Biking, hiking, and handcycling: Macomb County's thriving trail system attracts users of all stripes

Steve Vigneau of Shelby Township knows a thing or two about the twists, turns, bumps, and jumps of Macomb County's trails. Whenever the 43-year IT worker has an opportunity, he loves to jump on his mountain bike and explore the county on two-wheels.

Vigneau first got into biking as an adult when he turned 30. At first, he just enjoyed going for rides, but after a while he joined a local mountain biking group called the Clinton River Mountain Biking Association (CRAMBA) that tends to more than a dozen area trails.

"I got a bike just for something fun to do," he says.  "Then a few years later, I started getting involved [with CRAMBA]. We do what we can to get more places for people to ride on  mountain bike trails and that involves everything from volunteering to building trails systems to keeping older trails maintained."

As for his favorite spots to bike, Vigneau likes to zip around the trails at River Bends Park in Shelby Township. He also has a special relationship to Stony Creek Metropark, where he's served as a CRAMBA liaison to help redevelop the Shelden Trail system. Vigneau is also a big fan of the county's paved trails, especially Macomb Orchard Trail, which is located about eight miles from his home near 22 Mile Road and Schoenherr Road.

"I really like the Macomb Orchard Trail," he says. "It's a 24-mile paved non-motorized path that has safe road crossings along the way, so you can actually go out for a pretty lengthy ride without  having to ride in traffic with cars, and for myself and a whole bunch of other people that makes it much more comfortable."

Stony Creek Metropark (Dave Lewinski)
Trails aplenty

With spring in full bloom, lots of folks like Vigneau are returning outside again. And for cyclists, joggers, hikers and others who like spending time outdoors, there's a lot to enjoy in Macomb County.

"Macomb County’s trails really offer something for everyone," says Amanda Minaudo, program director of planning services for the county. "Whether you are a fitness enthusiast looking for a long distance bike ride, a family with young children looking to take a short walk for ice cream, or want to experience nature on a rustic hike, the county trails are for you!" 

With a wide variety of county, local and Metropark trails to choose from, trail enthusiasts of all kinds certainly have their pick of options. 
Those interested in an extended excursion can check out Freedom Trail, also known as Metro Parkway Trail. Running parallel to 16 Mile Road, it begins in Sterling Heights at Schoenherr Road, passes and spans about 10 miles leading right into Lake St. Clair Metro Park. It's a great choice for a long-distance run or memorable bike ride.

Clinton Township, which connects to Freedom Trail, also has a wonderful menagerie of trails, including paved walking trails at George George Park and nature trails at the Tomlinson Arboretum, Nicholson Nature Center, and Budd, Canal, and Normandy parks.  

The city of Sterling Heights has a lot to offer too. It's Clinton River Park Trail system winds through a bunch of different parks and offers a variety of different options for hikers, bicyclists, and those who want to spend some peaceful time out in nature.

River Bends Park in Shelby Township is another popular area trail destination. The 850-acre recreation area features a host of different trails for hikers, bicyclists, rollerbladers and cross-country skiers, including several mountain biking trails. It's also home to the Burgess-Shadbush Nature Center and a series of protected nature trails. 

Looking for a little exercise? Whispering Woods Kiwanis Park in Shelby Township has walking and jogging paths, as well as a 1.2-mile asphalt trail. Macomb Corners Park in Macomb Township is also popular with fitness aficionados, who like to work up a sweat on its paved 1-mile walking and running trail. 

Macomb Orchard Trail (Dave Lewinski)
An apple of a trail

And then there's Macomb Orchard Trail, definitely one of the premier trails in the region. It begins at 24 Mile Road and Dequindre in Shelby Township, crosses through Romeo and Armada, and ends in Richmond. The trail is built on the grounds of a former railroad called the Michigan Airline Trail. 

"Trail users can expect to experience urban landscapes, wide open spaces, tunnels of tree canopy, quaint small towns, and of course, orchards and farms. The trail is utilized by all different types of people, from avid cyclists who bike the entire distance, to families just going on an evening stroll," says Minaudo.

Fans of the popular trail should be happy to hear it's now in the middle of an upgrade aimed at making it safer and easier to navigate. Last year, the county, which maintains the trail, installed stop signs and road name signs, as well as on-road signs indicating trail crossings. 

Work is currently underway to update signage along the trail itself. Macomb Orchard's original trail map signs are being replaced with sturdy reflective signs designed to be easier to identify at trail access points. New wayfinding signs are also being installed at twelve locations to promote downtown districts and point trail users to amenities like restrooms, dining areas, nearby parks, and adjacent trails. As part of the upgrade, trail safety mile markers are also being placed at different points along the trail. Starting at Dequindre Road and located every half mile along its route, the markers are intended to help trail users in charting their location and to assist first responders in finding different spots along the trail during an emergency.  

In addition to being an enjoyable place to visit in its own right, Macomb Orchard Trail is part of a network of more than 180 miles of regional non-motorized trails in the county. Right now, it's connected to Oakland County's Paint Creek trail, and plans are also in the works to bring it together with the Iron Belle and Great Lake-to-Lake trails.

Handcycling at Stony Creek (HCMA)
Traversing the Metroparks

The area's Metroparks, run by the Huron-Clinton Metropark Authority (HCMA), are also popular destinations for many different types of trail enthusiasts. 

“The Metroparks are known for the extensive variety of trails across the park system. Ensuring and expanding those amenities and that access, along with creating an exceptional outdoor recreation experience, is something we’re deeply committed to,” says HCMA Director Amy McMillan. “Through the pandemic, visitors have found refuge in our trails, and we’re making investments to help us maintain that exceptional experience while meeting or exceeding ADA requirements on all current and future trail projects and advancing more equitable access to Metroparks facilities, programs, services, and activities.”

There are three Metroparks in Macomb County, each with their own distinct trails. Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township makes good use of its beautiful coastline with a three-mile paved hiking and biking trail that offers breathtaking vistas of Lake St. Clair. Woolcott Mills in Ray Township is best known for its working farm, which features six different breeds of cows as well as horses, sheep, chickens and other animals. But it's also home to a rustic hiking trail and over ten miles of equestrian trails.

And, with its impressive 4,461 acres of park land, Stony Creek in Shelby Township has no shortage of great trail opportunities for cyclists, runners, hikers, and fans of the great outdoors. HCMA is currently in the middle of redeveloping it's Shelden Trail system to be one of the  premier multi-use natural surface single track trails in Southeast Michigan.

"This unique project was identified and imagined through community and trail user input," says Nina Kelly, chief of planning and development for the Metropark system. "In August 2016, the Stony Creek Master Plan was completed. During that planning process, the Metroparks received significant input from the mountain bike and trail user community that there was a need for redevelopment."

Originally established for cross-country skiing, the Shelden Trails are being redeveloped with the goal of creating top-notch year-round facilities for a variety of user groups, including mountain bikers, hikers, runners, fat-tire cyclists, and cross-country skiers. HCMA has hired a professional trail builder, Flowtrack LLC, to oversee the project. They'll be making use of modern design techniques and other tools to improve safety, navigatibility, and access while mitigating potential negative environmental impacts.

The project is being funded by a number of different organizations, including REI, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Legacy Fund.

So far two new trails have been added to Shelden Trail system, the Bee Loop and the Beach loop, which will be handcycle accessible. Totaling nearly four miles, they're located near the park's West Branch trailhead. Another half  mile segment is also being developed on its north side to connect with a new park in Oakland County. Once the new trails are complete, the Shelden Trail system is expected to total over eleven miles. Construction on the project began last year and is expected to be finished by the end of 2021.

"We are thrilled to have the opportunity to develop a world-class natural surface trail system that will be more exciting and more accessible, and look forward to welcoming the new users that are sure to come," says Kelly.

Stony Creek Metropark (Dave Lewinski)
Mobilizing Macomb

Trails have been taking on a higher profile in Macomb County since 2014, thanks to the development of the Mobilize Macomb Plan, which aims to connect residents to trails, parks and attractions using non-motorized modes of transportation along key roadways. 

"This plan is organized in a way that allows for clear and concise recommendations, project prioritization, and implementation and maintenance strategies," says Minaudo. "Our goal is to provide safe facilities that are easily accessible by all public citizens using a variety of modes of transportation." 

Among other things, the plan seeks to link historic downtowns with the county's trail system, bridge gaps, and help join the county to a larger regional network of trails. 

Helping complete Macomb's County contribution to the statewide Iron Belle Trail is certainly a high priority. About two years ago, the county and the cities of Center Line, Warren, and Sterling Heights received a community planning grant from the South East Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) to develop a master plan for the Iron Belle Trail.

Since that time, a final plan has been developed that breaks the route into seven sections, based around the different jurisdictions and the scope of work being done. With the help of Macomb County, Center Line has applied and been approved for a Transportation Alternatives Program grant to help build their section of trail, which is now expected to be finished by next spring. 

Looking towards the future, the county is currently considering developing a trail called the North Branch Greenway that would follow the North Branch of the Clinton River from Clinton Township to Coon Creek in Lenox Township. If implemented, it would not only provide a place for people to walk and ride their bikes, but also help to minimize flooding and protect wetland habitats. Similar development is also being considered for the Sterling Relief and Red Run Drains in Sterling Heights.

Stony Creek Metropark (Dave Lewinski)
Getting out to the trails

For those interested in getting back out on the trails, there are two special events coming up later this year that should pique their curiosity.

The county's ninth annual Sprint and Splash will be held this year on Aug. 21. Cosponsored by Macomb County and the HCMA, it's a family friendly event that encourages people of all ages and abilities to get active through running and boating activities. This year's festivities will be held at Lake St. Clair Metropark and will include a 5K Run / Walk, two-mile paddle race, and a duathlon combining aspects of both activities. Sprint and Splash is dedicated to celebrating and promoting Lake St. Clair, and funds raised this year will go towards supporting Southeast Michigan's Metroparks. 

Area trails will also receive recognition on Sept. 25 during Meet Me on the Trail Day. Sponsored by the Macomb County Healthy Parks Collaborative, its focus is on encouraging health and wellness while promoting the county's growing trail system. Meet Me on the Trails Day will feature a bunch of activities including nature hikes, bike rides, restoration projects, fishing lessons, picnics, kid's games and presentations. A variety of local parks systems will be joining in the effort. Organizers are still looking for service organizations to help make Meet Me on the Trail Day a success. More details will emerge as the event develops.

Both Sprint and Splash and Meet Me on the Trail Day present great opportunities to go out and enjoy Macomb County's parks and trails. Over the last year, use of these outdoor assets have grown impressively. That's a turn of events the county is happy to see happening and working diligently to accommodate.

"​Trails and parks provide our residents and visitors with an excellent way to improve upon their physical AND mental health," says Minaudo. "The amount of people accessing our trail systems has certainly grown, and we are looking for ways to enhance our assets so that we can continue to provide quality parks and trails to our residents and visitors."

The Macomb Parks & Trails series seeks to capture the story of the outdoor recreation, greenspace, placemaking and emerging outdoor assets that are shaping Macomb County's future. It's made possible with funding from Macomb County.
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Read more articles by David Sands.