Posted in Geology, Hiking, Northwestern Ohio, Park review

Oak Openings Metro Park

Oak Openings Metro Park is a 4,000 acre metro park in Lucas county. It has over 30 miles of well-marked hiking trails over some of the state’s most interesting and diverse terrain. It features many varieties of plants, and it is on the main path for seasonal bird migration. Oak openings also has sand dunes despite being miles from the nearest large body of water. How the sand dunes got there is an interesting story in itself.

Wildflowers and trees growing on the sand

The History and Habitat

Twenty one thousand years ago, much of what is today Ohio was covered by a sheet of ice known as the Wisconsin Glacier. In northern Ohio, the ice sheet was a mile thick. As the current inter-glacial period began this enormous mass of ice began to melt. The melting glacier produced water – a lot of water. As the glacier melted, a series of huge lakes were formed, the last of which was named Lake Warren.

Lake Warren included all of what is today Lake Erie, much of northwest Ohio and portions of neighboring Indiana. Lake Warren had sandy beaches as well as dune covered barrier islands. About 11,000 years ago, the waters of Lake Warren receded leaving behind modern Lake Erie and an enormous swamp surrounding the remnants of the barrier islands. The swamp measured 120 miles long and 40 miles wide. Early settlers viewed the swamp as an often impenetrable, malaria-ridden barrier.

However, within the Great Black Swamp, there was one area that was free of swamp. It was an oak-covered savanna with occasional sand dunes. Lightning sparked frequent, naturally occurring fires that helped to keep the area from turning into forest. It is also believed that Native Americans did controlled-burns to keep the open areas open. The relatively fire-resistant oaks that survived actually thrived in the well-drained, sandy soil. The settlers traveling through this region called it the “Oak Openings”. It was a welcome relief to those who had crossed the swamp.

Charred trunk from a controlled burn conducted by park officials
A little oak seedling gettings its start on a sand dune
An oak savanna has widely spaced trees and sandy openings with sparse vegetation.

By the 1850’s Ohioans began draining the Great Black Swamp, converting it to rich farmland. By the start of the 20th century, it was mostly gone.  Little remains of the Great Black Swamp today, except remnants of its Oak / Hemlock forest – such as the forest in Pearson Metropark.  [Updated text – my thanks to Tom Arbour (see comment below) for his clarification]

Today, a small portion of the Oak Openings savanna is preserved at the 4,000-acre Oak Openings Metro Park. There you can explore the unusual oak savanna habitat and visit sand dunes that still shift with the wind.

Sand dunes
What lives there

The habitat, oak openings, is sometimes referred to as Black oak openings in reference to the tree whose foliage is shown below. Check out its red, fuzzy leaves.

The fuzzy, red leaves of the black oak (Quercus velutina)

These are fresh, spring leaves. As the leaves mature they turn green. This fuzziness is a plant adaptation that slows the tree’s loss of moisture through its leaves. Conserving moisture is important for saplings growing in sand since rainwater will soon sink below the reach of its roots.

Since we were in the Oak Openings in May we also had an opportunity to view the spring wildflowers there. The region is widely known for its wild lupine which is pictured at the top of this post. Let’s take a closer look at it.

Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis)
Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis); in the background you can see the brown sand that it is growing in.

The wild lupine is an important food source for the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly. Although this butterfly had disappeared from Ohio, the Toledo Zoo reared one hundred of them. In 2007 these butterflies were released into the wild at the Oak Openings Preserve. We didn’t see one ourselves, but below is a photo which Coralie Mrsroadrunner published of this species under a Creative Commons license.

Photo courtesy of Coralie Mrsroadrunner, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Karner Blue Butterly

May Flowers, Ferns, and Animals

Below are a couple of other wildflowers that we saw in May.

Hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens)
White Campion

One of the most striking features of the vegetation at Oak Openings was the abundance of ferns.

Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)
Royal fern (Osmunda regalis); the blue-green structure in the center will turn brown and release spores when it matures.
Royal fern (Osmunda regalis)

The Oak Openings is a year-round destination for birders. We saw a number of birds, including the colorful Indigo bunting.

Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea)
A very wet, Red-headed woodpecker finding grubs in the rain

We also saw deer and squirrels.

Buck with budding antlers
The petite Red squirrel
The Park

The park features over 30 miles of hiking trails, including a 15 mile backpack trail, 5 miles of paved bike path, and 22 miles of bridle trails. This is the only park in the Toledo Metropark system that offers bridle trails. There is also a connector trail to the regional Wabash Cannonball hike/bike trail. In the winter, Oak Openings has designated trails for cross-country skiing.

We started our exploration at the Buehner Center. This building and its surroundings include exhibits describing the area, a wildlife observation area, a playground, picnic shelters, and restrooms. It is also the trail head for several hiking trails, and a pond lies a short distance beyond it.

The Buehner Center — note the “Welcome Birders” sign.
The pond behind the Buehner Center

Our time was limited so we hiked the 1.7 mile Sand Dunes Trail and the 1.9 mile Evergreen Trail. The Sand Dunes Trail took us to some of the dunes left over from the Lake Warren barrier island. It was a unique experience seeing sand dunes unaccompanied by any bodies of water. The Evergreen Trail traverses a pine plantation and then passes through prairie and savanna habitats. Had we more time, we could have spent many days exploring this unique park.

A bench located beside the Evergreen Trail

Dogs are permitted at the park and we saw a lot of people out walking with their pooch. Owners are required to clean up after their dogs and to keep them on a leash.

Additional information


Address: 4139 Girdham Road, Swanton, Ohio

View Larger Map

More on Lucas County

© Deborah Platt, Robert Platt and 2012 to 2021

12 thoughts on “Oak Openings Metro Park

  1. Thanks for your beautifully written article..I grew up next to openings and waded In the creek that became evergreen lake.before the building of that lake there was rumors of quick sand..I now believe that was the remaining marsh that covered that area.I am looking for history regarding mallard lake in the main park…I believe it was built in the ’30s as a govenment relief project.

    1. Your welcome, Lisa. I tried googling for the information that you are looking for, and I think that I came up with something on this MetroPark page: The Beginning – 1928-1939. In particular note the following from this article:

      August 1938 – With the recent acquisition of 272 acres and the WPA ready to proceed with a $375,000 project, plans are unveiled for development of Oak Openings Park. Plans include a six-acre lake, wildflower garden, bird sanctuary and picnic grounds. A group of prominent Toledoans has agreed to purchase 365 additional acres to add to the park.

      This seems to confirm your belief.

  2. Hello there, I was told to come check out my photograph 😉 I hope you do get to have the opportunity to see these small butterflies in the wild! As I once read, these small blues do turn the ground blue! 🙂

  3. Bob and Deb- very nice write-up. I just wanted to clarify something about the great black swamp. It was a massive oak and hickory forest. Today’s remnants of the great black swamp are large towering forests- places like Pearson Metropark in eastern Lucas County. Metzger, Ottawa and Magee were and still are open Lake Erie marsh communities dominated by submergent, floating leaved, and emergent leaved plants. The great black swamp looked very different than the open marshes found at these places.

  4. …. As a child, I spent many a happy weekend camping there. Of course, I didn’t care a fig for all the “important things” the park features – but the ponds and the woods and the trails and such helped foster a love of nature in my soul. Thanks for taking me back there!

  5. wow what a neat looking place toledo is a bit of a drive but it looks like that place would be well worth it. love the pictures thansk for sharing them with us.

Leave a Reply

You have to agree to the comment policy.

Complete the following sentence by typing either real or spam:
My comment is ...