Whaleback Natural Area

This 10,000-year-old glacial wonder near Leland is an iconic landmark that helps to define our unique Lake Michigan coastline. Whaleback’s fragile bluff rises 300 feet and can be seen from many vantage points in Leelanau. A viewing platform perched on the edge of this 40-acre natural area offers fantastic views of the Manitou Passage—especially at sunset. Huge oak trees and mature hemlocks create a cathedral like canopy that shelters bald eagles and the varied terrain hosts unusual plants, like the thimbleberry, which is extremely uncommon in Leelanau.

The dictionary defines a moraine as an accumulation of earth and stones carried and finally deposited by a glacier. This 10,000-year old geologic wonder has all the attributes that made its preservation a must – spectacular views from its towering bluffs above Lake Michigan, varied terrain which hosts unusual communities of plants and wildlife, and a location within easy walking distance of the village of Leland.

This is a very pretty hike with a gradual ascent through hardwoods that in the fall provide an excellent color tour hike. In the spring, sweet woodruff crowds the understory. This pretty, sweet-smelling plant is an invasive species that gives the woodland an almost fairy-like appearance; unfortunately it chokes out all but the hardiest natives, such as baneberry, jack-in-the-pulpit and squirrel corn. Conservancy naturalists are working to create a more balanced environment.

As you walk north along the top of the bluffs, look left for a patch of thimbleberries (their leaves resemble those of the maple). A very common plant near Lake Superior, thimble berries only grow in this one stretch of the natural area, and they are extremely uncommon in Leelanau County.

Before reaching the overlook, notice how tall hemlocks and hardwoods create a cathedralesque canopy. These trees shelter bald eagles: look for them flying above the observation deck as well as out over the water.