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Trail Town Spotlight: The Outdoor Guide to Brighton, Michigan

The fifth installation of our #TrailTownSpotlight series, we're re-introducing an outdoor destination that truly needs no introduction: Brighton, Michigan. Join us as we explore this regional outdoor powerhouse and its wealth of world-class recreational opportunities!

On a global scale, there are only a handful of destinations that inspire adventure with just a single word. Patagonia. Alaska. Himalayas. Banff. Sahara. Outback. For us Michiganders, you could also add "Tahquamenon" or "Keweenaw" to that list. Like a kid passing through the turnstiles at an amusement park, each of these hallowed places leaves even the most ardent outdoor enthusiast nearly paralyzed in anticipation of the exhilarating experiences about to unfold. Unbridled adventure has that effect on us all.


Within the growing circle of Detroit's most impassioned outdoor recreationists, "Brighton" is another one-word denomination that evokes the call to adventure. If the Detroit region represents the future of North America's recreational infrastructure, then Brighton has provided the quintessential archetype on how to create a thriving community built around preserving and promoting its outdoors. A near-perfect case study on interweaving small-town charm with cutting-edge innovation, while simultaneously providing trail access to two of Michigan's largest state recreation areas, a Metropark, a world-class ski resort, and countless other community parks and waterways.


In full transparency, this article's writing journey has been the most difficult since Expedition Detroit's launch last fall. Trying to capture the immensity of Brighton's outdoor recreational outlets has led to hundreds of burnt calories pacing across my office, plus a few mid-day jogs, trying to sustain a fool's errand of framing a lifetime's worth of outdoor opportunities within a web article. Brighton has pushed our research and writing capacity to its brink - but for the best reasons imaginable. Challenging articles make the best articles, and we sincerely hope that these words will inspire you to rediscover the best of Brighton in these long, beautiful days ahead.

Brighton Amphitheater at Mill Pond Park

MEET BRIGHTON

Located on the northwestern rim of the Detroit region - just on the cusp of the "frontier communities" between Detroit and Lansing - lies the quintessential "Pure Michigan" community of Brighton, Michigan. First established in 1832, Brighton's initial structures consisted of a saw mill on the stream now known as Ore Creek (also the city's original namesake until 1838) and the humble homes of its first settlers, brothers Almon and Maynard Maltby. Over the next two centuries, the settlement gradually grew in industry, population, and amenities to support and establish the modern city that visitors know and love today.


The Brighton of 2023 prominently features a dynamic downtown that has carefully balanced its historic charm with the necessities of modern innovation. Brighton's postcard-worthy Main Street corridor prominently features trendy shops and cafes, artisan restaurants and bars, pristine public spaces, monuments, street and sculpture art exhibitions, and live performance venues - both inside and outdoors. Better yet, Brighton has retained its outdoor-centric culture that originated from its initial settlement along the banks of Ore Creek and continues through its investment into improving its outdoor spaces.

OUTDOOR HIGHLIGHTS

Oh boy, where to begin... Starting at the heart of Downtown Brighton, a stroll along the city's shops and restaurants must include exploring the boardwalks and paved walkways of the Millpond Trail. Easily one of the most scenic urban trails throughout the Detroit region, the stunning beauty of the roughly 1-mile Millpond Trail resulted from 5 years of habitat restoration and shoreline beautification initiatives spearheaded by the Brighton City Council and Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Countless volunteer hours produced what's now described as the "focal point of the Brighton community," where the hustle and bustle of downtown meets a one-of-a-kind natural beauty.


Downtown Brighton also maintains a city-wide outdoor sculpture exhibit, featuring several permanent and circulating pieces aimed towards enhancing the vibrancy of downtown. The Brighton Arts and Culture Commission has curated a self-guided tour to enable the public to experience the walking exhibition and the Brighton community. Several art installations are located along the Millpond Trail and its adjacent Brighton Imagination Station, which harnesses the synergy of natural and artistic beauty for a truly impactful experience.


For most of Detroit's outdoor community, however, the allure of Brighton begins just outside the limits of downtown. For paddlers and anglers, Woodland Lake and Brighton Lake are directly accessible from downtown via their respective north and south passages of South Ore Creek. For skiers and snowboarders, "Brighton" is ubiquitous with Mt. Brighton, one of the Detroit region's "Big Four" resorts that features the slopes, events, amenities, and experience that any big mountain skier would expect of an Epic Pass resort.


Last, but certainly not least, we have the triple crown of Brighton's outdoor ecosystem: Island Lake Recreation Area, Hudson Mills Metropark, and Brighton Recreation Area. Collectively, these three world-class destinations highlight Brighton's highest ranked destination, the Detroit region's premiere water trail, several of the most sought-after hiking trails in the entire state, and much, much more.


Let's explore why Brighton is the Detroit region's adventure capital.

Badlands Island Lake Pure Michigan Hiking Expedition Detroit
The Badlands of Island Lake State Recreation Area

CAN'T MISS EXPERIENCE: Island Lake State Recreation Area

On a shockingly frequent basis, a well-intentioned jerk asks me the single most difficult question related to this business: "Which park is your favorite?" For us at Expedition Detroit, this inquiry is akin to asking a parent to pick out their favorite child. Once the tangible "ugh" wears off, I try to provide an honest answer, which admittedly is usually influenced by whichever park I most recently had the privilege to explore.


However, more often than not, my answer to that dreaded question is Island Lake State Recreation Area. Apparently I am not alone in that sentiment. And here's why.


Within its 4,000 acres, Island Lake provides a comprehensive spectrum of experiences and landscapes that you simply cannot find anywhere else in the Detroit region - maybe even the entire state of Michigan. As such, the park is extremely popular for almost every recreational pursuit: mountain biking, road cycling, paddling, hiking, trail running, swimming, triathlon training, camping, canoe camping, picnicking, hunting, fishing, trapping, and snowmobiling. Island Lake even has its own shooting range and connects directly to and from the paved Kensington Metropark Bike Trail and the Huron Valley Trail.


For me personally, the shifting topography of Island Lake is the park's "X Factor," best experienced by foot, peddle, or paddle. Looking for a grand tour of Island Lake? Opt to hike or mountain bike the park's beloved Yellow Loop (5.5 miles, moderate terrain) and Blue Loop (9 miles, easy terrain) trails - either separately or together. These trails guide hikers or bikers on an expedition spanning the park's rolling hills, mature forests, prairie grasslands, and stunning "Badlands" terrain only found at Island Lake.


Prefer a more direct route? The Huron River National Water Trail provides the central vein of Island Lake, starting at the southern terminus of Kent Lake at the cascading Kent Lake Dam, and gently flowing through 9 miles of the park. The twists and turns of the Huron will guide you along a journey through Island Lake's wetlands, wooded hills, thick boreal forest, and grasslands along its southwestern edge. There are four launch areas along the Huron's route, as well as one of the four canoe campgrounds along the entire HRNWT (reservation required in advance).

BEST FOR THE FAMILY: Huron Meadows Metropark

Just downstream and across US-23 from Island Lake, you'll find your next priceless gem in the triple crown of Brighton's outdoor destinations: Huron Meadows Metropark, a family-centric destination laden with experiences for every genre of outdoor enthusiast. Starting with the Huron River, Huron Meadows features approximately 2 miles of a gently-flowing segment of the HRNWT. Especially if you're newer to paddling or fishing, this segment of the Huron that is directly accessible from the Cedar Ridge Picnic Shelter provides a beginner-friendly avenue for enjoying the river (remember to always start by paddling upstream).


Beyond the river, Huron Meadows also comprises of 11 miles of well-maintained rustic hiking trails, a par-72 golf course, playgrounds, softball fields, and cross-country skiing facilities at its Ski Center during the winter. Especially with regard to cross-country skiing, Huron Meadows is widely regarded as the "Southeast Michigan destination for skate-style and classic cross-country ski trails," as evidenced by hosting regional prominent nordic skiing events like "Frosty Fest!" last January. Skiers can choose from 14.8 miles of trails for classic skiing or 9 miles of skate skiing. All trails are groomed daily and are lighted at night.

Brighton Recreation Area Pure Michigan Expedition Detroit Hiking
The summit push on the Penosha Trail, Brighton State Recreation Area

OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Brighton State Recreation Area

Only in Brighton would its namesake state recreation area receive the designation of "Off the Beaten Path," but that just further demonstrates how jam-packed with outdoor opportunities Brighton truly is. Having the ever-popular Island Lake and Huron Meadows as next-door neighbors could be viewed as an unfortunate twist of events for a world-class park like Brighton Rec, but hear us out: Brighton's more isolated location and rugged terrain make the park a "hidden gem" for Detroit's most adventuresome outdoor community.


Let's start with the basics. Just like any top-tier Michigan state recreation area, Brighton Rec packs a knock-out punch with its full menu of outdoor pursuits. Scattered throughout the park's nearly 5,000 acres of steep ranges of hills, dense forest, marshlands and pristine lakes, recreationists can engage in mountain biking, hiking, trail running, equestrianism (mostly throughout the western segments of the park), paddling, swimming, fishing, hunting, camping, and cross-country skiing. The Bishop Lake area of Brighton Rec is especially stunning and provides the nexus of Brighton's most enviable paddling, fishing, hiking, and mountain biking opportunities. For camping, Brighton maintains several reservation-only campgrounds, with its Appleton Lake and Murray Lake campgrounds constituting the park's two "rustic" camping options.


Before signing off on Brighton Rec, we wanted to especially zero-in on two of the park's outdoor features that truly certify Brighton as an outdoor adventure hub. First, the celebrated Penosha Trail - a roughly 5 mile route traversing Brighton's easternmost rolling hills and dense forests that commonly ranks as the #1 hiking trail throughout the entire Detroit region. Second, for our advanced mountain bikers and trail runners, Brighton Rec's full MTB Loop Trail System - comprising a heart-pounding 14.8 miles in total - represents one of only three "Black Diamond" ranked trails existing within the Detroit region. Amazingly, both of these world-class caliber trail systems originate at the same trailhead, therefore providing our recreational all-stars with an opportunity to complete two bucket list-worthy feats back-to-back.


Damn. Only in Brighton.

FEATURED OUTFITTER: Running Lab

Downtown Brighton's Running Lab isn't your typical shoe store. Or running apparel outlet. Yes, it is technically is a running store where anyone from 5K hopefuls to seasoned ultra marathoners can purchase industry-leading footwear, accessories, and other running gear. But if you take on aspect with you from this featurette, we hope it's that Running Lab represents a community of likeminded runners - regardless of experience level, demographic, or purchase powering - looking to improve the Brighton and greater Detroit region's running faithful.


New to running? Sweet, check out Running Lab's "5K Training Group," which conducts its own 8 week training plan and coached runs on Tuesday nights. Growing as a runner? Solid, Running Lab has a larger training group that supports and prepares runners for races of all lengths. Simply looking to make an impact on your community and environment? Awesome, Running Lab also supports several foundations, including the MORE Foundation Group that recycles and re-purposes used athletic shoes.

MORNING FUEL: Brighton Coffeehouse and Theater

Location. Location. And coffee. When we're scouting out an area in the hunt for a prime "morning fuel" coffee shop, those three (alright, two) variables are right at the top of our list, and Brighton Coffeehouse and Theater has all of them in spades - plus much, much more.


Let's start with the coffee house's location. Not only is the coffee house and theater located right on Downtown Brighton's Main Street, but the spot is literally steps away from easily the most scenic destination in downtown: Mill Pond Park and its boardwalk trail, including Brighton's "AMP" amphitheater and Veteran's Memorial. As expected, the "coffee" portion of the Coffeehouse and Theater serves up your go-to orders of coffee and specialty drinks, as well as tea, lemonade, smoothies, sandwiches, and salads.


Oh, as you may have guessed, the coffee house AND THEATER also maintains an in-house theater for promoting dramatic arts, cinema, music art, and other crafts. The Brighton Coffeehouse and Theater truly has something for everyone.

POST-TRAIL WATERING HOLE: Brewery Becker

Admittedly, I have a soft spot in my heart for the folks at Brewery Becker. Back in the late spring of 2020 - right after indoor dining restrictions were loosened during the Covid-19 Pandemic - my friends and I finished up a trail running and mountain biking session at Island Lake. One of us realized that we could, finally, enjoy that coveted post-trail beer in a real establishment.


"Have you guys ever been to Brewery Becker in Brighton?" my buddy Ryan inquired of the group. Alas, we had not.


"Oh, we're going. See you there."


Since that fateful outing, Brewery Becker has been my go-to spot in Brighton for post-ride, run, or paddle craft beers. Besides the brewery's impressive on tap menu and ample "Bill of Fare" food menu, the restaurant easily has one of the most enviable venues in terms of its Main Street location and ornate architecture in all of Downtown Brighton. Complete with its award-winning biergarten, fire pits, generous bring-your-own wine and carry-out food policy, and family-style environment, a visit to Brewery Becker truly provides a unique experience that we unequivocally endorse.

 

This article only scratches the surface on all that Brighton has to offer for its residents and visitors. For more information on local businesses, organizations, and outdoor recreation opportunities, be sure to check out fantastic local networks like Explore Brighton Howell Area and the Brighton Area Chamber of Commerce.


Do you live in Brighton? Have any additional suggestions for our community's attention? Please feel free to suggest any extra experiences, retailers, or outdoor events in the comments below!



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