With expanding trails and engaged riders, mountain biking flourishes in Southeast Michigan

Infrastructure and a community of enthusiasts have sprung up to support the sport across Southeast Michigan.
This article is part of Inside Our Outdoors, a series about Southeast Michigan's connected parks, greenways, and trails and how they affect residents' quality of life. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance.

Jade de Gracia, 21, spends a lot of her time studying to be an MRI tech at Washtenaw Community College. But whenever she gets the chance, she loves to take her Motobecane mountain bike out for a ride on one of Southeast Michigan's many mountain bike trails. 

"It's more exciting for me than team sports," she says. "It's a really good group exercise, but then it's great to just do by yourself. It's accessible and free. I like the adrenaline rush."

Growing up, de Gracia spent a lot of time with her family riding the Potawatomi Trail, a 17.4-mile loop located at Pinckney Recreation Area. Beyond that, she's also traversed the Brighton Recreation Area Bishop Lake Trail System, and even some trails in Kalamazoo. But her favorite place to take her bike right now is the 22-mile DTE Energy Foundation Trail, which opened in Chelsea in 2016 just a few miles from her home. 

During her many trips to DTE, de Gracia encountered people of all ages and skill levels. And while some may consider mountain biking a pursuit for thrill seekers and professional athletes, de Gracia doesn't think that's the case at all.

"I like when I see little kids out there with their parents," she says. "People [sometimes] look at it like a dangerous sport. But those people don't know what it's like. It's a really good thing to do as a family."
Tyler Pokowski does a jump on his mountain bike at the Shelden Trails at Stony Creek Metropark.
De Gracia is just one of many Michiganders of all ages who enjoy the popular pastime of mountain biking (or riding bicycles off-road). Since it first caught on here about 30 years ago, a still-expanding trail network and several dedicated enthusiast groups have sprung up to support the sport across Southeast Michigan.

Exploding interest

Since he began working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 2005, Ron Olson, the agency's Chief of Parks and Recreation, has watched mountain biking and its close cousin, gravel road biking, gain a lot of fans around the state. And he thinks COVID-19 only increased people's eagerness to hit the trails. Sales for front-suspension mountain bikes rose more than 150% in April 2020 compared to the previous year, according to NDP Group, a market research firm. But enthusiasm for the sport goes back a lot further than 2020.

"Mountain biking has really evolved and exploded in terms of the interest in Michigan," Olson says. "I think lots of people are getting out and finding the outdoors with their bicycles. And of course with the advent of fat-tire bikes, it's really opened up the sport year-round."
Rivers Whitson rides the Shelden Trails at Stony Creek Metropark.
Modern mountain biking got its start in Marin County, Calif. in the '60s, due to the efforts of a group of teenagers called the Larkspur Canyon Gang, who retrofitted vintage single-speed balloon-tire bikes and rode them around Mt. Tamalpais and Baltimore Canyon in the city of Larkspur.

The sport first began to get a foothold in Michigan during the '80s and its popularity grew in the early '90s. While there are more than 20 multi-use bike trails in Southeast Michigan today geared towards mountain bikers, riding on public lands was a challenge for cyclists in the early days.

"Mountain bikers were struggling with access issues," says Jason Aric Jones, advocacy director for the Michigan Mountain Biking Association (MMBA). "Mountain bikes were new, and people started going out on the natural-surface single-track hiking trails. Some land managers welcomed bikes, some land managers didn't. It was highly localized." 

To address this and other issues for off-road cyclists, the MMBA was formed around 1989. The MMBA originally started as a union between the Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association (PotoMBA), which is active in Washtenaw and Livingston counties, and another west Michigan-based group. Since then, several other organizations have joined MMBA.

With the state's mountain biking community behind it, MMBA began to advocate for consistent rules for riding mountain bikes on public lands, which are managed by a variety of different entities like the DNR and Huron-Clinton Metroparks, as well as county and local governments.

Over time, mountain biking became more accepted in the state, and mountain bike groups began to push for multi-use trails that met their needs. Land managers responded to their organizing by opening up existing trails that had been originally constructed for hiking, as well as allowing for the construction of new trails that specifically take issues like sustainability and excitement into consideration.
Steve Vigneau, lead volunteer of Clinton River Area Mountain Biking Association (CRAMBA), leads a group of mountain bikers at the Shelden Trails at Stony Creek Metropark.
Modern mountain biking trails are constructed with gentler slopes than old-school hiking trails, which helps to better manage water runoff and minimize erosion. And single-track trails, which are built to accommodate one rider at a time, are often preferred by mountain bikers because they're better suited for challenging features like switchbacks, rock gardens, log piles, gap jumps, and wall rides.  

Unlike the owners of off-road vehicles or snowmobiles, mountain bike users don't pay fees to the state to register their vehicles. So there isn't a steady flow of revenue to fund mountain bike trails. 

The state does award funding for some projects through the Transportation Alternatives Program and Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grants. And the DNR now allocates money from its capital fund to offer matching funds to encourage trail projects across the state. But for the most part, mountain bike groups have had to step up to build and maintain the trails they use. 

"We've always had to do either labor or offer dollar support to maintain our access," says Jones. "And it's important that the new generation of mountain bikers know that part of being a mountain biker is to give back to the trail. Come and do the trail work and support your local [group]."

Engaged enthusiasts

There are three major mountain biking organizations in the Ann Arbor-Metro Detroit area: The Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association (PotoMBA), Motor City Mountain Biking Association (MCMBA), and Clinton River Area Mountain Biking Association (CRAMBA). Originally chapters of the MMBA, they eventually became independent nonprofits in the mid-2000s but remain affiliated with the MMBA.  

Of the three groups, PotoMBA is the largest in Southeast Michigan, with a membership of more than 600 people. DTE Energy Foundation Trail, which goes by the nickname "Michigan's Dirt Roller Coaster," is perhaps its most high-profile project. Work began on DTE in 2015 after the Michigan DNR and PotoMBA signed an operating agreement to build the trail at Waterloo Recreation Area, a 20,000-acre state park located in Chelsea. The project gained even more steam when the DTE Energy Foundation awarded it a $250,000 grant in exchange for naming rights.

PotoMBA is also responsible for building Brighton Recreation Area's mountain bike trail system and has been responsible for developing, maintaining, or constructing a variety of other trails in the region. It's currently working with the DNR to redevelop the Potawatomi Trail. That project was delayed a bit last year because of COVID-19, but is expected to resume this summer.

The MCMBA supports around 15 trails in Wayne, Oakland, and Livingston counties. The group currently has 260 active members, who contribute approximately 4,000 hours of labor each year to develop and maintain local trails. 

In addition to sponsoring group rides, fundraisers, and annual events like the Milford Bike Fest and Trail Challenge, the MCMBA regularly holds trail days where volunteers help out by cleaning up or building out new trail sections. On April 24, the group held a trail day at Rouge Park in Detroit. 

"We had about a dozen people come out," says Dave Hurst, MCMBA's board chair. "There's a lot of invasive plants that were crowding areas out of the trail. So we cleared the invasive plants and started building a kids' section, which will be a loop for our young riders to get them more confident about riding." 

During other recent trail days, MCMBA volunteers also added 0.2 miles of trail to Lakeshore Park in Novi and a kids' loop to Settler's Park in Hartland. Right now, the group is collaborating with the DNR to look into a possible separation of mountain bike and equestrian trails at Proud Lake Recreation Area in Commerce Charter Township. It also works regularly with Wayne County to maintain trails along Hines Drive, and is currently interested in expanding the trail network there.  

To the north of the MCMBA is CRAMBA, which has an active membership of about 480 people. CRAMBA covers a territory that roughly aligns with the Clinton River watershed and cares for about 15 trails located in Macomb, St. Clair, Lapeer, and Oakland counties. In addition to clearing trails in the spring, summer, and fall, the group's volunteers work with land managers to clear snow off trails for fat-tire biking during the colder months. 

CRAMBA is currently working on two big projects, both in Shelby Township. The first, the Far Side Trail Project, involves creating three new donor-funded trails at River Bend Park, which is managed by the township. A grand opening for the first section of the project, a one-mile path called Spring Hill Trail, was held at the park on May 23. 

CRAMBA is also collaborating with Huron-Clinton Metroparks on redeveloping Shelden Trails at Stony Creek Metropark, which are used by mountain bikers, trail runners, hikers, and cross-country skiers. The Metropark is adding over five miles of single-track trail, for a total of over 11 miles, and is working to make one of its loops handcycle-accessible. 

Right now CRAMBA is advising on the project, but it plans to get even more involved once the construction is complete. 

"The Metroparks see their trails as a fundamental piece of infrastructure, so they're making capital improvements, hiring a professional designer and a professional builder," says Steve Vigneau, a former CRAMBA board member who's still active with the group. "We've been supporting them along the way, and then when the pros are gone we'll be doing the long-term maintenance on it."
Steve Vigneau, lead volunteer of Clinton River Area Mountain Biking Association (CRAMBA).
Balancing usage

While mountain bike groups spend a lot of time focusing on building and maintaining trails, land managers have another task: figuring out how to fairly allocate access to the different interest groups connected to them.

At Waterloo Recreation Area, for example, the DNR must take into account cyclists, hikers, horseback riders, hunters, and the presence of the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, which is a protected reptile. 

"I use the word balance all the time," says Olson. "We need to make sure the atmosphere of that park is very carefully stewarded and maintained, but we want to stimulate progress in terms of making sure that we are relevant to the different types of use, such as the growth of the mountain biking, provided that it's done properly and well planned."

In order to find that balance, the DNR has increasingly been involved in separating trails, especially those intended for bicyclists and equestrians. Beyond that, the state now relies on a trails advisory council, which has a non-motorized committee that Jones sits on, to help make decisions about trails.  

For Jones that's a great development, and he's excited about all the advances mountain bikers have made in Michigan over the last few decades. That said, he still worries about complacency and urges younger bikers to get involved with groups like CRAMBA, MCMBA, and PotoMBA.

"They're advocating for your access to these trails," he says. "If we're not there, someone else has designs on these green spaces. If you don't look out for your own interests, you won't have that interest. That still holds. It held in 1989, and it still holds in 2021." 

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.

Photos by Nick Hagen.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.