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Thru-Hiking the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, Pt. 2: Crossing the Highlands

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 second installment of our series on the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail traverses the most strenuous terrain of the entire journey - as well as discovering welcomed surprises to ease the "Survival Day."

Rainstorms while camping: possibly the greatest paradox in the backpacking experience.

On one hand, you'll never find a better "white noise" machine than Mother Nature maintaining a steady droplet beat against your rainfly. A wonderfully-deafening rhythm that beckons all weary hikers to further embed themselves into the cocoon of their warm sleeping bag.

On the other're camping. Scratch that, you're backpacking. You need to emerge from the depths of your bag, pack up everything within eyesight into your backpack - including the shelter currently keeping you dry - and hit the trail. The muddy, sandy, hilly, 12-mile Waterloo-Pinckney Trail preselected as your "survival day."

Yeah. Burrowing further into the sleeping bag sounded pretty good. I checked the radar, saw that the storms were scheduled to dissipate in a few hours, and succumbed to the temptation.

Fast forward a few hours and it's 9:30 a.m. The backcountry equivalent of sleeping in until noon. The natural drumroll that had lulled me back to sleep has calmed to an inconsistent drip, and a lone bird call alerts me that all systems are clear for a prospective launch from the tent. The light in my cavernous backpacker's tent is noticeably brighter now too. As a final precaution, I check the radar again.

Bad news. The storms are expected to linger until 2:30 p.m., albeit with brief respite periods like the next 30 minutes. The temptress known professionally as Big Agnes starts to whisper sweet nothings into my ear again, coaxing me back to my 20º-rated bag and Klymit air mattress.

"No," I say so audibly that the bird quits singing, confused with the faceless tent is suddenly speaking. "This is why I brought rain gear. Time to go."

The first battle of the day had been won.

There would be several more to fight throughout one epic Day 2 on the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail.


Total Distance: 12.01 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,405 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate-Hard

Route Orientation: Point-to-Point

When I first started planning my thru-hike in early March, I predetermined that Day 2 would serve as the "Survival Day" of the trip. For me, this concept means allocating as many obstacles or variables to handle into one finite period as possible. The main advantage to this concept is that, theoretically, you only need to work up the gusto once to supersede the most difficult moments of the journey, thereby rewarding the effort with easier days on the backend. The main disadvantage is, well, that you need to do it.

Survival Days should start with a handful small wins that carry the positive momentum forward into the larger endeavors. After successfully emerging from my sleeping bag, Day 2 kicked off with a general best practice of packing up as much as I could into my pack before leaving the tent. Once I successfully converted my backcountry bedroom into a fully-packed bag, I emerged from the tent to fire up my Jetboil and make some instant coffee (an absolute necessity). As my coffee cooled, I carefully broke down camp - folding the rainfly towards the inside to minimize soaking the rest of the tent bag - and secured my rain cover over my pack before the storm could pick up again.

Which the storm did, of course, moments after I drained my last sip of coffee. I tightened up my pack, made one last sweep of the Pines Campground to confirm that Expedition Detroit had indeed "Left No Trace," and started hiking.

Prospect Hill Expedition Detroit Pure Michigan Peak Waterloo Pinckney Trail Backpacking
Marker at the top of Prospect Hill, the highest point of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail (1,150 ft.)

The Waterloo-Pinckney Trail from Pines Campground starts at the day's lowest point before a gradual two-mile ascent towards the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail's highest point: Prospect Hill. Fair warning, Waterloo Recreation Area's equestrian faithful have left a heavy toll on this initial segment of the trail. The frequent rainstorms that I hiked through actually improved the sandy conditions that horse traffic have unleashed on Waterloo's bridle paths. I trekked through the first mile of marshlands with ease, although the landmines of horse poop kept me sharp-eyed and light footed.

Once you cross Clear Lake Road, the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail starts getting fun. I mean really fun, or at least for anyone who enjoys rigorous trekking in the U.P. or Out West. Starting at 1.4 miles into the day, you will initiate your assault on Prospect Hill, complete with rocky straightaways and - for my first time ever in the Detroit region - legitimate trail switchbacks. While I usually dread switchbacks when backpacking Out West due to their repetitious nature, this feature of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail provided further confirmation of one of Expedition Detroit's core beliefs: that the Detroit region has world-class outdoor experiences akin to other renown destinations. If a trail has switchbacks - and a 17% grade climb to its peak - then that constitutes a trail worth hiking.

As you complete the climb, a small stone marker will gradually start to peak over the trail. This humble marker rests at the top of Prospect Hill at an elevation of 1,150 feet. This marker also signals that you have reached the "summit" of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail. Yes, you will still need to descend and reascend several more challenging moraines before reaching Silver Lake, but take some time to celebrate this achievement. Again, Survival Days are best survived with compounding "wins," and reaching the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail's peak is most certainly a win.

I celebrated by eating an "Aussie Bite" breakfast.

One of the most beautiful sights of the entire Waterloo-Pinckney Trail.

Your next "win" - which for me was honestly more satisfying than summiting Prospect Hill - comes in the form of a weathered sign bringing tidings of comfort and joy. As you draw closer to the sign, you may start crying tears of joy because the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail FINALLY breaks off from Waterloo's bridle trails. Yes, non-equestrian friends: no more dodging horse poop, trudging through sand, or keeping your head on a swivel for riding traffic. The Waterloo-Pinckney Trail is yours and yours alone for the remainder of Waterloo Rec.

The Waterloo-Pinckney Trail's string of ascents and descents leading to Crooked Lake provides one of the most beautiful and solitary segments of the entire trail experience. Especially around the 14.4 mile marker, you descend from an upper panoramic ridge line into what feels like a forested bowl, trekking alone within your own micro-wilderness. The surroundings invite you to be completely present - to indulge in the natural confines that invoke stillness, reflection, contentment, and gratitude for the experience that you've embarked on.

Crooked Lake Waterloo Recreation Area Expedition Detroit Pinckney Trail Backpacking
Scenic resting spot along Crooked Lake

Your arrival at the banks of Crooked Lake provides a reminder that you are still backpacking within a larger metropolitan area. A fox sighting made this moment memorable for me, but otherwise I found myself eager to start the ascent away from the lake and its several cottages and homesteads. At this point in the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, I found myself preferring the solitude of the woods more and more with each passing mile. The trance-inducing rhythm of the intermittent rain hitting the top of my rain jacket's hood further grounded me to nature and apart from the distractions of a developed world.

Or at least until I reached the Gerald E. Eddy Discovery Center roughly 7 miles into the day and remembered all of the benefits of a modern society. Roofed picnic shelter with benches perfect for drying out equipment and clothing? Check. A water fountain for filling up my bottle and cooking a proper re-hydrated lunch? Check. The cleanest bathroom that I have ever encountered in a park setting? Check. After conquering the morning's rigors on a relatively empty stomach, I allotted myself an hour to indulge in the Discovery Center's amenities. I strongly encourage you to do the same.

Golden hour at Green Lake Campground

The remaining four miles on Day 2 lead largely due north towards Green Lake. There is one more daunting moraine to summit approximately two miles past the Discovery Center, but as a whole this segment consists of wetland boardwalks and ridge line traverses. Similar to the prior day's experience, my calorie-depleted mind started to drift during this segment, therefore diminishing my memory now. After thoroughly examining the breadth of my relationships and life choices (yikes), I channeled this trail-induced hypnosis towards brainstorming future article ideas and innovative products or services for Expedition Detroit. Let's just say that if you're ever reading a future article and think "Where did this idea come from??", the answer is probably circa Miles 19 or 20 on the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail.

Roughly five and a half hours after setting off from Pines Campground, I had finally reached the service road into Green Lake Campground. Spoiler alert, reaching this road does not mark the finish line for the day. I hiked another 0.4 miles to reach my Green Lake Campground site - the isolated Site #8 - which was conveniently located across the camp drive from the outhouses and water pump. The site also had a plethora of downed sticks to build a roaring fire with inside its industrial fire pit.

Green Lake Campground was very crowded that night, including what appeared to be a family reunion at its famous yurt next to me, but I still managed to find some solitude while reading a book next to the fire - similarly to how the whole journey had started several months prior. I picked up head up to recognize one last surprise on the day - dissipating clouds and rays of brilliant gold light against the trees above me. I left my book, ran to the shoreline, and caught the final act of one of the most dramatic sunsets I have ever seen.

The Survival Day was complete. And I had enjoyed every single moment of it.


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!



Amy Greenhoe
Amy Greenhoe

I've never through hiked, but I want to. Trying to get my niece's who are experienced hikers to do this next year. Great

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