Metromode’s winter guide to getting outside in Metro Detroit

With winter’s short, frigid days, it is easy for metro Detroiters to bundle up in the comfort of their homes and ignore the abundant opportunities for outdoor adventure in their own backyards. However, there are groups in the Detroit area that provide opportunities for locals to explore the outdoors in the winter and year-round.

The School for Outdoor Leadership, Adventure and Recreation (SOLAR) was founded in 1976 and is based in Livonia. SOLAR is an all-volunteer organization for outdoor enthusiasts. It offers a variety of member-led activities such as day-hiking in local parks, multi-day backpacking trips in other states and sometimes in other countries, car camping at state parks, stand-up paddleboarding, road and mountain biking, kayaking, and canoeing. Its winter activities include hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing at metro Detroit parks.

SOLAR’s members also conduct workshops on outdoor activities. Two of the most popular workshops are the beginning backpacking workshop, which is offered every fall, and the intermediate backpacking workshop, which is offered every other spring. The beginning backpacker workshop consists of five classroom sessions, a field day, and two overnight practicals, including a trip to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The workshop covers necessary topics for venturing into the outdoors for a few days. SOLAR wants its members to be good stewards of the outdoors and has a member who is certified in Leave No Trace and who shares the Leave No Trace principles during the beginning backpack workshop.

Backpacks available in SOLAR Gear Library. Photo by Jeff Burtka.

Leslie Cordova, president-at-large of SOLAR, has led about 95 trips for the group and is involved with both the beginning and intermediate backpacking workshops. “We are everyday people from all walks of life who want to share our outdoor experiences and knowledge with others,” Cordova says. “There are not a lot of places where adults can learn how to backpack, or how to do land navigation, or orienteering.”

Cordova describes SOLAR as a unique club because other outdoor groups may offer hiking and outdoor activities, but they do not have a vast amount of outdoor gear that is available for members to borrow. SOLAR’s gear library, currently located in Redford, contains necessary gear for hiking and backpacking for all four seasons, including tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, hiking poles, stoves, cooking pots, water filters, snowshoes, and snow shovels.

Hike led by the Sierra Club at Farmington Hills Heritage Park. Photo by Jeff Burtka.

Other than a refundable deposit, members may borrow SOLAR’s gear free of charge to explore the outdoors in metro Detroit. “There is so much opportunity in Michigan to enjoy the outdoors, and there are so many state parks and Metroparks around locally,” Cordova says.

Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources has several parks that offer camping in southeast Michigan, including a couple that offer winter camping: Brighton Recreation Area and Pinckney Recreation Area.

But metro Detroiters do not need to go on overnight camping and backpacking trips to enjoy the outdoors. Day hike opportunities are abundant in southeast Michigan. The Sierra Club’s Metro Detroit Outdoor & Hiking (MDOH) leads group hikes throughout metro Detroit’s parks, as well as day ski trips, snowshoe walks, bike rides, canoeing, and naturalist-led wildflower walks.

The Sierra Club is known for its environmental advocacy, but, since its founding, it has also encouraged people to explore the outdoors responsibly. Phil Crookshank, Outings Chair of the Southeast Michigan Group of the Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter, leads many of MDOH’s hikes and says, “We talk about Leave No Trace a lot.” He explains to hikers why it is not acceptable to throw an apple core or other biodegradable items on the ground—without embarrassing them in front of the whole group.

Phil Crookshank explains erosion on the Rouge River to hikers. Photo by Jeff Burtka.

Crookshank has compiled a list of 52 parks within an hour's drive of Royal Oak that offer at least a three-mile walk in nature. “People in our area in Southeast Michigan don’t realize how blessed we are with the huge variety of places that there are to get out in nature,” Crookshank says. “It might be just a city park like Heritage Park in Farmington Hills. It is a huge park and has something for everybody.”

“When people ask me what’s my favorite place, I have about 15,” Crookshank says. “Different times of the year, I have a different reason for going to a place.”

On a recent morning in late December, Crookshank led nearly 30 hikers on a 3-mile hike at Heritage Park through wooded trails, over steep hills, and along the Rouge River. Crookshank explained the riverbank’s erosion patterns, discussed the history of the park, and measured the largest tree in the park with the help of one of the hikers.

“Some folks like that I stop and talk and observe,” Crookshank said. “Other people prefer leaders that don’t stop—are more 'exercise' hikers.” With 12 hiking leaders, MDOH likely has the right type of leader for everyone. MDOH usually has one local hike every weekend, and sometimes it has hikes on both Saturday and Sunday.

Phil Crookshank leads a hike at Proud Lake State Recreation Area for the Sierra Club. Photo by Jeff Burtka.

Crookshank says it is important for everyone to get outside. “We get our lungs exercised, our batteries recharged, our spirits renewed. We should bring our kids up to see that it’s OK to get dirty once in a while. You can sit on a rock instead of a chair, all the things that go with the outdoors. You can teach people how to fish. There’s nothing like catching a fish and 20 minutes later cooking it and eating it.”

Cordova also finds contentment in the outdoors. She says, “It’s my life—my life revolves around hiking and being outside.” As for SOLAR, Cordova says, “It’s a great place to meet people with similar interests, and you’ll make lifelong friends.”

In his 30 years as Outings Chair, Crookshank has seen climate change affect the types of activities MDOH offers. MDOH used to have frequent cross-country skiing excursions, but they rarely offer them now. “In the last ten years, it’s pitiful,” he says. “We can’t depend on any kind of snow.”

Everyone can benefit from time outdoors, but it’s important for people to actually use their local parks. Crookshank says, “We need to get out there and be using these places, or else they’ll be taken from us.”