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#TrailTuesday: Exploring Bald Mountain's Rugged Blue, White and Orange Loops

Welcome back to our #TrailTuesday Series! This edition explores the glistening lakes, vast marshes, and wooded ridge lines of Bald Mountain State Recreation Area's Blue, White, and Orange Loops. Join us as we conquer one of the Detroit region's "Black Diamond" trails on our first visit to Bald Mountain in Oakland Charter Township, Michigan!

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Some days it's easy to be an "Outdoorist."


The cloudless weather sits at an idyllic 60-something degrees. The trail is dry, clear, and teeming with wildlife. Depending on the time of year, you'll be surrounded by blossoming spring buds or vibrant fall colors. As #pure as Pure Michigan can get.


And then...some days you'll be hiking in peak "stick season." Muddy, cloudy, rainy, unbecoming stick season. For the uninitiated/unfamiliar with Noah Kahan's discography, stick season runs parallel with late fall and early spring. Its telltale signs include no leaves, no snow, and no flowers. Just...sticks. Monotone, damp, uninviting sticks.


Here's the irony about stick season recreation though: it is, without a doubt, the most important time of the year for Metro Detroiters to hit the trail. Especially with our region's shorter days this time of year, clinical studies unfortunately show that mental health conditions plummet in the offseason months. Additionally, a significant portion of our population simply cannot afford to lose out on months of physical, outdoor recreation due to our region's high rates of preventable health conditions.


A critical benefit of hiking during stick season also includes the simple act of accomplishing a difficult, rewarding task. By choosing not to wait out poor weather on the couch - opting instead to subject yourself to southeast Michigan's raw elements - you will unleash the floodgates of resiliency benefits that correlate directly with such feats. In fact, leading research shows that the more difficult the task, the more profoundly you will experience the neurological benefits associated with challenging your status quo.


The Expedition Detroit team packed this mindset with us on our recent visit to Bald Mountain State Recreation Area in Rochester, Michigan. We picked one of our region's more challenging trails, on a pouring, muddy January afternoon, at a destination that we had yet to visit. Our goal was to recreate in the least hospitable conditions possible. The virtually nonexistent number of fellow hikers solidified that we were on the right track.


"Perfect," I said audibly at the empty East Graham Lake trailhead. "Now the adventure really begins."

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MEET BALD MOUNTAIN STATE RECREATION AREA

As you pass by the former site of the Palace of Auburn Hills (rip), you may notice the lack of "mountains" in your general vicinity. While this fact may throw off your orienteering slightly, know that you are indeed heading towards Bald Mountain State Recreation Area's 4,637 acres featuring some of the "steepest hills and most rugged terrain in southeastern Michigan.


First established in 1946, the Michigan Department of Conservation (predecessor to the DNR) named the new recreation area after a prominent ski hill located during to the south of the acquired land. The ski hill may have met its ultimate fate on the wrong side of a bulldozer, but its legacy of accessible world-class recreation lived on through the expansion of Bald Mountain's protected acreage. In 1981, an estimated 1,500 acres of land, formerly owned by Chrylser, were added to the recreation area, providing access to Tommy’s Lake, and including property west of Lapeer Road. Another monumental expansion occurred in 2006, when the DNR purchased 62-acres that facilitated access to the Paint Creek Trail.


In 2024, Bald Mountain is most celebrated for its expansive and adventure-filled quantity of "Backcountry Zone" terrain. Approximately 3,236 acres, or 63.6% of the entire park, is zoned for backcountry recreational activities like hiking, backpacking, camping, canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking, nature observation, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hunting, and fishing. Most of this Backcountry Zone is included in Bald Mountain's rugged "North Unit," including its most famous Blue, White, and Orange Loops.


Let's tackle those backcountry loops now.

HIT THE TRAIL

Total Distance: 7.3 miles

Elevation Gain: 452 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate

Route Orientation: Figure 8 Loop

Parking Specifics: Parking available at the North Unit MTB and East Graham Lake trailheads; Michigan Recreation Passport required for entry to Bald Mountain State Recreation Area


In 1983, the DNR crew stationed at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area headed out into its northern woods with one objective: attract cross-country skiers. The trail builders proceeded to construct a 3.6 mile loop through the rugged ridge lines, wetlands, and tower pines surrounding West and East Graham Lakes. This trail - the "Graham Lakes Trail," aka the "Orange Loop" - not only accomplished its goal of serving as one of the best cross-country skiing destinations in southeast Michigan, but also ranking as one of the "Top 50 Hikes" in the entire lower peninsula.


Although AllTrails starts its orientation at the main MTB Parking Lot, we recommend starting your hike at the traditional "Graham Lakes" trailhead located off of Predmore Road (Trail Marker #14). Not only does this trailhead feature a visitor-friendly kiosk with interesting insights into Bald Mountain, but this trailhead also contains rustic bathroom facilities, ample parking, and access to the Graham Lakes.

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East Graham Lake Trailhead, Marker #14

Heading west from the trailhead, your hike begins with a 0.4 mile incline towards Harmon Road. Turn right at the fork in the trail to start on the "White Trail," which you will approach in a clockwise direction. Don't miss the quick offshoot below the MTB Parking Lot towards Heart Lake, which provides not only a beautiful vista of the lake but a general insider's view of the terrain that you will trek 3 miles through.


From Heart Lake, continue in your clockwise direction through the hardwoods for another 0.5 miles. At this point, you will notice that the trail bisects into two directions. There should be Trail Marker #3 here, but in our case we were left to our AllTrails map. You can skip that step by remembering to turn left at this point to verge onto the "Blue Trail," which heads southwest towards Carpenter Lake. Anyone wishing to cut their hike short can keep right to stay on the White Trail.

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Stick Season vista of Heart Lake

The Blue Trail will consume a total of 1.7 miles of your Bald Mountain expedition. This segment of the trail features the steepest incline of the trail - a 7% incline hitting at the 1.6 mile marker - followed abruptly by an enjoyable 10% decline. There is a beautiful overlook at Trail Marker #4 that provides glimpses of Carpenter Lake, although you do need to verge off of the marked Blue Trail briefly to reach it (follow the established trail and always remember to Leave No Trace).


Note that the AllTrails route displayed above differs from the marked Blue Trail at this point. We strongly recommend following the marked trail for a litany of reasons, the least of which being that the DNR actively patrols and maintains the marked, official Blue Trail. Plus, an extra half mile of hiking never seriously hurt anyone, right??

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Trail Marker #5 designates the official terminus of the Blue Trail and your reunion with the White Trail's northern stretch. After a short climb west, you'll hike virtually due east for the entirety of this 1 mile segment, oscillating along the trail's rollercoaster of climbs and descents until one final climb back towards Harmon Road.


Here's an exclusive insight just for you: this trail system features a few "hidden gems" that we haven't noticed within any other article or trail map. One of those gems is located along the White Trail, approximately 0.3 miles after Trail Marker #5. You'll notice the ruins of an old structure to your right. We at Expedition Detroit have no idea what this structure once housed, but what we do know is that its ruins now contain a hidden, beautiful mural located just beyond the trail's direct line of sight. We do not advocate for defacing any natural or historic structure, but when said defacement has occurred in an objectively artistic/beautiful manner like this, well, then it's worth appreciating.

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Once across Harmon Road, you will briefly retrace your steps to Trail Marker #7 before continuing to conquer the remaining stretches of the Graham Lakes/Orange Loop. These final 3 miles, in our humble opinion, are without a doubt the most fun miles of the route. While hiking on a northern parallel route to the road, you'll enjoy view of Shoe Lake and its surrounding marshes while "riding" the downhill banks that were clearly intended for cross-country skiers and mountain bikers - although also great to rip in treking shoes. You'll also cross the first of two scenic bridges 0.4 miles into this segment (see cover photo).


While passing by Prince Lake - distinguished along its southern bank by a surprising stretch of exposed grass in an otherwise very forested segment of trail - keep your head on a swivel for wildlife as you ascend and descend along a 0.5 mile segment we've titled "The Ridge Line." The dramatic Ridge Line provides the best wildlife viewing opportunities due to its panoramic views and location between Prince Lake and Duck Pond. Depending on the season, you should be able to spot whitetail deer, grouse, Canadian geese, cottontail rabbits, coyotes, herons, and maybe - if you're very luck - a bald eagle.

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The Ridge Line ends at one of the lowest points of the trail, a brief 0.2 mile stint that this "Lord of the Rings" nerd nicknamed "The Dead Marshes." Why? Two reasons. First, glance back up at the photo directly above these words. If that doesn't immediately remind you of the scene where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are traversing the Dead Marshes, then you and I must have had very different cinematic childhood experiences.


The second - and more practical - reason is due to mosquitos. Thanks to glacial activity roughly 15,000 years ago, the Detroit region's Jackson Interlobate Range became categorized by two distinct geological features: dramatic moraine ridge lines and sporadic "kettle pools." The compressed kettle pools were formed by stranded glacial deposits that remained amidst the towering moraines while the primary glaciers receded. These pools now form microecosystems of their own, often teeming with rare wildlife found nowhere else in the Great Lakes region.


Unfortunately, they're also overrun by mosquitos. Hordes of them. This, my friends, is another perk of off-season recreation - the mosquitos are nonexistent. However, as I've experienced firsthand on countless occasions, the mosquitos residing in kettle pools and their surrounding marshes will consume you alive during the summer. If you visit this trail April through October, please save yourself by wearing bug spray.

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Our adventure starts to end with a long, relatively straight climb towards the trail's "summit." After ascending 79 feet over 0.5 miles to reach the summit at 1,027 feet., you will, unfortunately, not be rewarded with any "mountain views" from Bald Mountain's highest point. Instead, we advise cracking a trail brew while relaxing at the conveniently-placed bench to honor the accomplishment.


Now that you've summited, all that remains of this "Black Diamond"-rated trail is a 1.1 mile decline back to the Graham Lakes Trailhead. You'll cross another scenic bridge at roughly the halfway point of this descent, which provides one of the best photo opportunities of the trail. Otherwise, we recommend enjoying the consistent trail stretching the entirety of East Graham Lake's wooded southern bank.

 

BOOK A GUIDED HIKE 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!

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