GRAND LEDGE, Mich. (Great Lakes News) – When we think of wilderness pathways or soaring cliffs, we usually think of northern Michigan or the U.P.
However, there is a place in Mitten known to Native Americans as “Big Rocks” that has all of these features and a few others as well.
The tribe led by Chief Okemos made their way to “Big Rocks” each spring to tap the maple trees for sap to make syrup. Settler histories tell of the caves that were scattered through the area known as the Robbers Caves by some and Counterfeiters Caves by others. Tales were told of stolen horses being hidden in the caves. Other stories claimed that runaway slaves were hidden there as they made their way to Canada along the underground railroad. The “Big Rocks” area is now known as Grand Ledge.
Along the Grand River are picturesque sandstone ledges and seven islands in the river. The ledges have been a local favorite for nearly a century. As high as 60 feet above the river, the combination of the great rock cliffs and the explosion of colorful leaves in autumn on the surrounding hardwoods, make this a color tour that is perhaps the best in southern Michigan.
There are several ways to get in close and enjoy these unique formations. One of the easiest ways to get to the ledges is through popular Fitzgerald Park. There are trails for hiking and cross-country skiing, disc golf and other sports fields, picnic areas and the barn theatre. Follow the paved pathway past the Red Barn Theatre and you will come to steps leading down to the Grand River. The walking trail follows the river and provides great access to the ledges. There are interpretive signs along the way to explain the geology and history. Visible in the river are the seven islands, where the Seven Island Resort once operated, and the railroad trestle. Another way to the ledges is via Oak Park on W. Front Street giving access to the ledges on the opposite side of the river. Finally, the ledges and the river can be enjoyed by paddling up from Jaycee Park or on a cruise on the paddle boat, River Princess.
As fascinating as the ledges are, there is another nature area that may be the only one of its kind in lower Michigan. North of town on Tallman Road is where Lincoln Brick Park is found. When driving into the park on a gravel road, everything appears to be normal. There are tall, beautiful trees, a prairie reclamation project, as one would expect, and then, there are those unexpected ruins. They don’t look like much, just a couple of walls and a chimney, but they are the first clue to what was once here. Moving further into the park, observant visitors may notice enormous mounds. Those mounds are actually piles of fallen brick. In addition to the mounds are an old quarry, half buried derelict machinery and more ruins. The park is comprised of 90 acres of recreation area and thousands of feet of river frontage. Nice trails meander through the ruins with interpretive signs at key points of interest, the trails also wind through the woods, past the playgrounds and on around the old quarry.
The ruins and mounds of bricks are all that remain of the Grand Ledge Brick Company. The kiln was 300 feet long and was in production for over 100 years. There were 11 buildings in the complex stretching from the quarry to the kilns, connected by railroad tracks. The factory manufactured hundreds of thousands of bricks that were used in buildings that are still standing. A local legend claims that when the quarry and the old brick kilns shut down, a giant steam shovel was abandoned in the quarry and is now underwater. That quarry is a swimming spot favored by the locals.
There are many more parks and nature areas in the Grand Ledge area. Another that is worth knowing about is the Jaycee Park located directly behind the Opera House downtown. The park is on the banks of the Grand River, has a fine kayak and boat launch. Using the park is one of the best ways to paddle to the seven islands and the ledges. Jaycee Park is also the venue for several festivals and musical events throughout the year. All Eaton County parks are dog friendly, leash mandatory.