That One Time in Michigan…When a Tree Became a Portal to Hell

The Hippie Tree. (Photo via Jeremy Thompson, CC BY 2.0)

By Karel Vega

September 26, 2023

Color tour, indeed.

Are you one of the many, many people who head north in search of colorful foliage during the fall season? If your trip takes you toward Traverse City (and you like creepy stuff), you might detour over to the Hippie Tree. According to legend, what appears to simply be a downed willow tree covered in bright paints is actually a portal to hell.

A Traverse City Legend

That One Time in Michigan...When a Tree Became a Portal to Hell

Traverse City State Hospital as seen in a postcard circa 1935. (Public Domain)

A massive dead willow tree lies in the heart of the Grand Traverse Commons Natural Area. Over the years, this tree has become a local destination due to the vibrant colors visitors have painted on it. Walking to it makes you feel like you’ve been transported to some otherwordly place. But the tree also has a reputation as a local haunt where spirits gather.

The tales behind the Hippie Tree’s origins wouldn’t be as captivating if not for the backstory of the surrounding area itself, so let’s start there.

In the late 1800s, Michigan officials saw the need for a third psychiatric hospital to be built in the state.

Thanks in no small part to the influence of local lumber baron Perry Hannah, Traverse City opened Northern Michigan Asylum in 1885. It would become the largest employer in the area during the time it operated.

The asylum opened at a time when mental illness was difficult to treat—it would still be decades, for example, before medical research led to useful medications and therapies that are commonplace now.

Dr. James Decker Munson, the first superintendent of the asylum, was noted for a treatment philosophy that included approaches like forbidding straight jackets, beautifying the hospital environment, and giving patients jobs to keep them busy and productive.

In addition to the patients with mental illness, the hospital treated locals who had infectious diseases—like tuberculosis, typhoid, influenza, and polio. Despite Dr. Munson’s holistic approaches, stories persist to this day of the hardships patients faced due to the severity of their illnesses, and how strictly the hospital operated. There are also stories about less-dedicated staff members at the hospital, like a murderous doctor, a hospital chaplain who went mad and hung himself in the chapel, and workers who dug underground tunnels beneath the building.

If you want to read more on the Northern Michigan Asylum—which would later be renamed to Traverse City State Hospital—check out this article from writer Lisa Green.

The Hippie Tree

That One Time in Michigan...When a Tree Became a Portal to Hell

(Photo via Jeremy Thompson, CC BY 2.0)

After the hospital closed in 1989, urban legends started spreading about supposed hauntings in the abandoned asylum. Flickering lights, voices, and sometimes even a sense of physical illness would overcome visitors venturing in.

In case that‘s not spooky enough, stories about a nearby location are even spookier. Just a short hike away from the hospital grounds lies the Hippie Tree.

Locals talk about strange people who would go to the tree to speak with the spirits of those who died at the Traverse City State Hospital. Once communication was established, these “hippies,” as they were called, would paint or write down what they heard from the spirits…directly on the tree.

Over the decades, these accounts have overtaken the tree’s original bark facade.

Stories abound of people feeling odd energies, hearing strange sounds, or feeling like they’re being watched as they stand by the tree. Some of these claims even go as far as seeing shadowy movements, or having mysterious forces throwing stones at visitors.

But the wildest legend is that walking a certain way around the tree will open up a portal to hell. What way, you ask? No one knows—or no one is telling. Just be sure that if you do go visit, you don’t walk that way.

Regardless of all these eerie stories, the fact remains that the tree is a spectacle to behold. Are you ready to see it for yourself? Here are some directions, courtesy of Atlas Obscura:

“The tree is most easily accessed if one parks in the lot directly adjacent from the Greenspire School, the address of which is 1026 Red Dr, Traverse City, MI 49684. From the trailhead, take the first right and you will proceed up a large hill into a clearing. The next left will lead you down to the Hippie Tree. You should see some painted limbs from the outside, and some past visitors have painted markers to follow along the trail.”

The Asylum Today

That One Time in Michigan...When a Tree Became a Portal to Hell

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. (Photo via Warren LeMay)

Although the fates of both the Traverse City State Hospital and the Hippie Tree seem like they’d be forever intertwined, there have been positive developments with the former hospital over the years.

In the early 2000s, a private development organization called the Minervini Group bought the building and grounds, and undertook the largest historic redevelopment effort in the United States, according to Grand Traverse County officials.

The former hospital is now known as The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The area includes shops, restaurants, and even apartments. The Village also offers tours, where you can visit preserved areas and learn more about the history of the Traverse City State Hospital.

Maybe if you’re lucky, you might even sense a spirit milling around.

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

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