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#TrailTuesday: Exploring the Wilderness Trail Loop in Holly

Welcome back to our #TrailTuesday Series! This edition journeys to the Detroit region's northernmost destination - Holly Recreation Area - and its quintessential Wilderness Trail Loop. We invite you to explore this oasis of wilderness on our metropolitan frontier!

"Wilderness in Oakland County - alright, I definitely need to check this one out."

Those were my thoughts as I first read about Holly Recreation Area's famous "Wilderness Trail Loop" in Jim DuFresne's 50 Hikes in Michigan guidebook, and admittedly, I was skeptical. Don't get me wrong, I was practically praying for the "wilderness" designation to hold true, but come on... Holly Recreation Area is located in Oakland County and bisected by I-75, one of the premiere commercial corridors of the entire State of Michigan. Could this trail really hold up to its name?

How does one even define "wilderness"?

The WILD Foundation has provided the most immediate definition available on Google: "Wilderness" is "the most intact, undisturbed wild natural areas left on our planet – those last truly wild places that humans do not control and have not developed with roads, pipelines or other industrial infrastructure."

"Those last truly wild places." We at Expedition Detroit love that shorthand version of the definition, because it denotes a sense of scarcity to the nature of wilderness. Yes, the stunningly vast and untamed mountainous regions Out West undoubtedly qualify as wilderness. But under this definition, so does those hundreds of acres of forest that our forefathers decided were worth preserving in their God-ordained state, free from the scourge of development that the coming decades would unleash around them. Those sanctuaries that have become vital component's of North America's fight against a mental health epidemic. Those trails where you can just be in your natural state.

Yes: we're relieved to report that the Wilderness Trail Loop qualifies as a bona fide wilderness area. A truly wild place where you can explore free from developed society's omnipresence.

It's our pleasure to reintroduce Holly Recreation Area and its most beloved trail now.


The formal history of Holly Recreation Area dates back towards the end of the Second World War. As hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and pilots started to return from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific, those men also brought back an unprecedented interest and experience with outdoor recreation due to their military training, outdoor gear, and newfound leisure time afforded to them by postwar prosperity. From the mid-1940s on, this booming interest in America's outdoor spaces prompted an explosion in the development and protection of Federal, state, and community parks.

Holly Recreation Area and its 8,007 protected acres resulted from that interest. In 1944, the preliminary boundaries of Holly State Recreation Area were established and the park officially opened in 1948. The development of picnic areas, campgrounds, and structural facilities continued into the 1950s, including the establishment of Mt. Holly Ski Area (before its transfer to private ownership in 1966). The park's size continued to grow well into the 1980s as the Michigan Department of Conservation acquired approximately 3,500 additional acres straddling both sides of I-75.

Nearly 80 years since its establishment, the Holly Recreation Area of today still maintains its defining rolling woodlands and open fields for endless outdoor recreational opportunities. The recreation area has evolved into a generational destination for hiking, camping, swimming, picnicking, fishing, boating, and hunting. As of recent years, the park has also become increasingly sought-after for mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. Nonetheless, hiking still remains Holly Rec.'s most popular recreational activity, with 66% of park visitors exploring its forests and grasslands on foot.

And - you guessed it - the Wilderness Trail Loop represents Holly Recreation Area's most revered hiking route.

Let's get to the trail.


Total Distance: 5.7 miles

Elevation Gain: 416 feet

Trail Rating: Moderate

Route Orientation: Loop

Parking Specifics: Parking available at trailhead north of Wildwood Lake (Michigan Recreation Passport required)

Looking at the map for the Wilderness Trail, the comprehensive loop around McGinnis Lake somewhat resembles the shape of Australia. Or so I thought when I pulled up the trail map. So, seeing as I'm an outspoken geography nerd, I'm going to shamelessly utilize Australia for kicking off our trail orientation. There are two main "Aussie starting points" for the Wilderness Trail: "Melbourne" in the south, as depicted in the approach shown in the map above, or "Port Douglas" in the north, which on the Wilderness Trail is trail marker #7.

For those hikers, trail runners, or snowshoers that are looking for the extended cut version of this hike, then the Melbourne starting point just north of Wildwood Lake is your best bet. Starting at Port Douglas - where you will park behind the Groveland Township Hall and spot the trail marker on the far side of a playground - shaves off roughly a mile of the hike (just the out-and-back from the main trailhead). When we completed the hike, we started from Port Douglas and did not feel cheated out of any aspect of the experience.

Starting from the main Melbourne trailhead, the first 0.5 miles of the hike consist of a steady, rocky downhill towards the McGinnis Group Campground. After passing briefly through the campground area, the trail very comfortably climbs to its highest elevation of 1,098 feet at the 1.2 mile marker. This first segment of the trail through Holly's hardwoods, overlooking marshlands to the east and west, finishes with a steady climb north towards trail marker #7 - aka Port Douglas. If you're hiking in the afternoon, now is the time to put your sunglasses on: from here you'll be hiking west for 1.6 miles.

The northernmost segment of the trail consists of a long, gradual descent over roughly a mile and a half. The trail's character will remain characterized by hardwood forest with panoramic views of Holly's defining rolling hills, although don't get caught off guard by the trail's brief but steepest ascent at the 2.5 mile marker. Also, stay on the lookout for stunning views of an apparently unnamed body of water at the 3.2 mile marker - perfect spot to stop for a lunch break (or trail beer).

After completing a downhill segment through a rare prairie section of the trail, you will enter "the pines zone" and start to climb. And continue to climb. In total, you will ascend 112 feet over 1.6 miles of steady climbing (with a few intermittent descents), but the increasingly stunning views of McGinnis Lake to your left will reward your effort. One navigational item of note for this trail segment is to turn right when you come across the paved park road at the 4.3 mile marker; the directions for this crossing are not very well marked, but fortunately the continuation of the trail is very visible to your left once you cross the bridge. Your hike will finish with more stunning views of McGinnis Lake before turning sharply south to return to the Melbourne trailhead.


"Holly Recreation Area: Find Every Adventure Here." We don't know how that's not the official slogan of Holly Rec. (looking at you, DNR), but that simple moniker couldn't be more true of the borderline excessive amount of outdoor recreation opportunities available in and around the park.

Let's start with the basics. Beyond phenomenal hiking, other trail sport options at Holly include trail running, mountain biking, metal detecting, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. The park's several lakes provide pristine paddling routes for leisurely exploration, most notably at Heron, Valley, Wildwood, and Crotched Lakes. Holly Recreation Area also permits seasonal camping, hunting, and fishing within defined areas of the park. Don't forget to reserve any campsites well in advance, especially if you'd like a prime spot at the McGinnis Lake Campground.

But wait, there's more. The area surrounding Holly - as well as certain backcountry areas of the park proper - provides some of the Detroit region's best off-road vehicle ("ORV") riding opportunities. Snowmobiling is permitted within the park, while the nearby Holly Oaks ORV Park utilizes its sand and gravel mines to create a unique destination for all types of ORVs, including full-size vehicles, side-by-sides, all-terrain vehicles, and motorcycles. A few final recreation options of note include the park's disc golf course and "WhoaZone" floating waterpark at Heron Lake.

Ski Pure Michigan: Mt. Holly Ski and Snowboard Resort

During the winter months, your obvious choice for off-trail recreation will be hiding in plain sight. On second thought, Mt. Holly Ski and Snowboard Resort won't be hiding at all - the resort's snowcapped peak at 1,115 feet provides road-weary travelers with a welcomed sign of waiting adventure. You can even catch glimpses of the resort from the Wilderness Trail's westernmost segments.

For the uninitiated, Mt. Holly is one of the Detroit region's "Big Four" winter resorts that provides skiers and riders with the most elevation gain at 350 feet. Mt. Holly contains 19 runs featuring the full spectrum of beginner to expert terrain, including tow ropes, terrain parks, and tree runs (that are especially fun). More of an après aficionado? You're in luck: Mt. Holly's Bavarian-style lodge comes fully-stocked with two cafeterias, an expansive outdoor patio with a central fire ring, another fireplace room, and a spacious lounge (with, of course, additional fireplaces). Hard to imagine a better setting to loosen up the boots, order a stein, and kick back after an exhilarating day on the mountain.


Before signing off on this article, we wanted to give a special, unsponsored shout-out to the guide book 50 Hikes in Michigan by Jim DuFresne. This fantastic book has been in the Expedition Detroit library since our founding and has provided the initial inspiration for several world-class hikes in our region and throughout the Great Lakes state - including the Wilderness Trail. Do yourself a favor today and purchase a copy on Amazon or at a bookstore near you!

The #TrailTuesday Series started as a recommendation from readers looking for a deeper analysis into the individual trails that define Detroit's vast outdoor 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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