Washtenaw County is truly blessed when it comes to parks and nature preserves. Our cities, towns, and countryside boast so many that some get almost no visitors at all. Here are three little-known natural areas that are well worth a visit—and many revisits once their beauty is discovered.

Mary McCann Park

Tucked away on a quiet country road in York Township, this thirty-eight-acre park includes a beautiful hardwood forest—with five species of oak, black cherry, hickory, and a row of rare white chestnut trees—along its southern border. And the woods are just the beginning; the main trail leads east to a swatch of southeast Michigan prairie thick with native plants, including colorful goldenrod and several species of wildflowers. Above is a view of open sky that stretches almost horizon to horizon, a rarity in the woodsy Midwest.

York Township parks commissioner John Farmer says there are more than twenty-five species of butterflies in the park, thanks to a butterfly garden planted by the Wildflower Association of Michigan. In summer, the butterflies, dragonflies, and birds add a dreamy, colorful touch to the prairie, like an impressionist painting sprung to life.

The park was once farmland, then part of the Ypsilanti State Hospital grounds. The township received it in the 1980s after the hospital closed and named it for McCann, the longtime township treasurer. Local Boy Scout troops laid out the wood-chip trails and put up bat houses to attract much-needed bats, which help cut down on the mosquitoes. (With a small ditch running through the woods and the wetland out back there is, unfortunately, no shortage of those.)

Despite the park’s beauty and diversity, Farmer estimates that it gets only a half-dozen visitors daily, even during the summer when the park’s attractions are at their peak. He’d like to see it used more for education, and plans to invite school groups out to help create “oak openings” near the southern end of the park where the woods and prairie meet. Prevalent in the area before white settlement, oak openings were created by Native Americans, who painstakingly cleared out the underbrush in woodlands to encourage the growth of nut-bearing species like hickory and oak. The nuts served both as a food source and as a way to attract game.

Farmer also has recently enlisted a Saline teacher in a project that will bring six elementary school classes to the preserve in June to plant wildflowers. The organizer is Woodland Meadows second-grade teacher Mary Ledford— Mary McCann’s daughter.

Mary McCann Park is located on the east side of Warner Road between Bemis and Willis roads in York Township.

Sharon Hills Nature Preserve

The tiny, grassy parking lot is easy to miss if you’re driving too fast, but it’s big enough to accommodate eight cars at least. The thing is, it’s usually empty.

The Sharon Hills preserve, in the far southwestern part of the county, is a bit out of the way but well worth the trip for anyone seeking the solitude of less-traveled paths. While the preserve is only around fifty-seven acres, it includes a surprising number of natural features, including grassy, rolling hills; oak and hickory hardwood forests; kettle wetlands; and some oak savanna.

The preserve is owned by the Legacy Land Conservancy, formerly Washtenaw Land Trust, a forty-year-old organization that purchases land in Washtenaw and Jackson counties to preserve it for the public. Dana Wright, the group’s stewardship coordinator, says the park is exceptional for its wide diversity of ecological zones in such a small area.

The preserve was once farmland. Not far from the parking lot, the south trail passes an old concrete rectangle that may have been a cistern or watering trough, then crosses an area that sounds hollow when one walks over it, probably a buried foundation or cellar. There are some other old foundations east of the parking lot.

From the parking lot, three different trails—north, south, and center—lead to another series of interconnecting trails out back. This gives hikers several options, from walking the entire perimeter, which takes forty-five minutes to an hour depending on pace, to an abbreviated hike that takes as little as twenty minutes. The paths are marked with white paint blazes on trees, and there is a wooden trail map at the halfway point. Volunteers maintain the trails during the warm months, but hikers need to make their own way during the winter.

All three paths start out at the foot of grassy, rolling hills that are especially pretty in summer, when they are dotted with colorful wildflowers like Queen Anne’s lace. The hills then turn steadily into steep hillsides with hardwood forests of oak, maple, and hickory. These are the Sharon Short Hills, a series of end moraines formed when the last glaciers in Michigan melted about 10,000 years ago. Navigating this hilly terrain is guaranteed to get your heart and legs working, even in the cool shade of hardwoods.

Toward the southeast corner of the preserve, the path dips down into low marshlands that were once kettle lakes. During the warm months they are often populated with boisterous waterfowl, including ducks and geese. There are also sandhill cranes living in the area, making their presence known with their screeching calls, like movie dinosaurs.

The park is populated also by foxes, coyotes, and deer, and LLC executive director Susan Lackey says volunteers sighted a black bear and her cub on the property a few years back. While there’s been no bear scat or other sign since, she notes that the DNR has recorded routine sightings of black bears in both Washtenaw and Jackson counties. Hikers should keep their eyes peeled for bears, however remote the possibility of encountering one.

Whitetail deer are far more numerous. During the fall mating season, from late October through early November, it’s common to hear them spring out of the underbrush as you walk the paths, their flight often accentuated by the macho snort of a buck leading their retreat.

The Sharon Short Hills Nature Preserve is located on Sharon Hollow Road between Washburn and Trolz roads. The easiest way to get there is take M-52 south from I-94 to Grass Lake Road. Turn right (west) onto Grass Lake, then left (south) on Sharon Hollow for about two miles. The preserve is on the left (east) side of Sharon Hollow Road.

Osborne Mill Preserve

Located just south of the sleepy village of Delhi, the Osborne Mill Preserve is overshadowed by nearby Delhi Metropark, literally a stone’s throw to the north over the railroad tracks. The parking lot, located on East Delhi Road, is a small uneven patch that fits two small cars at best. However, the road itself is lightly traveled, and parking slightly off the shoulder is generally safe.

The entrance to this 38-acre county preserve is located at the top of a glacial moraine, so the trail begins with a steep descent that should be taken slowly in snowy or slippery conditions. Once down, it leads through a nice stand of upland forest with species of oak, maple, cherry, and Scotch pine, some fairly sizable. In addition to the trees there are some interesting wildflowers, including wild ginger and blue flag iris.

The path then splits roughly north and south at the bottom of the moraine. The north path winds through more forest and underbrush before it arrives at a wetland prairie remnant next to the railroad tracks and the fast-moving Huron River. This area is low, swampy, and very often wet underfoot, so visitors need to keep an eye down or risk soaking feet. Still, the walk is worth it; the wetland prairie is beautiful and photogenic any time of the year.

Backtrack from the wetland and follow a smaller path on the left south to a small bluff overlooking the riverbank. Below is a swatch of floodplain forest and another path that goes along the river itself. Here the river ripples and

gurgles as it rounds a scenic bend on its way to Lake Erie. It’s a great spot to take in the view or just listen with eyes closed and perhaps meditate for a spell.

Donated to the county by the Nature Conservancy in 1981, Osborne Mill once was part of the 300-acre farm and mill established in 1837 by New York transplant Henry Osborne. Although the mill itself was about a mile down the river, there are still some remnants of the farm. Local historian Nick Marsh, whose family owned land nearby, says a pile of rocks on the bluff overlooking the river about halfway between the north and south borders might be a remnant of a stone wall that once kept livestock from wandering off the Osborne property. Whatever their source, they’re still lying about, so watch your step to avoid ankle injuries.

The main riverside path at the park partially follows the original 1830s grade of the Michigan Central Railroad. A walk through the park can be completed in under twenty minutes, except during high-water periods, when the floodplain is often submerged and should be avoided for safety’s sake. Note that while the path following the river continues on, it crosses onto private property on the park’s south side. A sign along the path warns that “Trespassers will be Prosecuted,” so take heed.

Osborne Mill Preserve is located on East Delhi Road between Miller Road and the village of Delhi, just south of Delhi Metro Park.