Grand Ledge, Michigan: Another Aspect of the Grand River Valley
What geology, islands, a trail and an opera house have in common
West of Lansing along the Grand River Valley lies the suburb of Grand Ledge. This community also plays host to a river trail, although not as long or prominent as the Lansing River Trail. It also offers an interesting interface of attractions, ranging from rock outcroppings to islands in the river to a multi-purpose opera house. It stretches across virtual eons of time, yet it is as contemporary as the daily news . The community is named for the prehistoric ledges that abut the river valley, but there is more to the area than that. Because the attractions flow into each other, they should be considered individually.
The Ledges and Fitzgerald Park: Nature's own Geological Museum
The Grand Ledge area is named for the rocky outcroppings that front this stretch of the Grand River. Fitzgerald Park, which contains the Ledges, is actually a multipurpose park that also features outstanding hiking and walking opportunities as well. It has a disc golf course, and scenic boardwalk outlooks that offer views of deep forest glades in addition to the river. A lodge and more surprising views await the visitor before the main event, the Ledges. One descends down a staircase to the trail, where one can inspect the Ledges in close detail. They are sandstone deposits left behind some 270 million years ago, and are, by common consensus, the best outcropping of rocks in Michigan's entire Lower Peninsula. Not quite as spectacular as the New Jersey Palisades (across the Hudson River from New York) they are nonetheless an important part of this region's geological heritage. Later used to shelter runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad, they were still later allegedly used for bootlegging purposes during Prohibition. Although they appear sturdy, they are actually quite fragile, unlike granite (an igneous rock), so authorities ask that rock climbers use them with the utmost care. The current trail was donated by the Rotary International, and the Rotarians are to be thanked indeed for their generosity. If rocks could talk, what stories they could tell, and what lessons they could teach! As it is, it is up to this generation of enthusiasts to preserve these silent sentinels as they are and to pass them on intact to posterity.
Further Down the Trail and Island Park
After leaving the Ledges behind, this trail continues through private property toward downtown Grand Ledge. An interesting sight is encountered in an old overhead railroad trestle probably built by the Detroit, Grand Rapids and Western Railroad circa 1888, although the exact date and builder are somewhat uncertain. Meanwhile, out in the river the islands of Island Park are seen. A cluster of several islands in the stream, as the song goes, they form in interesting interlude. It is possible and recommended that they be visited by hikers off the trail. Several Native American folkloric tales are ascribed to these islands, and it is believed that spirits are still to be found here. This serves as a reminder that long before whites entered this area, a thriving local culture was evidenced by these first inhabitants of mid-Michigan.
Grand Ledge Opera House: More than just Opera
At the head of this trail, one enters downtown Grand Ledge. Within short walking distance is the Grand Ledge Opera House, a real throwback to the days when opera and other forms of entertainment were the center of civic pride. It is an almost perfect Victorian structure, although it has undergone periodic makeovers through the years. Opera Houses such as this one were once common in almost every American town from East Haddam, Connecticut to Virginia City, Nevada. There is a lovely lawn out back with a gazebo leading down to the Grand River, and banquets are catered for here. There are also special events, such as silent film festivals. There is a parallel here to the English Inn covered earlier in these pages, and shows what can be accomplished when preservationists and commercial interests are made to coincide, rather than clash. This has turned the Grand Ledge Opera House into a thriving business in our time.
This Trail in Reflection
This trail differs from the Lansing River Trail in that it is much shorter and is easier to cover by hikers. It is true that it lacks the sweep and number of attractions of the better-known trail, but it offers perhaps more scenery left in a natural state. For those pressed for time or limited by physical stamina, it just might be the alternative way to pack a lot of sightseeing into a compressed experience.