To paraphrase the state motto:
"If you seek a beautiful trail to bike, hike or walk, look about you."
Over the last two decades, the number of paved, crushed limestone or gravel recreational trails on mostly public lands in northern Lower Michigan has grown from zero to more than 375 miles.
Today, the region is becoming something of a trail mecca, thanks to state and federal grants, private donations and the advocacy of three nonprofits formed by trail enthusiasts: TART Trails in Traverse City, the Top of Michigan Trails Council in Petoskey and Friends of the Betsie Valley Trail in Benzie County.
Regardless how you measure it — in miles, bicycles strapped on the back of cars or perched on car roof, moms and pops with strollers, joggers, walkers or people in wheelchairs — this summer is a big one in the region for multiuse paths for several reasons:
n The first five miles of the new paved Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail officially opened at a June 20 ribbon cutting. It parallels the back side of the dunes and links the Dune Climb to Glen Haven, D.H. Day campground and Glen Arbor. It is the first national lakeshore trail that allows bicyclists. The 10-foot wide non-motorized path is the first segment of the planned 27-mile Leelanau Scenic Heritage Trail, which will cost an estimated $10 million to build over 10 years. About $6.3 million in public funding and more than $1 million in private and individual donations already have been raised.
- On June 23, the Top of Michigan Trail Council opened the 70-mile Northeastern State Trail (NEST) with simultaneous ribbon cuttings in communities along the way — Alpena, Posen, Hawks, Millersburg, Tower, Aloha and Cheboygan. The packed crushed limestone rail trail connects Alpena and Cheboygan.
- On June 30, Top of Michigan also dedicated the 62-mile multiuse North Central Trail, a 10-foot wide rail trail of packed crushed limestone that links Gaylord, Vanderbilt, Wolverine, Indian River, Topinabee, Cheboygan and Mackinaw City.
- On July 20, TART Trails celebrated closing the "Leelanau Gap," the final 6.5 miles of the Leelanau Trail between Lakeview Hills and Revold roads paved this spring. The 15.5-mile trail extends from Traverse City to Suttons Bay on an old railroad corridor.
Advocates attribute the growth in trails to several things.
Michigan is recognized as a national leader for its 2,400 miles of local and state multipurpose rail-trail miles overseen by the Michigan Department of Transportation, working closely with the Department of Natural Resources on acquisition.
Many communities across the state think of non-motorized trails as an economic development tool that brings business and people and families to their towns to bike, hike, walk or run.
The trails also fit in with state public health departments' "healthy living" initiative.
Public attitudes also are different from the 1990s when recreational trail building began gaining momentum, said Jim Rodabaugh, DNR parks and recreation director.
"There was not a lot of interest and desire then," he said. "Now, we no longer have to sell to people. Communities want more trails and they want them quickly."
TART Trails includes 65 miles of trails — the TART system in Traverse City, the Leelanau Trail and the Vasa Pathway, which includes 21 miles of trail and 13 miles of single-track. TART also acts as fiduciary and fundraiser for the new Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail and Leelanau Scenic Heritage Trail, an effort that started seven years ago.
Top of Michigan Trails Council oversees 288 miles of trails in several counties stretching across the top of the Lower Peninsula.
The 22-mile Betsie Valley Trail stretches from Frankfort to Thompsonville. Eventually it may connect to Interlochen and hook up with the Sleeping Bear Scenic Heritage Trail near the Benzie/Leelanau county line.
Trail advocates say the job now and for the future is to connect trails and communities.
TART executive director Julie Clark sees trails as the "spine of a non-motorized network" and as "linear parks" that knit places together.
"But there's more to it than that," she added. "I am a huge believer in design. Trails need to be utilitarian but pleasant, too. It's the journey along the way that makes the difference."
TART's long-term vision is to eventually connect with Elk Rapids to the north, the Kalkaska Area Recreational Trail to the east, Mayfield and Kingsley to the south and Interlochen to the west — mostly through the new 24-mile Boardman River Trail, now in developmental stages.
TART also envisions a connector between the Leelanau Trail and Betsie Valley Trail in Leelanau County.
Not all trails will be paved, especially those going through environmentally sensitive areas.
"Large multiuse trails aren't meant to go everywhere," Clark said. "When we build trails, we need to be sensitive to the area we're going through. In most cases, we can work something out."
This year, TART plans to start constructing a new stretch of paved trail along the west side of Boardman Lake between Oryana and 14th Street in Traverse City. The project is part of a three-year effort to complete the five-mile loop around Boardman Lake by 2015.
Once easements are secured, trail construction will continue to Medalie Park at Logan's Landing where it will connect with the existing two-mile Boardman Lake Trail, creating a complete paved loop around the lake. Currently the paved trail links the Traverse Area District Library and Logan's Landing.
"We need more loops," Clark said. "People like them because they're more interesting than riding out and back on the same route."
Proposed Boardman River Trail
TART Trail's proposed 24-mile Boardman River Trail is all about connections.
The mostly dirt trail will follow existing trails, some two-tracks and possibly one rural road.
It all adds up to a 46-mile loop that will allow trail users from Traverse City, the Boardman Valley and nearby communities to hike, bike, backpack through a variety of rural and urban scenery.
It will link the Boardman Lake Trail that starts behind the Traverse Area District Library in Traverse City to the North Country Trail at Scheck's Place in the Boardman River Valley.
From there, hikers and bikers will be able to travel the trail through the Muncie Lakes and Sand Lakes Quiet Area to the Vasa Pathway and back on the TART Trail to Traverse City.
Spur paths are also proposed to Beitner Road and the Keystone Complex soccer fields.
"What's unique is that it will offer a lot of new recreational opportunities for northern Michigan," said Dick Naperala, trail coordinator for the Grand Traverse Hiking Club and a TART volunteer. "It will link trails to other communities."
Kingsley has a plan to put in a trail to Mayfield, while Blair Township and Interlochen currently are looking at a connecting trail, he said. Benzie County is exploring the possibility of eventually expanding the 22-mile Betsie Valley Trail between Frankfort and Thompsonville to Interlochen.
Yet in the developmental stage, the proposed Boardman River Trail still needs Department of Natural Resources approval before construction can begin.
The multi-year project will be developed in three segments.
The first will start at the North Country Trail at Scheck's Place and extend to Mayfield. The second goes from Mayfield to Beitner Road. The last stretches from Beitner to the existing Boardman Lake Trail.
Easements for the first two sections have been obtained. Most of the trail will run through city, county, state and Rotary Club of Traverse City property.
Discussions on the third segment are continuing because of easement negotiations and the ongoing Boardman River dam removal and restoration project.
"There are still a lot of uncertainties," Naperala said.
No decision has been made yet on where the new Cass Road replacement bridge for the one-lane bridge attached to Boardman Dam will cross the river. Dam project leaders want a wildlife corridor under it.
Trail planners also would like to route the trail under it.
How to get the trail across South Airport Road is another discussion point. Possibilities include a new traffic light and crossing on South Airport or a tunnel under it to allow families to ride bikes safely to the soccer fields. From South Airport, the proposed trail would lead to the Grand Traverse Bay YMCA to the Boardman River Nature Education Center near Sabin Dam and possibly through Grand Traverse Nature Education Reserve to the Cass Road Bridge, Beitner Road and the Keystone Complex soccer fields.
Bicycling currently is not allowed in the Nature Education Reserve and Brown Bridge Quiet Area, and reserve members are concerned about disruptions to its nature classes and wildlife.
"I'm optimistic something can be worked out," Naperala said. "What we're creating is strictly a path. We don't cut trees, we move around them. We look for scenic views."
At present the proposed bicycle route follows Brown Bridge Road to Scheck's Place, while hikers would use trails north of the drained pond area.
No construction timeline has been established, Naperala said. If the DNR should approve the first two segments this summer, construction could begin in the fall.
"I'd like to get the trail established before the dams are removed," he said.
Brown Bridge Dam is slated to be removed later this summer and in the fall, if its dam removal permit is approved by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Sabin Dam may be removed next year. Boardman Dam's removal depends on the construction of the Cass Road replacement bridge.
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the July/August edition of Grand Traverse Scene, a magazine published six times a year by the Traverse City Record-Eagle. The magazine also features stories on the Grand Traverse Commons and Mercato, and Boone Docks in Glen Arbor. The magazine is available at area newsstands and the Traverse City Record-Eagle.