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#TrailTuesday: Island Lake Yellow Trail Loop

Welcome back to our weekly #TrailTuesday Series! This edition explores one of the most accessible, beautiful, and popular trails in the Detroit region: Island Lake's Yellow Trail Loop. Join us as we rediscover this cherished biking, hiking, and running destination!

Let's get right to it: if you could only visit one Detroit region park in your entire life, then Island Lake State Recreation Area should be said park. If you have ever had the pleasure of recreating at Island Lake, then that shouldn't come off as a rash statement. At all.


My love story with Island Lake started during the peak Covid "lockdown" era. If you recall last week's #TrailTuesday special on Pontiac Lake, one of my best friends served as my mountain biking mentor during my first few months breaking into the sport. After we lapped Maybury's awesome MTB track to near memory, my buddy decided that it was time for his padawan to expand his horizon. To my surprise, Maybury was not his go-to trail; that would be found 15 miles northwest in one of the Detroit region's most beloved parks, Island Lake.


I prefer to explore trails before blindly riding them, so the first time that I formally met the Yellow Trail loop, I left the bike at home. The trail was clearly built by mountain bikers, for mountain bikers, so I completed my second traverse on two wheels. Three years later, my preferred arrival at Island Lake includes a trifecta of running, mountain biking, and paddling equipment.


To summarize, Island Lake has burrowed deeply into an immoveable, special place in this recreationist's heart. Some of the best days of my life have been spent paddling its idyllic stretches on the Huron, hammocking with friends at Spring Mill Pond, trekking through "the Badlands," and, of course, lapping its pristine Blue and Yellow Trails.


No, especially the Yellow Trail. And I'm far from being the only outdoor enthusiast to take that stance.


It is our honor to reintroduce Island Lake State Recreation Area now.

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 only have time for one activity while at Island Lake, then you should bike, hike, or run the Yellow Trail.


Now let's get to the trail.

HIT THE TRAIL

Total Distance: 5.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 278 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate

Route Orientation: Loop

Parking Specifics: Parking available at main mountain biking trailhead (Michigan Recreation Passport required)


Here is a key insider tip: as a whole, the best trails throughout our region were built for and continue to be maintained by mountain bikers. We can all collectively thank our friends at the MCMBA, CRAMBA, and PMBA for each of their pristine, volunteer-maintained trails. Similar to non-hunters buying deer tags to fund the DNR's conversation operations, if you regularly hike or run any trail maintained by a mountain biking organization, then please consider joining their organization.


The Yellow Trail - along with its longer and easier sibling, the Blue Trail - are both maintained by the MCMBA. As such, both of these trails launch at the same trailhead parking lot and are utilized predominantly by mountain bikers. Like the AllTrails map depicted above, this article will follow the orientation that mountain bikers should follow; hikers and trail runners should travel in the opposite direction of MTB traffic (i.e., start the trail adjacent to the trailhead restrooms vs. the main trailhead).


MOUNTAIN BIKERS - unless a DNR-posted sign states otherwise, you should NEVER ride in the opposite direction of biking traffic (emergency situations aside). While hiking this trail yesterday, I witnessed an elderly riding risking his safety and that of two small children riding in the opposite direction of this single-track trail - despite my warnings and those of other riders. Such actions are inexcusably reckless and are begging for a lawsuit. Please don't do that.

The Trailhead for the Yellow Trail - mountain bikers should start here.

Passing by the main trailhead's kiosk, the Yellow Trail kicks off with a perfectly flowy, forested downhill towards the paved hiking trail. Keep left after crossing the paved trail to stay on the Yellow Trail (there's a fun little jump into this turn), and this initial downhill fun will continue largely until you cross over the Huron River bridge at a convergence point with the Blue Trail. Note: the stretch leading up to the bridge, starting at 0.3 miles into the trail, can flood after extensive rain.


We hope that you enjoyed the downhill, because the first of the Yellow Trail's three moderate climbs hits right at the other side of the bridge. Will this first climb isn't the most intense, it is my least favorite due to its sand accumulation tendency. Your efforts will be rewarded, however, with a prolonged decline alongside the western banks of the Huron, which will carry you until the 1.4 mile marker. You'll know that this decline is coming to an end when you reach a short boardwalk crossing Woodruff Creek.

Island Lake Yellow Trail Expedition Detroit hiking mountain biking adventure michigan
Woodruff Creek Boardwalk

Although the climb only lasts 0.1 miles, my buddy and I have nicknamed the second hill the "Hill of Pain." Certainly not worthy of the "Hill of Death" moniker that we have bestowed upon other inclines that drop-kick ego in the groin, but also not a cakewalk at a 12% incline. This climb marks the northernmost point of the trail alongside Grand River Avenue, so your grunts will be accompanied by the sound of cars zooming near you. Know that both this climb and its noise pollution soundtrack end quickly - a park bench marks the completion of the incline, and another prolonged decline into the heart of one of the most beautiful stretches of Island Lake's hardwood forest paradise.


A third and final large climb starts to manifest at the 2.1 mile marker. You'll reach the "summit" of the trail during this segment, although the heavily-forested nature of the climb will obstruct its significance amidst the massive pine trees overhead. As expected, a 1.3 mile decline will congratulate you on passing this trail milestone, during which pass over the Huron again on the picturesque wooden footbridge adjacent to Kensington Rd. Great photo op spot.

After spending so much of your ride under the canopy of a mature forest, the half mile section of birch trees and open fields will come as a welcomed change of scenery on a sunny day. The Yellow Trail runs along the northern edge of Island Lake's largest span of uninterrupted and rolling grassland pastures. This portion of the trail is stunningly beautiful - you wouldn't be off-base if you felt like you were biking through the foothills of the Alps. There are also a few off-shoot trails to the right that lead to beautiful vistas of the Huron, so feel free to take your time enjoying this unique stretch of the trail.


Back under the canopy, the next 1.3 miles of the trail reinforce that you are indeed traveling along a mountain biking trail. The trail throws consistent climbs and declines at its riders, as well as quick turns, rock beds, and plenty of roots to navigate. While the Yellow Trail certainly isn't a difficult MTB trail, this stretch is undoubtedly the most technical portion. Less experienced riders, remember that slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Take your time; enjoy the ride.

Island Lake Yellow Trail Mountain Biking Hiking Expedition Detroit
Mile markers for the Yellow Trail

The Yellow Trail concludes with a moderate incline at the 5 mile marker before crossing the paved again and to enter a final patch of hardwoods. As is tradition, each of the Yellow Trail's inclines - even the brief ones - finish with a rewarding decline. With this final micro-climb, riders can expect a 0.4 mile decline to the parking lot through a curving hardwood trail.


Congratulations - you've now completed one of the Detroit region's staple trails. All that's left to do now is enjoy that post-trail brew.

WEEKEND BONUS TIPS

Although we're not supposed to admit this, several parks in the Detroit region can be comprehensively visited in a day - even the larger ones. That being said, Island Lake is NOT one of those parks. The wealth of recreational opportunities available Island Lake means that the park is best visited over a weekend, especially if you are luck enough to camp at the park's canoe campground or stay in its rustic cabins.


With a full weekend at your disposal, we recommend following in our footsteps in completing the "Island Lake Trifecta" of recreational feats. These include mountain biking both the Yellow and Blue Trails (13.5 miles), kayaking the entirety of the Huron River within the park (5.4 miles), and hiking the Hickory Ridge Trail (5.1 miles). You could also sight your firearm at Island Lake's shooting range, bring your road bike for cycling the park's scenic roadways, and paddling the inner waterways of Spring Mill Pond, Trout Lake, Kent Lake, and, of course, Island Lake.

The weekend's adventures only continue at the northwestern corner of the park. At the end of Kent Lake Beach Road, the paved Island Lake Pathway bifurcates into the Huron Valley Trail and the Kensington Trail. While the Huron Valley Trail will take cyclists to either South Lyon or Wixom, the Kensington Trail starts right on the otherside of the I-96 underpass and provides direct access to the wide world of outdoor sports at Kensington Metropark.


But wait, there's more. The Kensington Trail connects directly to the Milford Trail, which leads riders into the heart of Downtown Milford, its proprietary Mountain Bike Trail, and within the purview of both Proud Lake and Highland State Recreation Areas.


Here's our point - while Island Lake contains an itinerary's worth of adventure opportunities in its own right, intrepid recreationists could also use the park as a launching point for near-endless outdoor pursuits. Just to drive this point home, the Milford Bike Festival's "Century Challenge" annually proves that there are over 100 miles of singletrack mountain biking trails that Island Lake directly connects to.


There's a whole world to explore out there, friends. And as always, we can't wait to see you out there.

 

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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