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Embrace the Dark Pt. III: Best Night Hiking Trails near Detroit

The third installment of our #EmbraceTheDark Series, we're exploring the best night hiking trails near Detroit. Spoiler alert: most of these trails are awesome for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing too.

What makes for an amazing night hiking trail? We've wrestled with this question over the last few weeks - especially when compared to our existing articles on our region's top-rated and most challenging trails. Should trail accessibility play into the analysis? What about the difference in trail popularity vs. peak summer months? Availability for multi-sport use, such as snowshoeing and fat tire biking, during the winter months? Above average nocturnal wildlife viewing opportunities when compared to daytime wildlife opportunities?


Yes - the answer to each of these questions/factors/analytical data points is yes. A truly great nighttime hiking, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing trail should be easily accessible, especially in light of the, well, absence of light. The nocturnal version of the trail should provide benefits that are simply unattainable during peak season, daylight hours: dissipated crowds, bustling wildlife, opportunity to pursue your sport without constantly keeping your head on a swivel for other trail users.


Now that we've established our ranking framework, here are the Detroit region's top five trails for your next nighttime outdoor excursion.

1. Maybury State Park Hiking Loop | Northville, MI

Distance: 3.1 miles

Elevation Gain: 127 feet

Trail Rating: Easy

Trail Closure: 10 p.m.


In our most recent #TrailTownSpotlight on Northville, we emphasized that Maybury State Park's central location in the Detroit region establishes the park as an outdoor adventure oasis amidst Detroit's western suburbs. Well, there's one downside to that high praise: Maybury is immensely popular with hikers, dog-walkers, and trail runners during the peak summer months - especially along its natural hiking trail. The net result of that popularity includes noise pollution, decreased wildlife sightings, and a slight diminishment of the wilderness sentiment that we all crave.


Now, here's a beautiful insider tip: all of these negating factors disappear in the colder months - especially at night! Writing from personal experience, Maybury's main hiking loop has become my go-to hiking and running trail over the last month due to its ease of accessibility from virtually anywhere in the Detroit region, its depopulated route, and the immensity of wildlife that I regularly cross-paths on the trail. I kid you not, I have seen more giant bucks along Maybury's hiking trail during the past few weeks than I ever have over nearly a decade of hunting.


Beyond these perks, the trail also nabs our top ranking for night hiking due to its combination of interesting geographic features, rolling yet manageable terrain, and opportunities for varied routes. Maybury is a relatively small state park, yet this 5K loop provides hikers with expansive old forest, lowland marsh, and stunning wetland terrain. The park's main fishing pond and adjacent piers are absolutely the gems of the route, but the wooded hills and valleys of the western stretches of the route make for excellent wildlife viewing opportunities - especially with the added visibility during this time of year. The only caveat here is to keep your eyes peeled for roots crossing the trail - especially during the steeper decline around the 1-mile mark.

2. Bird Hills Nature Area Trail | Ann Arbor, MI

Distance: 4.9 miles

Elevation Gain: 393 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate

Trail Closure: 10 p.m.


Coming in as a very, very close second, the Bird Hills Nature Area Trail provides one of the most scenic, unique, and challenging night hiking destinations on our list. Despite falling entirely within the city limits of one of the Detroit region's largest cities, Bird Hills provides hikers with a panorama view of the Huron River, access to four of Ann Arbor's celebrated "Nature Areas," and an opportunity to immerse yourself in a small patch of wilderness despite being walking distance from one of the country's greatest college towns.


While Bird Hills stands out on its own anytime of the year, completing the trail outside of its peak March to October season - especially at night - comes with additional perks. Beyond the nonexistent crowds that typically flock to this trail, these colder, darker months take care of the suffocating mosquitos that dominate this trail during early summer. For any college students facing final exams, taking a well-deserved study break in nature, with little to no human interference with your surroundings, also dramatically decreases the stress and anxiety associated with this notoriously stressful final lap of the semester.


While none of these trails are necessarily "difficult," the Birds Hill trail does take the prize as the most challenging trail in this article - most notably starting at the 3-mile marker. Please make sure that you adequately prepare for hiking in the dark before hitting the trailhead, including basic safety tips like always telling someone your itinerary before heading out for a hike. As depicted on the map linked above, Bird Hills features lots of intersecting trails, so please frequently check your trail map to avoid getting lost. Take your time, enjoy the sights and sounds of nature, and soak up every moment of having one of the Detroit region's most popular trails all to yourself!

3. Marsh, River, Red, and Blue Trail Loops | Proud Lake State Recreation Area | Commerce Charter Township, MI

Distance: 5.6 miles

Elevation Gain: 127 feet

Trail Rating: Easy

Trail Closure: 10 p.m.


I've said it once, twice, and maybe a thousand times: Proud Lake State Recreation Area is one of the Detroit region's most underrated parks, even despite being one of its most popular. For the uninitiated, Wixom Road bifurcates Proud Lake into two distinct western and eastern zones. We recently highlighted the western zone within our #TrailTownSpotlight on Milford as an "off the beaten path" gem for trail running (and mountain biking), despite the zone largely being dominated by equestrian trails. The far more popular eastern zone is largely the realm of hikers, paddlers, swimmers, fishers, and in-season hunters, as well as scout groups, community camping trips, and anyone else who wants to spend an hour or two on the trail or in the Huron. As you can imagine, summers at Proud Lake can often feel more like a waterpark than a "Walden Pond"-style natural escape from suburbia.


Not to sound like a broken record, but here's an amazing fact of nature: remove a few hours of sunlight and degrees Fahrenheit from the equation, and you end up with an entirely distinct experience despite holding all other variables constant. Rather than sharing the splendor of nature with what feels like half of Commerce Township, you're all but guaranteed to see more deer, cranes, or muskrats than people.


The awe-factor described here is exponentiated by which trails the route covers. As I mentioned above, the eastern zone of Proud Lake typically represents the "hot zone" for foot traffic during peak visitor months. Of all of the trails in the eastern zone, the Marsh, River, Red, and Blue Trails comprise of the epicenter of Proud Lake's "instagram-worthy" highlight reel of destinations. Having the best of the best of Proud Lake to yourself - Moss Lake Dam, the Proud Lake Marsh boardwalks, the riverside trails, northeastern rolling hills that are typically dotted with hunters - is nature's equivalent of having Campus Martius in peak holiday form as yours alone to enjoy. The only items required are a well-charged headlamp, an extra layer or two, and a spirit of adventure.

4. Yellow Trail Loop | Island Lake State Recreation Area | Brighton, MI

Distance: 5.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 278 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate

Trail Closure: 10 p.m.


If you love the outdoors, then you either will or already do love Island Lake State Recreation Area. Swimming, road cycling, mountain biking, hiking, running, birdwatching, shooting, hunting, fishing... you name it, Island Lake's probably got it. Unsurprisingly, the large park's trails can often swell as a result of the faithful swarming to its pristine wilderness hotspots. And out of all of those hotspots, the Yellow Trail Loop takes the prize as Island Lake's most sought-after trail.


The Yellow Trail is the first of two predominantly MTB trails included in this article (spoiler, sorry), so during peak season hikers should always keep their eyes and ears dialed in for bikers flying down the descents or burning through tight turns. Come November, however, the likelihood of hearing the characteristic "zip" sound of a mountain bike while on the trail starts to diminish steadily. This has always surprised me, especially since the Yellow Trail more or less constitutes a curated highlight reel of the best natural aspects of what many outdoor enthusiasts consider the best recreation area of the entire Detroit region. Then December arrives, along with its imposing wintry temperatures and darkness, and the biking crowd further reduces to only its most passionate, gear-inundated minority.


This, my friends, is when the winter hiking community can truly shine on the Yellow Trail. The decreased traffic allows for hikers to truly enjoy the rolling hills without the risk of a mountain biker flying towards them (remember: whenever possible, always hike in the opposite direction of biking traffic). The bird-watching opportunities along the foliage banks of the Huron are also incredible - especially at night with the headlamp firing. Enjoy the tranquility of having one of the Detroit region's greatest year-round trails all to yourself!

5. Lakeshore Park MTB Trails | Novi, MI

Distance: 9.7 miles

Elevation Gain: 269 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate

Park Closure: 9 p.m.


The final night hiking trail to make our list may come off as a bit misplaced (or sacrilegious) on first glance for our ardent mountain biking community. Lakeshore Park - also commonly referred to as "Novi Tree Farm" - represents one of the Detroit region's most sought-after and highly-praised mountain biking destinations, especially during the peak summer months. Similar to Maybury, its location within the central core of Metro Detroit has established the park as an accessible, well-maintained rider's paradise for decades (kudos, as always, to the MCMBA for their tireless efforts). Put differently, mountain bikers largely reign supreme at Lakeshore Park.


Well, surprise surprise, that power dynamic shifts a bit towards other sports during the colder and darker months. Yes, fat tire bikers with beaming headlamps still rule the trail, but the palpable decrease in mountain biking traffic provides hikers, runners, snowshoers, and cross-country skiers with an opportunity to safely and comfortably explore Lakeshore Park's extensive trail system without constantly looking for cyclists.


We have included the full 9.7 mile trail system here, but note that Lakeshore Park provides trail users with a "choose your adventure" opportunity regarding its several interwinding loops. While each distinct loop has varying degrees of difficulty, remember that this trail system was designed predominantly for mountain biking. As such, Lakeshore Park hikers should expect a "flowy" trail accentuated with some tight turns, steep climbs, and plenty of bonus features like rock gardens and log piles.

 

Before closing out this article, we wanted to give a quick shoutout to a certain reader who suggested that we include the actual mapped trail routes that we reference within our articles. Fortunately AllTrails makes this feature super user-friendly, so we thank both the reader and AllTrails for providing us with the idea and capability to make this addition possible.


Our primary goal at Expedition Detroit is to provide value to our growing outdoor community, so we welcome any and all ideas geared towards improving or enhancing this platform's content. We've actually referenced several reader-feedback ideas throughout our #EmbraceTheDark Series, so this simple recognition is long overdue. We're extremely grateful for everyone who takes the time to check out our posts, so any comments, ideas, or nudges towards new topics or trails are never brushed aside.


Have an idea for a new series? Have a favorite trail that you'd like for us to check out? Sweet - we want to hear about it! You can either subscribe to our monthly Newsletter for regular content sharing opportunities or email us directly at info@expeditiondetroit.com to share.


We can't wait to see you on the trail - just don't forget your headlamp!

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