The western half of the Kal-Haven Trail Sesquicentennial State Park has not been resurfaced since the trail’s creation more than three decades ago.
That’s one of a host of maintenance and other issues along the popular trail, the first state park of its kind in Michigan. The trail runs 33.5 miles from Kalamazoo to South Haven.
That’s about to change, thanks to federal funds earmarked for Michigan’s state parks.
The Kal-Haven Trail has been awarded $5 million in federal funds for the long-overdue resurfacing of 17 miles of the trail’s 33.5-mile length.
And just a few miles south of the Kal-Haven’s far west trailhead, on Lake Michigan, Van Buren State Park is slated for a $1.1 million federal allocation to repair the walkway to the beach and the park’s sewage lagoon.
These two projects in Southwest Michigan are among more than 150 statewide earmarked for federal dollars through the Building Michigan Together Plan, signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer earlier this year. The projects cover a wide range of infrastructure projects at state parks on both peninsulas, everything from road and sewer repairs to building restoration and improvements.
Across the state, the projects range from $1 million to modernize the visitor center parking lot and other improvements at Fayette State Park to $8 million to pave the remaining 29 miles of the 62-mile-long Fred Meijer White Pine Trail State Park, another linear park. For a complete list of projects, go to Building Michigan Together Plan – State Parks Progress
The Building Michigan Together Plan provides $4.8 billion in federal funding to invest in roads, water, high-speed internet and the single largest investment — state and local parks. The funding is part of the federal relief program, the American Rescue Plan, signed into law by President Biden in March 2021.
The funding is a welcome gift for Michigan increasingly popular state parks. Michigan’s general fund provides just 3 percent of state park funding. The remaining is generated through user fees and royalty revenues.
Although timelines for the projects have not yet been developed, federal funding requirements mandate that these funds be spent by Dec. 31, 2026.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources already had a list of existing critical repairs within state parks – at one time totaling about $264 million. That figure did not include a backlog of trails maintenance costs identified in the 2022-2032 Michigan DNR Trails Plan.
A team reviewed the list of priority projects eligible for ARPA funds, prioritizing infrastructure projects across the state, as well as elevating projects that could be completed quickly.
Users and friends of the Kal-Haven Trail State Park have been pressing for its maintenance for years. This is the first time the west end of the trail has been resurfaced since the trail was created in 1989.
The conversion of unused rail corridors to recreational trails was a relatively new concept when the Kal-Haven Trail came into existence. The Kal-Haven runs along the old Penn Central Railroad bed between Kalamazoo and South Haven. Thousands of people use the trail each year.
The trail is used for hiking, biking (class 1 e-bikes are permitted) and snowmobiles; no equestrian or off-road-vehicle use is permitted. The trail is a popular tourist destination in southwest Michigan, passing over a glacial moraine, through towns and small villages and open farmland before reaching Lake Michigan.
The newly awarded federal grant will be used to put down new limestone from South Haven to the village of Bloomingdale, says Jill Sell, Southwest Michigan trail specialist for DNR.
Some asphalt paving work in the western stretch will occur in the areas currently paved — the South Haven trailhead area and at the village of Bloomingdale. In addition, three complete bridge replacements will be done in the same, western, section that is being resurfaced.
Sell says she doesn’t yet have a confirmed timeline for the work. It is likely the portion of trail where the resurfacing work is happening will be closed during construction.
The repavement project is long overdue, says Jeff Green, acting chairman of the Friends of the Kal-Haven Trail, a nonprofit group that works to maintain and improve the trail.
Green says the project should clear up some existing issues surrounding storm water abatement, safety improvements at road crossings, neighbor encroachment, wildflower and native vegetation restoration. The improvements will significantly improve “our guests’ experience on the trail,” he says.
“We also applaud the DNR decision to maintain the trail surface as crushed limestone, a superior material for the widest variety of users,” Green says.
While there will likely be short-term detours and trail closures, “we're confident that the overall project is in good hands with the DNR and we look forward to their more closely consulting us with their plans by keeping us better informed and actively seeking our long-standing knowledge of how the trail is used by our guests,” Green says.
Green says the DNR is very good at managing the physical aspects of the Kal-Haven and other state trails, “but it's the Friend's Groups who know their users better than any.”
Since 1984, when the Friends of the Kal-Haven Trail first shepherded the purchase of the old Penn Central Railroad bed to become the Kal-Haven Trail, the Friends have maintained a close relationship with the Michigan DNR.
DNR’s Sell said in addition to the recently awarded grants funds, some private donation money has also been earmarked for Kal-Haven improvements. “We are still working through the specifics, so I don’t have any more details on that at this time,” Sell says.
“I’m very excited to see this project happen,” she says. “Without this influx of federal funding we would not have been able to accomplish the whole project at one time. This is a very popular regional trail and destination for users. This resurfacing and bridge work will ensure that the trail continues to provide recreation opportunities for many more years to come.”
The Friends of the Kal-Haven Trail has hosted several ribbon cuttings on the trail in recent years, one for the PureMichigan designation and one for the first-in-the-state Heritage Trail project.
“We look forward to another,” Green says, “at the completion of the trail resurfacing.”
Van Buren State Park
The Kal-Haven Trail ends in South Haven just a few miles north of Van Buren State Park.
That park is receiving $1.1 million in Building Michigan Together funding for two projects. Some $400,000 will be used to restore a paved path from the parking lot to the beach on Lake Michigan, which was eroded by high water a few years ago. An additional $700,000 will go to upgrading the park’s lagoon.
“We have not hired a design consultant at this time,” says Matthew Metzger, unit supervisor at Van Buren and Saugatuck Dunes State Parks. “Once hired, they will help determine the final location as well as any changes that will be made” to the walkway. “Any additional improvements that are needed will be incorporated into the project as funding allows.”
He said a timeline for the work will be developed once a design consultant and contractor are on board. Federal funding requirements say that ARPA funds must be committed to a project by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent on that project by Dec. 31, 2026.
Improvements to the park’s wastewater lagoons are needed because with record attendance numbers over the past few years, the current system is not set up to fully meet the needs of the park.
Metzger says the lagoons will be evaluated by a consultant to help determine the best way forward.
“We are excited to have received funding for these projects and bring these new improvements to our park,'' he says. “These enhancements will allow our facilities the ability to keep up with increased visitation and ensure they are accessible for years to come.”
For an interactive map of the projects and progress: https://experience.arcgis.com/experience/69ec418085f24f8c9a7263f6422aca47
Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.