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The Potawatomi Trail: Rediscovering Detroit's First Backpacking Loop

Sixty years of POTO! In honor of the Potawatomi Trail's anniversary, we retraced the bootprints and tire marks of generations of Detroit's greatest outdoor enthusiasts along one of our region's most beloved trails.

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"Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can."


This quote from tennis player Arthur Ashe is beautiful in its simplicity and applicability. Whether you're building a business, strengthening a relationship, or just conjuring the motivation to get out of bed, sometimes trying to chart the ideal route for tackling life's most daunting challenges can be overwhelming. Especially when viewed in the aggregate.


A group of Detroit-based outdoor enthusiasts had a major life obstacle of their own about 70 years ago. In the post-WWII era, Michigan as a whole - and especially Metro Detroit - experienced a boom in interest in outdoor recreation. In the 20 year period following the end of the war, Michigan gained 29 state parks and recreation areas, 11 of which were established in Southeast Michigan within a two year period.


As we all know, an explosion of Michigan state parks and recreation areas weren't the only "boom" occurring in the post-war era. Michigan's population grew nearly 50% in the same timeframe, leading to a particularized emergence of youth interest in outdoor recreation.


There was only one problem: accessible backpacking trails.


Believe it or not, the Detroit region's Boy Scouts were largely leaving the state in the 1950s in order find "suitable hiking trails" for scouts to practice their skills within. So, in 1957 - inspired by the founding of the Chief Pontiac Trail in Oakland County - the Boy Scouts of Michigan petitioned the State of Michigan to build a designated hiking loop trail in the region. After years of negotiations, the Potawatomi Trail was formally approved by the State and the Portage Trail Council Boy Scouts of America in early 1962.


The trail officially opened two years later on May 23, 1964 at about 12 miles in length. Over the next 60 years, its expansion to 17.6 miles included the construction of multiple bridges, steel markers, countless Eagle Scout projects, and 52 years of fundraising hikes to raise over $250,000. More importantly, "Poto" inspired both the flourishing of Detroit's backpacking community, including the later construction of and integration within the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, and its mountain biking faithful.


In honor of Poto's 60th anniversary, we set out on 2024's inaugural Expedition Detroit backpacking trip to retrace the bootprints of generations of Detroit-based outdoor enthusiasts. What we (re)discovered were flourishing forests, wide open trails, spacious campgrounds, crisp waterways, and a crackling fire.


It's our pleasure to report that the 60-year dream of creating a destination for Detroit-region backpacking is alive and well.


It's our privilege to reintroduce Pinckney State Recreation Area and the Potawatomi Trail now.

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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 2024 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, and snowshoeing opportunities yet.


Now let's get to one of Pinckney's crown jewels: the Potawatomi Trail.

HIT THE TRAIL

Total Distance: 17.7 miles

Elevation Gain: 2,083 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate-Advanced

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 Potawatomi 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.

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But you're not here for the beach - you're here to conquer one of the Detroit region's "Triple Crown" trails of backpacking, the Potawatomi Trail. So, in order to minimize the siren call of Silver Lake, we recommend parking as close to the Potawatomi 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.

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Silver Lake Trailhead

DAY 1: Silver Lake Trailhead to Blind Lake Campground

Mileage: 10.8 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,207 ft.


The trail marker signs are fairly weathered throughout the hike, but fortunately this section of the time-tested Potawatomi 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 Potawatomi Trail, then turn left at this juncture.


From this point, you will hike exactly 1 mile to the Potawatomi 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 brilliant foliage and increasing views that radiate stronger as you trek steadily closer to the trail's peak at 1,009 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.

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The Potawatomi Trail's "Peak Bench"

While your initial descent from "The Peak" only lasts 0.2 miles before another short climb, the relatively steep descent that follows provides a portal to one of the most beautiful and segments of the Potawatomi Trail. You may be able to catch glimpses of Crooked Lake to the south, but don't miss the wildlife viewing opportunity as you cross over two of the lake's tributary streams.


The next 0.8 miles of "marshland hiking" will be the first of several distinct marsh habitats that you will traverse during your backpacking adventure. If you are hiking in the "off-season," i.e. early November through early May, then congrats, you will not experience any discomfort during these segments. However, if you are a warm-weather hiker that has decided to conquer Poto during the summer months, then we strongly suggest applying ample insect repellant and treating your clothing with permethrin. Let's just say that mosquitos love the Potawatomi Trail just as much as you do...

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At 2.2 miles into your hike, you will finally diverge from Pinckney's other famous trail - the Crooked Lake Trail - to head north on only Poto towards Hi-Land Lake. The next 1.4 miles consist of gently rolling terrain through old growth forest. The suspended bridge at the 2.9 mile marker (featured in the cover photo) provides impressive views of the ravine below, and don't miss the fantastic panoramas of Hi-Land Lake to your east as you trek half a mile along its bank.

EXPLORE THE CROOKED LAKE TRAIL WITH EXPEDITION DETROIT!


After crossing the Portage River Bridge, your journey heads north over a series of hills towards the northernmost segment of the entire Potawatomi Trail. Depending on the time of year that you're hiking the trail, this is one of the best zones of Pinckney for experiencing colors - either brilliant wildflowers or vibrant fall leaves. Our trip in late-May was decorated with beautiful pinks, purples, and whites of pedals in full bloom.


Towering pines mark the end of the "wildflower zone" and start of the "extreme zone." What we mean is that, especially for our resident mountain bikers, recent trail renovations starting at roughly the 4 mile marker have transformed this section of Poto into a "flowy" mountain biking paradise, complete with jumps and obstacles to switch-up your ride. Fun for backpackers too, don't worry - but mountain bikers will especially enjoy this section south of Patterson Lake Road.

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North of Patterson Lake Rd., you'll hike through 3.7 miles of uninterrupted woodlands, wetlands, and wildflowers. This segment features one of the longest prolonged climbs of ~80ft. over half a mile, plateauing along the trail's northernmost fence line.


For me, this stretch felt somewhat isolated and eery - but in a fun way. As if I had stumbled upon the set of Stranger Things, expecting to catch a glimpse of some creature or experiment-gone-wrong on the other side of the fence. A fatiguing mind can truly wander when you're packing miles upon miles into a solo trek. For better or for worse, the only "creature" that I saw in these northwoods was a raccoon scurrying up a tree, trying its best to mitigate my intrusion into his home. Guess I was the strangest thing wandering through the woods that evening.

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Fence line north of Patterson Lake Road

The last 2.6 miles of your first day on Poto consist largely of a SW direct trajectory towards Portage River. Well, unless you're me and fall for the unmarked "Potawatomi Trail Shortcut" that appears at roughly mile marker 8.7. I'm not sure whether a mountain biking race or similar event had just occurred days before my thru-hike, but there were vibrant markings on the trail that appeared more like a trail detour vs. a completely distinct route.


After failing to heed similar markings on the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail a year prior, I turned left at these markings. While a scenic pasture along this route was a nice discovery, my mishap ended up adding about half a mile to an already long afternoon on the trail... So, if you're looking to add mileage to either your thru-hike or trail run, sure, a quick excursion along the Poto Trail Shortcut might be worth it. Otherwise, keep right at the neon tape.

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The Potawatomi Trail Shortcut junction. For the main Poto Trail, keep right.

Day 1's final test hits at right at the 10 mile marker. By this point, you've covered over 90% of your allotted mileage. You've climbed over 1,000 feet of elevation gain. You just crossed the gorgeous Portage River - maybe even had a conversation with the paddlers or fishers hanging out just below the boardwalk bridge. You're ready for a relaxing campfire beside Blind Lake. Scratch that - you've earned it.


Don't kick the boots off yet, friend. You still have to conquer the steepest ascent of the entire Potawatomi Trail: a root and rock-filled 10% incline climb to the second-highest elevation of the entire trail (980 ft.).


Yes, this is a little sadistic to hit at this point in the itinerary. But, as Sir Isaac Newton so famously penned, "What goes up must come down." Your climb will be promptly rewarded with an extensive descent - including a 13% decline grade - that finishes with a water pump station and, finally, your arrival at Blind Lake Campground.

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Overnight: Blind Lake Campground

Number of Sites: 10

Arrival: Hike-In or Bike-In

Reservable Dates: Year-Round

Cost: $20/night, plus additional fees


Let's get to the point: Blind Lake is consistently ranked as the #1 backcountry campground in the Detroit region.


Located along the western rim of the Potawatomi Trail, the main allure of Blind Lake stems from its isolation from any main trailhead within Pinckney Recreation Area or its surrounding parks. Any arrival at Blind Lake is earned either by boot or pedal, so your night spent under the brilliant stars  and by the lapping waves will be free of headlights and slamming car doors. Blind Lake's solitude is further enhanced by the gracious amount of space allocated between the sites, therefore ensuring as much privacy as a camper could ever hope for - especially when camping in the dead of winter.


The campground is outfitted with a vault toilet, hand-pump water access, and fire rings. Only dead and downed timber are to be used for firewood. Advanced reservation required to book a site.

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DAY 2: Blind Lake Campground to Silver Lake

Mileage: 6.9 miles

Elevation Gain: 876 ft.


You awake on Day 2 to bird songs, lapping waves, and the faint smell of last night's campfire. The temperature? Perfect. Your legs? rested. Most of the mileage? Behind you. A few more hours of adventure? Waiting at the trail.


After packing up your gear and being sure to Leave No Trace at Blind Lake, we have one final pro-tip for you: use the rustic toilet before hitting the trail. No joke. The Blind Lake rustic toilet was the cleanest one that I have ever experienced in a Michigan state park - maybe any park. Granted, I was the only one at the campground that morning, but the point stands. If the DNR ranger that cares for that toilet is reading this article, you have Expedition Detroit's full endorsement for demanding a raise.

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Water pump at Blind Lake Campground

After refilling your squeeze-filtered water bottle at the Blind Lake Campground's pump station, you're ready to hit the trail. Side note - if you don't have a squeeze-filtered bottle yet, treat yourself to one. In our opinion, they are one of the best backcountry inventions since solar chargers. Light, durable, and overwhelmingly practical for easy access to filtered water.


For anyone who has thru-hiked the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail before, Day 2 on Poto will seem quite familiar. As in all but the 0.2 miles ascending from Blind Lake to the main trail corresponds 100% with the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail.


For me, this brought back a sense of nostalgia for my first Detroit region thru-hike a year prior. I also realized that I had zero memory of this segment of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, seeing as it hit towards the tail end of a 14 mile death march, in the rain, and after logging 30+ miles and 2 nights on the trail. So it was nice to experience the final 6+ miles of both Poto and the WPT fresh.

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The first three miles of Day 2 consist of three notable hills as you make your way east. Hill #3 is the steepest at a 14% incline grade, although each of these should be child's play with your fresh legs and slightly lighter pack.


Instead of focusing on the trail, we'd instead encourage you to use this segment for wildlife viewing - especially if you've managed to get an early start on the day. The 1.3 miles between Blind Lake and Dead Lake are some of the most densely forested stretches of the entire Potawatomi Trail, including panoramic views along the trail's ridge lines even during peak summer months. Deer, birds, rabbits, raccoons, and other woodland critters absolutely love environments like this - especially in the early morning or late afternoon.


Your odds of seeing exciting wildlife also increase dramatically if solo hiking. Feel free to slow your pace, forest bathe in the vibrant greens of the morning sun on the trees, and purposefully enjoy these miles.

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Point of the "Hiker's Dilemma"

Mile Marker 13.8: The "Hiker's Dilemma." In our opinion, this is the single hardest point of both the Potawatomi and Waterloo-Pinckney Trails. "Integrity Point" would be another suitable name.


Why? Because the Silver Lake Trailhead - the final destination for both trail - waits directly northeast of this point along the appropriately named "Silver Lake Trail." You, on the other hand, are tasked with following the blue-blaze markers in the exact opposite direction. An additional 3.3 miles into the heart of Pinckney's southeastern-most region, winding through forested glades, spacious pines, and a massive clearing cut for power lines.


If you have the mental fortitude, try to slow down and enjoy these final miles of the trail. It can be tempting to rush - I may or may not have fallen victim to such temptations on this outing - but the final stretches of the Potawatomi Trail guide you through some of the least-visited areas of all of Pinckney State Recreation Area.

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The Terminus of the Potawatomi and Waterloo-Pinckney Trails

You'll rejoin the Silver Lake Trail at mile marker 17.1, after conquering "Final Climb Hill" near Silver Hill Road. From this point, other then a brief "swirl" in the trail, you'll have a direct line of sight towards the terminus of both the Potawatomi and Waterloo-Pinckney Trails.


Now, and only now, may you enjoy the cool waters of Silver Lake. You've earned it.

 

Want to experience a guided hike on Pinckney Recreation Area's trails? Look no further! Book your next guided outdoor adventure with Expedition Detroit 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!


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21 de jun.
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Amazing to see such distance and elevation gain on a forested trail so close to Detroit!

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