Situated along Interstate 94 between the cities of Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo lies the largest state park in Michigan’s lower peninsula. The Waterloo Recreation Area provides more than 20,000 acres of rustic territory for camping, hiking, picnicking, mountain biking, boating, fishing, swimming and equestrian activities. Within the park’s borders are 10 miles of mountain biking courses, 11 lakes, 12 miles of interpretive nature paths, 17 miles of bridle trails for horseback riding, and 36 miles marked for hiking. The heart of the Waterloo Recreation Area is the GERALD EDDY DISCOVERY CENTER which provides activities and exhibits that educate and get people enthused about the geology and diverse natural habitats that exist within the park.
Walking into the Eddy Discovery Center visitors find themselves immersed within the natural settings of Waterloo Recreation Area’s various habitats that range from hardwood forests to swamps and bogs. A giant interactive map stands out in the middle of the main hall that allows you to get a lay of the land highlighting different aspects of the park’s geography and encouraging people to explore it. Within the Waterloo Recreation Area are a number of preserved habitats featuring plants that were once very common in Michigan before European settlement but are extremely rare to come across today. Following the directions provided at the Eddy Discovery Center will allow you to take a hike and see some things you won’t come across during your everyday life.
In addition to unusual plants to see, trekking through the Waterloo Recreation Area provides an excellent opportunity to view wildlife. The discovery center’s main hall has a number of exhibits surrounding the giant map that each are dedicated to a different habitat which exists within the park. These displays contain samples of plants and taxidermy displays of birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and fish that are found in those habitats.
Each of the habitat displays also have sensory elements to them. Pet the fur of animals such as beaver, fox, mink, raccoons and white tailed deer that have pelts incorporated into these exhibits that are meant to be touched. Press a button on a panel built into each habitat’s display that gives you to chance to hear the sounds of birds, frogs and other creatures that call the Waterloo Recreation Area home.
While walking around take a look at the Sandhill Crains. These are the largest birds found in Michigan standing up to five feet tall with wing spans that can get to be six to seven feet long. Sandhill Crains are one of the world’s oldest bird species with fossil records dating back more than 9 million years. The area around this state park is a fall staging point for birds living in Canada and the midwestern United States during the summer to migrate to Florida during the winter. Each year between August and November thousands of these magnificent birds can be seen around the Waterloo Recreation Area. Combining the flocks of Sandhill Crains with the Fall coloring of the brush and trees provides for a truly spectacular sight making this an ideal time for a visit.
Have you ever heard of an ant lion? I hadn’t until visiting the Gerald Eddy Discovery Center. These insects that live in the sandy areas of the parks beaches, bogs, swamps and woods look like they could be monsters from a horror flick but they are real life creatures that live in Michigan. It is rumored that the sarlacc creature from Star Wars’ Return of the Jedi was inspired by an ant lion. They are called ant lions because they have the coloring of a lion and hunt ants for their primary source of food. You can see live ant lions in a discovery center exhibit. They’re really creepy but also very interesting to take a close up look at.
Next take a walk through the Geology Discovery Room. It explains how glaciers transformed the landscape within the Waterloo Recreation Area and provides hands on activities. Kids can conduct experiments in the “Mad Scientist Lab” or touch different rocks and minerals that have been collected from throughout the state. Take a walk through an ice cave and see yourself standing next to a giant beaver or mammoth that would have called this region of Michigan home during the Ice Age.
Don’t miss checking out the “Fossil Graveyard” where you can lift-a-rock to find models of fossilized bones, teeth and in some cases entire creatures. You’ll also see the collection of the Sphere Man who collected various crystals, minerals and rocks and transformed them into polished balls to highlight their beauty. Also spend some time playing around with the touch screen video games in the Discovery Room that test you on the geology knowledge you’ve picked up during your stay.
Staff host various activities through the year ranging from topics such as archery lessons to a presentation on seven outdoor skills that everyone should know. They also lead guided hikes on the trails surrounding the Gerald Eddy Discovery Center and conduct special programs for school groups. If you want to go out and explore on your own, families can also borrow a discovery backpack filled with tools and useful information to help you have both an entertaining and educational experience during a hike.
Take some time to stop by the observation deck next to the discovery center building. It provides a nice vantage point to take in the scenery and look at nearby Mill Lake. Several telescopes are available to help in getting a good view of waterfowl and other wildlife. There is also a paved walkway outside the building that is lined with boulders and informative signs creating a time line of Michigan’s geologic history that can be studied as you walk along the path.
If you are a bit more adventurous there are fifteen miles of well groomed hiking trails that loop around the Gerald Eddy Discovery Center. The Lowland Trail takes you through a forested wetland and across a long boardwalk traversing a bog. The Spring Pond Trail loops through a shrubby swamp and is where the discovery center’s staff recommends as one of the best places to glimpse wildlife during a hike. While the Hickory Hills Trail makes its way through a mature hardwood forest with steep inclines that provide scenic views of the park’s Crooked Lake.
The Gerald Eddy Discovery Center has a variety of seasonal hours. Summer hours (Memorial Day – Labor Day) Monday – Saturday (10 am to 5 pm) / Sunday (Noon – 5pm); Fall hours (September through mid-November) Tuesday – Saturday (10 am – 5 pm) / Sunday (Noon – 5pm); Winter hours (January 2 – March 31) Saturday (10 am – 5 pm) / Sunday (Noon – 5 pm); and Spring hours (April 1 – Memorial Day)Tuesday – Saturday (10 am to 5 pm) / Sunday (Noon to 5 pm). Admission requires a Michigan Recreation Passport which provides admission to the state’s parks and recreation areas. Residents can purchase an $11 pass when renewing their motor vehicle registrations from the Secretary of State or at a state park. Non-residents can purchase a $32 annual pass or $9 daily passes by visiting Michigan.gov/estore or onsite at a state park.
My family really enjoyed exploring the Gerald Eddy Discovery Center and the surrounding Waterloo Recreation Area. If you are in the area it really is worth stopping by. It also would make for an enjoyable family road trip if you are looking for an interesting area to visit in Michigan. I especially recommend visiting for a summer camping trip or a fall colors tour when you can also see a multitude of sandhill crains. Waterloo Recreation Area is Pure Michigan!