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#TrailTuesday: Rediscovering Highland's Historic Haven Hill Loop

Welcome back to our weekly #TrailTuesday Series! This edition explores a trail hiked by investors, industrialists, royalty, and common outdoor enthusiasts alike: Highland Recreation Area's Haven Hill Loop. Join us as we rediscover this timeless trail!

Two roads diverged in a green wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that led me to the ruins of the Ford family's wilderness homestead, and that has made all the difference.


Robert Frost just turned in his grave at my adulteration of his classic poem "The Road Not Taken," but such words echoed around my head as I deviated from a well-trodded trail towards not much more than a game path leading up a steep, wooded hill. An ideal location for a refuge of sorts; some might even say a "haven."


As I climbed over a few more logs that had obstructed this "less traveled" route, other signs of a past life began to appear, indicating that I was far from leading a first expedition to summit this hill. Time-rusted scraps of metal began to seamlessly appear next to freshly budding wildflowers. Cemented poles and other fixtures started protruding from the ground. But most surprising of all, right near the summit, an apparatus somewhat resembling a ski hill towrope pole from a bygone era stood silently in the midst of untamed wilderness.


Truth be told, I knew exactly where I was heading. I had a vague understanding of the past life of this dramatic moraine that I was summiting. I had studied the titans of the 20th century that had similarly made the journey to the top of this hill, presumably within a Ford motor car. And, tragically, I knew that this destination - where volumes' worth of historical moments once occurred - had burned to the ground in an act of arson in January of 1999.


I finally summited, but my eyes did not find a panoramic vista of blooming treetops, rolling hills, and glistening inland lakes. No; they found something even more rare.


Alone in the pouring rain, I found myself standing amidst the ruins of Edsel Ford's "Haven Hill" homestead. The industrialist's wilderness sanctuary perched at 1,060 feet that had hosted foreign dignitaries, household name inventors, and celebrities of the mid-20th century. A refuge from which the Ford family could escape from the rigors of a booming automotive industry to the privacy of their 2,422 acres. Ample space for the family to hike, fish, ski, toboggan, swim, and ride their horses.


The Fords have been absent from the history of Haven Hill for nearly 80 years , but their legacy remains in the boardwalks, wildlife, and trails that trace their roots back to the family's patronage. The trails surrounding Haven Hill Lake especially owe their carefully planned routes and striking character to this bygone era, with the Haven Hill Loop comprising the most sought-after trail through the region's stunning topography. A recreational tribute to living history, preserved in the timeless cast of nature.


It is our honor to reintroduce the Haven Hill Loop and Highland State Recreation Area now.

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 once 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.


Just a few miles east, another prominent automotive family was contemporaneously closing on vast land purchases. Starting in 1923, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford started to purchase thousands of acres in the same general region of western Oakland County, including a particular area consisting of a dramatic hill rising adjacent to a wooded lake. The Fords decided to construct their "nerve retreat" wilderness lodge on top of that hill, with construction lasting from 1924 through 1931. The world would come to know that lodge, and its foundational moraine, as "Haven Hill."


Over the following 20 years, 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 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: 3.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 160 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate

Route Orientation: Loop

Parking Specifics: Parking available at Haven Hill Lake trailhead (Michigan Recreation Passport required)


The Haven Hill Lake Trailhead drops you right at the shores of stunning Haven Hill Lake. Alright, there may be a picnic shelter and a hundred-ish yards of sporting fields between the lake and the lot, but you'll be staring right at its green/blue waters through the limited tree cover along its eastern shoreline. The Haven Hill Loop trail starts just past the backstop and to the right of the small cluster of woods behind the picnic shelter, and you will follow the shoreline east for 0.3 miles until crossing over the Cedar Creek dam.

Haven Hill Lake Expedition Detroit Highland Recreation Area Michigan
Haven Hill Lake vista

Once under the cover of the mature oak forest, the trail gradually starts to reveal more of its "Hill" and less of its "Haven" characteristics. A memorable climb at the 0.5 mile marker formally introduces you to Haven Hill's rolling moraines that define most of the Detroit region's westernmost parks and recreation areas, complete with surprisingly dramatic ravines and vernal pools. This initial rolling segment of the trail lasts until just under the 1 mile marker, where you will turn left to enter the next defining phase of the trail: the Boardwalk Promenade.

boardwalk marshland expedition detroit haven hill highland recreation area michigan hiking
Boardwalk Promenade

This segment isn't really called the "Boardwalk Promenade," but we fervently argue that it should. For the next mile, you will traverse from one boardwalk to the next - including an initial 0.3 miles worth of uninterrupted boardwalk - among interstitial "islands" of forest. Bird watchers, this is your time to shine: the wetlands surrounding these boardwalks are ripe with avian life. Amphibians, reptiles, and maritime mammals are also frequently spotted ducking in and around the boardwalks, so animal lovers of all interests will enjoy slowing their pace to take in the sights and sounds of Boardwalk Promenade.


Reaching Trail Marker #13 means that you have passed from the boardwalks back into the moraines. The first 0.6 miles of this section of the trail feature a feature mild climbs and descents, but the "micro-summits" largely serve to provide stunning views of the expansive wetlands that drain into Haven Hill Lake. After completing six of these micro-summits, the trail flattens briefly before finally introducing you to...pause for dramatic effect...Haven Hill climb.

Haven Hill Expedition Detroit Highland Recreation Area michigan hill hiking
Calm before the storm - initial approach towards Haven Hill climb

Starting at the 2.7 mile marker, the trail abruptly ascends 40 feet before providing a brief 0.2 mile respite. According to AllTrails, the trail summits at the 2.9 mile marker, reaching a total elevation of 1,044 feet. Less experienced hikers should especially reaching this point - the Haven Hill climb certainly is no easy feat to complete, especially since it lays in wait until the last mile of the trail. A perfect opportunity for a water break before completing the gradual 0.6 mile descent down the forested hill, along the southern sore of Haven Hill Lake, and across the sporting fields to the trailhead parking lot.

The former entrance to the Haven Hill estate

But wait - there's more. Or at least there's more for experienced hikers and trail runners looking to pack more of an adventures and historical punch into the Haven Hill Loop.


Do you remember the intro to this article? The firsthand account of my ascent towards the ruins of the Haven Hill estate (yes, article skimmers - feel free to jump back up and read it now. You know who you are). Well, you too can relive that experience starting at the 2.7 mile marker. Blink and you'll miss it, but there is a hardly-maintained trail that veers off to the right at this point. The trail is steep - truly, I would not recommend less experienced hikers to attempt this ascent, and even experienced hikers may want to think twice about it in less than ideal conditions.


However, if the stars do align and you're willing to clamber over a few logs, this off-shoot trail leads you directly over the true Haven Hill summit at 1,060 feet - and then directly into the ruins of the Haven Hill estate via the "backyard." Fortunately this rugged trail does convert into a stairwell leading into the ruins, and once within the site you will be able to explore the maintained grounds at your leisure. We recommend taking your time to read the informational postings located throughout the grounds, which are fantastic prompts for jumpstarting your imagination regarding what Haven Hill must have been like in its full glory.


The backcountry "summit trail" that you took to reach the ruins connects directly back to the main Haven Hill Loop trail, so you should head back the way that you came to complete the route. In the event of inclement weather, you can also follow Haven Rd. for a more civil, but less intrepid, return to the trailhead.

WEEKEND BONUS TIPS

While Highland represents a destination ready for outdoor enthusiasts of all experience levels and interests, let's call a spade a spade: Highland is best suited for our region's most professional, badass, adventurous, and conditions-be-damned recreationists. Men and women who smile when the "summit" of one hill only reveals another, or laugh when the rocks and roots start competing to see which can trip you up first. Hikers, runners, and backpackers looking to train on Highland's prime real estate of rigorous terrain. Hunters unafraid of dragging their prized game out of wild, inhospitable terrain.


And, especially, mountain bikers looking to conquer Highland's beloved yet infamous A-B-C-D Loops.


For the uninitiated, the singular term "Highland" in midwest MTB circles specifically refers to this trail system - one of only three "Black Diamond"-rated trails in the entire Detroit region. In fact, these combined loops constitute the single most challenging trail in the entirety of our corner of the Great Lakes. The route consists of varying sections with roots, rocky stretches, steep climbs, and manageable technical areas. While these loops are primarily intended for mountain bikers, these trails are also very popular for hikers, trail runners, bird watchers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and hunters.


Looking for something a slighlt tamer? We don't blame you, and fortunately Highland's scenic "North Loop" trail is directly accessible from the same MTB Trailhead. The North Loop provides 2.2 miles of easy, flowing trail, complete with trekking or riding through the full spectrum of Highland's varied natural environment. The North Loop is also teeming with wildlife within its grasslands, pine forests, and marshlands, so stay on the lookout for wild turkeys, sandhill cranes, and deer.

Outside of Highland, we have one simple piece of advice for you: travel south, preferably with a kayak. The Huron River and its endless supply of adventures wait for you along its idyllic banks at Proud Lake State Recreation Area, ripe for wildlife viewing and catch-and-release fishing opportunities. The best launch points at Proud Lake can be found at the Proud Lake Campground, Moss Lake Dam, and the boat launch parking lot just east of N Wixom Road.


Looking more for a "trail town" experience? May we interest you in Downtown Milford: our inaugural "Trail Town Spotlight" destination and a small town overflowing with outdoor recreation opportunities. From Highland, downtown is within walking distance from the recreation area's southern segments and easily reachable via bike from the main MTB Trailhead off of E Livingston Road. From Proud Lake, you can easily paddle the 2.6 miles downstream to Milford Central Park - or, as we like to do, pull off just before the Main Street Bridge for direct access to our friends at River's Edge Brewing Co.


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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kim Cooke
kim Cooke
May 17, 2023

Awesome historical flashback…I wonder if Thomas Edison and his cronies ventured to the summit? Oh to be a fly on the wall when the estate was functional…Great Article!

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Dan Cooke
Dan Cooke
May 22, 2023
Replying to

Thank you! Yes, according to the placards at the site, Thomas Edison did visit the top. Very cool spot!

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