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Thru-Hiking the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, Pt. 1: Embracing Solitude

In honor of Earth Week, we embraced the challenge of thru-hiking the Detroit's region's most rigorous backpacking route: the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail. This first installment of our 3 part series on the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail highlights the trail's initial physical and psychological impressions - especially on solo hikers.

Every journey has its beginning, and this 38-mile one started in a basement. Next to a gas-lit fireplace. My parents' basement fireplace to be exact, during a brief period of solitude amidst the mayhem of the holidays. My respite would consist of cracking open the 3rd edition of Best Tent Camping: Michigan, my most recent impulse research buy from my local REI, a never-ending well for Expedition Detroit content inspiration.


This particular fireside research session started with a narrow, basic agenda: learn more about southeast Michigan's best campsites from an expert's opinion. Nothing too special about it. And yet, while reading about Pinckney Recreation Area's Crooked Lake and Blind Lake Campgrounds, I underlined a sentence that struck me as noteworthy. Then I opted to highlight that same sentence, signaling an "Ah-Ha!" moment. The sentence read like this:


"Pinckney Recreation Area and the neighboring Waterloo Recreation Area attract thousands of hikers and mountain bikers annually, and avid backpackers come for southern Michigan's longest hike, the 36-mile Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, which was created to offer overnight hikers a multiday trip."


"Huh," I thought to myself. "WTF is the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail and why have I never heard of it before."


I dog-eared the page for future reference, meaning I planned on returning to research the trail at some unspecified time in the future. Another item on my - thankfully - never-ending list of "hidden gem" outdoor recreation opportunities to research and explore in the Detroit region. I finished reading about Crooked Lake and Blind Lake's camping opportunities.


I turned the page to the book's next entry: Green Lake Campground at Waterloo Recreation Area. "Awesome," I thought, "another Detroit region gem." Lo and behold, a few paragraphs into this section, another sentence leapt out at me:


"Hikers looking for more than an afternoon stroll, however, will want to take note of the 36-mile Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, which connects Pinckney Recreation Area with the Waterloo Recreation Area."


Call it intuition or superstition, but I got the message that a higher power appeared to be sending me. I put the book down. I opened my laptop. Curiosity evolved into research, research ignited inspiration, and inspiration surrendered to active planning.

waterloo pinckney trail big portage lake backpacking michigan expedition detroit thru hiking backpack rei
The origination trailhead of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail at Big Portage Lake, feat. my 15-year-old REI backpack.

Five months later, I'm staring at the "WPT" trailhead at Big Portage Lake. Despite my decade+ of backpacking experience in wild places like the U.P, Colorado, Utah, Alaska, and Peru, I have never backpacked solo before. Not even an overnight, let alone ~40 miles over a four day, three night planned solo trek.


A tangible nervous excitement grips me, heightened by the fact that there's only one other car parked in the massive trailhead parking lot. All signs pointed towards a journey of solitude in my future, which as a natural introvert I'm not entirely against. I loosely planned this trip to enhance my physical and mental self-reliance, and the empty trailhead further supported that there would be no shortcuts around executing this agenda.


"Alright," I say audibly to myself as I lock my truck for the fifth time and sling my overweight backpack over my shoulders.


"Let's go."

MEET THE WATERLOO-PINCKNEY TRAIL

My infatuation with the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail started with curiosity but waded into the realm of frustration. While the Detroit region is inundated with world-class day hiking, mountain biking, road cycling, and paddling trails, we're severely lacking in our true "backpacking" opportunities. I'm referring to backpacking experiences in the same vein as the world's greatest hikes. For the United States, that shortlist typically consists of the "Triple Crown" trails (Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest Trails), although Michigan's resident North Country National Scenic Trail also belongs as a fourth gem in the crown. Isle Royale National Park's Greenstone Ridge Trail should be on each Great Lakes backpacker's bucket list as well.


In our corner of the natural world, we identified only six "backpacking trails" suitable for overnight thru-hiking. Yes, the completion of the Iron Belle Trail - including the construction of accessible rustic campgrounds - will fundamentally change the landscape of our backpacking opportunities. The completion of the Gordie Howe International Bridge in 2024 will further fan this flame by connecting southeast Michigan's trails to greater Ontario's existing trail network. But for now, we have our six backpacking trails, the most prominent of which being the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail.

The Waterloo-Pinckney Trail started as a love child of the 1960s - a dream of recreational enthusiasts to connect 22 miles of trails in Waterloo Recreation Area to an equal-sized trail network in Pinckney Recreation Area, including the then-recently-minted 17.5 mile Potawatomi Trail. The 20 years that followed consisted of fundraising, planning, building, and, finally, the formal dedication of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail in 1986. The original Waterloo-Pinckney Trail was also named the Ninawkee Trail - which translates in the Potawatomi language to "The Land is Ours" - and stretched for 46 miles.


In 2023, thru-hiking the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail requires traversing roughly 38.5 miles (including campground diversions) through Waterloo Recreation Area, Pinckney Recreation Area, and brief stint within Park Lyndon County Park. The trail consists of a rolling landscape mixture of oak-hickory forests, marsh wetlands, and open prairies featuring quintessentially-midwest red barns. The trail traverses steep moraine ridge lines and boardwalks while providing hikers with vistas of 10 inland lakes, the full spectrum of southeast Michigan's wildlife, and panoramic views of the Chelsea-Pinckney area countryside.


Solo hiking the route - with only the unmistakably blue DNR trail markers as your companion - provides backpackers with a serene opportunity to embrace solitude within a fully-immersive experience. The Waterloo-Pinckney Trail has the power to heal and strengthen each facet of our being: our physical strength, mental fortitude, individual resilience, and spirituality. The conversations that you have with yourself over 40 miles alone on the trail, if you permit yourself to engage in them, provide invaluable and unfiltered insights into the depths of your values, memories, ambitions, and character. Best of all, an undeniable sense of accomplishment waits patiently for your arrival at Silver Lake.


I didn't know any of that at Mile 0.0. The first and only thought in my brain as I stepped onto the trail was that roughly 10.2 miles stood between me and the Pines Campground.


So I started hiking.

THE WPT: PORTAGE LAKE TO PINES RUSTIC CAMPGROUND

Total Distance: 11.57 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,048 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate

Route Orientation: Point-to-Point

Parking Specifics: Parking available at Big Portage Lake Parking Lot; Michigan Recreation Passport required.


As I stepped onto the trail, the first thought in my mind after "Alright, I'm actually doing this!" was "I'm going in the wrong direction." No I had not deviated off-trail. The initial 0.2 miles of the trail lead hikers in one of the few northwest segments of what's otherwise a predominately northeast-oriented trail. A little disheartening knowing that you're starting the hike with what feels like an inefficient disbursement of calories, but you're immediately rewarded with a stunning panoramic vista of Big Portage Lake a beautiful mature forest that resembles the Shire more than southeast Michigan. This gently rolling 1.4 mile segment provides the perfect introduction to the trail - an intoxicating, confidence-inducing spell only broken by a passing car on Seymour Rd., the first of 28 road crossings throughout the journey.


For the next 3.6 miles - from Seymour to Glenn Road - the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail gradually starts to unveil its defining geographic features. The dense forest blanketing the shoreline of Big Portage Lake gives way to the oak, maple, and intermittent pine forest that populates the lowlands of Waterloo Recreation Area. This section of the trail also introduces a series of smaller inland lakes, ponds, and creeks to the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail's cast of natural characters, including the avian and amphibian wildlife whose songs provide the background soundtrack to your steps.

The start of the ascent up Sackrider Hill

Right on cue at the 4 mile marker, the true topographic character of Waterloo Rec decides to make its grand entrance. As you traverse the southernmost segment of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, the trail climbs and descends 3.2 miles of rugged moraines carved into Michigan roughly 25,000 years ago. One picturesque resting point features a tree with a heart-shaped hollow right on the ridge of a panoramic ravine. I recommend resting here if you're feeling winded, especially since the most famous of these moraines - Sackrider Hill - is the next target on your summit list. Sackrider's decked watchtower, constructed at an elevation of roughly 1,130 feet, waits for your arrival after the steepest ascent of the entire Waterloo-Pinckney Trail (prepare for stairs).


After summiting a third and final moraine at mile 6.9 - just before Katz Road - the trail gradually descends to a flat, wetland segment all the way towards Pines Campground. Don't be alarmed when the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail appears to dead in right into Glenn Road. Turn right and follow the dirt road for a quarter mile until the trail picks up again on your left. Fellow solo hikers, note that this segment of the tail on Glenn Road represents the most "exposed" part of the trail to non-recreational users. If there is a singular moment to exercise extra awareness regarding your surroundings, this is the section to do so. The only time that I felt any unease from human activity occurred during this segment; a group of people in two vehicles seemed to be avoidant of my presence, possibly due to the GoPro on my chest strap and their apparent illegal dumping just off trail. Just remember to always trust your gut in uncertain situations and err on the safe side.

For most #TrailTuesday and related experience-focused articles, we try to focus on the specifics of the trail. The mileage. The elevation gain. The most scenic segments. The basic information that all interested trail users should review before setting out on their hike, run, or cycle.


As any experienced backpacker will corroborate, however, the physical attributes of long-distance hiking are, at best, only half of the experience. The other half+ is entirely mental, especially when solo backpacking. Mirroring my actual experience on the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, the initial paragraphs of this section of this article concentrated almost exclusively on the physical components of the trail: the terrain, the wildlife, the topographic nuances and challenges. The natural characteristics of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail that jumped out to me as I excitedly initiated this adventure.


Starting at the 7.5 mile marker, however, my trail experience ventured from the physical into the metaphysical. Sure, maybe this mindset alteration resulted from the perfect storm of sub-standard sleep, low caloric intake, and high energy burn from carrying 40 pounds of backpacking gear over miles of oscillating terrain. Or perhaps an over-exposure to the subtle green hues of freshly-budding trees commingling with the monolithic brown of largely barren trees induced a gradual trance. Or was it the hypnotic beat resonating from my steady pace down the trail, a reliable metronome of recreational equipment only broken by a chickadee's call or rustling leaf.


Regardless of the culprit, I spent over a mile and a half in complete silence, entirely transfixed by the solitude of one of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail's most isolated segments. While 1.4 miles of hiking typically passes by without a second thought, time stood still for this vignette on the trail. I said nothing, thought nothing; I only hiked, wholly-surrendered to the sights, sounds, and immediacy of the experience. I was entirely exhausted and at complete peace. Maybe this sensation explains why solo backpacking has garnered such a passionate faithful.

Take the Alternative Dry Route.

Only a flooded trail could have broken this spell. With just 1.4 miles to go on the hike, I came across a DNR-posted sign advising that the main trail experiences significant flooding during "certain times of the year." As such, the sign stated that hiking the longer "Alternative Dry Route" may be advisable. Still largely captivated by my nature-induced trance - and obstinately dismissive of adding more miles to my hike - I ignored this sign. The steady beat of my boots drummed on.


That is until I stopped dead in my tracks, took my phone out of my pocket, and snapped the above photo.


Now fully-awake and in "expedition mode," I made a few attempts to traverse around the most inundated portions of the trail. Each of these constituted fool's errands, especially with soaked boots now adding insult to injury. Great backpacking trails have an uncanny means of humbling all of us, and this water-logged portion of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail reminded me that acting like a stubborn jackass often only results in added mileage and drenched socks. I swallowed my pride, accepted the extra mile that was now on my docket, and backtracked to the DNR sign. Lesson learned.


The Alternative Dry Route dumps you out on roughly a quarter mile south of the main trail on Baldwin Road. Once back on the trail, the sweeping wetland vistas of Baldwin Flooding help to ease any angst from the additional mile that may have just been added to Day 1 of your Waterloo-Pinckney Trail journey (less if you heed our advice an opt immediately from the Alt. Dry Route).

pines rustic campground waterloo pinckney trail expedition detroit backpacking camping
The finish line: Pines Rustic Campground

The finish line for Day 1 at Pines Rustic Campground is located roughly a half mile after the Baldwin Flooding dam bridge. The sites at Pines Campground are gratuitously large, especially if you're the only inhabitant like I was last weekend. Try to ignore the litany of charred logs that cover the campground - open fires are prohibited at the campground, although backpacker stoves are permitted. There's also a seasonal water pump located at the equestrian facilities just north of the campground.


The bugs were not bad at all during my stay in mid-April, although I could imagine the mosquitos getting fairly vicious in the warmer months due to the campground's proximity to Baldwin Flooding and other wetlands. With the absence of insects, I leisurely set up my backpacker's tent, fired up my JetBoil for dinner, and relaxed in my lightweight camp chair with a book as the sun slowly set around me.


A perfect end to an idyllic first day on the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail.

 

Do you maintain or regularly hike on a particular trail? Any suggestions for which "hidden gem" destination we should spotlight next? Let us know in the comments!

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