Guide to Conquering Detroit's "Black Diamond" Trails
In honor of National Hiking Day, we proudly present the triple-crown of the Detroit region's most intense and exhilarating hiking experiences: our three "Black Diamond" rated trails.
Let’s cut right to the chase: these trails are not for the faint of heart.
Unlike our previous article regarding the Detroit region's “Top Five Trails,” these trails are best suited for our list endurance athletes, aspiring thru-hikers, and our other resident hikers that are looking to up their hiking levels an Up North or Out West capacity. These treks were designed to push boundaries, expand capacity, build confidence, and break down any preconceived notion that Detroit does not have trails suitable for top-tier adventurers.
Put differently, if you’re not sure where to start training for that Mt. Kilimanjaro trek or Appalachian Trail thru hike in our area, we recommend that you start with this triple-crown of Detroit’s most challenging trails.
1. Highland A-B-C-D Loops | Highland State Recreation Area
Length: 13.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,309 ft.
Estimated Completion Time: 5h 15min
Highland State Recreation Area’s alphabet loops stand on top of the podium for the most challenging hike in the entire Detroit region. Starting at the E. Livingston Road trailhead, you will initially head south on the A Loop for only 0.1 of a mile before heading west (right) at the point where the A Loop splits. Note that you should hike the loops in the opposite direction of the mountain bike trail instructions. Your first diversion - and real test of the entire trail system - will occur 0.9 miles into the trek when you head due west (right) to conquer the infamous D Loop. You will “summit” 3.4 miles into the trail while on the D Loop (1,134 ft.) before being rewarded with a long, steady decline to briefly rejoin the A Loop.
Continue southwest on the B Loop at the 4.4 mile mark. The B Loop is the second-hardest trail of Highland’s alphabet loops, including the trail system’s second highest point at mile 5.3 (1,124 ft.). You will diverge off of the B Loop to complete the milder C Loop at mile 6. With the main challenges behind you, the last legs consist of 8.1 miles as you complete the eastern segments B and A Loops towards the trailhead.
The route consists of varying sections with roots, rocky stretches, steep climbs, and manageable technical areas. While these loops are primarily intended for mountain bikers, these trails are also very popular for hikers, trail runners, bird watchers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and hunters. Hikers should also be aware that Highland’s horse riding trail system also intersects with the four loops, so be sure to keep a map readily-accessible.
Pro Tip: Due to the several low-lying bogs in this area, Highland’s four loops are prone to mosquitos during the summer months. We recommend applying a healthy amount of bug spray during the summer months (Murphy’s Naturals Lemon Eucalyptus Oil is my personal favorite - highly effective, natural, and actually feels good on your skin). This trail is also relatively mosquito and human-free during the late fall through early spring, although please wear hunter orange or bright clothing during the fall firearm hunting months (especially late November).
Parking Directions: Park at the mountain bike trailhead parking lot on the north side of E Livingston Rd. The A Loop trailhead is directly south across E Livingston Rd., although Highland’s tamer North Loop trail is directly accessible from the parking lot. A Recreation Passport is required for parking here.
2. Brighton Loop Trail System | Brighton State Recreation Area
Length: 14.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 892 ft.
Estimated Completion Time: 5h 10min
The longest of the three “Black Diamonds,” Brighton State Recreation Area’s loop trail system also provides rewarding, arduous hiking for Detroit’s most intrepid hikers. Similar to Highland, these trails are also primarily used for mountain biking, although they are also popular with trail runners, birdwatchers, and occasionally hunters. Due to the heavy use by mountain bikers (especially in the summer months), we also advise hiking this trail in the opposite direction of mountain bike traffic.
Starting from the mountain bike trailheads, head southeast to start on the Torn Shirt Trail before diverting north (left) at the 0.1 mile mark. After a steady decline, continue heading northeast (keeping left) onto the Murray Lake “Purple Loop” for 4.1 miles of rolling hills and switchbacks. At the lowest point of the hike (874 ft. elevation) you will merge onto the Lost Loop “Green Trail,” renown for its thick forest cover, for 1.7 miles. Back on the Murray Lake trail, you will steadily climb over rolling terrain for 2.8 miles until you nearly reach the trailhead at mile 8.7. Don’t linger too long on thoughts of a post-trail beer, however; Brighton’s real crucible, the Torn Shirt Trail, remains unconquered.
Heading northeast on the Torn Shirt Trail, you will navigate around smaller ponds and technical terrain for 3.3 miles before facing the trail’s most formidable challenge. At an 11% grade, you will hike from one of the trail’s lowest points (894 ft.) to its summit (965 ft.) over 0.3 miles, although you will be rewarding immediately with a descent of similar length. A few more rolling ascents and descents over the remaining 2.3 miles and you will have finally earned that post-hike beer in one of Brighton’s famous watering holes.
Pro Tip: Consider tackling Brighton’s challenging loops over a weekend by camping in one or more of the park's campgrounds. The Murray Lake rustic campground is immediately accessible to the Murray Lake Trail, while the Appleton Lake rustic campground and Bishop Lake modern campground are also within close proximity. Reservations are required to be made in advance.
Parking Directions: From Bishop Lake Rd., turn into the side street at the “Bishop Lake Complex” sign within the park. Take the first right turn available to you to arrive at the Bishop Lake parking lot. A Recreation Passport is required for parking here.