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A desert landscape thrives in the conservatory at the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum despite the frigid temperatures on the other side of the glass. Photo courtesy University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Cool discoveries in chilly Ann Arbor

One might think, when winter arrives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, (45 minutes west of Detroit), that the number of visitors to the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum would plunge, but exactly the opposite happens.

“People come here to get warm and see all the beautiful plants,” director Robert Grese said of the gardens-under-glass conservatory.

As if to prove his point on this frigid December day, we come across a woman who has set up an easel and is making broad strokes of green on her canvas. Her finished image will be in sharp contrast to the garden’s outside acres, now brown and dormant until the spring months.

The Slinky Tree greets visitors to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, which has exhibits that fascinate kids of all ages. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

The tour of this warm glass house brings, at each turn, collections of plants from climates that vary from arid to super-tropical, all necessitating careful management of their contiguous environments. It’s like walking through a giant, well-tended terrarium.

The botanical garden’s 90-acre property also offers a children’s nature playground, a community garden and the Discovery Trail, a quarter-mile walk with interactive signs. Later, I find myself hiking one of three other longer trails, but I couldn’t tell which one, despite the lovely, color-coded maps at various junctions. All around is a woodsy, wintery environment with the accompanying sounds of snapping twigs and leaves and the musical, mini-rapids of Fleming Creek. I feel as though I’m passing through a three-dimensional, sepia-toned photo that will transform come warmer weather. Seeing this landscape, it’s easy to understand why the change of seasons here is so celebrated.   

(In all, the university manages more than 700 acres of gardens, greenhouses, natural preserves and research and teaching facilities in the Ann Arbor area.)

Back in Ann Arbor’s downtown, a good time seems assured as we are greeted by the giant Slinky tree at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum. Ostensibly for children, this museum has plenty to do and learn for kids of all ages.

“Our primary purpose is to provide guests of all ages with moments of discovery as they relate to science, technology, engineering, arts and math,” Mel Drumm, executive director, said. “All of our programs are conducted in environments that promote social interaction where people of all interests and backgrounds interact with the exhibits, our programs and each other. For example, just yesterday there were 2,000 people (here), all enjoying programs, hands-on activities, musical performances, our temporary climate exhibit and more.”

It is difficult to decide where to go first in the museum, so I’m glad to have Drumm as a guide. We explore the water-play exhibit with its streams, turning wheels, bobbing balls, chutes and slides that all teach about the nature and force of water. A massive set of “choppers” (teeth) teaches about oral hygiene, a life-size ambulance about first responders, and in the preschool gallery, an engineering exhibit and a one-person bubble chamber.

“Many of our exhibits are designed by University of Michigan professors and students … truly unique experiences often not found in other museums,” Drumm says. “Our one-person bubble chamber is an all-time favorite. (Visitors) completely surround themselves in a larger-than-life bubble.”

And who wouldn’t like that?

For more on Ann Arbor and its other many fine museums, visit For more photos and commentary, visit Want to share your travels? Email [email protected]