top of page

#TrailTuesday: Exploring Island Lake's Hickory Ridge Trail

Welcome back to our #TrailTuesday Series! This edition explores the towering pines, vast meadows, and glistening snow-covered vistas of Island Lake State Recreation Area's Hickory Ridge Trail! Join us as we capitalize on the Detroit region's first snowfall by exploring Island Lake's most accessible - and possibly most beautiful - trail.

expedition detroit hickory ridge trail island lake state recreation area michigan hiking winter adventure snow

Let's start with a polarizing confession: I am a "Thanksgiving believer."


That means that I absolutely refuse to engage with the connotation of "Christmas" until that extra plate of turkey has reached its final destination, a post-meal nap has concluded, and a Detroit Lions loss has adequately been mourned. I try not to take hard stances on trivial matters, but I will absolutely die on the hill of delaying any Christmas activities until Black Friday at the earliest. I may or may not have lost relationships over this belief.


Where did that irrational stance originate? Right here in the Detroit region's outdoors. Growing up as a Michigan transplant to Washington, D.C., my family always made the pilgrimage back to Metro Detroit on the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving. That 8 hour drive from the Mid-Atlantic to the Great Lakes struck my impressionable mind as a seasonal rite of passage: the gradual shift of fall into winter, with one final autumnal act to go before the great jovial wave of Christmas cheer covered all.


Don't get me wrong - I absolutely love winter (and Christmas, I swear I'm not the Grinch). In fact, a large part of why I vividly recall that episodic childhood experience involves the Thanksgiving weekend snowfall that always seemed to arrive in step with our family minivan. For a D.C. kid, venturing out into the snow-covered expanses of the parks near my cousins' homes felt like journeying into the frontier of the "Great White North." An adventurous expedition from fall into winter.


And yes, an internalized sensation that winter recreation - in all of its varieties - starts after Thanksgiving.


Fast forward a few decades, I'm making fresh tracks during yet another Thanksgiving weekend snowfall along the beach at Kent Lake. The crisp air, crunch sensation of fresh snow, and ethereal silence of the iced-over waves confirm that winter has finally arrived in Detroit. As the snow rapidly accumulates around me, a familiar childlike instinct starts compelling me to go explore.


"Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will." That quote from 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire has inspired, both implicitly and directly, most of the growth of the Expedition Detroit platform. This winter, we invite you to join us on rediscovering your childlike genius along Detroit's stunning, snow-covered trails.


Especially when those trails are as diverse, picturesque, and accessible as Island Lake State Recreation Area's Hickory Ridge Trail.

expedition detroit hickory ridge trail island lake state recreation area michigan hiking winter adventure snow kent lake huron river

MEET ISLAND LAKE STATE RECREATION AREA

If Yellowstone National Park is widely considered the "Grandfather of the National Parks," then Island Lake State Recreation Area is undoubtedly the "Grandaddy of the Detroit Region's Parks." This designation goes far beyond the park's size, location, and recreational capacity. The history of Island Lake is objectively fascinating.


Traveling back to eastern Livingston County of the 1800s, most of the area had been purchased by livestock and grain producing farmers. However, along the sandy beaches just south of Kent Lake, the Federal government had ordained a small portion of the growing county with a very distinct purpose. The U.S. army utilized this area as for summer encampments and training for its soldiers, including Michigan regiments shipping overseas in 1898 for the Spanish American War. Following its military use, the park also briefly hosted a boys' academy before its purchase in 1922 by Dodge Motor Company.


Similar to several other areas in Livingston and Oakland Counties, the Dodge Motor Company decided to donate the area surrounding Island Lake and nine other distinct recreation areas to the State of Michigan. Island Lake was the first and one of the larger parcels to be donated, therefore earning the designation "Dodge Park #1" between 1923 through 1943 - the Detroit region's first state park. Due to the increased interest in the Detroit region's park system and corresponding conservation acquisitions made by the state during those two decades, the Michigan Department of Conservation formally reopened the park as Island Lake State Recreation Area in 1944, including an acquisition of 1,868 additional acres.


In 2023, Island Lake preserves more than 4,000 acres along the banks of the Huron River. The park has retained its popularity over the past 80 years through its accessibility from I-96 and plethora of recreational activities. The park represents a world-class destination for mountain biking, paddling, hiking, swimming, triathlon training, picnicking, hunting, fishing, trapping, and target shooting. Despite its improvements over the years, Island Lake has excelled in maintaining a backcountry and natural feel, featuring four inland lakes and a mixture of open brush, mature hardwood forest, pockets of open meadows, and its famous "Badlands" region that belongs more in the Dakotas or Colorado than southeast Michigan.


With a lifetime of recreational activities, Island Lake has the potential to overwhelm its visitors. We get it, and that's where this article comes in handy. Again, if you only have time to visit one outdoor destination in the Detroit region, then you should visit Island Lake.


And, if you're itching to start your winter trail while at Island Lake, then there's no closer trailhead to the main Kent Lake entrance than the Hickory Ridge Trail.

HIT THE TRAIL

Total Distance: 5.1 miles

Elevation Gain: 173 feet

Trail Rating: Easy

Route Orientation: Loop

Parking Specifics: Parking available at the main Kent Lake trailhead; Michigan Recreation Passport required for entry to Island Lake State Recreation Area


Stepping out at Kent Lake is always a sight for travel-weary eyes. In the warmer months, you'll be greeted by whistling birds, budding trees, or hordes of beachgoers sunbathing, swimming, or paddling in the gentle waves. The crowds thin in the fall, but the brilliant leaves still welcome you to one of the Detroit region's most iconic trailheads.


The colder months hit a little different though. The vacated picnic tables, complete absence of sand, and icy waters of Kent Lake evidence that peak tourist season has indeed closed for the season. A cold gust of wind to the face further demonstrates that winter has come. There may even be another car in the parking lot - a far cry from the frequent parking space battles accustomed to July.

Expedition Detroit Hickory Ridge Trail Island Lake Recreation Area Michigan detroit outdoors hiking snow beach winter
Snow-covered Kent Lake Beach

My intrepid friends: these are all signs that you are exactly where you should be for your wintry expedition on the Hickory Ridge Trail. Especially after fresh snowfall, you are all but guaranteed to make first tracks on the trail, spot undisturbed wildlife meandering right off of the trail, and experience the masterfully-healing solitude of winter recreation.


Before starting on the trail, however, remember to take extra precautions prior to setting off into Island Lake's winter wonderland. Make sure to download a comprehensive trail map via AllTrails+ prior to embarking down the trailhead. Dress in layers and pack in any extra gear that you might need for hiking during the darker months of daylight savings time. Always remember to pack water within an insulated container that will prevent it from freezing.


Once you've verified your kit, head towards the western edge of the beach for the trailhead marked with an "A." Your adventure will conveniently track the alphabet.

expedition detroit hickory ridge trail island lake state recreation area michigan hiking winter adventure snow
Hickory Ridge Trailhead - Kent Lake Beach

The first 1.1 miles consists of a forested oscillating trail running parallel to the Huron River. On a clear winter's day, this segment of the trail will provide unbeatable views of the river and its non-migratory wildlife perched or grazing along its banks. Unfortunately, this segment is also situated directly south of Island Lake's shooting range. Don't worry, the gun shots will quickly fade to the point of blissful silence as you continue down the trail, but you may wish to bypass this section of the Hickory Ridge Trail if hiking with any noise-sensitive companions. Yes, that includes our four-legged pals.


As this section gradually ascends towards Kent Lake Beach Rd., your river views will be pleasantly supplemented by towering pines and other hardwood trees. Densely forested sections of trail like this are enjoyable in every season, but there's something undeniably special about massive pine trees covered with fresh snow. The "Narnia" comparisons are endless, especially if you're fortunate enough to solo hike this mesmerizingly beautiful section in the snow.

expedition detroit hickory ridge trail island lake state recreation area michigan hiking winter adventure snow huron river bench
Trailside vista of the Huron River

After crossing Kent Lake Beach Rd., follow the unmissable "HIKING TRAIL" directions into the 1.3 mile segment that we dubbed "The Meadows." While every Detroit region state park contains unique experiences for outdoor enthusiasts, the Expedition Detroit team's favorite aspect of Island Lake involves its vast range of topography, landscapes, and habitats. As you ascend into The Meadows, you'll immediately be struck by the stark departure from the dense forest that you just spent the previous mile hiking under.


The Meadows consists of far-reaching vistas of the disparate "oak savanna" grasslands that uniquely decorate the Detroit region's natural environment. You will trek this this meadowed grassland directly towards - and around - Trout Lake. Note that there is a "short cut" route that eliminates the Hickory Ridge Trail's circumnavigation of Trout Lake, but we strongly suggest that you do not deviate from the longer route unless necessity requires such deviation. Plus, you'll miss the several offshoot opportunities to venture down to the lake.

expedition detroit hickory ridge trail island lake state recreation area michigan hiking winter adventure snow huron river bench trout lake
The Meadows surrounding Trout Lake

As you pass back into another heavily-forested section of the trail at the 2.5 mile marker, please be aware the you are entering an area that is very popular with hunters - especially during firearm season. While on my winter hike last weekend, the only other trail users that I came across were two hunters heading into the woods for their afternoon sit. There was also a pop-up blind located in a field at the 2.6 mile marker and plenty of deer sightings to validate their decision to hunt that evening.


This part of the trail is stunning - the density of the snow-covered trees truly creates an other-worldly experience. The sensation of solitude despite your proximity to the park's boundary. However, you're probably not alone this time of year, so it's incredibly important to review our "Tips for Recreation During Hunting Season" included below.


As we've recently covered, hunting is immensely important for the sustainability of the Detroit region's outdoor industry. Hikers and hunters alike deserve the equal opportunity to recreate in our shared outdoor spaces. Better yet, both groups can do so safely by following a few simple best practices.

expedition detroit hickory ridge trail island lake state recreation area michigan hiking winter adventure snow huron river bench
Densely forested segment of the Hickory Ridge Trail

Hickory Ridge Trail sign "F" starts to mark your return to civilization. Beyond crossing the paved Huron Valley Trail, your undisclosed proximity to I-96 will become apparent as the vehicular noise reverberates over Kent Lake.


Trust us, you won't mind at all. In fact, in our humble opinion, the Hickory Ridge Trail saves its best features for last as you descend the boardwalked stairs towards the vastness of Kent Lake.

expedition detroit hickory ridge trail island lake state recreation area michigan hiking winter adventure snow huron river bench kent lake boardwalk
Descent towards Kent Lake

After taking a few minutes to enjoy the boardwalk platform's vistas, your trail concludes with a 0.8 mile highlight reel of Kent Lake's southern shoreline. Trail runners will especially enjoy this segment, which features sharp turns, ascents, and descents. Slower-paced hikers will equally enjoy how the trail meanders along the shoreline, including multiple beach opportunities to break from the trail and visit the waterfront.


The Hickory Ridge Trail ends right back where it started: a long promenade along Kent Lake Beach. From here, the choice is yours whether to make snow angels over the sand, dare to take a polar plunge, or B line it back to your car.

expedition detroit crooked lake trail pinckney recreation area michigan state parks hiking fall colors hunting island lake hickory ridge trail

TIPS FOR RECREATION DURING HUNTING SEASON

In light of the arrival of firearm hunting season, here are seven Expedition Detroit tips for avoiding hiker-hunter conflicts across our region's most beloved outdoor destinations:


1. REVIEW LOCAL REGULATIONS. Regardless of whether you're hiking or hunting, do your homework before hitting the trail on whether hunting is permitted along your route. As a general guideline, Michigan's "State Recreation Areas" permit hunting unless stated otherwise; conversely, Michigan's "State Parks" prohibit hunting unless stated otherwise.


2. WEAR BRIGHT ORANGE. While "hunter orange" is required for hunters during certain firearm seasons, we strongly advise both hunters and hikers to wear at least one article of orange clothing on public land trails between September 15th and January 31st ("Hunting Season"). Aside from regulatory requirements, wearing orange promotes both safety and awareness along our shared trails.

3. MIND YOUR PETS. This one goes out directly to hikers along hunting-permitted trails that enjoy trekking with your four-legged best friend. Hikers should keep their dogs on-leash throughout Hunting Season. Dogs should also be outfitted with hunting orange attire (leashes or vests).


4. LEAVE ANY AGENDA AT THE TRAILHEAD. While we all have our own particular ethics, morals, politics, or other heartfelt leanings, the only mindset that each of us should be packing into the woods is a spirit of enjoyment, rejuvenation, exploration, and lawful recreation. Hunters, this means recognizing the responsibility that accommodates the joy of ethical hunting. Hikers, this means recognizing that hunters have the right to lawfully pursue their chosen recreational activity. Both groups should remember that both poaching and hunter harassment are actionable offenses under Michigan state law.


If you suspect that the actions of either a hiker or hunter have violated Michigan state law, DO NOT ESCALATE the situation by attempting to confront the suspected person. Instead, contact the DNR's law enforcement's communications center via 800-292-7800.


5. MIND THE TRAIL. Trail awareness for both hikers and hunters is very, very important during Hunting Season. For hikers, the ask is quite direct: STAY ON TRAIL. Other than aligning with "Leave No Trace" best practices, keeping to the trail will minimize your likelihood of interacting with hunters in the field. For hunters, we advise that you setup at least 100-150 yards from any maintained trails. Beyond minimizing the likelihood of interacting with other hunters and trail users during your hunt, this is also a best practice for safety during especially firearm season.


6. MAXIMIZE YOUR RECREATION WINDOWS. Popular hiking and hunting windows do not inherently need to overlap during Hunting Season. Although hunters can technically head into the woods at any time with daylight, the "peak hunting hours" are typically 3 hours after sunrise and 3 hours before sunset (i.e., complete darkness). The hunting windows do fluctuate with changes in daylight, although planning to recreate as close to mid-day as possible would be a non-hunter's best bet for diminishing the likelihood of seeing a hunter along the trail. Also, don't forget about headlamp hiking and the perks of nighttime recreation, which by law are 100% void of any hunters.

7. SMILE. This might be the single most important - and simplest - item on this list. In fact, this point was brought up during the 2023 Michigan Outdoor Summit as a key action step towards making Michigan's outdoors a more welcoming, sustainable, and economically viable space. If you see someone on the trail that looks different than you, is engaging in a different recreational activity than you, or appears either intimidated or disgruntled by you - just smile at them. Let's go even further and say "Hi!" to them. Beyond humanizing your shared experience and introducing a second or two of kindness into their day, this simple act is the best way to prevent any sort of contentious situation from arising. Plus, smiling requires less effort than frowning.

 

BOOK A GUIDED HIKE OF ISLAND LAKE STATE RECREATION AREA 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!


This article contains sponsored links.

bottom of page