Welcome back to our #TrailTuesday Series! This edition loops around the wild trails nestled into the easternmost wilderness of Detroit's most beautiful island - Belle Isle Park. Join us as we rediscover Belle Isle's stunning Lighthouse and Blue Heron Lagoon trail!
Trails inspire us. They encourage ingenuity, community, and continuity of connection. They challenge us to push our limits, reward us with stunning vistas, and congratulate us with post-hike brews. Trails provide the perfect venue for brainstorming business ventures, reimagining better futures, and letting go of past hurts and failures.
Every trail innately carries these beautiful attributes, which in turn draws legions of outdoor enthusiasts to Metro Detroit's trailheads year after year. These benefits also explain why the Michigan, Canadian, and U.S. governments are investing millions into building and improving our regional trail system.
For us at Expedition Detroit, we've found ourselves inspired on a daily basis by Detroit's greater trail system. The opening lyrics to U2's song "City of Blinding Lights" prophesies that "The more you see, the less you know," which we've found to be absolutely true while navigating the Detroit region's outdoor destinations. Every outing that originated with a specific agenda - "let's document a hike of X trail" - finished with three or more ideas for future article, collaboration prospects, or guided adventure opportunities. Even repeat hikes of a particular crowd-favorite trail like Brighton's Penosha Trail follow this trend.
But of all the trails that have inspired us over the past year, one specific trail sticks out in my mind. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the "Expedition Detroit idea" originated from this exact trailhead. A trail experience that provided the spark for a venture that ignited into this platform. The unwavering belief that Detroit's natural environs of pristine waterways, rugged moraine ridge lines, dense hardwood forests, lively marshes, and state of the art urban trails provide the ideal ecosystem for a revolutionary approach to developing our outdoor industry. Better yet, the hypothesis that all of those outdoor elements coexist within an interconnected, easily accessible, and increasingly dynamic geographic area.
Yes, a single trail located in the dead center of our international environment, where every natural, cultural, and historic feature that makes Detroit a world-class outdoor destination comes together in just over 2 miles of shoreline loops, inspired those core beliefs.
That trail is Belle Isle Park's Lighthouse and Blue Heron Lagoon trail. It's our pleasure to reintroduce Belle Isle and its most remote trail now.
MEET BELLE ISLE PARK
Where to begin with reintroducing a park as beloved, historic, complex, and iconic as Belle Isle Park... Dating back to the 1700s, Belle Isle's initial name was slightly less romantic than its current designation. The French referred to it as "Hog Island," stemming directly from the island's utilization as elaborate animal storage facility.
In the following century, Hog Island's ownership evolved through bloodshed from the French to the British Crown in 1763, and subsequently from the British to the United States in 1783. It wasn't until the conclusion of the War of 1812, however, that Belle Isle passed into private ownership for the first time. The island became the private estate of General Alexander Macomb, Jr., and remained privately owned until the City of Detroit's acquisition in 1879. During this period of private ownership, the island forever ditched its "Hog Island" moniker in favor of "Belle Isle," a flattering nod to Miss Isabelle Cass, the daughter of Governor Lewis Cass. The name obviously stuck, especially due to the immensity of natural beauty contained within its 982 acres.
Shortly after the City's acquisition, famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted - the same designer of Central Park in New York City - was hired to elevate Belle Isle into a world-class recreational destination. Starting in the 1880s, Olmsted's designs gradually transformed Belle Isle into not only the United States' largest island park, but a multi-faceted outdoor paradise fit for recreationists of every genre. Belle Isle became home in 1904 to the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, the oldest continually running conservatory in the United States. Historic structures on Belle Isle also include the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse, Belle Isle Casino, James Scott Memorial Fountain, Detroit Boat Club, Belle Isle Aquarium, Belle Isle Nature Center, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, a municipal golf course, and a half-mile swimming beach.
More recently, Belle Isle became a Michigan State Park maintained by the Department of Natural Resources in 2013. Ten years into the Michigan DNR's 30-year lease, Belle Isle has rebounded from decades of neglect due to the $20 million of improvements that the DNR has allocated to the park. The Belle Isle of 2023 represents Michigan's most-visited state park, complete with reimagined trails, playgrounds, and amenities designed to continually welcome generations of recreationists back to its shores.
Now - let's get to the trail.
HIT THE TRAIL
Total Distance: 2.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 22 feet
Trail Rating: Easy
Route Orientation: Loop(s)
Parking Specifics: Parking available Ralph Wilson Gateway trailhead; Michigan Recreation Passport required for entry to Belle Isle Park
Even before exiting your vehicle, you will know exactly where your adventure on Belle Isle's Lighthouse and Blue Heron Lagoon trail begins. Opened just recently in April of 2022, the Ralph Wilson Gateway - complete with its small plaza, park/trail kiosk, pergola, picnic tables, and massive "One World ... Under Michigan Stars" glass-and-steel sculpture - is as stunning a trailhead as you could ever wish for.
Did the Michigan DNR, Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, Land and Water Conservation Fund, and Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation create this ornate trailhead just for Belle Isle's Lighthouse and Blue Heron Lagoon trail? Eh, not necessarily. This multi-purpose, immaculate trailhead also serves as the southern terminus of the in-process Iron Belle Trail, the longest state-designated trail in the nation. The Iron Belle heads west from this gateway and stretches more than 2,000 miles across Michigan, along two separate hiking and biking routes, connecting communities between Belle Isle to Ironwood in the western tip of the Upper Peninsula. Some day, thousands of annual intrepid explorers will start their months-long journey from this very point, seamlessly zig-zagging across our beautiful state.
But not today. Today you'll head through the sculpture's gateway and then turn immediately south on a natural trail directly the Windsor shoreline.
For the next 0.3 miles, you will follow Belle Isle's southern shoreline in an eastern direction, oscillating between paved and natural trail towards the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse. This stretch will provide your best opportunity for catching glimpses of the freighters passing by, as well as glimpses into Canada. Also keep your eyes peeled for migratory birds, especially bald eagles that frequent Belle Isle throughout the year.
Your first pass of the lighthouse will arrive at the 0.5 mile marker. Erected in honor of the long-time president of the Lake Carriers Association, this ornamental lighthouse was designed in 1930 by Hungarian sculptor Geza Maroti in Detroit's prominent Art Deco style. The 58-foot-tall lighthouse was sculpted out of Georgia marble – the only such structure in North America – and generates an 8600-candlepower beacon visible for up to fifteen miles.
Unfortunately, as evidenced by the prominent fence, visitors are not allowed near or inside of the lighthouse... Blame the thieves that broke in and stole two of its four lamps one night in 1980.
Past the lighthouse, keep heading north across the Blue Heron Lagoon bridge to breathtaking views of the lagoon, the Detroit River, Peche Island, and the great beyond of Lake St. Clair. Both Belle Isle and Peche Island are notable for several ecological, historical, and cultural reasons - not the least of which being that both islands are rumored to be haunted and/or cursed. Regardless of which supernatural overtones may or may not exist in the Detroit River's western stretches, the panoramic views from Belle Isle's easternmost point are enough to take your breath away - from awe, not from fright.
Across the Blue Heron Lagoon Bridge you'll find Belle Isle's "Hipster Zone." No, it won't be flooded with man buns and Vampire Weekend tunes. Named after the "blink and you'll miss it" Hipster Beach - the site of a 1967 hippy beach party - this 0.9 miles of hiking along the lagoon's northern woods will provide some of Belle Isle's best wildlife viewing opportunities. From the lagoon's namesake great blue herons to the native whitetail deer that freely roam the island, keep you head on a swivel as you pass by Hipster Beach, loop around the zone's wetlands, catch a quick glimpse of Belle Isle's driving range, and double-back along the lagoon's northern shoreline. Don't miss a chance to check out the lagoon's peninsula via a natural trail at the 1.5 mile marker.
Back over the Blue Heron Lagoon Bridge, the final 0.5 miles of hiking will guide you past the Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse again and along the lagoon's southern shoreline. Other than a brief 0.2 mile detour on a natural trail, you will follow the gravel Eugene and Elaine C. Driker Trail directly back to Belle Isle's landmark trailhead.
WEEKEND BONUS TIPS
In case you missed it, Belle Isle's connection to Downtown Detroit just got a MASSIVE upgrade. With the landmark opening of the Uniroyal Promenade on October 21st, Belle Isle now has direct trail access to the #1 riverwalk in the country: the Detroit Riverwalk. We could not more strongly recommend alloting all of the extra recreational time that you have towards exploring the rest of the riverwalk.
In full disclosure, the Detroit Riverwalk is currently in a state of constant change - we are barely able to keep up with the near-daily updates regarding the expansion or further improvement of our beloved riverwalk. As of November 2023, the official Riverwalk Trail stretches roughly 5.3 miles from Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park to Gabriel Richard Park. Ongoing projects will further expand the Riverwalk Trail both east and west along the Detroit River, so be sure to circle back to Expedition Detroit regularly as we continue to expand our coverage of this essential trail route at the heart of our region.
The current iteration of the Riverwalk Trail starts at western edge of Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park, right where W. Jefferson Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard meet. While the trail briefly connects to W. Jefferson Avenue around the Riverfront Towers, the trek rejoins the river just south of the former Joe Louis Arena site (RIP). Continue east as you venture past the skyscrapers of downtown, including memorable highlights like Huntington Place, the Detroit Princess Riverboat, Hart Plaza, the International Memorial to the Underground Railroad, and the Renaissance Center.
With the towers of downtown behind you, the Riverwalk Trail leads directly into William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor, featuring the aforementioned direct link to the Dequindre Cut Greenway. To complete the trail, continue pressing east - past the Aretha Franklin Amphitheater, through Harbortown Marina and Mt. Elliott Park, and finally along the Uniroyal Promenade until reaching the finish line at Gabriel Richard Park.
BOOK A GUIDED HIKE OF BELLE ISLE PARK WITH EXPEDITION DETROIT!
The #TrailTuesday Series idea started as a recommendation from readers looking for a deeper analysis into the individual trails that define Detroit's vast network. One of our main goals for this platform is to produce content that reflects the outdoor interests and desires of our community, so please continue to provide us with your suggestions via our contact form or here in the comments!