Michigan’s Thumb: Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park

Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park

Michigan’s Thumb is too often ignored when people recommend places to go for Michigan hiking. In the next couple of blog posts, I want to put to rest the assumption that the Thumb isn’t a hiking destination.

Being from Michigan, I’m used to showing off where I live by pointing to a spot on the palm of my hand. It’s a rite of passage of being a Michigander. We are the Mitten State, you know. However, I barely make it over to the Thumb region. I’ve gone to Port Huron very few times outside of crossing over into Sarnia, Ontario. I have hiked around Metamora and Ortonville but those areas are quite different than typical thumb terrain.

From a March 1st trip to the Thumb. Flat farmland and wind turbines abound

On May 2nd, I decided to do my own day of Thumb hiking adventures. Since I am working on my Michigan State Park Challenge of visiting all of the Michigan state parks, I decided it would be great to incorporate a visit to the Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park.

Sanilac Petroglyphs Nature trail

The park, also known as ezhibiigadek asin (Ojibwe for “written on stone”) consists of 240 acres in Greenleaf Township, Sanilac County, in Michigan’s Thumb. It contains the largest collection of Native American petroglyphs in Michigan. The carvings were created in the pre-Columbian era and represents aspects of Native American spirituality. There is also an interpretive hiking trail within the park along the nearby Cass River (source: Wikipedia).

The lot is not paved and has plenty of parking. In fact I was the only vehicle there. I got out looked at the signs describing native plants and more info about the petroglyphs.

Learning about native plants in the area
A sign at the trail that shares more info about the petroglyphs

I also grabbed a photo of the map describing the hike. I always take a photo of the trail map just in case I need to reference it later! It’s a great tip for longer trails that may not be well marked or blazed.

The trail map legend and lots of flies

At the trailhead there was a sign posted that the petroglyphs would not be open for viewing until after Memorial Day. *facepalm* That’s what happens when you don’t research a trail thoroughly and head there on a whim.

The petroglyphs hidden from view

The petroglyphs were behind a fence and protected from the elements. At first I was really disappointed, but I also understand the fragility of the environment and how the sandstone must be protected from not only the elements but humans. There is a history of the area being vandalized and someone actually cut out one of the carvings.

“The sandstone slab in which the petroglyphs were carved is fragile and subject to weathering and other environmental forces. It has been walked upon and vandalized with graffiti over the years; someone, long ago, chipped out an entire symbol and the surrounding rock for a keepsake. The most recent act of vandalism occurred in 2017 when three images were carved on the rock by unknown individuals. This human activity combined with natural weathering has made the actual petrogyphs difficult for visitors to see, and there is concern that unless more is done to preserve the carvings better, they will be gone by the late 21st century (source: Wikipedia).

And this is why we can’t have nice things…ugh.

I know you are curious about what the petroglyphs look like and how to see them. Me too! Check out the official state park information I found here.

Even though I couldn’t get any sort of view of the petroglyphs, I wanted to still hit the trail and learn more about the history and geology of the area.

Potholes on the trail

I hiked the trail counterclockwise. For the first half the trail was pretty much in the woods. First following the river and eventually crossing it a couple times.

At about a tenth of a mile in you will come across a geological formation called potholes. One of the interesting features on the trail are the bowl shaped holes (potholes) caused by glacial erosion. I found a very interesting tidbit on potholes from a geocaching site. Check it out!

You’ll have to watch your step on this rocky path. This is definitely a trail you could twist an ankle on if you aren’t paying attention closely to your footing.

The trail will follow a stream for a short bit

The rock outcroppings are really cool, especially as you see the trees growing around them and sometimes in between them. Another thing not to miss is the lichen and moss on the slabs.

At about half a mile in you will cross the bridge pictured above. It looked like it had recently been updated and was in great shape.

A boardwalk keeps your feet dry and out of the mud.

At just under a mile, you’ll come to an area full of slab rocks and boulders. It’s a great spot for any of the littles to climb on, for you to rest and even have a snack or picnic lunch. I read that around this area was once a Native American village.

The highlight of my walk was seeing this large “survivor” pine at around the one mile marker (I mean, I didn’t get to see the petroglyphs!). There’s an interpretive sign that tells about the Great Thumb Fires of the late 1800s. If you listen to my podcast episode, I read it and share more about the devastation that occurred in this area.

You’ll cross the river again by traversing a sturdy bridge and make your way back to the pavilion where hopefully you were able to see the petroglyphs. After that, you walk along the path that brought you from the parking lot.

For more information and details about this hike, I recommend checking out the Hiking Michigan book by Roger E. Storm and Susan M. Wedzel

Hike Stats

Length: 1.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 20 ft

Location: 8251 Germania Rd. Cass City, MI 48726