By RJ Walters / For the Jackson Citizen Patriot
It’s a journey through a lush green interior on a dirt road that can hardly accommodate two vehicles side by side at some points.
That journey could end at one of 11 lakes or at the entrance to 47 miles of hiking trails.
Or it could end at a beehive or manure pit.
It might sound like an oxymoron to call Waterloo Recreation Area a hidden gem, but local residents sometimes forget that the largest state park in the Lower Peninsula is right on the edge of Jackson County.
Bought by the federal government in the 1930s, its 20,000 acres are dedicated to discovering and enjoying nature — something that more than half a million people do each year at the park.
Park Supervisor Greg Byce said there were 514,000 visitors in 2009. He anticipates 625,000 this year.
A trip through the park last Sunday shows that visitors do not lack for options.
The curious is common
Many campgrounds are hospitable to dogs and other pets, but Waterloo’s Horsemen’s Campground and Staging Area takes animal catering to a whole new level.
Robbin Mace, 22, of Ionia, said she was first clued in to the equestrian campground as a freshman at Dexter High School.
Her quarter horse, Sharr, was tied to a hitching post next to L’Deea, her mother Debbie’s Tennessee Walker. Hand pumps for water, a manure pit, toilets and, of course, miles of trails were just a few gallops away.
“We just got back from a three-and-a-half-hour ride, and nature is just wonderful around here with all of the birds, and trees and different trails,” Robbin Mace said.
At $17 per night, the price is right.
Debbie Mace said her daughter came to love Waterloo as an escape from long weeks of hard work on a dairy farm, and she quickly picked up on that passion when Robbin invited her to camp.
“We have a little 50-acre farm and she told me I needed to come out here because I would enjoy it,” she said. “And she’s right, I love it. It’s a good place to spend time together and to bond with your horse.”
Robbin said the trails range from beginner to more advanced.
Waterloo has other distinct features, including a metal detection area, the Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Sanctuary (where visitors can see thousands of sandhill cranes each fall) and seven miles of cross-country skiing trails.
Some necessities that should not be taken for granted at Waterloo are cell-phone and GPS reception. As for the Internet? Such a question should not even come to mind.
Fun for everyone
The park has plenty to offer for anyone looking for a good time. There are 17 fishing spots, five miles of mountain biking trails and miles more for hiking and lighter biking.
Portage Lake is one of the popular destinations for families.
With modern, electric campsites nearby for less than $25 a night, visitors can hit the beach, fishing pier, disc golf course and park store.
The beach provides 40 to 50 feet of sand out to the lake, long enough for several hundred people.
Wayne County resident Pam Roberts recently spent a couple of nights camping at and exploring Portage Lake with her husband and four youngsters, all younger than 10.
It was the family’s first visit to the recreation area, and Roberts said she could certainly see return trips.
“The water is clean and there is not a whole lot of seaweed. And this size beach is sufficient — the kids seem to be having a lot of fun at it,” she said.
Her kids were trying to catch frogs and build sand castles, while she and her husband were most interested in hiking, campfires and getting some ice cream from the park store.
Live and learn
There’s no shortage of educational opportunities at Waterloo, either.
The Gerald E. Eddy Discovery Center opened in 2001 after a two-year renovation of the visitor’s center. It offers an interactive look at geology and diverse natural habitats.
Kids can look at ants forming lines in the sand, an array of birds in the viewing area, or bees making honey in the live hive.
School groups of up to 150 students come from Jackson, Ann Arbor, Lansing and even Ohio to explore the center and some of the hiking trails.
Field experts also frequent the area for testing and research.
“Orchid experts come out and check out our sphagnum moss bog,” said Jean McKim, a Discovery Center interpretive staff member. “It’s actually a pond, with a layer of moss on top where things grow.”
With the support of the Waterloo Natural History Association, the center is hosting public workshops Sunday afternoons from Sept. 12 through November.
Programs vary from nature walks to learning about and seeing live animals to a mushroom hunt. The cost is $2 per person or $5 per family.