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#TrailTuesday: Rediscovering Proud Lake's Wild Northwestern Loops

Welcome back to our weekly #TrailTuesday Series! This edition explores two of the most controversial, diverse, beautiful, and fun trails in the Detroit region: Proud Lake's northwestern Loops 2 and 3. Join us as we explore the heights and depths of these battleground trails!

It's 7:30 p.m. on a Monday night just off of Garden Road. The sun has just started to ignite golden hour. Nocturnal wildlife wipe the sleep from their eyes. Hoards of mosquitos mobilize for their twilight feast. A box turtle watches me skeptically as I descend from my truck.

There's no one else at Proud Lake Recreation Area's equestrian staging area trailhead. After a flurry of biking activity over the weekend, the dust has settled on this remote section's trails. If all indicators hold true, then I should have 4.5 miles of pristine hiking all to myself on this beautiful late spring evening. You could not write a better script for a peaceful and rejuvenating hike.

Then the signs appear, reminding me that I've arrived to the front lines of a decades-long war.

Not an actual war of course - although the blood on your arms from dispatching ambitious mosquitos may dictate otherwise. Combat has yet to occur on these trails (knock on wood), but the northwestern stretches of Proud Lake have constituted ground zero over a trail-rights battle fought between the Detroit region's mountain biking and equestrian communities. The crisp, fresh signage posted by both the Motor City Mountain Biking Association and Proud Lake Trail Riders Association blankets the trails like military outposts. Riders following these signs serve both as sentinels directing their troops on where to ride and scouts ready to report the unpardonable crime of wayward trail use.

As the war rages on between these groups, the trails remain uncannily quiet on this tranquil Monday night. My neutral hiking boots leave tracks in the dirt alongside horse hooves and bike treads. I may be hiking in the trenches, but after a few miles spent traversing these highly-coveted trails, I fully understand why both groups have dug-in for the long haul on this fight.

These trails are stunning. The sharp climbs and falls of the variable terrain provide true exhilaration, even when hiking. The mature forests, dramatic ridges, and open grasslands yield panoramic vistas. Oh, and don't forget about the legions of wildlife that emerge right around dusk.

More than enough beauty to make you forget all about the struggle currently defining these trails. And why Proud Lake has maintained its generational place as one of the crown jewels of Detroit's outdoor ecosystem.

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


Those of you who have been following our content since last fall know that the Expedition Detroit team does not shy away from our love for Proud Lake State Recreation Area. Founded in 1944, the recreation area is named after the Proud family that originally farmed the countryside surrounding Huron River during the 19th century. The Proud Lake of 2023 consists of more than 3,000 acres, over 30 miles of trails, and several distinct habitats supporting the wildlife within its confines.

In terms of recreational potential, Proud Lake undoubtedly represents a land of opportunity. Proud Lake has firmly established itself as a year-round outdoor destination due to the borderline-excessive amount of recreational activities that visitors can partake in despite the park's immediate accessibility to Metro Detroit's suburbs. While living in Downtown Milford, I visited Proud Lake daily for trail running, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, or hunting. I also frequently crossed paths with backpackers on the Chief Pontiac Trail, equestrians, cross-country skiers, and anglers. Yes, the park even has overnight camping facilities - my father used to make an annual pilgrimage to Proud Lake's main campground in the early 1960s with his youth church group.

The main point is that Proud Lake has something for every one, especially during these peak warmer months when outdoor enthusiasts of all demographics flock to its trails and shores.

Now let's get to the trail.


Total Distance: 4.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 255 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate

Route Orientation: Loop

Parking Specifics: Parking available at equestrian staging trailhead off of Garden Road (west entrance) - additional parking available on Garden Road (east entrance) across Norton Creek Bridge (Michigan Recreation Passport required)

Setting off from the equestrian staging area trailhead, you find yourself firmly in horse country. The open field that the trail circumnavigates is filled with equestrian training equipment and other items that, presumably, are useful for horseback riding lessons or skills. Our point is that you should make your way through this brief section of the trail as quickly and respectfully as possible, remembering that all trail users must yield to equestrians. This golden rule protects you, the rider, and the horse. Heed it accordingly.

One other word of preliminary caution - this trail gets bombarded by mosquitos during the summer months. We strongly recommend not only wearing insect repellant and long sleeve shirts/hiking pants, but also treating your outer layers with permethrin at least a day before hitting the trail. Permethrin is an insecticide that kills mosquitos and ticks upon contact but is regarded as very safe for treatment of recreational clothing (obviously apply outdoors and avoid direct contact with skin/eyes during application).

Once you have completed your 0.2 mile journey through the equestrian training field, you will arrive at the first of several trail junctions along the route. Keep right up the hill to start your circumnavigation of Loop 2, the tamer and more exposed loop on your hiking agenda.

Your journey along Loop 2 will consist of just under two miles of gently rolling hills, oscillating between dense forest cover with marsh views and sweeping grasslands. During the colder months of the year with less foliage, the trail's first minor climb provides for incredible views of the massive wetlands just east of the trail. This forested climb gives way to a pastured valley to your west - the ideal location for wildlife viewing at dusk and dawn.

The trail does come shockingly close to a home at the 0.6 mile marker, so be sure to act respectfully for this fleeting segment if hiking with a group. Aside from this minor aspect of the trail, Loop 2 comprises of one of the most isolated sections of all of Proud Lake. Trail runners will especially enjoy this paradise of gentle climbs and falls, expansive views, enough tree cover to keep you cool, and ample exposure to warm you up again.

The majority of Loop 2 - 0.9 miles - runs as a slight decline parallel to the railroad tracks. There are a few side trails that aren't technically a part of Loop 2 during this stretch, but rest assured knowing that as long as you continue moving south along trails located next to the tracks, then you're headed in the right direction. Avoid the "faux trail crossing" at the 1.6 mile marker; while this crossing does connect to Loop 3, it is hardly maintained and deviates materially from the route we're describing here. Trust us, you'll know when you reach the main railroad junction at the 2.1 mile marker (hint: look for the Chief Pontiac Trail orange marker).

This should go without saying, but EXERCISE EXTREME CAUTION WHENEVER CROSSING RAILROAD TRACKS. There is plenty of visibility here, so an oncoming trail should come as zero surprise to any trail user. NEVER TRY TO BEAT A TRAIN ACROSS THE TRACKS. Believe it or not, the trail isn't going anywhere. In fact, waiting for the train to pass should absolutely be utilized for a water break.

Why? Because Loop 3 - commonly referred to by mountain bikers as the "Loop of Pain" - is next on your agenda.

Once safely across the railroad tracks, turn right at the major trail junction that will immediately mark your arrival at Loop 3. Yes, the hills are coming, but Loop 3 generously allows hikers and bikers with plenty of time to acclimate with a 0.8 mile gentle ascent into the hills. While the first portion of this ascent also runs parallel to the railroad tracks - this time heading north - the last 0.4 miles comprises of one of the most pristine sections of forested ridge line trail that I've yet to hike in the Detroit region. Especially when you have the trail all to yourself.

As you traverse the ridge line in a counter-clockwise direction, you will loop around one of the most beautifully maintained sections of forests throughout all of southeast Michigan. The views here are stunning - large, mature trees with virtually no bittersweet vines canvassed across several distinct "kettles" formed among the dramatic hills. I sincerely hope that you get to experience this either alone or with a small group of close friends - it's an ethereal, dare I say religious, passage of trail.

After a slight decline as you come out of this idyllic loop, you'll finally meet "the Pain" starting at the 2.9 mile marker. You'll climb for the next 0.3 miles, with the steepest grade reaching a 12% incline. Fortunately the ridge trail remains dramatic throughout this portion, so you should actually thoroughly enjoy the sights and challenge of this climb. A nice summit of 1,031 feet at the 3.2 mile marker provides a much-needed opportunity for a water break.

Hold on - you're not done yet. You may have just completed the longest sustained climb of the trail system, but just like the initial climb of a rollercoaster, this trail has a few minor climbs and drops to throw at you.

For the next 0.3 miles, you'll traverse one of the most turbulent trails throughout the Detroit area, possibly even the entire Great Lakes region. Trail runners, this portion is especially for you - the three bipolar hills, complete with their sharp descents and surprisingly steep risings, will get your quads and calves burning in no time. This section used to consist largely of a sandy nightmare, but trail maintenance squads of recent years have dramatically improved the conditions for mountain bikers.

To summarize, completing this segment of trail that's defined by these four hilltops is the single most fun hiking experience that I've had since launching Expedition Detroit. The sporadic, near-comedic terrain literally and figuratively keeps you on your toes throughout the ride - and yes, the trail most definitely feels like a ride.

For better or for worse, once you're through the hilltops, then there's nowhere to go but downhill. The trail is far from being a direct shot back to the trailhead - you'll make a few turns to navigate south through open trail, then east towards the train tracks, before heading north again to reach the equestrian training fields. Nonetheless, a full mile of consistent downhill provides plenty of opportunity to recharge your legs, reflect on an amazing trail experience, and prepare for any other outdoor adventures that you might have line up on your Proud Lake itinerary.


A visit to Proud Lake simply isn't complete without bringing your kayak, canoe, or paddle board. Gratuitously utilizing its prime location along the Huron River, Proud Lake maintains several ideal launching points for day paddles on the Huron. The Moss Lake Dam reigns as the crowd favorite launch point for accessing both the eastern and western stretches of the Huron, although the "Fishing Site" location just east of Wixom Road also provides a popular drop-in spot.

For me personally, a favorite pastime comprises of paddling from the Fishing Site launch to Central Park in Downtown Milford. Along this 2.6 mile section of the Huron River National Water Trail, natural wetlands gradually give way to privately-owned shorelines. A series of bridges signal that you are indeed leaving the wilderness and paddling into the heart of the Village of Milford. Remaining highlights along this route include the historic Oak Grove Cemetery and passing through Milford’s historic Stone Arch Bridge. The route reaches its final destination at Milford Central Park immediately after crossing under the Main Street Bridge.

Quick bonus tip - between the Stone Arch and Main Street Bridges, you will notice a few kayaks pulled off onto a concrete dock along a south shore hill. We strongly advise that you follow suit and have a pint or two with our friends at River’s Edge Brewery, aptly named for its direct link to the Huron River. Known by locals simply as “The Brewery,” we at Expedition Detroit are not only big fans of their beer, but also the active stewardship and conservation advocacy that The Brewery has engaged in towards protecting the Huron.


Want to explore this trail for yourself but would prefer hiking or running with a guide? Look no further! Expedition Detroit proudly leads guided trips on this trail. Book your next adventure by CLICKING HERE!

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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Kathy Cooke
Kathy Cooke
Jun 06, 2023

Excellent article Dan! Would love to check out Proud Lake!🌺

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