Welcome back to our weekly #TrailTuesday Series! This edition explores the Detroit region's sole "Top 50" trail that's south of the border - yes, Canada is south of Detroit - in Ontario's Point Pelee National Park. Join us as we venture to the southernmost point of mainland Canada!
"The National parks are the best idea we ever had . . . they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."
American novelist, environmentalist, and historian Wallace Stegner penned these famous words in 1983, 111 years after President Ulysses S. Grant established the world's first national park in the world: Yellowstone National Park.
Since Yellowstone's opening, the elusive number of national parks within the United States has grown to only 63, the most recent of which being West Virginia's New River Gorge National Park on December 27, 2020. Canada has an even more exclusive list of just 38 national parks, with its first (Banff National Park) established in 1885 and its most recent (Qausuittuq National Park) established in 2015.
The scarcity of national parks on both sides of the border reflect the prestige surrounding such federal designations. National parks represent far more than just public outdoor recreational destinations: national parks are revered as the gate-keepers for "national treasures," the great protectors of North America's most naturally stunning, awe-inspiring, historically significant, and adventure-filled sanctuaries.
On the American side of the Detroit region, there are unfortunately no readily-accessible national parks (although River Raisin National Battlefield Park is maintained by the National Park Service). Our three closest parks are Cuyahoga Valley, Indiana Dunes, and New River Gorge. Even Isle Royale - the only national park located in Michigan - is the 10th closest U.S. national park to the Detroit region. Ouch.
Fortunately for us on the American side of the border, the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. National Park Service - Parks Canada - has our recreational needs covered. On the far eastern rim of the Detroit region lies Point Pelee National Park, Canada's second-smallest national park situated at the southernmost point of the country's mainland.
Your mother probably told you not to judge a book by its cover. Well, don't judge a park by its square miles (sorry - square kilometers) - this "best idea" overdelivers on outdoor recreation opportunities for its size, including one of our "Top 50" #TrailTuesday routes!
Timelapse of a cloudy sunrise at the Point Pelee Tip, December 21, 2022
MEET POINT PELEE NATIONAL PARK
While the Canadian government formally established Point Pelee as a national park on May 29, 1918, humanity's relationship with the area dates back to over 6,000 years. Native peoples, French explorers, the British military, fisherman, farmers, hunters, loggers, naturalists, and modern visitors have explored, settled, and impacted the uniquely shaped, situated, and ecologically-significant 15km strip of land now known as Point Pelee.
Despite its small size, the environmental significance of Point Pelee could not be overstated. Canadian visitors especially will immediately recognize several unique attributes of the park: as the most southern location in mainland Canada, Point Pelee experiences one of the warmest climates in the country, receives the lowest amount of precipitation in the province of Ontario, and contains a rich blend of marsh, beach, cedar, savannah and forest habitats. About two thirds of the park is marsh, which is home to cattails, lilies, and other species including the rare swamp rose-mallow.
Point Pelee is especially noteworthy within the Detroit region for two specific groups of outdoor enthusiasts: bird watchers and dark sky chasers. Point Pelee is recognized as one of Canada's best inland locations to observe seasonal bird migrations, including the park's more than 390 species of birds that annually visit the Point Pelee Birding Area. In 2006, the Windsor Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada designated Point Pelee as a “Dark Sky Preserve.'' We recently recognized Point Pelee as the #1 destination in the Detroit region for stargazing opportunities, and the park regularly hosts "Dark Sky Night" events for visitors during optimal stargazing periods.
Now - let's get to the trail.
HIT THE TRAIL
Total Distance: 0.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 3 feet
Trail Rating: (Very) Easy
Route Orientation: Loop
Parking Specifics: Seasonal admission fees apply to enter park; parking available at trailhead.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have good and bad news: the Marsh Boardwalk trail is hands-down the easiest out of the "Top 50" most popular trails included within our #TrailTuesday series.
If you are just starting off your outdoor fitness journey, then we could not more fully endorse this trail for you. The trail begins right at the parking lot, just to the right of the impressive observation tower. You will tackle a whopping 3 feet of elevation gain - the occasional planked steps and gentle rises scattered throughout the trail. Wetland wildlife sightings will be plentiful, including bald eyes around dawn and dusk. Your dog is welcome to join in as well (please keep them on leash - the below photo resulted from a combination of years of call-and-response training and clever photography angles to hide Lucy's leash...).
On the other end of the adventure spectrum, if you are looking for hardcore mileage or heart-thumping inclines, well... this isn't the trail for you. Or at least not alone; Point Pelee has over 12 km (~7.5 miles) of trails criss-crossing the distinct wetland, lakeshore, and mature forest biomes that define the park.
The trail comprises of one continuous 0.7 mile loop through the great marshlands of the northern section of the National Park. The entire trail consists of a well-maintained board that guides hikers and bird watchers through an otherwise inaccessible natural environment. Although diminished in comparison to the trailhead observation tower, the boardwalk also provides hikers with sweeping panoramic views of the great marshland and adjacent waterways throughout the trek.
Wildlife viewings differ based on the season and time of visitation, but be on the lookout for bald eagles, owls, white-tail deer, coyotes, mink, weasel, flying squirrel, raccoons, turtles, non-venomous snakes, frogs, and hundreds of migrant songbirds.
WEEKEND BONUS TIPS
If you have but one major takeaway from this article, please let this be it: do not short your Point Pelee experience by ONLY visiting the Marsh Boardwalk Trail.
The main benefit of Point Pelee's size is that visitors can truly accomplish a weekend's worth of recreational escapades within a matter of hours. We recommend starting at the end: parking your vehicle near "The Tip" - the famous, dramatic southernmost beach and shoreline of the park that hauntingly disappears into the vast expanse of Lake Erie. While you can park right at The Tip's parking lot, we advise adding an element of adventure and hiking down via the West Beach Footpath trail.
PLEASE heed the rip tide warning signs that flank the trail heading to The Tip. Swimming or wading at The Tip is NOT PERMITTED and very dangerous due to strong currents. Entering Lake Erie at The Tip can earn you a fine of up to $10,000 - trust us, that money can and should be spent pursuing other adventures.
For the aquatically-inclined, visitors are permitted to explore the park's extensive marshlands via kayak or canoe. Most Pelee explorers opt to stay on dry land, traversing the park's natural and paved trails via hiking boot or bike peddle. Cycling is absolutely the most efficient - and possibly enjoyable - means of seeing the entirety of the park with a limited amount of time. For hikers, note that the park also has over-night camping options available for extended trekking expeditions.
To summarize, don't rush Point Pelee - our region's sole national park is jam-packed with year-round adventures for every genre of outdoor enthusiast.
We'll see you at the Point.
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!