Southeast Michigan: Exploring the Waterloo-Pinckney recreation areas
BY REBECCA BARTON-DAVIS
When most people think of Southeast Michigan, they immediately think Detroit or the busy suburbs – not a destination for adventure.
However, this region of the state has some undiscovered gems, with hundreds of miles of interconnecting trails and waterways protected by a well-developed network of state and local parks.
Never heard of Pinckney? It’s a small town about 35 miles northwest of Detroit.
The terrain in the area has gently rolling hills, separated by ponds, lakes and marshes.
The area is a mix of hardwood forest and marsh grasses – each bend in the river or trail reveals a different facet of the local ecology.
Birds (including hawks and eagles), waterfowl, deer and small mammals are easy to spot along all routes.
Nearest to my heart, paddling in Southeast Michigan is an excellent way to spend the weekend.
Pinckney has multiple routes that can have paddlers doing small loops of inland lakes and canals or heading all the way out to Lake Huron on a multi-day adventure.
My favorite day trip is to start at the Bruin Lake Campground boat launch.
You first paddle across to the channel into Watson Lake.
From here, you take another canal into Halfmoon Lake, paddle another canal into Hi-land Lake and finally head into the Portage River before reaching the dam in Hell, Michigan, for lunch.
This route combines lakes, canals, a river and an intimate view of the wetlands.
Part of the fun is reading a map to find the canals between the lakes – don’t worry, you won’t get lost, as the lakes are small, but the entrances are somewhat hidden in the tall grass.
We like to stop for lunch at Hell’s post office, which also operates as the Hell Hole Bar, for sandwiches on house-made bread.
After lunch, we head back the way we came, totaling a trip of 7 miles.
Along this route are multiple campsites and a yurt which can be rented through the park.
A few days of exploring could be done in this area on the other chains of connected lakes or downstream on the Portage River.
Bruin Lake Campground, Silver Lake and other launches within the park do kayak and SUP rentals.
Loaner life jackets are available for those who forget a personal flotation device.
The Pinckney Recreation Area is quickly becoming a mountain biker’s paradise.
Many trails within the park are rider-friendly, but the new DTE Energy Foundation Trails are designed with cyclists specifically in mind.
Once completed, the total trail mileage will be 25 miles, split into five, 5-mile loops of varying terrain and difficulty.
As of October 2019, four of the loops are completed, with the final loop set to open in the fall of 2020.
Green Lake Loop was the first to be completed and is a very beginner-friendly single track – mainly flat, with no sharp turns or obstacles.
The Big Kame Loop features its namesake “Kame” – a large glacial hill that involves some hard climbing and a bit more technical terrain with rocks and roots throughout the trail.
Win Loop has the best views of the completed sections, with the ridgeline riding of the Winnewana Escarpment and the steep drops that follow as the loop progresses.
The Sugar Loop was recently completed and features less elevation, but more rollers and switchbacks – reminiscent of a rollercoaster feel.
These segments can be ridden as one large loop or done individually to suit the rider’s skill set.
Southern Michiganders often lament the lack of overnight hike options, but this park delivers with multiple, long routes and good camping – both dispersed and in organized campgrounds.
Scattered throughout the parks are yurts that can be rented – perfect for a snowshoe or cold-weather trips.
The Pinckney-Potawatomi Trail is a 17.4-mile loop hike (shared with bikers) with rustic camping perfect for a weekend trip.
This hike travels between marshland sections and rolling hills.
It has beautiful footbridges between lakes and some sections of trail that are creekside.
For those looking at a longer challenge, there is the 38.5-mile Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, that traverses some of the bigger climbs in the area as it travels west from Pinckney.
It connects the two parks and gives users the full range of what this region of Michigan has to offer.
The two hikes listed above, as well as the bike trails, make great trail runs, but the Pinckney-Waterloo trail system has even more to offer.
My particular favorite is the Crooked Lake Trail, a 5.1-mile run around Crooked Lake.
This can be combined with sections of the Potawatomi Trail for a longer run, totaling about 8 miles.
This is a perfect trail run in the spring or fall, with some elevation, as it weaves in and out of the hardwoods to reveal lakeside views.
Want to do some racing? Pinckney-Waterloo holds some of the best trail racing in Southern Michigan each year – the trail marathon and ultras in April and the Dances with Dirt five-person, team relay in September.
Both races should be on a Midwest runner’s list.
As the cold weather closes in, these parks embrace it – grooming for fat bike and cross-country skiing when weather permits.
Snowshoeing is popular on the trails when there is enough snow.
Waterloo-Pinckney probably isn’t worth the travel as a winter destination because the weather conditions are so variable in this part of the state, but the trail system and amenities make it an excellent place for locals in all four seasons.