Welcome back to our weekly #TrailTuesday Series! This edition explores a trail widely recognized as one of the Top 100 Trails in the entire country: Pontiac Lake's Mountain Bike Trail. Join us as we scale the climbs and ride the bends of this classic biking and hiking trail!
"Yeah, I've been riding for a while now. Pontiac Lake was what really got me into it."
Flashback to April of 2020, and my buddy has formally inducted me into the Detroit region's mountain biking faithful. I'm far from being the most recent convert - cycling in general, and mountain biking in particular, exploded as recreational interests during the peak pandemic era. There are legions of new bikers on Maybury's MTB trail that day, but I'm one of the lucky few to have an experienced guide waiting for me at each check point. I try to pick his brain about the sport at each of those points, mostly in an effort to buy myself an extra minute to catch my breath.
"This trail's great, but Pontiac Lake is just another level. Definitely harder than this, but it might be my favorite in the state."
Regardless of the pursuit, new minds are immensely impressionable. I can still vividly recall that conversation because of the imprint that it left on my perception of some local park known as "Pontiac Lake" - a place that I had never heard of and, frankly, was intimidated by. A trail that I would surely explore someday, via bike or boot, but certainly not that day.
A little over three years later, I find myself finding standing at 1,118 feet - the highest point of Pontiac Lake's MTB Trail Loop. Despite the years of trail experience that I have now logged in the saddle of my bike, I'm actually a hiker during this inaugural pilgrimage to Pontiac Lake (bike is finally out of the shop and ready for the season!). As my eyes catch fleeting glimpses of the glistening waters of Pontiac Lake through the recently-bloomed canopy below, I'm a juxtaposition of emotions.
Disappointment for not reaching this exact vista sooner in my life.
Gratitude for having the interest and ability to stand here now.
And excitement for presenting this miraculous trail to an audience so that they too can explore it - hopefully soon.
It is our honor to reintroduce Pontiac Lake State Recreation Area now.
MEET PONTIAC LAKE STATE RECREATION AREA
1944 was a pivotal year for conservation in the Detroit region. After 23 years of surveys, fundraising, negotiations, and land acquisitions, the Michigan Department of Conservation acquired roughly 100,000 acres to establish 10 "state recreation areas" throughout southeast Michigan. One of those fortunate recreation areas consisted of 3,745 acres situated along the northern banks of Pontiac Lake, largely former farm parcels and woodlands that blanketed the hills of central Oakland County.
As exciting as finally realizing a decades-long dream was, the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Pontiac Lake Recreation Area was just the start of the park's modern development. Over the next 80 years, the generations of Michigan Conservation and DNR staff that directed the preservation and progression of the park witnessed the construction of the massive PLRA Beach, the construction of a modern campground, the establishment of an Off-Road Vehicle area, and the construction of hiking, equestrian, and mountain biking trails.
In 2023, Pontiac Lake Recreation Area continues to serve as an oasis of wilderness within the heart of Oakland County. The park's kaleidoscope of lake, pond, marsh, mature forest, rugged moraine, and former farmland habitats provides a refuge for a vast variety of wildlife. Pontiac Lake represents sacred ground for the Detroit region's most ardent mountain bikers, hikers, hunters, anglers, bird watchers, equestrians, and casual day trippers just looking to catch some rays on the longest beach in southeast Michigan. The mountain biking trail has garnered special praise since its initial planning in 1976; the trail has been recognized as one of the "Top 100 Trails" in the United States and is considered one of the most technical trails in southeast Michigan.
Now - let's get to the trail.
HIT THE TRAIL
Total Distance: 9.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 649 feet
Trail Rating: Moderate-Difficult
Route Orientation: Loop
Parking Specifics: Parking available at Pontiac Lake trailhead (Michigan Recreation Passport required)
Some parks in the Detroit region, we're convinced, get a sadistic satisfaction out of hiding their trailheads. Maybe the trail builders back in the 1950s just had a bad day because their Elvis record got scratched, who knows. On the other hand, a select few parks idiot-proof their trailheads: there's only one prominent place to park that's within direct eyesight of one core trailhead.
Let's take a moment to collectively thank the bygone trail builders of Pontiac Lake's main MTB and hiking trailhead for conveniently idiot-proofing the trailhead. The westernmost parking spots at Pontiac Lake's massive beach parking lot are essentially the starting point of the famous Mountain Biking Trail, marked conspicuously by the metallic sign depicted in this article's cover photo. Seriously, you can't miss it.
The first 0.4 miles of the trail are equally easy to follow. Once past the metallic trailhead sign, the trail leads you on a straight line northwest through flat and relatively open fields. Pause at the somewhat busy Gale Rd. crossing to check for traffic, but then you will continue due north until you reach Trail Marker #2 - the "real" starting point of the famous MTB Loop.
Quick note on the trail orientation described in this #TrailTuesday article. Similar to our article on Highland's A-B-C-D Loops, we will provide instructions regarding Pontiac Lake's MTB Loop in the orientation that mountain bikers ride it, not hikers or trail runners. Remember that hikers and trail runners should always move in the opposite direction of mountain biking traffic whenever possible, which for Pontiac Lake means that mountain bikers will turn LEFT at Trail Marker #2 and hikers/runners will continue RIGHT. There is a "Bike Trail" directional sign just behind the Trail Marker sign in case you need a blatant reminder of which direction bikes should travel.
Assuming that you have elected to ride the trail, then we have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that you're starting the trail with fresh legs. The bad news is that Pontiac Lake will throw its most challenging climbs at you within the first 3.7 miles of the 9.4 mile trail - including its steepest 14% grade incline at mile 1.7. In light of this, use the rolling terrain of mile leading up to this steep climb to warm up your legs. Especially if you're a newer rider, recognize that speed compared with the confidence of fresh legs could spell caloric disaster later down the trail.
Pace yourself. Enjoy the rolling, wetland terrain of the rev up. And ready to hit the switchback-esque incline with all pistons firing.
Once you've reached the top of what I dubbed the "false summit" - the top of the 14% climb described above - the trail briefly flattens out before dipping into an "inner-peak" lowland. The 0.4 mile stretch to the "true summit," marked by an exposed hilltop with impressive panoramic views in the post-foliage months, provides an excellent opportunity for "active recovery" after the initial climb. The true summit provides ample space to rest if you need a breather, but downhill junkies might be tempted to power through due to the next 0.7 miles of almost entirely flowy, speedy fun.
Starting at the 2.9 mile marker - the lowest point of the MTB Trail beyond the shores of Pontiac Lake proper - you will start climbing again towards the "Peak #3" of the trail. This stretch of the trail is relatively straight through the density of Pontiac Lake's hardwood forests. Keep your eyes peeled for the scattered equestrian crossings through this segment, although you should be forewarned of each of these crossings via the ample signage. Once at the unceremonious forested summit of Peak #3, your well-earned sustained decline does unfortunately get short-circuited by a Maceday Rd. crossing. Enjoy the 0.2 miles of speed while you can.
Across Maceday Rd., a relatively flat section of the trail becomes one of its most memorable due to the dramatic juxtaposition of moraine ridges and deep marshland kettles left by glacial activity 10,000+ years ago. Other than a brief grassland opening just south of White Lake Rd., this rolling, rocky, and densely forested terrain remains largely uninterrupted over the next two miles.
Past the trail variances near Robinson Lake (look for the orange "EASY" vs. "HARD" directions, and don't overestimate your ability...), you have nearly reached the "beginning of the end" of the nearly 10 mile trail. While the final 3 miles of the trail still contain some sharp climbs and adrenaline-pumping descents to keep even advanced riders engaged, the main challenges are behind you at this point. Turning south at the 7.3 mile marker indicates that you are truly in the homestretch, although a final ascent at the 8.7 mile marker known as "Final Climb Peak" waits to welcome you back with one final dropkick to your ego.
Once you have completed your conquest of Final Climb Peak, Pontiac Lake truly rewards with you smooth sailing back to the trailhead. There's a technical downhill just past Final Climb, but otherwise you will enjoy a remarkably straight route through the forest, into the grasslands, and back to the lakeshore trailhead parking lot. You'll know that you're close to completing the trail once the hills completely dissipate and the only sounds that you can hear are the airplanes taking off above you.
WEEKEND BONUS TIPS
Pontiac Lake undoubtedly represents an outdoor adventure destination in its own right, but maritime recreationists may also be unaware that the park's lakes, creeks, and wetlands provide the de facto launching point for literally multiple streams of adventures. In fact, the headwaters for each of the Clinton, Huron, and Shiawassee Rivers originate within the park's boundaries. While intrepid outdoor enthusiasts could surely find a way to navigate each of these river systems from in or around the park's boundary, the park's eastern boundary along Maceday Lake means that PLRA directly connects to the Clinton River Water Trail's western origination point.
Similar to its larger cousin on the Huron, the Clinton River Water Trail consists of 72 miles of interstitial paddling between Maceday Lake and Lake St. Clair. at its eastern terminus. Other than a notable interruption in Pontiac, paddlers can traverse the beautiful Clinton River through the idyllic "lakelands" villages of Keego Harbor and Sylvan Lake, the downtowns of Rochester, Utica, and Mount Clemons, before finally completing the journey past Lake St. Clair Metropark and into Anchor Bay. Along the way, paddlers will venture through multiple environments, including marshlands, woodlands, and parks ripe for wildlife viewing opportunities.
From Maceday Lake, multi-sport outdoor enthusiasts can easily pair a Saturday on Pontiac Lake Recreation Area's trails with a Sunday on the water. Launching from the southernmost Maceday Lake Access Point, the Clinton River Water Trail provides 20.8 miles of paddling exploration opportunities. This segment of the water trail passes through multiple inland lakes, lakeside parks, and Dodge #4 State Park.
In full transparency, we at Expedition Detroit have yet to explore any segments of the Clinton River Water Trail. Yikes. But here's the silver lining: launching out from Maceday Lake represents a top priority for our Summer 2023 "bucket list," and we hope that you'll join us in rediscovering the hidden gems of one of the Detroit region's most prominent water trails during these warm days ahead.
As always friends, 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!