Welcome back to our #TrailTuesday Series! This edition treks across one of the Detroit region's most beloved trails - if not THE most beloved trail - Brighton Recreation Area's Penosha Trail. Join us as we rediscover this iconic trail.
"Pace yourself, Lucy - the climb is coming."
My trail pup pauses for a second to look at me, confused why I'm slowing down our pace as we're hiking through a rolling, mature oak forest. We are roughly two miles in at this point, and she's clearly feeling trail-confident despite resting most of the past winter. She wants to keep pushing on - maybe a distracted squirrel might come into range - but a quick glance at the trail map shows that a challenge waits on the horizon. One last, imposing moraine to summit before a gradual, rewarding decline.
All great trails seem to showcase this feature: a notable, slightly unnerving element that adds a flavor of adventure to an otherwise leisurely experience. An "Everest Summit Push" is the quintessential example, but other top-tier trails like the Inca Trail's "Dead Woman's Pass" climb, the ascent for Lake Solitude at Grand Teton National Park, and even Michigan's #1 ranked Mosquito Falls and Chapel Falls Loop all have defining challenges that induct these trails into the proverbial "hall of fame" of unforgettable outdoor experiences.
We invite you to test this hypothesis at Brighton Recreation Area's Penosha Trail. Try to ignore the adrenaline rush as the trail's dramatic ridge line steadily contrasts against the sky, finally unveiling the challenge ahead. Fully-embrace the satisfaction of emerging from the tree-line to catch your first glimpse of the exposed summit. And for a moment - a fleeting, beautiful moment - allow the summit experience to completely redefine your perception of the Detroit region's outdoors. The drive, adventure, and opportunity that our wild places incite within all of us.
If (no, when) you find yourself standing and smiling on Penosha's summit hill, then you will understand exactly why the Penosha Trail continues to reign as one of Michigan's top 10 trails. This trail has a timeless magic to its forested corridors, marshland boardwalks, and dramatic climbs. An experience that will surely bring you and your trail pup back for many, many more hikes to come.
It is our honor to reintroduce the Penosha Trail and Brighton Recreation Area now.
MEET BRIGHTON RECREATION AREA
Here at Expedition Detroit, we have a bias towards the remarkable. Experiences, landscapes, stories, and equipment that dramatically redefine previous perceptions - and most often misconceptions - of Detroit's outdoor industry. We actively search for the unique opportunities that leave both visitors and life-long residents of the Detroit region in awe of the world-class destinations waiting just around the corner.
Exploring Brighton Recreation Area and its 4,947 acres represents one such opportunity. The destination's dramatic landscapes, pristine lakes, and surprisingly steep ridge lines trace the park's 25,000 year history, when receding glaciers forever etched their mark into park's defining moraine hills and other geographic features. The first modern settlements to the area arrived in the 1820s, resulting in the largely unsuccessful cultivation of the rugged terrain and eventual abandonment by the 1940s. Tracing the post-World War II boom in recreation that inspired the foundation of many other Michigan state parks, the Michigan Department of Conservation first established Brighton Recreation Area in 1944 and has since continued to increase its acreage over the decades.
The "Brighton Rec" of 2023 continues to pack a knock-out punch with its full menu of outdoor pursuits. Scattered throughout the park's hills, dense forests, marshlands, and lakes, recreationists can pursue mountain biking, hiking, trail running, equestrianism (mostly throughout the western segments of the park), paddling, swimming, fishing, hunting, camping, and cross-country skiing. For camping, Brighton maintains several reservation-only campgrounds, with its Appleton Lake and Murray Lake campgrounds constituting the park's two "rustic" camping options.
The Bishop Lake area of Brighton Rec is especially stunning and provides the nexus of Brighton's most enviable paddling, fishing, mountain biking, and hiking opportunities. Most important for our purposes, Bishop Lake provides the starting line for Brighton's crowning achievement: hiking the famous Penosha Trail.
Now - let's get to the trail.
HIT THE TRAIL
Total Distance: 4.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 393 feet
Trail Rating: Moderate
Route Orientation: Loop
Parking Specifics: Parking available at Bishop Lake trailhead (Michigan Recreation Passport required)
The Bishop Lake Trailhead at Brighton Recreation Area often feels more like a family reunion than a typical trailhead parking lot. Think big, BIG family reunion - uncles, aunts, and cousins across multiple generations, timezones, and lifestyles. A kaleidoscope of personalities and interests, brought together solely for one singular purpose.
For reunions, that purpose is family. At Brighton Rec, that purpose is adventure. Multi-faceted, unbridled adventure. By paddle or peddle, day hike or trail run, a quick 2 mile sprint or an overnight backpacking expedition. Regardless of the pursuit, outdoor enthusiasts can exercise their vice at Brighton Rec - and the Bishop Lake Trailhead is where the vast majority of those pursuits spectacularly collide.
For both hikers and mountain bikers, your recreational adventures start just east of the official trailhead origination point. Once you pass by the informational kiosks, the first divergence point waits around a wooded corner. Mountain bikers (and advanced trail runners), venture left to access Brighton's famous MTB loops (signs for Appleton, Murray Lake, and Torn Shirt Trails). Hikers and trail runners looking for Penosha (Ojibwe word meaning "long") or the Kahchin (Ojibwe word meaning "short") Trails should keep right to follow the "Hiking Trail" sign. The official-unofficial Penosha starting marker waits for you just up the trail at the 0.1 mile marker.
While you can hike the Penosha Trail loop in either direction, this guide analyzes the loop as it is presented in the above map: clockwise, i.e. starting with the northernmost segment. An Eagle Scout recently marked the trail using blue markers in a counter-clockwise direction, but we enjoyed hiking clockwise since it felt like we were "counting down the miles" back to the trailhead. To each their own.
The first 2.5 miles of Penosha are relatively flat and largely traverse rolling ridge lines through mature oak and pine forests. The trail includes a moderately challenging climb at the 1.1 mile marker, but otherwise this segment effortlessly oscillates between gentle climbs and descents, dropping into marshlands and then rising again for sweeping vistas. Volunteers have also installed benches throughout the trail, so you will never hike more than a half mile or so from a rest location.
Please exercise moderate caution on the steep stairs leading to Teahen Road at the 1.5 mile marker, and take your time on the boardwalks that immediately follow across one of Brighton Rec's largest marshes. During our visit, these boardwalks were largely flooded over, other than a plank of wood that required what felt like an Olympic-level balance beam routine to cross. Take your time, enjoy the journey, and try not to turn your hike into a swim.
The rolling terrain continues past the boardwalks, although a quick glance at a topographic trail map will keep you on alert for the trail's one true test: the half mile, 17% grade, 147ft. climb to Penosha's summit at the 3 mile marker. For the majority of hikers, this climb will not pose much a challenge - to the contrary, we bet that you'll thoroughly enjoy the sharp rise into Penosha's "highlands," complete with the sweeping views that accompany reaching a mid-climb plateau at the 2.7 mile marker. For newer hikers, note that the first length of this climb is the most difficult. Remember: slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Take short, intentional steps, sip on your water bottle as needed, and know that there is a perfectly-placed bench waiting to greet you at the top.
Past the plateau, the oak trees that have covered the trail for most of your hike will dissipate as you gradually reach the "true summit": an exposed grassy knoll with impressive views to the south and east. Is this the most dramatic summit experience that you'll log into the annals of your hiking achievements? No, but it is nonetheless a rewarding experience to reach this dramatic point on the trail. Feel free to enjoy this accomplishment however you'd like - if you packed a trail beer with you, this is the spot to enjoy it (seasonal restrictions are in effect at Bishop Lake).
There is only one element of the Penosha Trail that detracts from its otherwise immaculate wilderness experience. Local hikers and trail runners already know where this is heading, but new inductees to the trail might feel slight disorientation when the literal and figurative peak of the trail experience abruptly morphs into a residential area.
After completing the "summit push" at the 3 mile trail marker, your steady decline back towards the trailhead will provide a brief reminder that you are still hiking within one of the largest metropolitan areas in North America. The southern loop of Penosha will dead-end into Teahen Road, where you turn left to continue trekking downhill while humming "Country Roads" to yourself. In case you have any questions on where to go, the blue arrow that's spray-painted into the tree directly across from the trail will guide the way. The natural trail picks up again on your right at the very bottom of the Teahen Road straightaway.
Once safely returned to the refuge of Brighton Rec, the trail steers north away from the houses and back into the park's rolling hardwood hills. The initial 0.8 miles of this segment provide a steady decline, culminating beside two scenic marshes to your right. Penosha does keep one final hill in store for the last half mile, but hikers are immediately rewarded for this effort with a direct "beeline" descent for the trailhead. Extra points to you if you coordinate your triumphant return with an epic sunset viewing across Bishop Lake.
WEEKEND BONUS TIPS
Pick an adventure. Any adventure. Guess what - you're just 10 minutes away from starting on it.
That's the caliber of outdoor experiences immediately available to wonderfully-spoiled recreation hubs like Brighton, Michigan. Even if you were to limit your geographic scope to just Brighton Rec - no, even just the Bishop Lake Trailhead area - you would already be well-positioned to pair your Penosha Trail hike with a mountain biking, backpacking, or paddling expedition. Now that we're heading into the warmer months, we especially recommend bringing your bike along for the ride to tackle Brighton Rec's full MTB Loop Trail System: a heart-pounding 14.8 miles in total that constitutes one of only three "Black Diamond" ranked trails existing within the Detroit region.
Beyond Brighton Rec, we advise allocating the rest of your recreational weekend around seasonal outdoor opportunities. Has fresh snow covered the trails? Awesome - head over to either Mt. Brighton ski resort to carve your tracks into groomed runs or take on nordic skiing at Huron Meadows Metropark's nationally-acclaimed facilities. Does the summer sun have you heated? No sweat - allow the Huron River to cool you down, especially in light of the pristine paddling opportunities waiting for your launch at Kensington Metropark and Island Lake State Recreation Area.
Again, pick any adventure and a general direction. Regardless of the season or conditions, we guarantee that you will find a destination around the Brighton area to scratch that recreational itch.
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!