Prehistoric Forest – Irish Hills, Michigan
There’s value in returning to the same places or subjects over and over again. In time, you watch the place change, grow, or deteriorate as your own skills develop.
The Irish Hills of Michigan has become my go-to spot, over and over again, for years now. My fascination with the place comes from childhood: I grew up and around the area, and visited the local amusement parks often. It’s also a gorgeous place, full of rolling hills and secluded lakes, and located along the US-12 corridor west of Detroit.
Lately, I’ve driven US-12 on my work commute, which is much more my style – no freeway, no stop-and-go-traffic, etc. And each day I drive the route, I think, “This is the place I want to focus my creative attention.”
There are plenty of project opportunities in a diversity of settings in the Irish Hills. It already has been my focus for a few years now. But lately, I find that I keep coming back to the place. I did just that this past weekend, revisiting some old haunts and scoping out some new ones.
I used to have more time to make photos.
My commute was 30 minutes, but if I left early I could stop and take a landscape, or catch a beautiful sunrise. And sometimes, I’d have enough time to explore an abandoned building or home. Beautiful country roads, lovely scenery, and no rush.
Not so much anymore. My commute is now an hour long, at minimum, and it’s mostly interstate driving. This cuts back on the time I have to get out and explore.
One of the casualties of this new setup is my abandoned photography. My commute is longer and busier, I work on a big-time college campus in a mid-sized city, and I just don’t have the time like I used to. It’s a bummer.
Part of me also feels like I’m moving on from urbexing, creatively. I want to do new things, and make different kinds of photographs.
Except when I take a new way into work, like I did last week. Instead of busy I-94 East, I ventured down US-12. It added 20-30 minutes to my drive. It was so worth it. For one, it felt like my old commute: moseying at a nice pace, lots of scenery to check out, and the fog helped make the landscape extra interesting.
For two, I noticed a few abandoned building opportunities (including my old haunts in the Irish Hills) – like this abandoned farm structure.
The itch still gets me when I see an abandoned property. It used to be a big part of who I was, creatively, and I’ve had to let some of that go. But it’s okay. I’ll try to make time for adventure when I have the time and inclination.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Michigan, just down the road from the Irish Hills, a place like Prehistoric Forest was a once-a-summer destination for my family. In fact, all of the little mini theme parks along US-12 were: Stagecoach Stop, the putt-putt courses, Mystery Hill.
But times change, the interstate redirects the Detroit-to-Chicago traffic, and one by one these little tourist traps are closing shop. Even some of the mini golf courses can’t seem to stay open.
It’s a shame.
There’s no more visual manifestation of the decline of the Irish Hills amusement parks than Prehistoric Forest, though. It sits right along the highway, with the fiberglass dinosaurs crumbling more and more, looking more sad with each passing year.
Closed for more than a decade, even the facade is depressing.
The kicker is if some little kid were to pass by the place and see that mastodon, or the apatosaurus resting its head on a non-native fake palm tree (good engineering!).
“Mom, what’s that? Can we stop?” the kid would say.
“No, honey. The park is closed. All the animals are becoming extinct.”
But then this is a story repeated all over the country. The kitsch of these little roadside attractions couldn’t keep up with changing consumer behaviors and patterns. It became a clichéd joke to even think about stopping by the Giant Ball of Twine. So people don’t stop.
Meanwhile, I’ve made it a personal project to document this area and its abandoned tourist traps.
Prehistoric Forest gets brought up a lot around the Jackson area. Rumors of people buying the property, stories about students charged with vandalism – it’s all led to a very touchy and mysterious situation.
Do you go in, risking trespassing charges? Is the owner active in the park’s redevelopment? Have the dinosaurs come to life, devouring intruders? Their cries deafened by the crushing jaws of a Tyrannosaur?
Yes, maybe, and probably not.
I can say the park is in serious disrepair, and I wonder how anyone could hope to restore it to its former glory. The photos I’ve seen had the dinosaurs in passable condition, but when I was there they were seriously degraded. The park is pretty well overgrown.
There’s just not much left.
As a kid, my family often went to Stagecoach Stop and Prehistoric Forest, and played putt-putt and drove go karts at the little amusement parks. Even back then there was a level of hokeyness – but it didn’t matter. Those places were tons of fun.
In high school, my dad and step mom were married at Stagecoach Stop’s little chapel, and their reception was held in the old timey tavern.
Stagecoach was a bustling place back in the day. You could watch a gun fight in the town square, grab some ice cream, pet a goat in the petting zoo, and even stay overnight in the motel. There was a working lumber mill, and horse rides, and a drive-through haunted Halloween tour.
Now those places are overgrown and fading away.
Driving down US-12 now, and passing through the Irish Hills, it feels like a ghost town. It’s almost like a run-down part of town, with all the windows broken out and no one left to protect it. Eventually, I’m sure, these roadside attractions will be mowed down completely.
Maybe the dinosaurs at Prehistoric Forest will survive. But more and more each year that place gets eaten by vegetation.
So last fall I took a drive out there, seemingly back in time, to capture some of those attractions I remembered from childhood. Before they disappeared.
At Stagecoach, I ran into a couple that was hosting a garage sale of sorts on the property. Most of the area was closed off, but I asked if I could walk around to grab some photos, and they said “yes.”
The Irish Hills Fun Center, a general amusement park with putt-putt and go karts, was completely abandoned. The kart track was still in decent shape, but the rest of the property was fading fast.
Prehistoric Forest, the true goal of my trip last fall, has been known as a target for vandalism. With motion sensors and cameras guarding the place, it was risky to try to grab photos of the place. When I drove past, there was a utility truck and a man taking measurements, so I played it safe and drove on.
Word is that the place has been sold. Who knows what will happen to it.
It was weird to see a place that was so bustling turn into such a dead spot. I may take another drive out there this fall to see what’s changed – if anything.