The wait is over - Detroit's peak fall colors have FINALLY ARRIVED throughout the region, and there's no better trail to experience this season's beauty than along Pinckney Recreation Area's Crooked Lake Trail.
As rapper E-40 so eloquently stated, "Everybody got choices."
For Detroit's outdoor community, that simple sentence couldn't be more true for the month of October. Scratch that, the last two weeks of October. When our trails are brilliantly decorated in reds, yellows, and oranges. A fleeting, stunningly-gorgeous period where one can reasonably become recreationally paralyzed by the choice of whether to go for a run, paddle, bike, or hunt. Especially on a bluebird day.
I found myself with such choices this past Monday. As I finished up my morning office work (yes, we in the outdoor industry do still have indoor offices), I recognized the recreational conundrum that lay before me. Every prediction software at my disposable gave the green light for every activity. My "Plan A" was to head to the deer stand, but man...a quick glance out the window showed that peak fall colors, at long last, had arrived. And, as any long-time Michigander knows, those colors could be gone in a matter of weeks - sometimes days if the winds pick up.
Armed with recently-obtained knowledge regarding the Detroit area's 5 best trails for experiencing fall colors, I made a calculated choice to bail on the stand for Pinckney Recreation Area's Crooked Lake Trail. The #1 destination within an hour's drive of Downtown Detroit for inundating your hike with autumn's stunning ambience. A baptism of seasonal color. The type of click-bait destination that outdoor influencers dream of.
With the afternoon's trail selected, my GoPro fully-charged, and a weighted rucking vest loaded up, all that was left to do was hit the road and pray that my gamble would pay off. Despite my excitement, this recreational choice represented a gamble - a zero-sum situation where choosing to hike meant foregoing the hunt. With October's bounty of outdoor opportunity, there was a decent likelihood that I could end up regretting this choice.
Fast forward an hour or so, I'm a few miles into the Crooked Lake Trail - mesmerized by my surroundings. The entire scene is bathed in golden light, both from the vibrant yellow leaves of the park's hickory trees and the late afternoon sun. My camera is pleading for mercy after its overuse while trying to capture the scene. Eventually I give up on it, surrendering to the realization that moments like this, in places like this, can only be fully-experienced in the moment.
"This...this was the right choice."
It is our privilege to reintroduce Pinckney State Recreation Area and its Crooked Lake Trail now.
MEET PINCKNEY STATE RECREATION AREA
The modern history of Pinckney State Recreation Area dates back to our last ice age. Truly - the park's dramatic moraines and kettle lakes that our regional recreationists love to hike, bike, hunt, and fish were formed within the Jackson Interlobate Range as the glaciers receded across the Great Lakes region ~10,000 years ago. Pinckney's recorded history, however, starts in the 1830s when George Reeves spearheaded the development of nearby (and obscure tourism favorite) Hell, Michigan. The land under the Reeves family's gradually grew until 1924, when the Reeves decided to sell it to a Detroit-based investment group which established a summer resort in the area. The State of Michigan finally acquired rights to the land in 1943 before formally establishing Pinckney State Recreation Area in 1944.
The Pinckney of 2023 constitutes a paradise for the Detroit region's most rugged, comprehensive, and sought-after destinations for outdoor recreation. Outfitted with two of Metro Detroit's pristine backpacking trails - the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail and the Potawatomi Trail - on top of hundreds of miles of hiking, running, biking, and equestrian trails, Pinckney may take the prize as our region's top trail destination. Just within the Expedition Detroit content universe, Pinckney has claimed coveted places on lists including best stargazing opportunities, top-rated campgrounds, and crowd-favorite mountain biking and hiking trails. Oh, and we haven't even touched on the park's paddling, fishing, hunting, snowshoeing, opportunities yet.
Now let's get to one of Pinckney's crown jewels: the Crooked Lake Trail.
HIT THE TRAIL
Total Distance: 4.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 324 feet
Trail Rating: Moderate
Route Orientation: Loop
Parking Specifics: Parking available at Silver Lake Trailhead (northernmost parking lot; Michigan Recreation Pass required for parking)
Any trip out to Pinckney State Recreation Area - and especially the Crooked Lake Trail - should never be attempted on a time-budget. For starters, just arriving at the Silver Lake Trailhead will invite you to linger along the beachfront as you take in the panoramic views of Silver Lake. They're truly stunning, and on a warm summer's day you could understandably spend all day just there.
But you're not here for the beach - you're here to experience the best fall colors in southeast Michigan along the Crooked Lake Trail. To minimize the siren call of Silver Lake, we recommend parking as close to the Crooked Lake Trail's origination point as possible. Head to the northernmost section of the massive Silver Lake parking lot, locate the ornate, hand-crafted trail map sign depicted below, and hit the trail without looking back.
The trail marker signs are fairly weathered throughout the hike, but fortunately the well-worn Crooked Lake Trail is very easy to follow due to its year-round popularity. From the trailhead, start by heading 0.2 miles across an expansive boardwalk and parallel to the southern shore of Silver Lake. There are a few pristine photo-op turnouts along this stretch - feel free to turn off on one and snap away to your heart's content (the cover photo for this article was captured at one of those side trails). At the 0.2 mile marker, turn right at the dead-end to continue along the "hiking route." If you're biking the Crooked Lake Trail, then turn left at this juncture.
From this point, you will hike exactly 1 mile to the Crooked Lake Trail's highest point. The steepest grade comprises of an 11% incline at the 0.6 mile marker, but otherwise you will thoroughly enjoy the brilliance of fall colors that radiate stronger as you trek steadily closer to the trail's peak at 1,008 feet. You'll know that you're near the top when the terrain becomes slightly more arid and sandy. A bench waits to reward you for your 0.8 miles of consistent climbing.
While your initial descent from "The Peak" only lasts 0.1 miles before another short climb, the relatively steep descent that follows provides a portal to one of the most beautiful and segments of the Crooked Lake Trail. You may be able to catch glimpses of the namesake Crooked Lake to the south, but don't miss the wildlife viewing opportunity as you cross over two of the lake's tributary streams.
These 0.8 miles of "marshland hiking" will also make you glad that you're visiting in the fall vs. mid-summer - the mosquitos are non-existent at this time of year. That's a HUGE perk to fall hiking.
Once you've crossed Glenbrook Road, you'll hike a 0.3 mile stretch that we've nicknamed "The Straightaway." While most of the Crooked Lake Trail's foliage comprises of the bright gold from Pinckney's bountiful hickory trees, The Straightaway features a mix of trees that diversify the color palate of your fall hiking experience. The Straightaway's plateau of elevation next to some of Pinckney's best maintained segments of forest also provide fantastic photo opportunities and general visibility around the trail.
My personal favorite segment of the Crooked Lake Trail - especially during "golden hour" - undoubtedly is the 0.4 miles of hiking along the northern shore of Pickerel Lake. Kicking off at the 2.7 mile marker, this stunning specimen of fall hiking will absolutely kill whatever record pace you had going for you. Every time that you think you captured the perfect fall vista of the lake through the leaves, just wait until you take a few more steps down the trail - your jaw will drop yet again.
To top this portion of the trail off, you will cross over another expansive boardwalk that provides the best bird watching opportunity along the trail. Rest along this boardwalk if you need to, because what follows next is a gorgeous - yet continuous - 0.8 mile ascent to the Crooked Lake Trail's second-highest point at the 3.9 mile marker.
Beyond this "second peak," the good news is that the trail is all downhill until you reach the Silver Lake Parking Lot. The bad news is that this descent is steep - a 12% decline - so any hikers that are experiencing fatigue by this point should exercise immense caution along this somewhat treacherous final portion of the hike. Yes, you will undoubtedly be excited to complete your autumnal adventure by reaching your car, but please take your time, be safe, and enjoy the lingering 0.5 miles of the Crooked Lake Trail.
EXPLORE THE CROOKED LAKE TRAIL WITH US THIS FALL!
TIPS FOR RECREATION DURING HUNTING SEASON
Fall in the Detroit region is primetime for outdoor recreation - yes, across the full spectrum of recreational genres. Hikers enjoying the brilliant canopy above them. Bikers ripping down leaf-covered trails. Paddlers navigating crisp streams. And hunters heading into the woods for to engage in one of Michigan's most revered recreational past times.
Hunting and fishing - especially hunting - are undoubtedly the "black sheep" of the outdoor recreational universe. Here at Expedition Detroit, we have made it part of our core mission to familiarize our community with the immensity of conservational benefits derived from the activity. Beyond the lucrative value that the sale of hunting and fishing licenses provides to our state, the Michigan DNR heavily relies on the hunter engagement as a core component of their environmental management policy.
That being said, we understand the jarring effect that hunting can elicit from non-hunters. Hunting inherently involves taking a life, which unsurprisingly does not sit well with a notable cohort of outdoor enthusiasts. Even just the sight of a firearm in today's political climate can cause an unnerving effect. Stated differently, fall in the Detroit region presents a potentially contentious timeframe when our region's favorite trails - like the Crooked Lake Trail - are shared by hunters and non-hunters alike.
In light of the arrival of peak trail season, here are seven Expedition Detroit tips for avoiding hiker-hunter conflicts across our region's most beloved outdoor destinations:
1. REVIEW LOCAL REGULATIONS. Regardless of whether you're hiking or hunting, do your homework before hitting the trail on whether hunting is permitted along your route. As a general guideline, Michigan's "State Recreation Areas" permit hunting unless stated otherwise; conversely, Michigan's "State Parks" prohibit hunting unless stated otherwise.
2. WEAR BRIGHT ORANGE. While "hunter orange" is required for hunters during certain firearm seasons, we strongly advise both hunters and hikers to wear at least one article of orange clothing on public land trails between September 15th and January 31st ("Hunting Season"). Aside from regulatory requirements, wearing orange promotes both safety and awareness along our shared trails.
3. MIND YOUR PETS. This one goes out directly to hikers along hunting-permitted trails that enjoy trekking with your four-legged best friend. Hikers should keep their dogs on-leash throughout Hunting Season. Dogs should also be outfitted with hunting orange attire (leashes or vests).
4. LEAVE ANY AGENDA AT THE TRAILHEAD. While we all have our own particular ethics, morals, politics, or other heartfelt leanings, the only mindset that each of us should be packing into the woods is a spirit of enjoyment, rejuvenation, exploration, and lawful recreation. Hunters, this means recognizing the responsibility that accommodates the joy of ethical hunting. Hikers, this means recognizing that hunters have the right to lawfully pursue their chosen recreational activity. Both groups should remember that both poaching and hunter harassment are actionable offenses under Michigan state law.
If you suspect that the actions of either a hiker or hunter have violated Michigan state law, DO NOT ESCALATE the situation by attempting to confront the suspected person. Instead, contact the DNR's law enforcement's communications center via 800-292-7800.
5. MIND THE TRAIL. Trail awareness for both hikers and hunters is very, very important during Hunting Season. For hikers, the ask is quite direct: STAY ON TRAIL. Other than aligning with "Leave No Trace" best practices, keeping to the trail will minimize your likelihood of interacting with hunters in the field. For hunters, we advise that you setup at least 100-150 yards from any maintained trails. Beyond minimizing the likelihood of interacting with other hunters and trail users during your hunt, this is also a best practice for safety during especially firearm season.
6. MAXIMIZE YOUR RECREATION WINDOWS. Popular hiking and hunting windows do not inherently need to overlap during Hunting Season. Although hunters can technically head into the woods at any time with daylight, the "peak hunting hours" are typically 3 hours after sunrise and 3 hours before sunset (i.e., complete darkness). The hunting windows do fluctuate with changes in daylight, although planning to recreate as close to mid-day as possible would be a non-hunter's best bet for diminishing the likelihood of seeing a hunter along the trail. Also, don't forget about headlamp hiking and the perks of nighttime recreation, which by law are 100% void of any hunters.
7. SMILE. This might be the single most important - and simplest - item on this list. In fact, this point was brought up during the 2023 Michigan Outdoor Summit as a key action step towards making Michigan's outdoors a more welcoming, sustainable, and economically viable space. If you see someone on the trail that looks different than you, is engaging in a different recreational activity than you, or appears either intimidated or disgruntled by you - just smile at them. Let's go even further and say "Hi!" to them. Beyond humanizing your shared experience and introducing a second or two of kindness into their day, this simple act is the best way to prevent any sort of contentious situation from arising. Plus, smiling requires less effort than frowning.
Want to experience a guided hike on Pinckney Recreation Area's Crooked Lake Trail? Look no further! Book your next guided outdoor adventure with us today!
The #TrailTuesday Series idea started as a recommendation from readers looking for a deeper analysis into the individual trails that define Detroit's vast network. One of our main goals for this platform is to produce content that reflects the outdoor interests and desires of our community, so please continue to provide us with your suggestions via our contact form or here in the comments!