The Haven Hill Natural Area is a treasure inside a treasure.
Located within Highland Recreation Area in Oakland County, the 721-acre preserve is rich with historic and natural wonders, making it a unique destination amid the hustle and bustle of southeast Michigan. Furthermore, Highland Recreation Area has trails for mountain bikers, horseback riding and cross-country skiing.
“The people who know Haven Hill Natural Area love it and work to conserve it,” said William Althoff, Highland Recreation Area park supervisor.
Largely undisturbed for the past 85 years, the Haven Hill Natural Area has retained much of its natural character, as well as some unusual plants and wildlife.
That preservation began nearly a century ago with Edsel Ford, the only child of Henry Ford.
Edsel Ford began purchasing parcels of the hilly land in Highland and White Lake townships in 1923 to create a retreat just a short drive from Detroit. Haven Hill Estate became the Ford family’s country home and included a lodge, riding stables and barn as well as a swimming pool, tennis courts, horseback riding trails and more than 2,400 acres of rolling forest.
Three years after Edsel Ford’s death in 1943, his wife, Eleanor, sold the estate to Michigan’s park system and it eventually became the Highland Recreation Area.
“To this day, Highland Recreation Area doesn’t allow development in much of our land in order to keep it the natural haven that it’s always been,” Althoff said.
Managing Michigan’s resources
While much of southern Michigan has experienced extensive development and urban sprawl in the last century, dedicated conservation efforts made by both public and private organizations has paid off.
“Across Michigan, great work is done to help manage our wildlife and natural resources – including the management of Haven Hill Natural Area,” said Matt Pedigo, chair of the Michigan Wildlife Council.
The Michigan Wildlife Council was created in 2013 to increase public knowledge of the importance of wildlife management and conservation, as well as the positive impact fishing and hunting have on Michigan’s wildlife and natural resources.
“Thankfully, Michigan is able to pay for these types of conservation efforts through the sale of fishing and hunting licenses,” Pedigo said. “In addition, our state’s wildlife conservation is paid for by a portion of the sale of outdoor equipment.”
Thanks to careful management, Haven Hill Natural Area remains the natural retreat Edsel Ford once envisioned and still boasts incredible biological diversity.
Recognizing Haven Hill as a natural treasure, the National Park Service designated it as a National Natural Landmark in 1976, adding 587 acres to the National Natural Landmarks Program. It is one of only 12 National Natural Landmarks in Michigan.
The small natural tract still contains all of southern Michigan’s principal forest types, including tamarack, cedar, beech-maple, oak-hickory and mixed hardwood.
The forests, marshes and lakes also support a wide variety of mammals and more than 100 bird species. Late April and early May are the best times to view warblers and spring wildflowers.
“We don’t allow any activities that divert from the trails near the natural area because we don’t want the rare plant life to be disturbed,” Althoff said. “So we see a lot of people come to Haven Hill and enjoy passive recreation like hiking and bird-watching.”
One of a kind
The Friends of Highland Recreation Area is dedicated to preserving the park’s natural and historical legacy.
“Our mission is to increase awareness about the history and architecture of this area for future generations,” said Dick Russell, the group’s president.
Although much of Haven Hill Estate has fallen into disrepair, including many of the buildings, the estate continues to fascinate visitors and is a popular park attraction. The Friends have dedicated themselves to its rejuvenation. Festivals, estate tours and guided hikes throughout the year help increase awareness among nature and history buffs alike.
Because once people visit, they’re hooked.
“Not a week goes by when someone doesn’t tell me they’d been driving by our entrance for 20 years and finally decided to stop in,” Althoff said. “Every single time, they say they just can’t believe how beautiful it is. It’s really southern Michigan’s best-kept secret.”
Video courtesy of Friends of Highland Recreation Area