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Whaleback Natural Area

Whaleback Natural Area at a Glance

Features: bench, birding, challenging terrain, uphill climbs, guided tours, hiking, lake frontage, viewing platform or overlook, wildflowers

Acreage: 40

Year Preserved: 1996

Trail Mileage: 1 mile

Trail Difficulty: moderate

Trail Map
Guided Hikes

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.

Trail System

Hike this bluff and claim your reward: a spectacular Lake Michigan view that brings visitors back again and again.

This is a very pretty hike with a gradual ascent through hardwoods that in the fall provide an excellent color tour hike. A viewing platform affords stunning views of Lake Michigan.

When you visit, please realize that the land on both sides of the access trail is private and is not open to the public. 1.5 hours, challenging hike, steep access trail to flat 3/4 mile hilltop loop. There are benches along the steep trail.


Getting there: Whaleback Natural Area is located 1.5 miles south of Leland off of M-22. Look for the sign to turn down a private road. The Parking lot is on the right.

A Delicate Dune

From the viewing platform, you’ll see just how fragile this bluff is. On its western- most face, erosion has caused plants to lose their footing. Here, gravel and sand rumble down the bluffs into the lake. If vegetation does maintain a roothold in these exposed areas, what grows is usually ash, birch, pine, and hemlock. Don’t guess these trees’ age from their size. Poor soil on steep slopes has stunted the growth of some real old-timers!


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.

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.

 Plants at Whaleback

A Whaleback FQA and Summary is available here. It tells the story of the types and quality of flora at Whaleback Natural Area.

Related Articles

Record-Eagle’s Mike Terrell: “Hike up Whale’s Back” April 2017

A Personal Account of Whaleback – Anna Pentuik

Get Involved

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Poison Ivy is commonly found on impacted areas. Keep an eye out for this three leafed groundcover for it can give you an itchy rash. If your skin comes in contact with ivy, wash that area with soap a.s.a.p. Stay on the trails to reduce risk of contact.