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Detroit’s Top Five Mountain Biking Trails

In a region that's undeniably spoiled by world-class mountain biking trails, here are the Detroit area's top 5 trail systems that climb higher and ride faster than the rest.

Michigan’s official state motto translates to “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” Well, Southeast Michigan’s wilderness motto should be “If you seek a pleasant hiking trail, look about you - because there’s probably a mountain biker ripping down it.”


Our suggested motto should honestly be codified since most of the Detroit region’s most scenic hiking trails were either originally designed or overwhelmingly adopted as mountain biking trails. A quick glance at our “Destinations” map and you’ll see that the data holds up. Our great outdoors are disproportionately blessed with world-class mountain biking trails - only rivaled in-state by the Upper Peninsula’s most scenic and rugged trails - thanks largely to the trail construction and preservation efforts spearheaded by organizations like the Motor City Mountain Bike Association, Clinton River Area Mountain Bike Association, and Potawatomi Mountain Bike Association.


Curating this list of Detroit’s best mountain biking trails was one tough hill to climb (a great problem to have). So, just in time for October’s colors to fully set in, here are the Detroit region’s five best MTB trails to send it down:

1. POTAWATOMI TRAIL

Trail Length: 17 miles

Climb: 876 ft.

Trail Rating: Intermediate-Advanced


We don’t like saving the best for last here at Expedition Detroit. Credit’s owed where credit’s due, so the Potawatomi Trail - “Poto” - is presented right where it should be: first in line on our list as Detroit’s most sought-after, kick-ass, bucket list-worthy mountain biking trail. Found in Pinckney State Recreation Area, Poto provides riders with a grand tour of the park. The trail is also shared with hikers and trail runners, although it is an unspoken agreement that mountain bikers are at the top of the food chain for trail courtesy.


From the trailhead at Silver Lake (parking lot trailhead for all of Pinckney’s chart-topping trails), Poto’s deviates from the Silver Lakes Trail at 0.42 miles in and continues clockwise for 16.6 miles. The trail is a scenic roller coaster, trademarked with heart-thumping climbs and rewarding declines as you navigate around Pinckney’s series of lakes and the Portage River. Naturally, the trail’s most imposing challenge strikes right at the end - a nearly 100-foot climb with an 8% incline at mile 15.73. Survive the climb and you’ll be rewarded with a mile-long decline back towards the trailhead.


Bonus Tip: Looking to turn your ride into a de facto expedition? Poto offers riders with the ability to turn an MTB afternoon into a bike-camping weekend adventure. Pinckney’s two rustic campgrounds, located at Blind Lake and Crooked Lake, are directly accessible from the trail. New to bike-camping? REI has some epic gear to get you started.

2. LAKESHORE PARK (TREE FARM)

Trail Length: 8.9 miles

Climb: 423 ft.

Trail Rating: Intermediate


Single-track lovers, rejoice! Novi’s Lakeshore Park - formerly known as “Tree Farm” - has roughly 9 miles of fast, technical, and flowy trails for every level of rider. Starting at the main trailhead just south of Walled Lake, Lakeshore Park’s network of interconnected loops and segments with relatively little elevation gain provide for a seamless ride across variable terrain. The majority of Lakeshore Park’s loops are rated as “Easy,” although the “Expert Loop” accessible at the 0.7 mile mark, “the Crater” segment at the 3.7 mile mark, and the “Flack Attack” segment at the 5.1 mile mark entail more challenging terrain that’s fit for lapping. Be sure to spend some extra time at the pump track to test your balance and technical skills.


Bonus Tip: If you and your crew regularly ride Lakeshore Park, why not up the ante a bit with some harmless competition? Every summer the MCMBA hosts its famous tiki party + bike race, the “Tree Farm Relay,” for some 4-person team relay action over its trail network. Extra points are awarded for best costumes too, so riders have every reason to go all-out for this highlight event of the summer!

3. PONTIAC LAKE STATE RECREATION AREA TRAIL SYSTEM

Trail Length: 9 miles

Climb: 713 ft.

Trail Rating: Intermediate-Advanced


One Loop to Rule Them All - that should be the official slogan of Pontiac Lake’s legendary MTB trail, although the Tolkien Estate’s legal team may beg to differ. Pontiac Lake State Recreation Area contains 9 miles of fast, elevation-oscillating, single track trail, with the main challenge of a 22% incline grade striking just 1.5 miles into the adventure. Each gueling climb is typically rewarded with a refreshing decline, although Pontiac Lake is also infamous for the tactical maneuvering demanded by some of its downhills (especially right after the 2 mile mark). The majority of the ride leads bikers over a series of rolling climbs and declines through the park’s northern string of lakes, with the final segment consisting of one long decline back to the trailhead.


Just as a fair warning, the immense popularity of this trail comes at a price. Pontiac Lake is not the trail for any riders seeking two-wheeled solitude in nature - its proximity to Downtown Detroit and the northern suburbs makes Pontiac Lake’s trail one of the most frequented in the Detroit region. Expect to share the trail with hikers, trail runners, and even equestrians in some segments. Always be courteous to others on the trail, and note that the trail right-of-way food chain goes like this: hikers < bikers < equestrians.


Bonus Tip: If you look at a map of Pontiac Lake Recreation Area, its main campground is located directly in the center of its famous mountain biking trail. This pristine example of exemplary park planning has made Pontiac Lake’s campground a favorite for mountain bikers looking to make a weekend out of their rides (Highland Recreation Area is also just down M-59, so it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine tackling both trail systems in a weekend). Party responsibly and aim to find the elusive balance between evening campfire drinks and morning tight turns.

4. HIGHLAND STATE RECREATION AREA A-B-C-D LOOPS

Trail Length: 14.7 miles

Climb: 1,584 ft.

Trail Rating: Advanced

Trail Sponsor: Motor City Mountain Bike Association


Built by mountain bikers for mountain bikers, Southeast Michigan’s most difficult MTB trail system may very well be its best kept secret. Highland’s alphabet loops cover almost 15 miles of technical and tight single-track trails, filled with sharp descents, steep climbs, rock gardens, and lots of tight, off camber turns. The loops slightly vary in difficulty, with the A (3.5 miles) and C (2.2 miles) Loops being slightly easier than the challenging B Loop (5.4 miles) and dreaded D Loop (3.6 miles). Most riders take on just the A and B Loops for a heart-pumping 9.7 miles through the core of the course, although plenty of adrenaline junkies and admirable psychopaths will knock out the full system in 2 or 3 hours. The D Loop’s climb of 130 feet over roughly half a mile - including a 20% incline grade at certain points - is the crown jewel achievement of this punishing yet rewarding course.


Please note that even relatively experienced bikers should not take conquering all four alphabet loops lightly. Beginner and freshly-minted riders are advised to ride with more experienced riders and tackle just a loop or two during your first visit to Highland. Bring plenty of water, take your time navigating these black diamond-rated trails, and wholly embrace the ass-kicking that Highland’s loops indiscriminately unleash on us all.


Bonus Tip: The Highland trail system is the northernmost segment of a larger 100-mile trail system that connects several parks and independent mountain biking trails. While you can conquer this daunting trail system any time during the year, we recommend tackling this feat alongside hundreds of your new best friends amidst the festivities of the annual Milford Bike Fest and Trail Challenge. Beyond Highland’s alphabet loops, your ride will take you on a grand tour of the Milford Trail, Hickory Glen Park, Proud Lake Recreation Area, Kensington Metropark, and Island Lake Recreation Area. Yes, don’t worry - beer tents in Downtown Milford will be eagerly waiting for your return from this MTB odyssey.

5. BRIGHTON STATE RECREATION AREA TRAIL SYSTEM

Trail Length: 16.9 miles

Climb: 916 ft.

Trail Rating: Intermediate-Advanced

Trail Sponsor: Potawatomi Mountain Bike Association


Last but certainly not least, Brighton State Recreation Area provides riders with a “choose your own adventure” approach to its two-loop trail system. More advanced riders typically tackle the black diamond-rated “Torn Shirt Trail” first, a 7.9 mile loop that contains steeper climbs and more technical features (NOTE: the Torn Shirt Trail has recently been extended to include 3 additional miles, so published trail guides may be outdated). The foremost challenge of the Torn Shirt Trail strikes 1.82 miles into the loop with a 10% incline grade climb to an elevation of 954 ft., the highest point on the entire trail system.


The more moderate Murray Lake Loops cover a total of 9 miles of riding if you take on the Purple, Orange, and Green Loops. Enjoy your flowy, single-track grand tour of the northeast segments of the park, complete of course with technical challenges throughout to keep the ride engaging for bikers of any skill level.


Bonus Tip: Why not combine your ride with a paddle? The MTB trailhead parking lot also services access to Bishop Lake, one of the crown jewels of Brighton Recreation Area. Trust us, there are far worse places in the world for that mandatory post-ride beer (alcohol prohibited at Bishop Lake Day Use Area April 1st - September 30th).

 

We cannot overstate that this list is just the tip of the iceberg. There are several trail systems that we ride regularly and love dearly - such as Maybury State Park, Island Lake State Recreation Area, Hines Park, and the Milford Trail - that are spectacular in despite of being omitted from this article. However, if you are a top-tier mountain biker that regularly rides in the U.P. or out west, this list is your guide to the Detroit region’s crème de la crème of MTB trails.


Send it responsibly. We’ll see you out there.


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