By Nate Reens MLive/The Grand Rapids Press
As a Central Michigan University graduate student, Amy C. Powell and her friends escaped the stress of school by getting off campus to relax at Deerfield Nature Park.
Eighteen years after those 2003 excursions, Powell, the executive director of Art Reach of Mid Michigan, still finds solace and release in the 591 acres of property that, if possible, is both the crown jewel and the hidden gem of the Isabella County Parks and Recreation system.
Powell now finds herself bringing her children to hike the park’s trails in the spring, summer and fall and cross-country ski the groomed trails during the winter months.
“The beauty of the park is phenomenal all year long, and I love the fact that it’s only five miles from town, but it feels like you’re in the middle of a forest,” Powell said. “You don’t hear any noise except for nature.”
“I can’t say enough good about it, and it’s an amazing to think that it’s been such an important place for me for so long.”
Deerfield, as the county’s largest park, was developed to be a year-round attraction for the region’s residents and its visitors, said Sue Ann Kopmeyer, the parks and recreation department’s director. The park set attendance records in 2020 as more people discovered the grounds or returned multiple times a season.
“It’s an outlet for people, a way for them to get away and get active,” Kopmeyer said. “But it’s also an ideal spot for passive recreation. With the Chippewa River cutting through the park and through the woods, you can just sit along the river banks and the trees and soak it all in.
“It’s got a rhythm of its own for everyone.”
Part of the park’s charm and originality is found in three bridges that hikers can use to travel over the Chippewa River, including Fisher’s Covered Bridge and two swinging bridges. The structures make Deerfield the only place in Michigan where visitors can experience both covered and suspension spans.
The covered bridge was built in 1968 and then reconstructed in 1986 after a fire destroyed the overpass. The first swing bridge is only a short walk from the parking lot and marks the start of the 2.5-mile Wildwood Pathway, while the second is roughly 1-mile away on the River Loop.
“There is really no other place like it,” Kopmeyer said.
The natural surroundings are the draw for Mallorie Beavers, a Central Michigan University student who expects to graduate in the spring of 2021. Beavers grew up in nearby Shepherd, but she had never heard of the park until her first year of college. She’s since introduced the property to family and friends by enjoying picnics, hiking and setting up a hammock between trees at various points in the park.
“Friends, including ones who enjoy photography, make it a point to capture the changing seasons and views from different vantage points,” Beavers said.
“It’s really grounding,” she said. “The park is big enough that it feels like you’re finding something new every time you go, and there’s enough room that you feel you’re out on your own.”
Beavers and Powell say Deerfield Nature Park separates itself from other recreation areas through multiple amenities for people of all ages and interests.
Here are some of the park’s features:
- Eight miles of hiking and biking trails.
- Groomed cross-country skiing trails.
- A sledding hill.
- A sandy swimming beach.
- Fishing and ice fishing opportunities.
- Kayak and canoe launch.
- Volleyball and horseshoe areas.
- Two 18-hole disc golf courses.
- Ten remote camping sites.
- Multiple picnic areas, including four reservable covered pavilions.
- A covered bridge and two swing bridges.
The recreation has its ebbs and flows by the season, highlighted by:
Cross country skiing rules the winter as the parks system grooms eight miles of trail on an as-needed basis based on snow conditions. The terrain varies from flat and easy to areas with moderate hills, providing opportunities for novice and experienced skiers.
Families are drawn to the park by one of the area’s best and most accessible sledding hills. Powell said her children gravitated from sledding to cross-country skiing as they aged. Meanwhile, anglers can take to the frozen cutouts of the Chippewa River to set a line for bass and other sportfish.
While disc golf is available year-round, the spring months are the true start of the season as players look to shake their cabin fever and soak in the warming sun. The two 18-hole courses, named Deerfield and Wildwood, attract both beginners and competitive tournament events because they offer distinct experiences on the park’s northern edge. Deerfield opened in 2009 and Wildwood in 2013, and each is ranked among the best in Michigan.
Once the snow melts, hikers begin hitting the trails for fresh air and a workout, Kopmeyer said.
As one would imagine, the summer months are the park’s primetime moment as the space comes alive at first light and the fun lasts until the sun sets. Park guests spend hours enjoying the beach area, playing games in open spaces and traversing the trails. The sound of the river provides a serene and calming backdrop, according to Beavers, who brings a book to read or a journal to write in while chilling in her hammock. “That’s my favorite time because you’ve got the warmth and great views,” she said.
Deerfield’s 10 rustic, remote camp sites offer a hike-in experience that places guests on the banks of the river, with overnighters also arriving by canoe from the Chippewa. There is a hand pump for drinking water and a pit restroom available at the campground. Kopmeyer notes it’s a great experience for multi-day campers who want to access the park’s daytime amenities while requiring a more natural habitat than typical car camping options.
The Deerfield Park tree canopy is among the most picturesque in Michigan as the forest explodes with bursts of red, yellow and orange. Cooler temperatures bring back comfortable daytime activities and keep it an afterschool and weekend magnet for leisure.
“People love fall at the park, and it’s a must-visit time because of the natural surroundings,” Kopmeyer said. “It’s kind of the last chance in the year to experience everything Deerfield has to offer.
“The park is a point of pride for those who use it, and it’s something amazing for those who are finding it for the first time.”
* Disc Golf Picture @teamtaylordiscgolf
Nate Reens, MLive/The Grand Rapids Press
Nate Reens is an accomplished news editor and reporter with 20 years of experience in media organizations as they transformed from standard print editions to a web-first, mobile environment.
Nate has served as a team leader for reporters covering government, education, and sports. He has also guided a team of multimedia journalists telling visual stories. Nate covered police and courts, municipal government, and politics while reporting for newspapers in Michigan and Georgia, and won multiple Associated Press and Michigan Press Association awards. He has also led reporting teams to state and national awards.