Total Driving Time: 6 hours, 34 minutes
Mileage: 317 miles
If you enjoy wildlife, scavenger hunts, and a leisurely pace, this driving tour is just the ticket for you. You may want to consider doing this tour over the course of two or three days. It’ll take you to some of the top spots in northeast Michigan to spot wildlife. There are plenty of opportunities to get out of the car or the RV and take your time exploring the area and searching for wildlife. It’s important to be respectful of these animals and their habitats.
Stop #1. Brown City: Summer Wind Farms Sanctuary
Though you won’t be in the wild for this stop, the Summer Wind Farms Sanctuary offers animal lovers the opportunity to view and learn about native (Michigan and U.S.) and exotic birds, mammals, and reptiles. More than 200 animals, including bears, big cats, and even a lion, have this sanctuary as their haven. You’ll need to arrange a personal tour to get up close with the animals and receive an educational tour of the facility. You can find more information at www.swfsanctuary.org or call (810) 378-4991.
Now that you’ve received an education on some of Michigan’s animal species, you can use that knowledge as you continue on your journey, as many of the next stops take you out in the field.
Stop #2. Port Austin: Saginaw Bay Area Birding Trail
Head north to Port Austin, a town that sits on the shores of Lake Huron. There, you can pick up the Saginaw Bay Birding Trail, which alone covers a total of 142 miles and includes Michigan Highways M-25 and M-13, as well as 40 miles of the US-23 State Recreation Byway (Standish to Tawas). The trail begins at Port Crescent State Park and largely follows the shoreline of the entire Saginaw Bay. According to the website, www.sblc-mi.org/bird.html, the distinct change in seasons, diverse habitats, sprawling miles of shoreline, over 200 species of birds, plus extensive natural areas with public access, make the Trail a birder’s paradise. Visit the website for a free guide and recommended places to stop, get out of the car or RV, and enjoy a stroll through a recreation area, preserve, or nature trail.
Take your time. Enjoy the day. Don’t worry about rushing off to get back on the road. There are many points at which you can stop, so decide which ones sound the most appealing to you. If you don’t want to take the whole trail, drive from Brown City to Unionville (51 miles or 59 minutes) or Bay City (59 miles, 1 hour and 15 minutes), both farther west.
Stop #3. East Tawas: Tawas Point State Park
From Bay City, you’ll spend only 90 minutes on the road, and you won’t be on busy I-75. Rather, you will have followed the birding trail that goes along 13 (U.S. 23). The state park is only three miles from the town of East Tawas. The point juts straight out into the lake. There are narrow, sandy beaches that you can enjoy while watching waterfowl and shorebirds (most prominently from March-May). If you’re here early in the season, in the month of May, you may also see birds migrating north such as broad-winged hawks, warblers, and blue jays. But for a truly spectacular site, plan you trip to make a stop here in mid-August. The point is a popular resting place for monarch butterflies that are making their annual journey south for the winter.
Stop #4. Mio: Jack Pine Wildlife Viewing Tour
Less than 60 miles away is the town of Mio and the ranger station guarding one of the entrances to the Huron-Manistee National Forest. If you traveled via 32, then you’ve already seen much of this national forest. But you want to get to the ranger station in Mio on McKinley Road, especially from May 15-July 2 to embark on a guided tour in your own vehicle to see the federally endangered Kirtland’s warbler. Your guide will help you find the warbler and other songbirds among the twisted jack pines. You may be asked to walk short distances on dirt roads to get sightings. Better bring along some binoculars, a camera, and some bug spray!
Stop #5. Vanderbilt/Wolverine: Pigeon River Country Elk Range
Leave the enchanting forest of the Huron-Manistee National Forest and head north to the Pigeon River Country Elk Range to get a glimpse of some big game. This area is home to the only free ranging elk herd in Michigan, the largest east of the Mississippi. Summer may prove difficult to get a good glimpse of these majestic animals, but September and October, the breeding season, will offer more viewing opportunities as well as some music – the elk bugle. There are official viewing locations marked throughout, and some may require a short hike to reach (though you never know when you might encounter one). This is the perfect final destination of the driving tour because the best times to view elk are at dawn and dusk. An Elk Viewing Map is available online from the Michigan DNR.