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Thru-Hiking the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, Pt. 3: The Finale in Pinckney

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 third and final installation of our Waterloo-Pinckney Trail series covers the entirety of the Pinckney section of the trail - 14 miles of challenges, triumphs, pain, and euphoria.

"Hey Pops - it's gonna be another hour or so...sorry. Today's been a wild card."

Those were probably the last words that my jet-lagged father wanted to hear as he waited patiently at the Silver Lake Trailhead in Pinckney Recreation Area, and he masked his reasonable annoyance, well, reasonably. In his defense, I explicitly said that I would be arriving at the trailhead around 4:30PM. I would blow that arrival time by nearly an hour.

In my defense, I never planned on arriving that evening at all. Reddit reviews and relentless rain can have that effect on a perfectly-planned itinerary. Add an ambitious, adventurous, and borderline reckless outdoorsman spirit, and you end up with a 10K day turning into a half marathon+ expedition. At a personal record-pace for backpacking.

If you're asking yourself "Why would you do that to yourself?", you're definitely not alone. I was asking myself the same question between miles 7 - 14 on Day 3.

But at 8 a.m. - while waking up to yet another morning of rain pelting my tent fly - I simply couldn't stomach the thought of breaking down camp (in the rain), hiking a quick 6 miles (in the rain), setting up camp again (in the rain), and then potentially repeating the process all over again the following day. If it were another 20 miles to Silver Lake, then yes, I would have kept to the plan. But 14 miles...? I could push through. Especially with a boost from the intermittent presence of my brother James of Cooke Productions, my "documentary crew" for the first half of the day.

"Alright," I said to myself as I looked back down the hill at Green Lake's Site #8 to confirm that I had left no trace. "No stopping now. The way is through. Let's get it!"


Total Distance: 14.21 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,454 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate-Hard

Route Orientation: Point-to-Point

If you also opt to finish the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail from Green Lake Rustic Campground - hopefully with more foresight than a game-time decision - remember that your day will start with playing some mileage catch-up. From Site #8, this meant a 0.4 mile backtrack just to get to the main trail (mile marker 20.9 on the AllTrails map). I didn't mind since I knew that my brother was waiting at the trail's parking lot to start shooting, but you should be mentally prepared for this and a few other trail redirects that add extra mileage to your half-marathon day.

Once back on the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, we immediately climbed Riley Hill to reach the highest point of Day 3's elevation (1,040 feet). This climb will feel like child's play compared to the Survival Day's oscillating climbs, but at least take a moment to congratulate yourself on achieving this first micro-win on the day. My brother and I celebrated by abruptly getting passed on the trail by an ultra runner. I actually connected with this runner later via a Facebook SE Michigan trails group, who told me that he had started at Big Portage Lake 5 hours earlier... what a badass, and also the only other thru-hiker/trail runner that I crossed paths way during the entirety of my trek across the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail.

After a brief 0.1 mile descent down Riley Hill, you will be standing face-to-face with M-52. Here's an important navigational item to remember: ALLTRAILS IS NOT CURRENT WITH THE ACTUAL TRAIL ORIENTATION. At this point, turn left to follow the paved, brand-spanking-new Border to Border Trail northwest until you see a beautiful statute of a Native American woman and a tunnel under the highway. Thru-hiking treks across the United States, Canada, and the rest of the world have lots of strange "milestone traditions"; I don't know if there are any specifically associated with the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, but I decided to kiss this woman's feet as a sign of respect and blessing for safe passage into Pinckney State Recreation Area. I wouldn't classify myself as superstitious (just a littlestitious), but the hail that had been beating us for the last 20 minutes cleared up roughly 2 minutes after completing this act. Just saying...

The M-52 Tunnel is literally and figuratively a rite of passage. For starters, after 20+ miles on the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, you are finally saying goodbye to the climbs, lakes, campgrounds, and wilderness of Waterloo State Recreation Area. Your first steps back into daylight are simultaneously your first steps into Pinckney Rec, signaling that the finish line is within reach. You have successfully hiked through the entirety of one park, and now another is just beginning. More importantly, you have proven to yourself that you are a self-reliant thru-hiker.

Net-net, you should be smiling ear-to-ear as you verge off of the paved B2B Trail and continue due east on a recently-cut straightaway trail.

The straightway is largely a mile-long descent towards wetlands before a moderate climb due north. Normally I would've relaxed my pace on this straightaway, taking my time to enjoy the consistent terrain and early spring sights and sounds. But not a perfect storm of inclement weather, doubled mileage, and a diminishing media shooting schedule, I needed to accelerate my pace. So, despite being about 24 miles total into my thru-hike, I jogged this part of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail to make up time. Which I knew that I would likely pay for later.

At the 22.4 mile marker (as shown on the map above), you will actually leave Pinckney Rec to enter your third park of the journey: Park Lyndon County Park. The brief 1 mile passage through Park Lyndon may be the single most scenic and naturally-diverse mile along the entire trail. Starting in wetlands just east of Lake Genevieve, you quickly ascend to follow a hardwood-lined ridge through the park's southern section, complete with panoramic views to the southwest towards the lake. Once across N Territorial Road, you pass briefly through an open park area before descending into pine forest value - only to abruptly climb again to reach more ridge line panoramic vistas. To complete the full spectrum of Detroit region trail experiences, you'll finish this segment crossing boardwalks. Absolutely beautiful segment of the trail.

Back in Pinckney Rec, the on-and-off boardwalks continue until you reach Embury Road at mile marker 24.1. The trail then returns to its normal form: gently rolling terrain that guides you alongside wetlands and under oak, maple, and other hardwood trees, as well as the occasional grassland meadow to permit the returning sunshine to reach your skin. I took some time to rest on a large log just west of Joslin Lake Rd. My brother brought a few trail beers with him, so I gave my legs a chance to recover after the sub-20 minute/mile pace that I had been maintaining with a heavy pack. He snapped this photo to capture the moment before leaving me to face the remaining 10 miles on the day.

The first mile past Joslin Lake Road continued to be enjoyable, although the departure of my brother reminded me of the joys of hiking with another person - even if you only see them at intermittent road crossings. Past Hadley Road, however, I started to feel the cumulative effects of the past 48 hours, especially that morning's sprinted, hilly miles. The Pinckney Rec section of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail is comparatively much easier to traverse than Waterloo's climbs, but I squandered that topographic advantage via pushing my legs.

Stated differently, I found myself in a world of hurt. My legs were aching, my calories all but depleted, that morning's companion had left, and I was squarely within one of the most isolated sections of the trail. I did not see another hiker, runner, or mountain biker during that 3.4 mile stretch of beautiful yet dense, isolating forest. The only non-wood geographic feature to break up the uniformity of the forest was - of course - Dead Lake.

"The way is through," I kept audibly repeating to myself. I have no idea who first coined that mantra, but I have utilized it several times in my athletic pursuits, professional projects, and personal challenges when my mind, body, and soul want nothing more than to lie down and end the present pain. "The way is through - just keep going."

I should also mention here that if you are planning on camping at Blind Lake, be on the lookout for trail signs for Blind Lake around the 27.4 mile marker. I am specifically calling this out because (1) my original itinerary involved camping at Blind Lake and (2) I did not see any signs leading to the campground. Maybe my exhausted mind just simply missed the markers, but if I hadn't planned on finishing the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail on Day 3 then I would have hiked an extra mile or so before realizing my mistake.

The calorie depletion really started to rear its ugly head right around the 30 mile marker past Hankerd Road. Aside from hiking in complete "zombie mode," i.e. autopilot to the point where your senses resolutely tune out every other sensation besides walking, I made one of the worst mental mistakes that you can make as an exhausted thru-hiker: I forgot about the discrepancies between AllTrails, the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail's official blue trail markers, and the actual trail's mileage.

At Green Lake, I knew that my watch would read 14+ miles by the end of the day. During the course of my adventure, however, I started to believe that the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail's total mileage would be more like ~35 miles, or end at the blue "Mile 33" marker. Again, this was my energy-deprived mind giving into exhaustion, with the end result being that my extraction service arrived at Silver Lake roughly an hour early due to my miscalculation.

Continuing to navigate under physically and mentally exhaustive conditions is one of many resilience building attributes of thru-hiking the the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most difficult, drop-kick-to-the-groin mental challenges all came within the last five miles of the trek. Here are the remaining two:

  • Pickerel Lake Junction: Whoever planned this segment of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail was a sadistic S.O.B. No, not because of the terrain which is totally manageable. At this point, you will find yourself at a crossroads of trails. One trail leads directly to the Silver Lake Trailhead. Another god-forsaken trail heads southwest, well away from anywhere that a Waterloo-Pinckney Trail thru-hiker would want to venture. Guess what friends: the direct trail is "Silver Lake Trail," which is not your route. You, oh lucky one, are headed southwest for another 2 miles of indirect fun.

  • The 33 Mile Marker: This spot is mentally challenging for two reasons. First - especially if you've been giving looking at AllTrails - you will errantly believe that you have reached that coveted final mile. You haven't. Sorry, you have 2 more to go - including a steep final climb at the 34 mile marker. But second, and significantly more mentally-testing than the mileage disappointment, is that you'll be tempted. There's a shortcut trail right around the 33 Mile Marker that would shave off a mile, and after the litany of inaccurate trail markers that you've fallen victim to by this point, you would have a decent argument for taking it. Brothers and sisters - resist the temptation! Short term gratifications almost always lead to long term regrets. Yes, the extra mile sucks - but knowing inside that you didn't truly thru-hike the entire Waterloo-Pinckney Trail would suck even more.

The Reunion at Silver Lake

Well done, fellow hiker - you passed both of these tests by knocking out an additional 5K's worth of seemingly unnecessary trail. Now, finally on the main Silver Lake Trail, you are rewarded with a gradual, largely direct descent towards the finish line: the Silver Lake Trailhead.

Despite all of the pain that you had probably experienced up to this point, the last half mile of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail provides a near-religious experience. A rush of dopamine as you start to see the lake through the trees. A feeling of innate gratification as other hikers just starting their journeys look at you like a returned hero, a trail conqueror - a thru-hiker. Better yet, I had a one-person welcome party waiting for me at the finish line: my father who had just returned from Zambia the night before, jet-lagged and smiling.

I tapped the 35 Mile Marker post.

I crossed the threshold of the trailhead past the welcome kiosk.

And with that, the inaugural Expedition Detroit thru-hike of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail was complete.

Ending this article where the adventure began: Big Portage Lake


Total Distance: 37.79 miles

Elevation Gain: 3,907 feet

Hiking Time: 14h 38m 22s

Final Thoughts: The Waterloo-Pinckney Trail should be on every Detroit-based backpacker's bucket list. You will traverse the entire spectrum of our region's best hiking - steep moraines, dense forests, expansive grasslands, and wetlands teeming with life. Regardless of whether you choose to complete the trek solo or with friends, this journey will undoubtedly leave an imprint on your perception of the immense backpacking opportunities found not only near Detroit, but throughout Michigan and the Great Lakes region.


Thank you to everyone who joined us on this three-part journey! These articles were longer than usual and represented more of a personal travelogue than normal experiential content, so we appreciate your willingness to venture into the subjective subconscious of the thru-hiking experience. We hope that this series on the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail inspires you to seek out your own adventures within the Detroit region, and we will continue to seek out the world-class outdoor opportunities within our environment that are waiting for you to rediscover them.

As always, we can't wait to see you out there.

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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kim Cooke
kim Cooke
10 thg 5, 2023

Proud to greet you at trails end! Well done, Hobbit!

Dan Cooke
Dan Cooke
10 thg 5, 2023
Phản hồi lại

Thank you, Gandalf!

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