Ten thousand years ago Lake Michigan, 25 feet higher than it is today, formed the Tolleston Dunes. Now these high ridges can be viewed along the 2.6 mile Inland Marsh trail. The entrance to the trail is about 1.5 miles east of County Line Road, along US 12. The best views of the marsh can be had from the Inland Marsh Overlook, just over a half a mile west of the trail parking lot.
Dune Succession Trail
The trail is 7/10th of a mile (1.2 km) long and makes a roundtrip up through the high dunes to the east of the West Beach Bathhouse from the beach to the parking area.
Stop #1; Learn about how beaches grow into dunes. Sand movements can actually be felt near the surface. Since the walkway is built above the sand, you'll have to reach down and through the railings. Keeping your hand just a short distance off the ground, you'll be able to feel the sand moving with each puff of wind.
Stop #2; Plants take hold, the first is often marram grasses. These grasses have root systems that dive deep into the sand seeking moister. The grasses can withstand being blasted by fine sand. If you rub up against it, you'll find out that the grass is as tough as rock and sharp.
Stop #3; On the leeward side of the dune (out of the direct wind), these is less motion. Here other plants begin to grow. The most common flowers are little bluestem and yellow flowered puccoon.
"Pines take root"
Stop #4; It is also on the leeside that larger plants. The jack pine is one fo the first trees to grouw as it's adapted to broken ground. It needs open, disturbed areas to root. It makes it's colonies where other plants have been removed. The bearberry also likes open ground. Unlike the pine, it's a short plant, but it's rugged leaves and stiff branches help it survive in this hostile environment. It stays short and close to the ground, growing upwards with the increasing sand, until it's roots lock the sand in place.
Stop #5; In spite of the sand, which bleeds water right through, the low areas, often hold water. Part may be a high water table, another part may be that these low places are often older soils, which are less sandy. Here, you'll find water loving plants like the baltic rush.
"The process undone"
Stop #6; A blowout is a place where the sand dunes had been stable with plants, maybe even forest of oaks growing across a wide area. A disturbance on the lake side (up wind), undermines one or two root systems, and then the whole process become undone.
The wind digs under the plants, they up root, they slide down hill, they die from lack of nutrients. Any number of reasons, open the soil to the cutting ferocity of the wind. A channel forms from upwind (north - the lake front) cutting through dunes, woods, and wetlands. The entire system is upset and bare sand once again is moving across the landscape. Before settlement, there were blowout over 100 meters (110 yards) long. There is a large blowout near Grand Haven, Michigan (Rosy Mound Park) that could house a football stadium.
"The woods take hold"
Stop #7; The 'end' is when the forest takes hold and the dunes disappear under the green rolling landscape. Black Oaks are the most common trees that can live in this dry climate. Even if it looks like rich soil and a carpet of green, just underneath is sand. Sand that can be ten's of feet or 100's of feet deep. Plants have to catch as much water in their leaves and in the thin soild around them. Those plants that do this and those that can send roots deep will survive.
In addition to the Black oaks which can tower 80-100' (75-90 m) have shorter friends in the sassafras and Ironwood trees in the understory.