The third installation of our #TrailTownSpotlight series, we're highlighting the best outdoor attributes of Dexter, Michigan - the "Hidden Gem of the Huron" - for every hometown recreational enthusiast.
I remember the first time that I ever visited the picturesque little city of Dexter, Michigan. My wife had just formally launched her professional acting career at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, a town whose name had sounded vaguely familiar despite my upbringing just 30 miles east on M-14. One warm Saturday afternoon during her rehearsal period, we decided to meet for lunch. I uncharacteristically decided to arrive early to scope out both some lunch options and explore this little town that had always flown under my radar.
Reverting to my natural state, I arrived late to our lunch date. But at least this time I had a valid excuse.
"Sorry I'm late - Dexter is an AWESOME town, got carried away exploring. Why have we never been here before??"
Five years later, this small town continues to surprise me with its wealth of community events, quintessential "Pure Michigan" charm, and - of course - outdoor experiences. Dexter's idyllic shops, restaurants, and location at the confluence of Mill Creek and the Huron River, have elevated the city to a can't miss "Trail Town" that we're honored to spotlight.
Located just northwest of Ann Arbor, the City of Dexter dates back to 1824, when the city's namesake, Samuel W. Dexter, purchased a large tract of land that would eventually form the city center. Over the next two centuries, Dexter's "Mill Creek Settlement" evolved into the village and eventually the City of Dexter, complete with a rich history involving industrial mills, the Underground Railroad, UFO sightings, and a large tornado that caused substantial damage to the village in 2012.
Heading into 2023, Dexter presents a dynamic community offering residents and visitors ample opportunities for shopping and dining along Main Street, enjoying its historical architecture, experiencing its vibrant "Dexter Daze" and other festivals, visiting its cultural hubs, and exploring the beauty of its great outdoors. Naturally, we're excited about shifting this spotlight towards Dexter's beautiful natural environment, but Dexter truly has an amazing experience waiting for every genre of small town tourist. Trust us, all of you foodies, thespians, hikers, and paddlers - a day trip to Dexter will leave you excited for planning your next visit!
As this article will exemplify, Dexter's outdoor opportunities are influenced largely by its envious location at the crossroads of two beautiful, pristine waterways: Mill Creek and the mighty Huron River. This location not only provides arguably the best paddling opportunities in the Detroit region, but also superb fly fishing locations along both the creek and the river. An extensive network of biking and hiking trails - including the Washtenaw County-redefining "Border to Border" or "B2B" Trail - also run parallel to the waterways, which cumulatively elevate Dexter to a one-stop-shop for recreationists of varying tastes and expertise. More on those water and land trails in a bit.
Aside from its world-class trail networks, Dexter also provides the complete package for outdoor enthusiasts of every adventure-seeking level. If paddling rapids or biking 30+ miles isn't quite your cup of tea, then the pedestrian-accessible Hudson Mills and Dexter-Huron Metroparks - which feature family-friendly playgrounds, nature centers, sporting fields, natural trails, and even a labyrinth - will absolutely scratch that recreational itch. Other outdoor outlets around the city include stunning Mill Creek Park along the eastern bank of Mill Creek, Dexter Community Park, First Street Park, Lions Park, and the historic Monument Park that constitutes the heartbeat of Dexter's community vitality. Several hometown races - such as the annual "Holiday Hustle" - cross the finish line right at Monument Park, thereby also establishing the park as the core of Dexter's recreational community for generations.
CAN'T MISS EXPERIENCE: The Huron River
We have taken the liberty of dubbing Dexter as the Hidden Gem of the Huron. This may come off as fighting words to the other immaculate "Water Trail Towns" situated along the banks of the Huron River National Water Trail, but hear us out. Dexter lives and breathes the Huron. For starters, the 1.9 mile Mill Creek segment of the National Water Trail is the only significant deviation from the main body of the Huron River throughout the entirety of the 104-mile water trail. There's a good reason for that: in 2009, the Village of Dexter removed its Mill Pond Dam impoundment to allow Mill Creek to flow freely once again. Since that decision, the construction of Mill Creek Park, including its famous rapids, boardwalks, two launching points, and revitalized surrounding habitat, have made this short segment of the river a can't miss docking point. Extra destinations include the Dexter Farmer's Market and Riverview Cafe that are a stone's throw away from Mill Creek Park.
The perks of Dexter's idyllic location only sweeten once you're back within the main flow of the Huron. Paddling upstream - which we always recommend that you do first - you will paddle directly into Hudson Mills Metropark, including its navigable rapids, wildlife viewing opportunities, and one of four "canoe campgrounds" located along the National Water Trail. Continuing downstream, you will paddle into another Metropark: the less-visited Dexter-Huron Metropark, clearly designed for naturalists looking to find their peace along the river's tranquil banks. Delhi Metropark is also located just downstream from Dexter-Huron, therefore providing you with an opportunity to paddle through 3 pristine metroparks - including views of picturesque Downtown Dexter - within a normal day's paddle. You simply cannot top that experience on the water.
BEST FOR THE FAMILY: Hudson Mills Metropark
Only have time for one outdoor stop on your Dexter visit with the family? Fortunately, you really can't go wrong with visiting any of the parks or other destinations mentioned in this article. That caveat aside, if you absolutely have to visit only one location, Hudson Mills Metropark provides the best bang for your buck.
Obviously, paddling or fishing along the Huron River is a go-to experience for visiting Hudson Mills (the park's amenities include boat rentals). Beyond the water, Hudson Mills also represents a paved cycling and running paradise, including direct access to the world-class B2B Trail and the park's own 3-mile paved trail loop. The expansive metropark also features a 6,560-yard, par-71 golf course, two 24-hole disc golf courses, multi-sport fields, picnic and playgrounds, a nature center, its 2-mile "Acorn" natural hiking trail, and a 6-mile cross-country skiing course. In summary, regardless of the outdoor recreational activity that you may be craving, chances are that Hudson Mills has the exact experience that you're looking for.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Border to Border Trail
Since the early 1990s, Washtenaw County trail innovators started imagining a seamless, world-class trail network stretching from Rawsonville in the southeast corner of the county to Stockbridge in the northwest corner. Over the last 30 years, this initial dream has slowly but steadily evolved into the B2B Trail: a 35-mile, 10 foot wide, ADA accessible, paved pathway that consists of 8 trail corridors that connect recreationists to cities, parks, and destinations throughout the county. Once completed, the trail will not only connect major population centers like Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti to flagship parks like Waterloo and Pinckney State Recreation Areas, but will also constitute a key component of the hiking segment of the Iron Belle Trail.
As we've reported on before, the Iron Belle Trail will feature a direct connection across the completed Gordie Howe International Bridge to the Trans Canada Trail. Put differently, by 2024, Detroit will be the international trails capital of North America - and Dexter will provide a prominent gateway to that continent-spanning network.
Narrowing the focus back to the B2B Trail, Dexter is located literally at the epicenter of the trail system. Traveling southeast, the uniform trail will run parallel to the Huron River, crossing through Dexter-Huron Metropark, Delhi Metropark, Barton Hills Nature Area, Gallup Park, and Riverside Park near Ypsilanti. Venturing northwest, Dexter marks the bifurcation point of two distinct segments. The northern segment travels through Hudson Mills Metropark and onto the heart of Pinckney State Recreation Area. The western segment - which corresponds with the Iron Belle Trail - travels directly through Chelsea before verging northwest into the heart of Waterloo State Recreation Area. Work crews are still actively constructing both the Dexter-Ann Arbor and Dexter-Chelsea segments of the B2B Trail, with completion anticipated during 2024.
FEATURED OUTFITTER: The Painted Trout
My favorite part about writing these #TrailTownSpotlight articles is in the prep work: exploring the Trail Towns, visiting the featured locations, and asking locals about their favorite outdoor getaways hiding conveniently in their backyard. Out of every "Featured Outfitter" that I've visited so far, The Painted Trout in the heart of Downtown Dexter has left the greatest impression. Yes, the outfitter features outdoor apparel, gear, and even jewelry that you might expect to find in a similar hometown retailer.
But The Painted Trout has a trick up their sleeve, and a visit down to their historical basement will quickly dispel any notion that this is just a typical Detroit region outfitter.
The Painted Trout is indisputably the foremost authority on fly fishing gear, instruction, and guided trips in southeast Michigan. The basement cellar features wall-to-wall rods, flys, fly fishing-specific apparel, and helpful employees ready to impart their knowledge, experience, and stories on you. Admittedly, we have hardly touched fishing within the Expedition Detroit platform, but believe us when we say that venturing into fly fishing is very, very much on our agenda - and The Painted Trout will undoubtedly be our first stop on that journey.
MORNING FUEL: Joe and Rosie Coffee and Tea
Remember that lunch date that I mentioned above? The one that I was late to? Well, the idyllic central location that we met at - including near-panoramic views of the heart of Downtown Dexter - was Joe and Rosie Coffee and Tea, which has since become one of my favorite morning fuel stops. Beyond the provision of artisan tea and coffee, Joe and Rosie's also offers pastries, sandwiches, wraps, and a variety of other warm and cold beverages. Park your bike at one of their on-site racks, grab your morning coffee and breakfast sandwich, crack open a book, and enjoy watching Dexter kick into gear from the windows of this fantastic, welcoming establishment.
POST-TRAIL WATERING HOLE: The Beer Grotto
We've said it once, twice - possibly a million times by now: nothing beats a post-trail beer, and The Beer Grotto makes sure that this thirst is adequately clenched. Located in the heart of downtown, "The Grotto" offers its faithful plentiful listings of bourbon & spirits, wine & cocktails, pub-style food, and - of course - an extensive craft beer menu. Focusing on the beer, The Grotto pours everything from sours to dark amber ales, Michigan IPA favorites to Belgian choice finds, light Mexican beers to barrel aged ABV heavy-hitters. Bottom line is that regardless of what your post-paddle-palate is craving, The Grotto is all but guaranteed to deliver.
This article only scratches the surface on all that Dexter 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 the Dexter Area Chamber of Commerce.
Do you live in Dexter? 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!