Headlands Dunes preserve is a wild Lake Erie beach with sand, forest, marshes

March 23, 2015

The 25-acre Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve is filled with sandy hummocks and sand-loving vegetation. The dunes are up to 20 feet tall.

FAIRPORT HARBOR, Ohio ó Once there were 170 miles of unspoiled Lake Erie beaches with dunes and beach-loving vegetation on Ohioís North Coast. Few remain today.

Thatís what makes Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve in Lake County so special. It is the best and one of the last surviving lakefront beach plant communities with its hummocks and its sand-loving vegetation.

The state is adding an 800-foot boardwalk and observation platform this spring at the nature preserve. It is a unique headlands landscape of sand, vegetation, forest and marshes.

It sits next to 120-acre Headlands Beach State Park, the biggest and best natural sand swimming beach in Ohio. That beach stretches more than one mile along Lake Erie, with up to 100 yards of sand between the water and the 19 parking lots in Mentor and Painesville Township.

It gets up to 10,000 visitors a day in the summer and 2.2 million a year. It is routinely rated as the best swimming option in an Ohio state park. It is popular for picnics, beach volleyball, wind surfing, jet skis and fishing. There is no breakwall and northern winds can kick up big waves.

The state of Ohio began acquiring land for a park west of Fairport Harbor in 1951-1952. It opened in 1953 as Painesville Beach State Park. In 1955, the name was changed to Headlands Beach.

In 1957, the beach was closed when waves and undertow created safety problems. The public enjoyed swimming instead in a creek that flowed into Lake Erie. The undertow is still an issue and swimming is prohibited when the waves are too big, officials said.

The state in the late 1960s added parking lots, concession buildings, restrooms, changing buildings and a sewage treatment plant.

The 25-acre state nature preserve often gets overlooked next to the popular state park. It is tucked between the park and the Grand River west of Fairport Harbor.

It features a natural beach and plants more typically found along the Atlantic Coast. It is a highly specialized ecosystem too hostile for many plants and animals. There are 11 rare plant species.

Such dunes are typically found west of where rivers such as the Grand enter Lake Erie. The dunes are shaped by wind and water. They are up to 20 feet tall and surprisingly colorful with reddish brown and tan-colored grasses dominating.

It is a fragile environment with a handful of trails crisscrossing the dunes. Some areas are fenced off to restrict access.

The plants cannot thrive on the harsh, windy beach, but they do in the shelter of the dunes. Some have extensive root systems, others have folding leaves to stabilize themselves and to trap moisture.

The key plants are switchgrass and American beach grass. Both are common in the preserve but rare in Ohio.

They become established on the upper beach away from the water and quickly spread into huge rootlike mats. Sand then drifts into the calm areas around the grasses and stops moving. This makes the dunes taller.

Yet the grasses are not buried and are able to simply grow up through the accumulating sands. They are joined by beach pea, cocklebur, sea rocket, seaside spurge and purple sandgrass.

Once the beach grass and other hardy pioneer species get established, the dune changes. What had been shifting, nutrient-poor sand without shade now provides stabilized sand, partial shade and the beginning of soil as dead plant matter decomposes and builds humus.

As the dunes become established, grape vines and poison ivy appear. Diversity grows. Cottonwood and willows emerge and black oaks will follow.

Other dune-specific plants you will likely find are sand dropseed, Canada wild rye, water-ash and wild bean.

Lake Erie was part of the Atlantic Ocean 12,000 years ago when the glaciers were retreating. Saltwater disappeared 2,000 years later, but the Atlantic coastal plants remained in the Lake Erie dunes.

Headlands Dunes, dedicated in 1976, is a good spot for watching migrating birds and monarch butterflies. Birds will rest, feed and wait for the best weather before flying across Lake Erie on their way north. The result can be frequent large fallouts of warblers and other songbirds in the preserve.

Visitors are asked to walk carefully on trails and not to disturb dune vegetation.

A lighthouse at the edge of the preserve (it is private property) marks where the Grand River empties into Lake Erie. The lighthouse dates to 1925.

The dunes are moving farther into Lake Erie, due to the breakwall at the riverís mouth. The beach has moved northward 2,500 feet since 1827. Thatís when the federal government constructed piers at Fairport Harbor, so that sands being carried by east-moving longshore currents were trapped by the pier and the beach grew.

The state nature preserve and park lie at the northern end of state Route 44 where it dead-ends into Lake Erie.

The road dead-ends into the state park parking lot. The preserve is at the eastern edge of the parking lot.

The state park is open a half hour before sunrise to a half hour after sunset. Lifeguards are on duty select hours. Preserve hours are daylight to dark daily.

For preserve information, call Adam Wohlever at 330-527-5118 or go to Click on Recreation. For state park information, call Geneva State Park at 440-466-8400 or go to

Bordering the state park to the south is Mentor Marsh State Nature Preserve that covers 645 acres with a marsh-swamp forest. It is jointly owned by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The Zimmerman Trail provides access. Itís open during daylight hours only.

Adjacent to that preserve is 450-acre Mentor Lagoons Nature Preserve and Marina, owned by the city of Mentor. For information, call 440-205-DOCK.

Nearby Fairport Harbor is the home of the Fairport Harbor Marine Museum. It is housed in the former light keeperís dwelling adjacent to the 1871 lighthouse that is 60 feet tall.

Lake Metroparks operates Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park with a first-rate swim beach. It is protected by a breakwall. The park district offers sailing, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding and jet skiing at the 21-acre park.

Parking is $3 for out-of-county residents. Dogs are welcome on the beach.

For information, call 440-639-9972 (summer only) or go to




Associated Press