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Exploring the Five Best Hiking Trails near Detroit

November brings cooler temperatures, remaining colors, and rapidly diminishing crowds on the trails - perfect conditions for exploring the best hiking trails near Detroit! Here are the top five ranked trails to kick off your next hiking expedition.

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Outdoor enthusiasts all come in different shapes and sizes - interests, ethnicities, identities, and range of experience in the great outdoors. That being said, our demographic research has zeroed in on one great common love among all lovers of our natural environment: hiking. Regardless of whether your trail of choice is your neighborhood-sponsored natural trail or the topographic rollercoaster of a "black diamond" trek, the Detroit region has a perfect hike waiting for you. We guarantee it.


Just in time for National Hiking Day, the Expedition Detroit team has painstakingly evaluated and curated the following list of the Detroit area's top five hiking trails for your exploring pleasure. Happy hiking, my friends - we'll see you at the trailhead.

1. The Penosha Trail | Brighton State Recreation Area

Distance: 4.9 miles

Elevation Gain: 393 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate


Keeping with our custom, we like to start our articles highlighting the "best of the best" - none of us have time for any guessing-game BS. For the Detroit region's hiking trails, that highest of honors goes to none other than the Penosha Trail: Brighton State Recreation Area's most celebrated experience and winner of Expedition Detroit's best hike within an hour's drive of Downtown Detroit. Cheers to you, Penosha!


Described as a "quintessential Michigan hike," the 4.9 mile trail features the dense mature forests, rolling hills, and surprising vistas that are found only on the most sought-after trails within our region. Penosha, translated roughly as "long" in the Chippewa language, is the longest single trail in Brighton State Recreation Area, although it's the ideal length for a picturesque day hike. The Penosha loop starts at the Bishop Lake trailhead - the same trailhead used for Brighton's famous mountain biking trails - although you should immediately break south (right) to head towards Penosha.


The first 2.5 miles of the trail comprise of rollercoaster hills characteristic of Brighton's other great trails. However, the 2.5 mile halfway point marks a sudden change in the hike's intensity; what follows next is a gradual 0.6 mile climb towards the route's "summit," right at the 3.1 mile marker. Your endurance will be rewarded with a 1.3 mile decline, only slightly diminished by a brief exit from the park's boundary along Teahen Road. You will conquer one more brief, 0.2 mile climb at the 4.3 mile marker. A post-hike beer should be waiting for you at the bottom of a relaxing decline back to the trailhead.

2. The Crooked Lake Trail | Pinckney State Recreation Area

Distance: 4.2 miles

Elevation Gain: 311 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate


Speaking personally rather than strictly on behalf of Expedition Detroit's top-secret "Trail Ranking" methodology, the Crooked Lake Trail is my single favorite trail in the Detroit area. This beloved 4.2 mile trail has played host to several of my most successful trail races, brainstorming business meetings, day-hike dates, and the all-important solitary outings just to clear the noise out of my head. I love this trail - I'm not surprised that countless other outdoor enthusiasts do as well.


Located in Pinckney State Recreation Area, the Crooked Lake loop starts at the Silver Lake trailhead - Pinckney's primary trailhead for all hiking, backpacking, running, mountain biking, and paddling adventures. As you gradually ascend towards the ridge-top vistas of Crooked Lake, there are three main hills that you should take into consideration as you pace out your hike. The first strikes right out of the gate: a 0.4 mile climb that gains 115 feet in elevation. The second is the most mellow: a 0.1 mile climb of 44 feet in elevation.


Please learn from my previous trail running mistake: do NOT push the pace over the next 1.6 miles of leisurely, unbelievably scenic hiking. The final hill - which will feel like two hills due to a false summit - will have you climb 117 feet over another 0.4 mile distance to the trail's true "summit" of 1,009 feet. The remaining 1.2 miles of the trail is a rewarding, partially-forested and partially-marshland decline back to Silver Lake.

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3. The River and Blue Trails | Proud Lake State Recreation Area

Distance: 5.75 miles

Elevation Gain: 127 feet

Trail Rating: Easy


When I was a full-time practicing attorney, the River and Blue Trails of Proud Lake State Recreation Area became a fundamental component of my "deal-closing" routine. After staring at my computer screen for countless hours, I would leave my phone at my home office, grab my puppy Lucy, and head a few miles down the road to the trailhead. These trails evolved into an essential weapon in my arsenal against clinical burnout; it's my pleasure to highlight them now for you all.


Although not prominently marked as a hiking trailhead, we recommend starting your hike at the fishing access site parking lot just east of Wixom Road (north of the main park office). From the parking lot, follow the River Trail along the southern shoreline of the Huron River towards the idyllic Proud Lake Dam. Once over the dam, you will start following the Blue Trail at the 1.3 mile marker. Please note that the remaining segments of this route - the Blue and Red Trails - traverse through sections of Proud Lake that are open to hunting. As such, please wear "hunter orange" outer clothing if hiking during Michigan's main firearm season (November 15th - 30th).


As you follow the Blue and Red Trails into the eastern reaches of the park, the Blue Trail branches away from the Red Trail at the 2.0 mil marker and towards a DNR two-track road leading to Proud Lake. While you can follow the DNR road south towards Proud Lake, the Blue Trail actually continues northeast until it banks west (left) back into the park at the 2.9 mile marker. Starting at the 3.5 mile marker, the final segments of the trail will traverse the isolated northern stretches of the park until you reconnect with the Proud Lake Dam roughly 4.5 miles into the journey. From the dam, all trails head west as you retrace your steps and relocate your parked vehicle.

4. The Haven Hill Natural Area Trail | Highland State Recreation Area

Distance: 3.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 160 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate


Do you prefer your trails with a slice of history? Say no more: reintroducing the Haven Hill Natural Area Trail, Highland State Recreation Area's premiere hiking and trail running loop located on Edsel Ford's former estate. While the ruins of the Ford Family's former hilltop retreat are an obvious highlight of this natural area, the jaw-dropping beauty of the rolling hills, wetlands, creeks, and expansive Haven Hill Lake is the true treasury of Highland's 5,903 acres. Fortunately for all of us, the Haven Hill Natural Area Trail takes hikers through the heart of the park's most stunning scenery.


Starting at the Goose Meadow Picnic Area parking lot trailhead, follow the trail marker signs northwest towards the shore of Haven Hill Lake and Ford Dam. This initial segment of the hike will be a favorite for bird watchers - you will be hugging the eastern shoreline of the lake for the first half mile of the trek, complete with phenomenal wildlife viewing opportunities. Continue towards trail sign #18 to merge onto the "Blue Trail," which you will be following for the majority of the trail.


The Blue Trail will bring you into the heart of the northern woods of Highland - boardwalks through tall reeds and winding, climbing trails under mature oaks are trademark features of this segment of the hike. The only potentially tricky section hits at the 0.6 mile mark; while several trails will diverge from this segment, be sure to follow the trail towards mark #s 15, 16, and 14 - in that exact, non-sequential order. From trail sign # 14, continue on the northwest (left) trail segment for 1.5 miles of unbroken, beautiful forested hiking.


The only challenging climb of this hike comes at - you guessed it - Haven Hill. Starting at the 2.7 mile mark, you will climb at a 7% grade over 0.2 miles to reach the "summit" of the route just east of the historical ruins. There is an offshoot trail at the mid-point of this climb to visit the Haven Hill summit and historical site, although the remaining 0.6 miles comprise of a much-deserved decline back towards the trailhead.

5. The Potawatomi Trail | Pinckney State Recreation Area

Distance: 17.6 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,253 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate-Difficult


If you decide to knock out each of these trails over this month, we highly recommend hiking the famous Potawatomi Trail early on in the journey. Not only is this trail one of the Detroit region's most famous, it's also indisputably the most difficult on this list - especially if you're aiming to tackle the trail in a day. Definitely doable, but oh baby... you would absolutely have our undying respect for doing so.


Located in Pinckney State Recreation Area (yes, we're experiencing déjà vu as well from how many times Pinckney appears in our articles), "Poto" takes an average of 6 hours and 20 minutes to complete. The trail snakes through a series of lakes during its rollercoaster of elevation changes, with its steepest climb of 117 feet of elevation gain striking at the 11.7 mile marker (the same final climb described in the Crooked Lake Trail description above). Note that this wooded, hilly trail is extremely popular with mountain bikers (note: Poto is the #1 ranked MTB trail in the Detroit region), other hikers, backpackers, trail runners, cross-country skiers, and hunters during the fall months. Please remember to wear "hunter orange" outer clothing if hiking during Michigan's main firearm season.


Not feeling the climb at the end of an 11+ mile day? Fortunately, the bottom of this climb provides you with direct access to Crooked Lake Rustic Campground via a southward-bound offshoot at the 11.8 mile marker. The remaining 6 miles provide gentle, rolling terrain back to the trailhead at Pickerel Lake.

 

As always, we must include the disclaimer that this list only scratches the surface on amazing hiking opportunities throughout the Detroit Region. Our other favorite trail systems include Maybury State Park, Bald Mountain State Recreation Area, Independence Oaks County Park, and Point Pelee National Park. We promise that each of these trail systems - plus many, many more - will receive their proper recognition in due course.


Until then, we'll be out in the field - can't wait to see you out there!

 

This article includes information originally published in 50 Hikes in Michigan, Jim DuFresne (2019).


Which of the above is your favorite trail? Is there a specific trail, park, activity, or destination that you would like to see featured in a future article? Perfect - we want to hear about it! Please feel free to post about it in the comments below or contact us at info@expeditiondetroit.com to discuss Expedition Detroit feature opportunities.

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