Home of the Detroit region's best mountain biking trails, ski runs, backpacking ridges, and hiking gems, this article explores the past and present of the "Detroit Mountains"- southeast Michigan's glacial Jackson Interlobate Range.
Growing up, I liked reading maps. We're talking battlefield maps, geographic encyclopedias - even fake maps from fictional worlds like Middle Earth, Kanto/Johto, and Narnia. Yes, I'm also the geography nerd on my local bar trivia team, and we've got the gift card winnings to back up the extensiveness of this very specific genre of knowledge. So we'll see if you're still laughing when the final jeopardy category comes up as African geography...
Anyways, as I grew up, this random childhood peculiarity gradually evolved into a decades-long interest in scouting backcountry routes, planning international trips, and utilizing satellite imaging via Google Maps to identify "hole in the wall" or hidden gem outdoor destinations. I loaned this skillset to Expedition Detroit when first building out our "Destinations Map," a near-exhaustive collection of every park, trailhead, launching point, ski resort, and other noteworthy outdoor space within an hour's drive of Downtown Detroit. What was my complex, algorithmic methodology for identifying such spaces?
I opened Google Maps and looked for the color green. Seriously.
And the darker the green, the more expansive the outdoor space.
Here's a screenshot for reference:
Yes, this non-satellite layer omits a multitude of incredible outdoor spaces within the core of Metro Detroit. However, glance over at the western edge of this map - the extensive, darkest shade of green that runs largely consecutively from Grass Lake to north or Auburn Hills. An area whose scope includes several of our region's most beloved "Trail Towns," including Brighton, Chelsea, Holly, Lake Orion, Milford, and Pinckney.
If you dig a little deeper, you'll soon realize that this area also constitutes one of the largest and most unique, rugged, adventurous, historic, and collectively protected swaths of land found within the entire Great Lakes region. The home of 12 Michigan state parks and recreation areas, 5 Michigan state game and wildlife areas, 4 Huron-Clinton Metroparks, 2 county parks, and several independent natural preservation areas.
This coveted area is the focal point of this article: the massive area geologically identified as the Jackson Interlobate Range (the "JIR"), but we'd like to informally dub it here as the "Detroit Mountains."
SHORT HISTORY OF DETROIT'S TALLEST RANGE
If we were to time travel 16,000 years back, we would all be cold. Very, vey cold. In fact, we would find ourselves conveniently buried under a mountain of ice titled the Laurentide Ice Sheet that extended from the Arctic Circle to southern Indiana and Ohio. Over a 3,000 year period, the Laurentide Ice Sheet gradually receded into ice masses called "lobes," with the two most prominent lobes over the Detroit region comprising of the western Saginaw and eastern Huron-Erie lobes.
Thankfully for our resident hiking, mountain biking, and downhill skiing enthusiasts, these lobes did not recede uniformly across the Detroit region. To the contrary, as the bulk of each of these lobes receded, any terrain caught in the "no man's land" between them found itself irrevocably transformed by the massive deposits of converged sand and gravel left in the wake of the receding glaciers. As such, while the diminishing lobes ubiquitously flattened most of the Detroit region, this narrow strip of terrain with steep ridges, extensive hills, and "kettle" pools left by abandoned glacial deposits, remained a striking contrast against its surrounding swamps and grasslands.
This rugged landscape was further defined by the chaotic manner in which the lobes handled their multi-millennia retreat. The melt-back of the lobes was neither a continuous nor a steady process, including several periods of resurgence followed by short retreats, more advances, and more retreats. In the interlobate regions, where initial soil deposits from earlier retreats already presented obstacles for the path of any resurgent glaciers, these episodes meant that unfortunate deposits from intact glaciers were further piled on top of the growing hills in increasingly dramatic fashion.
The first human inhabitants of southeast Michigan arrived roughly 10,000 years ago, shortly after the glaciers finally completed their full retreat from the Great Lakes region. Rather than a landscape in geological turmoil, these first nations made their homes among the JIR's hilly and forested landscape and navigated its rivers and lakes for commerce and travel. European and American settlers would follow suit in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, including the establishment of the region's first permanent settlements and farms.
From a conservation perspective, most of the stunning Michigan state parks and recreation areas located within the JIR date back to 1943 - when the Michigan Department of Conservation founded Waterloo State Recreation Area, the largest state recreation area. Over the next 80 years, the rebranded Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Authority, and local municipalities collaborated to purchase and preserve hundreds of thousands of acres across this region. Thanks to such actions, not only have recreationists crossing several generations been afforded the opportunity to explore and appreciate the beauty of the JIR, but the region has continued to serve as the natural home for rare species and habitats.
NATURAL HIGHLIGHTS OF THE JIR
The highlands of the JIR cover an area of roughly 2,580 miles and reach elevations oscillating between 750 to 1,330 feet in elevation. The largest of the kettle lakes and ponds scattered throughout the JIR form the headwaters of several major rivers throughout the Detroit region, including the Huron, Grand, Kalamazoo, and St. Joseph Rivers.
The highest points of the JIR include several of Detroit's "Big Four" ski resorts, include Pine Knob (1,286 ft.), Mt. Holly (1,240 ft.), and Mt. Brighton (1,330 ft.). The general height of the JIR's hills also tends to increase along the range's northeastern trajectory, with average peaks in parks like Holly Recreation Area reaching greater elevations than those in Waterloo or Pinckney Recreation Area.
The JIR also provides an ecological home to several rare species of plants and animals. The range features a rare habitat called an "oak savanna" - a lightly-forested grassland environment featuring oaks as the dominant tree. Once prevalent throughout North America, oak savannas have now largely disappeared from the continent due to agricultural production and fire suppression. Detroit's Mountains also harbor one of the most elusive wildlife gems of the entire Great Lakes region: the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, Michigan's only venomous snake and only one of two rattlesnake species that exist throughout our corner of North America.
RECOMMENDED TRIPS FOR EXPLORING THE JIR
Ladies and gentlemen, congratulations: you've made it to the really fun part of the article. Now that we've spent the better part of the last year exploring the JIR's heights and depths, here are Expedition Detroit's top-recommended trips for exploring the JIR.
BACKPACK THE WATERLOO-PINCKNEY TRAIL
Trip Length: 38.5 miles
Duration: 3 or 4 days (depending on campground reservations)
Recommended Exploration Method: Backpacking, Hiking, or Trail Running (only if you're an expert)
The pinnacle of world-class outdoor experiences in the Detroit region, we strongly recommend that local recreationists escape to their local wilderness for a long weekend to hike the nearly 40 miles and 4,000 elevation gain of the famous Waterloo-Pinckney Trail! I completed a solo thru-hike of the WPT back in April, during which I represented the sole thru-backpacker along the entirety of the trail. I completed the trail over 3 days/2 nights, camping at the Pines and Green Lake Campgrounds. Experienced backpackers could easily follow suit, although new or growing backpackers should add in a third night at Blind Lake Campground to rest their legs for the final push.
Interested in learning more about backpacking the WPT? Be sure to check out our 3-part series on the trail!
THRU-PADDLE THE UPPER HURON FROM PROUD LAKE STATE RECREATION AREA TO HURON MEADOWS METROPARK
Location: Proud Lake State Recreation Area, Kensington Metropark, Island Lake State Recreation Area, and Huron Meadows Metropark
Trip Length: 22.9 miles
Duration: 2 or 3 days (depending on campground reservations)
Recommended Exploration Method: Kayaking and Canoe Camping
While the high ridges of the JIR provide the main draw to exploring this geographic anomaly of the Detroit region, the constant presence of the Huron River throughout the area provides the low-lying marshland ying to the yang of the hilltop peaks. Especially the northwestern stretches of the Upper Huron River, which paddlers typically follow from one of Proud Lake Recreation Area's several launching points to their dock of choice downstream. The trip highlighted above can either be paddled in day-trip segments or as one continuous canoe camping thru-paddle utilizing the Huron River National Water Trail's two canoe campgrounds at Kensington Metropark and Island Lake State Recreation Area.
CONQUER HIGHLAND'S A-B-C-D LOOPS
Location: Highland State Recreation Area
Trip Length: 13.7 miles
Duration: 1 - 6 hours (depending on recreational activity)
Recommended Exploration Method: Mountain Biking, Trail Running, or Hiking
If you have the masochistic desire to conquer the most grueling terrain of the JIR - scratch that, the entire Detroit region - then do we have the trail system for you. Meet Highland Recreation Area's A-B-C-D trail loops, unanimously hailed as the most rigorous of the only three "Black Diamond"-rated trail systems within the Detroit region. Although built for and maintained by mountain bikers, the "Alphabet Loops" are also utilized by hikers and the most extreme of our trail runners.
Please note that the vast majority of first-time bikers, runners, and hikers do NOT complete all four loops in a single outing. These trails are very technical, so we strongly advise that you ride, run, or hike with at least one other person every time that you attempt Highland's loops - or at the very least give your friends and family a heads up. Kudos to you if/when you complete all of the loops in a single day, regardless of your exploration method of choice!
My fellow geography nerds, history buffs, and adventure seekers - brothers and sisters after my own heart - we wrote this guide to exploring the Detroit Mountains' history, biodiversity, trails, and special outdoor challenges especially for you. We hope this article enriches all of your appreciation for this geological marvel located right here in our backyards.
Want to explore the Detroit region's best trails for yourself but would prefer hiking or running with a guide? Look no further! Expedition Detroit proudly leads guided trips across 11 Michigan state parks and recreation areas. Book your next adventure by CLICKING HERE!