Dearborn’s Gateway Trail is just that: A gateway to the city’s history, culture, businesses and more

Construction broke ground earlier this month on the Wayne County Hines Park-Parkland Park Connector project, a two-mile greenway that will connect the Dearborn’s Rouge River Gateway Trail to Parkland Park at Hines Park in Dearborn Heights, before reaching Detroit’s Rouge Park. The possibilities from there, says Wayne County Parks Director Alicia Bradford, are virtually limitless.

“This is part of a larger master plan of connection,” Bradford says. “We have the Downriver Linked Greenways, the Joe Louis Greenway that's being built, the Rouge Park Gateway connection, the Parkland Park connection, trails at Ann Arbor Trail and I-275 — they all are connecting different hubs of communities to get to the larger connection to the Iron Belle Trail.”

It’s the completion of the 2,000 mile-long Iron Belle Trail that will one day make it possible to bicycle from somewhere like downtown Dearborn to the western tip of the Upper Peninsula, connecting new trails to existing ones. The Gateway Trail in Dearborn then, with its relatively new trailhead at Ford Field, provides Dearborn residents a launchpad to discover the state.

Of course, it also offers the state a unique way to discover Dearborn, too.

Providing opportunities

The Rouge River Gateway Trail, or the Dearborn Gateway Trail as it’s sometimes referred to locally, serves as just that: a gateway to Dearborn. The two miles it traverses from Hines Park to Dearborn’s Ford Field is about as an ideal introduction to a community there is, winding through acres of forest and hiking trails, two college campuses, and several historic sites and museums, before ultimately opening up on the outskirts of west downtown Dearborn with all the locally-owned small businesses and amenities that it has to offer.

“We're all trying to figure out the best and safest ways to get the community to our parks. But these connections also provide an opportunity for economic development, as you arrive at these downtown businesses — by biking or walking or whatever the case may be,” Bradford says. “These trails give people more opportunity to visit those restaurants, those businesses, to visit those minority-owned businesses. If you're able to have a good, safe trail connection, you may end up stopping for that ice cream cone, you may stop to look inside that boutique.”

“It provides the opportunity to help those communities with additional economic drivers. These trails help property values, too. And of course they provide residents with positive recreation opportunities.”

Coming up from Hines Park, the Rouge River Gateway Trail takes you through woods and over bridges before exiting onto the campus of Henry Ford College, the public community college named for the city’s most famous resident. Henry Ford’s presence is felt throughout the Gateway Trail, from his namesake college to his historic estate, Fair Lane, located further down the trail. Fair Lane now serves as a museum, the attraction drawing international visitors and local schools’ field trips alike.

Near the end of the Gateway Trail is the Dearborn Historical Museum, where you’ll find the McFadden-Ross House, which was first built in 1839. When the Ross family lived there, they would find their way through the woods where the Gateway Trail now cuts through, meeting up with the Fords.

The McFadden-Ross house, part of the Dearborn Historical Museum.
“The Rosses owned all the land on the north side of Michigan Avenue and on both sides of Brady street, all the way to the river. So the land that the western half of the trail was built on is Ross farmland,” says Tyler Moll, exhibits designer for the Dearborn Historical Museum. “The Rosses had walking trails in the woods and even had home-made wooden bridges across the river connecting it to Fair Lane, and they would on occasion meet up with Henry Ford on these paths.”

Nathaniel Ross in the nearby woods. (Photo courtesy of the Dearborn Historical Museum)
The Dearborn Historical Museum now stands near the end of the trail, offering history exhibits, community meeting space, and events. Upcoming events include the annual Teddy Bear Picnic on Saturday, June 25, and the 126th U.S. Army Band Concert on Sunday, June 26.

Connecting people and places

After Henry Ford College comes the campus of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The school makes great use of its access to the adjacent woods, with its Environmental Interpretive Center (EIC) firmly planted at its edge. The university’s faculty and students make use of the site while at the same time inviting area schoolchildren for hands-on lessons about the natural world.

The EIC also runs a one-acre organic community garden, offering almost fifty 300 sq. ft. garden plots for rent to local growers. It’s a decades-long program, and very popular.

Claudia Walters, director of the Environmental Interpretive Center.
“We recently had a couple pass on who had been renting a plot on campus here for 50 years,” says Claudia Walters, director of the Environmental Interpretive Center. “There's one plot that's set aside for a children's garden. And we're running a children's gardening program in the summer for younger kids. They each get their spot, and then they learn about the soil and worms and pollinators.”

Taking the path out of the woods and onto Michigan Avenue, you come upon the old Andiamo restaurant. Shuttered over the course of COVID-19, the building, prominently located at the edge of downtown, is now set to become the Boardwalk Marketplace, a food hall with multiple vendors and also a coworking space. Across the way towers the John D. Dingell Transit Center, allowing travelers to put their bicycles on the train and take the Amtrak to Chicago. In front of that is Ford’s Garage, a popular restaurant chain named for the man who used to live just a few steps away.

A boardwalk runs behind the announced Boardwalk Marketplace.

The path ends, or begins, at Ford Field, a center of outdoor recreation and gatherings for the community. Motor City Canoe & Kayak Rental offers the opportunity to slip into the Rouge River and explore the region in a whole new way. And west downtown Dearborn is just blocks away, its dozens of bars, restaurants, and shops awaiting visitors from the Gateway Trail, whoever they may be and from wherever they’ve begun their journeys.
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Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.