Morgan Valdivieso wasn’t expecting to get high with her grandmother—figuratively speaking—on a visit to Midland, located near the Thumb in Michigan’s Great Lakes Bay region. But the 15-year-old Texan, a self- described “city kid” from Houston, fondly recalls strolling skyward together along the Canopy Walk, an elevated boardwalk built amid the towering pines in Dow Gardens’ revitalized Whiting Forest. The Forest is part of the 110-acre Dow Gardens, a botanical marvel that features walking trails, a greenhouse and seasonal flowering beds and plants.
Stretching 1,400 linear feet, or about one quarter-mile, it’s touted as the nation’s longest canopy walk, complete with a kid- pleasing rope bridge, giant cargo nets and swaying pod-shaped play structures and bird’s-eye views through the treetops.
“It was so pretty and peaceful up there,” Valdivieso says, of the three-pronged wooden walkway that looms 40 feet, or four stories, above the ground at its highest point. “You could hear all the birds and the [rustling] trees. It’s very different from what I’m used to. It gave me a new appreciation for nature.”
That’s exactly what Sara and Macauley “Mike” Whiting Jr., were going for when they envisioned the Canopy Walk, which opened last October as the crown jewel of a four-year, $20.4-million update of Whiting Forest. Other new elements in the 54-acre tract include a wheelchair-friendly playground, café, amphitheater, forest classroom, apple orchard and restored creek. It’s all linked via one-and-a-half miles of ADA-compliant pathways, plus additional nature trails along the woods, meadows and wetlands.
The ambitious overhaul was a gift of the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, of which Mike Whiting serves as president. And it’s a project dear to his heart: the forest was his childhood backyard, a place, he says, where he and his brother spent countless hours catching frogs and climbing trees.
Whiting’s mother, Helen Dow Whiting, was the granddaughter of Herbert H. Dow, who founded Dow Chemical Co. in Midland in 1897. They lived on the grounds in a mid-century modern home designed by her uncle, the prolific Midland architect Alden B. Dow, who was designated Michigan’s first—and to this day—only architect laureate before his death in 1983.
Today, the circa-1948 family home has been repurposed into a contemporary visitor center, where Valdivieso and her grandmother, Shelley Rubinstein, began their Dow Gardens outing. It was a second visit for Rubinstein, who lives in metro Detroit and wanted to share the experience with her visiting granddaughter.
Browsing visitor center exhibits that detail the history of the prominent family and the property, the pair was impressed by an oversized, Alden B. Dow-designed “Woods of the World” front door. Representing 58 tree species, it showcases 336 blocks of wood from 94 countries, all collected by Helen Whiting on global travels with her husband, Macauley “Mac” Whiting.
They also learned that Herbert H. Dow’s favorite hobby was his apple orchard, and that he used the serene pond visible from the Canopy Walk for irrigation. As part of the forest redo, 231 trees representing 92 varieties of apple and other fruit trees (some heirloom) were planted around a mother apple tree that still bears fruit more than 100 years after Dow planted it.
The orchard can be viewed from the walkway’s 40-foot high Orchard Arm, where a glass floor offers visitors an adrenaline rush. It’s one of the elements, along with the cargo netting, designed to evoke a sense of adventure and risk to help lure children away from technology and back into the woods.
“Kids spend so much time staring into their video screens, computer games and iPhones,” Whiting says. “We needed something exciting … that would draw them out here. It’s just good for your soul to be outside.”
For her part, Rubinstein walked on the glass floor but couldn’t look down. “It makes my stomach churn,” she says. At the same time, she praised the high-quality materials used in the Canopy Walk and said she felt completely safe exploring it.
She and her granddaughter gazed out over the forest and plotted where they would hike on the nature trails below. “It’s awe- inspiring to be up that high,” Rubinstein says. “You can see the whole forest—the view is amazing.”
They recommend arriving early in the day, ahead of groups of excited kids who tend to congregate in the cargo-netting play areas.
The Canopy Walk was built to last with durable, sustainable and naturally rot- resistant Brazilian ipe wood, according to Kyle Bagnall, Whiting Forest’s program manager. Befitting a forest-centered project, only six healthy trees were removed during construction, he says.
The six-foot-wide—and ADA-compliant —walkway was engineered to wrap around certain trees. “Sometimes, the trees go right up through the Canopy Walk,” Ba- gnall says, explaining that designers left extra room around trunks on and near the walkway to allow for windy day-swaying and future tree growth.
The free-form playground, with swings, slides, water features, tunnels and stepping stones, is quite popular with children and their accompanying adults. Thanks to separate entrances, there’s no admission fee to the playground or the adjacent Whiting Forest Café, which offers grab- and-go sandwiches, soups, espresso machine coffee drinks and snacks. A patio overlooks the playground.
Two new pedestrian bridges link Whiting Forest to Dow Gardens (near the Rose Garden) and the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library elsewhere on the campus. A single admission fee includes entry to both the 110-acre botanical gardens and Whiting Forest, so leave enough time, as Rubinstein and her granddaughter did, to enjoy both.
Photo by Nic Lehoux
This article originally appeared in the 2019 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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