the canopy of trees, allowing more sunlight to reach the soil.

The Cedar Swamp is a place where tangled trees compete for sunlight in a shadowy life-and-death battle for survival.  Years ago, a family from Ukraine occupied this 52-acre wetland. This is how it came to be called the "Russian Swamp." Black and smelly, the soil is wet most the year until it freezes during the winter months. The swamp becomes a welcome shelter for wildlife, including bobcat, white-tailed deer, and great- horned owl. Crystal clear springs emerge from the ground, joining to form creeks that wind to the Bear River and empty their cold contents. Some springs remain open all winter, providing a reliable water source. No trails penetrate the swamp's interior; life here remains quiet and mysterious.

These White Pines were planted many years ago to prevent erosion. At first, they grew quickly, but soon growth slowed as they began to crowd and compete for sunlight and nutrients from the sandy soil. By keeping the coarse soil in place, they have accomplished the purpose for which they were planted.

Most of these trees are part of one big colony connected by a shared underground root system. The trees in the colony are clones:  each tree is genetically identical. This site must have been disturbed many years ago by logging, farming, or possibly fire, which created good growing conditions. Aspen seedlings need full sun in order to grow. In time, hardwoods will become more dominant in the stand.

At first glance, this habitat looks like a grassy field. Only a few steps off the trail, as your feet sink in the black muck, the difference is clear. This is a wetland. Much of what appears to be grass is really sedges. Sedges have triangular stems, unlike the round stems of grasses, and they have excellent abilities to withstand flood and drought conditions. Small mammals remain concealed in the tall vegetation, avoiding predation from above.  At dusk, the silhouettes of bats dart across the sky as they feast on the abundant insect supply over the wet meadow. 

As the land rises from the sides of the bowl-shaped depression in which the Russian Swamp is embedded, the trees change from the wetland species of cedar and tamarack to upland species, such as the Sugar Maple.   Most of the trees here are broadleaf and deciduous, standing naked in the cold of winter, but forming a dense, green canopy from May to September.  Here, wildflowers bloom early, while the sunlight still reaches the ground.

Succession is the change in vegetation over time. Ponds are filled with dead plants and become marshes. Plowed fields left unplanted grow weeds and then shrubs. All the habitats in the North Central Natural Area are changing. This once shrubby area was cleared in the summer of 1994.  In less than one year, ferns, grasses, and other herbs covered the scars left in the mud by the tires of the large machines used to relocate the powerline.

Butterflies,  bees, and many other insects are attracted to the colors and scents of the wildflowers that decorate this open field.  The insects spend many hours gathering nectar and pollen from the blossoms. In return, the insects pollinate the flowers so that seeds can develop. This kind of relationship in which both parties benefit is called mutualism.

Years  ago  there  were  so  many  black  bears inhabiting the banks of this river that the natives named it 'Where the Bear Walks." Now black bear are rarely seen here. The black bear meanders slowly along the boundaries of the Natural Area, collecting runoff from the swamp until it empties into  Lake  Michigan. The water is cold and contains high levels of dissolved oxygen, making the river a high-quality home for aquatic organisms. Gnawed off stumps along the riverbank are evidence of beaver activity. If you watch the bank closely you may see one of their lodges.  Several large snapping turtles come ashore each spring to lay their eggs. Wood ducks and other waterfowl are seen swimming in the slow but strong current. Belted kingfishers are frequently observed as they patrol the edges of the river in search of a fish dinner.

Mixed with the hardwoods in this area are a few towering white pine trees, remnants of a stand that was most likely harvested long ago.  These trees may have been too small to cut at that time but are now giants of the Natural Area.

A registered Michigan Historical Site, this large opening was created around 1877 when Abraham Seibert purchased 120 acres that are now part of the Natural Area. He moved with his wife and children to the Petoskey area from the Ukraine where his ancestors farmed for Catherine the Great. The Seiberts lived at this site until Abraham's death in 1918. The only remnants of the farm are some rock piles, depressions, lilacs, and a large bed of myrtle.  Nature has blanketed the rest.

This impenetrable thicket of speckled alder is truly a sanctuary for wildlife and is another example of a wetland habitat. American woodcock,  often observed engrossed in their mating flights behind the science building, use alder thickets as feeding areas. Their rubbery bills easily penetrate the waterlogged soil as they probe for earthworms. Throughout the summer, the Common Yellowthroat can be heard crying "wichity-wichity-wichity" from the tangle of alder branches.

Hip-deep in places,  this particular marsh was excavated over a decade ago by College personnel attempting to create a home for aquatic wildlife. Red-winged blackbirds spend the summer defending their territories among the thick border of cattails. Left to its own devices, this marsh will eventually disappear as the remains of its own plant inhabitants slowly decay and fill the shallow depression. Watch quietly and you may see a swimming muskrat or a basking painted turtle. Listen for the growling call of the northern leopard frog.