Once there were 170 miles of unspoiled Lake Erie beaches with dunes and beach-loving vegetation on Ohio’s North Coast. Few remain today.

That’s what makes Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve at Fairport Harbor in Lake County so special. It’s 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 at the nature preserve this spring. 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 1 mile along Lake Erie, with up to 100 yards of sand between the water and the 19 parking lots. It gets up to 10,000 visitors a day in the summer and is routinely rated as the best swimming option in an Ohio state park. There is no breakwall and northern winds can kick up big waves.

Colorful dunes

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

It features a natural beach and plants more typically found along the Atlantic Coast, with 11 rare plant species. 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.

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

It is a fragile environment with a handful of trails crisscrossing the dunes. Visitors are asked to walk carefully on trails and not to disturb dune vegetation. Some areas are fenced off to restrict access.

It is a highly specialized ecosystem too hostile for many plants and animals. 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 grow up through the accumulating sands. They are joined by beach pea, cocklebur, sea rocket, seaside spurge and purple sandgrass.

Evolving ecosystem

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.

Headlands Dunes 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.

A lighthouse dating to 1925 sits at the edge of the preserve (it is private property), marking where the Grand River empties into Lake Erie.

The dunes are moving farther into Lake Erie, due to the breakwall at the river’s mouth. The beach has moved northward 2,500 feet since 1827. That’s 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 at the state park parking lot. The preserve is at the eastern edge of the lot.

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

For preserve information, call Adam Wohlever at 1-330-527-5118 or go to www.ohiodnr.com. Click on Recreation.

Nearby attractions

Headlands Beach State Park is also popular for picnics, beach volleyball, wind surfing, jet skis and fishing. For state park information, call Geneva State Park at 1-440-466-8400 or go to www.ohiodnr.com.

Bordering the state park to the south is Mentor Marsh State Nature Preserve, which covers 645 acres with a marsh-swamp forest. The Zimmerman Trail provides access. It’s open during daylight hours.

Adjacent to that preserve is 450-acre Mentor Lagoons Nature Preserve and Marina, owned by the city of Mentor. For information, call 1-440-205-DOCK.

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

Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park features a first-rate swim beach protected by a breakwall. The park district offers sailing, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding and jet skiing at the 21-acre park. $3. For information, call 1-440-639-9972 (summer only) or go to www.lakemetroparks.com.