Welcome back to our weekly #TrailTuesday Series! This edition tackles the only "Black Diamond" rated trail within our series: the rugged and respected hills of Highland State Recreation Area's "A-B-C-D" loops. Check out what draws Detroit's best mountain bikers, trail runners, and hikers flock to these alphabet loops all year long.
"BEST DAY EVER." Those are the three words that I force myself to say - audibly - whenever I get back on my feet after flipping over the handle bars on my bike. Or losing an edge on my skis. Or tripping over a root during a steep decline. If you're not falling then you're not trying, right...?
I couldn't tell you how many times I've said those positivity-reinforcing words since I started implementing the practice back in 2020. Let's just chalk it up to a lot. But what I can tell you, with absolute certainty, is that I have declared more "Best Day Evers" on Highland State Recreation Area's A-B-C-D loops than any other trail in the Detroit region - combined.
If you've been following our content since we launched last fall, Highland's "Alphabet Loops" should be ringing some bells by now. We first introduced the A-B-C-D loops to our community in an article on the Detroit region's three "Black Diamond Trails," where we anointed this trail - and specifically its notorious "D Loop" - as our region's single most challenging trail. This trail system also made the cut for one of the "Top 5 Mountain Biking Trails," despite standing out as the only "Advanced" trail on the list.
Here's the unadulterated truth: Highland's A-B-C-D Loops are intentionally very, very difficult. Which is why they are so awesome.
There's a reason that Detroit's best mountain bikers, trail runners, and endurance athletes flock back to these hills for their ritualistic ass-kicking. Just like any intense workout, the Alphabet Loops will leave your body flooded with euphoric endorphins and all but ensure your return. Training for your first trail marathon? Running the Loops will virtually guarantee that you'll hit the trailhead in prime shape. Heading out west for a bucket-list MTB trip? Hit the Loops to dial in your skills. Looking to hunt within our region's least hospitable terrain? Loop it up.
Before we get into the trail, let's reacquaint ourselves with Highland.
MEET HIGHLAND STATE RECREATION AREA
The story of Highland State Recreation Area, as we recognize and recreate within it today, dates back to an unexpected union of lands owned by fierce business rivals. In March of 1922, the Board of the Dodge Brothers Company authorized the spending of $350,000 to purchase lands across the northwestern perimeter of the Detroit region. These lands - now referred to as the "Dodge Parks" - were donated by Dodge to the State of Michigan for use as public parks in memory of the company's founders, John and Horace Dodge. One of these parks received the designation "Dodge Brothers State Park No. 10" in the northeast quarter of Highland Township.
Over the following 20 years later, the Michigan Department of Conservation purchased several thousand additional acres of land to the east of Dodge Brothers State Park No. 10. The State of Michigan also acquired the area surrounding "Haven Hill"- the former Edsel Ford estate - in 1943. The aggregation of the Dodge Brothers parcels with the Ford parcels would amount to the 5,900 acres now constituting Highland State Recreation Area, the Detroit region's fourth largest state park, which officially opened in 1945.
The Highland Recreation Area of 2023 consists of one of the most ecologically and recreationally diverse landscapes in the entire Great Lakes region. The park's Haven Hill Natural Area contains all of southern Michigan's principal forest types within its 721 acres, including swamp forest of tamarack, cedar, beech-maple forest, oak-hickory forest, and mixed hardwood forest. Beyond world-class hiking and mountain biking, Highland has also evolved into a recreational melting pot for our region's best equestrians, backpackers, kayakers, cross-country skiers, bird-watchers, anglers, and hunters.
Now - let's get to the trail.
HIT THE TRAIL
Total Distance: 14.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,309 feet
Trail Rating: DIFFICULT
Route Orientation: Loop
Parking Specifics: Parking available at trailhead north of Livingston Rd. (Michigan Recreation Passport required)
While we typically write our #TrailTuesday articles for hiking, we've decided to deviate from that tradition in this edition for two reasons. First, the Alphabet Loops system is predominantly used by Detroit's mountain biking community, and we all owe our friends at the Motor City Mountain Biking Association a huge thank you for maintaining it so well. Second, our region's mountain biking community frequently finds itself as the target of unwarranted political maneuvers geared towards restricting - or eliminating - mountain biking access rights. So we wanted to stand by our biking brothers and sisters by especially framing this article towards their interests.
The A-B-C-D Loops cover almost 15 miles of technical and tight single-track trails, filled with sharp descents, steep climbs, rock gardens, and lots of tight, off camber turns. The loops slightly vary in difficulty, with the A (3.5 miles) and C (2.2 miles) Loops being slightly easier than the challenging B Loop (5.4 miles) and dreaded D Loop (3.6 miles). Most riders take on just the A and B Loops for a heart-pumping 9.7 miles through the core of the course, although plenty of adrenaline junkies and admirable psychopaths will knock out the full system in 2 or 3 hours. The D Loop’s climb of 130 feet over roughly half a mile - including a 20% incline grade at certain points - is the crown jewel achievement of this punishing yet rewarding trail system.
Trail runners, hikers, and cross-country skiers: please remember to traverse the loops in the opposite direction of the mountain biking traffic, demonstrated in the interactive map linked above. When you get to the trail's first fork on the A Loop at the 0.2 mile marker, keep right towards the D Loop Access trail. Moving in this opposite direction, runners, hikers, and skiers will complete the loops in the following order: A (partial), D (complete), B (partial), C (complete), B (remaining segment), and A (remaining segments).
Final word of caution - even experienced bikers should not take on conquering all four loops lightly. Beginner and freshly-minted riders are strongly advised to ride with one or more experienced riders and tackle just a loop or two during their first visit to Highland. Bring plenty of water, take your time navigating these black diamond-rated trails, and wholly embrace the challenging onslaught that Highland’s loops indiscriminately unleash on us all.
WEEKEND BONUS TIPS
In case you tuned out earlier in the article, Highland State Recreation Area is an amazing destination for outdoor recreation. Beyond biking or running the Alphabet Loops, the varied natural terrain and topography found throughout its nearly 6,000 acres invites virtually unlimited methods of exploration. During these last days of winter, snowshoeing - or even backcountry skiing - along the trails flanking Mount Kanzer, Highland's highest point, is highly-recommended and intrepid way to experience the park. Highland's "mountains," which are technically glacial moraines, provide the varied hills beloved by runners, hikers, hunters, and wildlife alike.
We're saving this trail for a later #TrailTuesday installation, but no trip to Highland would be complete without also trekking the Haven Hill Loop trail. Especially popular during peak fall colors, this 3.5 mile trail encircles both the Haven Hill ruins and the pristine Haven Hill Lake. Recreationists embarking on this trail will also be treated to a variety of shifting landscapes throughout the hike, ranging from lakeland shoreline and marshland to mature forests with panoramic vistas from the hilltops.
Beyond the park, Highland offers visitors a full course menu of recreational options to satisfy your appetite. Our snow base is rapidly melting as I'm typing these words, so you should definitely get a few runs in at Alpine Valley Ski Resort - just 4.4 miles west of the MTB trailhead parking lot - while conditions last. Downtown Milford is also well within biking and running distance from the MTB trailhead parking lot, including the trail town's immediate access to Proud Lake State Recreation Area, Kensington Metropark, the Milford Trail, and the Huron River.
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!