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Suspension bridge through the tree tops could attract more visitors to an MSU hidden gem

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Austin (l) and Robbie (r) Oates with Phoenix Experiential Designs, working on the 700 foot suspension bridge through the tree tops at Hidden Lake Gardens.

There’s a hidden gem of nature in Michigan and people drive right past it without realizing what it is.

Hidden Lake Gardens is in Lenawee County about ten miles west of the small town of Tecumseh. The director of the gardens says this place has been around as far back as 1926, but not that many people are aware of it.

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
A lot of people speed right past the entrance to Hidden Lake Gardens on M 50 not realizing what it is.

“I guess we wear our Hidden Lake name very well,” joked Paul Pfeifer, director of the gardens.

He says people who do finally visit the site -which is owned by Michigan State University- tell him they didn’t think it was open to the public.

“They think we’re something that we’re not. So, thought we were a retirement community, folks that thought we were a golf course. Some thought they were not open to the public research facility. So we do hear a lot of 'didn't know you guys were even here.'”

MSU’s Hidden Lake Gardens amounts to 750 acres of gardens and woodlands, including several acres of rare conifers, a conservatory, and more. It’s in the Irish Hills area so there’s some really interesting topography thanks to the glaciers more than ten thousand years ago.

Chuck Gross drives by Hidden Lake Gardens on M-50 each day on his way to work. It really bugs him that more people don’t know about it.

Many of those who do visit, just drive around the six miles of roads through the forest and gardens. They don’t even get out of their cars to explore the 12 miles of hiking trails.

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Chuck Gross suggested Hidden Lake Gardens needed something to attract more visitors. MSU agreed and asked him to raise the money for it.

He had an idea. What if Hidden Lake Gardens built an attraction? Something where you had to hike a bit to get to it.

He cold-called Pfeifer. They met and talked about what that attraction might be. Then, Pfeifer took an idea to Michigan State University. When the university got back to them, Chuck Gross says at first it was great news.

“Basically, then, they said, ‘Well, it sounds like a great idea. You guys just need to raise the money for it.’”

Uh… that’s not a job Gross was expecting.

“I thought if they did embrace the idea, they'd say, ‘Hey, we got this one. We'll let you know when we're done and you can come visit like everybody else,” he said.

Instead he and Pfeifer started raising money, enough to get a suspension bridge built through the tree tops.

70-200D750 (18)-EDIT.jpg
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Nathan Blank adjusts the cables to make the suspension bridge platform level.

You need some experts to pull off something like that. That’s how Robbie Oates got involved. He’s with Phoenix Experiential Designs. He’s built a lot of these canopy suspension bridges in the U.S. and around the globe.

When you’re on the bridge, it really is like walking through the tree tops.

“What we really wanted to do is get out there and see those trees or that bird sitting perched in that limb right over there, that kind of thing,” he explained.

He says building these canopy walks makes him feel a little like a Dr. Seuss character.

“Sometimes I feel like The Lorax,” he said.

In the book, the Lorax said, “I speak for the trees.”

“You know, that I get to -not speak for the trees- but guide people to the trees and a canopy walkway is a really good way to do that,” Oates explained.

Oates says there was a perfect site at Hidden Lake Gardens. There’s this sort of bowl-shaped valley. It’s called a kettle hole, a deep depression caused by a chunk of glacier falling off. The 700 foot bridge spans that ‘kettle hole’ valley.

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Paul Pfeifer is the Director of MSU's Hidden Lake Gardens. He said many people drive by the gardens thinking it's a retirement community or a golf course instead of what it actually is: 750 acres of forest and gardens.

When I visited during construction, the side cables and netting weren’t in place yet. That means it could be a shear drop if I slipped off the edge. So, Robbie’s son Austin (who is now the boss as Robbie nears retirement) put me in a safety harness so I could walk out and take a look around. I watched as another worker, Nathan Blank, adjusted the bridge cables to make the walkway level.

The platform of the bridge is a fiberglass grid, so you can see right through it. The bottom of the kettle hole is about 60 feet below your feet.

As Robbie Oates said, you really get the sense of the height and the topography when you look down.

He says adventure junkies like himself will love it.

The height and the slight movement of the bridge will be a challenge for other people. But there’s a sturdy classroom at bridge level. There’s plenty of room to view things from there if you’re not crazy about the idea of going out on the suspension bridge.

Patti Vanooyen has been visiting Hidden Lake Gardens since her parents took here there in the late 1950s. She was hiking the trails with her son, Jeff Hephner. They stopped to see how the suspension bridge construction was coming along.

I asked what they thought of building something like this in the middle of the woods.

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Jeff Hephner and his mother Patti Vanooyen often hike the trails at Hidden Lake Gardens. They both enthusiastic about the suspension bridge and hope it draws more people.

“I think that it was genius to be honest with you, because more people will come once they see. It's like a big, big tree house for us,” Vanooyen said.

“Like this part of it literally launching you into the canopy. And I think that's what is going to make it so special,” Hephner noted.

Vanooyen smiled and added, “I know they're going to be ooh-ing and ahh-ing, I'm telling you.”

Construction on the canopy walk is not quite finished. Long ramps had to be built and the trail to the site needs some improvement so that people with different physical capabilities will be able enjoy the view.

The Hidden Lake Gardens’ Paul Pfeifer said the plan is to have a big opening in the spring. He’s hopeful a lot more people will discover the gardens and its forests.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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