Sylvania Wilderness

Located in the Ottawa National Forest in Michigan.

The Sylvania Wilderness and Sylvania Recreation Area, located near Watersmeet, Michigan are part of the Ottawa National Forest. The 18,327 acre wilderness is part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Combined with the adjacent Recreation Area, Sylvania offers an outstanding experience for those who want to camp, fish, hike, canoe, ski or enjoy the solitude of a wilderness experience.

Few wildernesses compare to Sylvania. Here you can find 34 named lakes - some with sandy beaches, others surrounded by record-size red and white pines. This large natural area with its old growth forest and pristine lakes provides habitat for a wide range of living things. While exploring Sylvania you might see threatened or endangered plants and animals - like rare orchids, bald eagles, loons and osprey.


From the last glacier's retreat until the late 1800s, little is known about Sylvania's history. Artifacts from prehistoric activity have been found, and archaeologists continue to search for cultural information.

We do know that in 1895, A.D. Johnston, a lumberman from Wisconsin, purchased 80 acres near the south end of Clark Lake with plans to cut the large, old pines.

But after seeing the property he decided it was too beautiful to cut. Instead, he invited some friends to visit and fish the lakes that have now become famous for their smallmouth bass. These friends were so impressed that they purchased adjacent lands and formed the Sylvania Club. Fishing and hunting became the primary focus rather than logging.

The owners built lodges, cabins and boathouses on the largest lakes and a road system to connect it all. These old roads now serve as an extensive hiking and ski trail system.

Ownership changed hands through the years. In 1967 the Forest Service purchased the land under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. Sylvania was opened to the public in 1967.

From the beginning of its involvement, the Forest Service realized the uniqueness of the area and provided for its protection. All buildings were removed from the property and it was managed as a special recreation area for 20 years. In 1987 it was designated a federal wilderness when the Michigan Wilderness Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by the President of the United States.

Sylvania Today

Sylvania's rolling hills and deep clear lakes were shaped by glaciers thousands of years ago. Almost all of Sylvania's 35 lakes are landlocked, fed by springs, bogs and precipitation. Many of the lakes are edged by white sand beaches suitable for swimming and all are surrounded by huge majestic trees. Some patches of ancient white pine, Michigan's state tree, tower above the treeline, but most of the area is virgin northern hardwood forest. These hemlock, yellow birch, basswood and sugar maple woods put on a brilliant color display every fall, peaking in mid to late September. Sylvania's magnificent trees bring the area much of its fame -- many are more than 200 years old and some date back to the 1500's. A wilderness visitor gets to see and feel what Lake States forests were like prior to European settlement.

Sylvania's clear, deep, sparkling lakes lie like jewels scattered among rolling hills and giant trees. Six of Sylvania's 35 lakes are over 250 acres in size. There are numerous smaller lakes, ponds and bogs throughout the area. Sylvania lies on the divide between Lake Superior and Mississippi drainages although most Sylvania lakes have no surface outlets to either drainage. Special fishing regulations apply so the unique fisheries with its large older fish can be maintained. Commonly found fish include large and small mouthed bass, lake trout, walleye and northern pike and a variety of panfish. Larger size limits apply only, artificial lures can be used; and it's catch and release on the bass. Bass fishing is at its finest here so enjoy catching and releasing them for you or someone else to land again another day.

Wildlife of the area include white tailed deer, black bear, raccoon, skunk, beaver, otter, fisher, porcupine, coyote, fox, squirrels and other small mammals plus a variety of water and woodland birds including the bald eagle, loon and osprey. Sit quietly with binoculars or a camera and odds are you're liable to capture wildlife sightings on film or memory.

There are 84 designated campsites in 29 locations bordering many of the larger lakes in the wilderness. Every campsite has an outdoor toilet and 2 or 3 individual camping areas, each with a tentpad, fire-grill and table. Wells or pumps are not provided and lake water is not drinkable, so carry in drinking water or boil lake water at least 5 minutes at the Campsite.

Adjacent to the Sylvania Wilderness, the Sylvania Recreation Area provides a 48 unit drive-in campground, a developed beach and picnic area and a road system that provides access to wilderness entry points.

Sylvania offers a unique and outstanding wilderness experience for those who want to camp, fish, hike, canoe, ski, or explore a natural area untouched by human activity or natural disaster. The pristine character and fragility of Sylvania demand our attention and care. Visitors are encouraged to "Leave No Trace" of their wilderness visit and leave Sylvania unspoiled for others to enjoy.

For more information contact: The Ottawa National Forest

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 26 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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