Mid-Mitten Cycling Scenic Rides

Lower Huron Metropark to Lake Erie

(Here’s the first MidMitten Cycling route of 2015. I’ve been a little slower getting going this season — writing a novel will do that to you. Remember, if you’d like to subscribe just to my cycling posts, fill out the form at the end of this page.)

Forested bike path in Lake Erie Metropark
Forested bike path in Lake Erie Metropark

If there’s one thing Michigan has done right, it’s saving the last scraps of nature left over after clearcutting in the 19th century and industrialization in the 20th. On this route, you’ll start just a couple of miles west of one of DTW’s runways, pass within sight of a Mazda factory, and cross two freeways. Still, for most of the ride you’ll feel you’re away from it all, with many close-up views of the lazy lower Huron River, marshlands, the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge, and the entirely different natural world of Lake Erie. Connecting it all is a mostly well-paved set of bike paths. This route begins on the extreme edge of MidMitten Cycling territory (about an hour and twenty minutes from Lansing, according to Google Maps), but it’s worth the drive.

You could rush through this 45-mile round-trip outing, as my bike partner Rob and I did on one six-hour journey, but it’s probably better to break it up into two or more trips. The four separate parks along the way provide great opportunities for short trips with kids, but the urban stretches through the communities of Flat Rock and Rockwood are less well suited for young children. Alternatively, if you want to experience the whole route without doing the full 45 miles, you could set up a car shuttle, leaving one vehicle at Lake Erie Metropark, then taking the other back to the start of the ride in Lower Huron Metropark, for a total of about 22 to 24 riding miles.

A word of caution: the signage for the various bike paths connecting these parks leaves something to be desired, so you’ll want to get one of the “Huron-Clinton Metroparks Hike-Bike Trail Maps” available at the entrance kiosk (where you’ll also pay a $7 entrance fee, unless you’ve sprung for an annual pass). As you’re making your way from north to south, look for signs for the Downriver Linked Greenways Initiative, with its cool logo. I’ve provided more detailed directions at the end of this post.

The bike path travels mostly south for the first two or three miles, paralleling the park road, Metropolitan Parkway. You’ll cross the Huron River several times as the stream snakes about on its lazy way to the Detroit River and Lake Erie. This stretch is mostly forested, with a few open stretches of lawn. This section is also quite hilly, with many steep but short (20 to 30 feet) ups and downs.

After about three  miles, the trail bends east and then north, passing through tight caution gates at a railroad crossing, then passing a historic cemetery, with grave markers dating back to the mid-19th century. Soon after, a growing roar in the distance means you’re approaching the crossing beneath I-275. Quieter riding is ahead as you’ll soon be leaving both the freeway and the overhead roar of jets behind you.

Covered bridge in Flatrock's Huroc Park
Covered bridge in Flatrock’s Huroc Park

Once under the freeway, you enter the second park of the day, Willow Metropark. From here the path becomes more level as it heads straight south to a junction near a visitor center (with restrooms) at Washago Pond. Bear left at this point to stay near the Huron River as you circle your way around this park. Willow Metropark is more open than Huron, with many open grassy expanses, some of which have been allowed to revert to a more natural state. I like to imagine that these more closely resemble the kind of grassland Michigan once had, but it will probably take much more restoration work to achieve that more “natural” state.

More grassy expanses are ahead as you cross Willow Rd. and enter Oakwoods Metropark, with some suburban developments on your right. It’s interesting to note how some of these neighborhoods open themselves to this stretch of backyard nature with connecting trails, while others fence it out. Just before the 11-mile mark, you’ll come to a junction and face a choice: whether to turn right to continue for Lake Erie, or go straight ahead to visit the Oakwoods Nature Center, just a scant half-mile farther.  It’s well worth a visit, offering restrooms, nature displays, and nature trails (foot traffic only).

Continuing southeast from the aforementioned junction, you’ll soon leave Oakwoods Metropark and cross West Huron River Dr., passing north of another housing development before crossing the Huron River at Huroc Park (so that’s actually five parks on this route, if you count this municipal park). This park is actually an island in the Huron River — look across the park to spot the covered bridge you’ll use to leave the island and enter the town of Flat Rock. The bridge traverses a dam, making this a popular fishing area.

At thirteen miles from the start, Flat Rock makes a convenient turnaround point if you’re doing an out-and-back. There’s a Dairy Queen, a Jet’s Pizza, and a bar called Michael’s on the River with decent Yelp reviews, but no publicized hours. Or, you could bring a picnic to enjoy in Huroc Park. There’s also the Flat Rock Train Depot, a model-railway museum, in the park next to the covered bridge. (Unfortunately, it’s closed until September, 2015.)

Continuing east from Huroc Park, you’ll be in urban riding conditions for six miles, with the first few blocks being on-street. (See the detailed directions below.) Flat Rock seems like a sleepy village (or at least it was on a weekday), so the streets are fine for riding — definitely safer than riding on the sidewalks past storefronts and driveways.

After five blocks of zig-zagging through Flat Rock, you’ll reach the side path on the north side of Gibraltar. Now you have two miles of riding next to a busy suburban arterial. The side path is generally well maintained (except for a couple of bumpy spots caused by intruding tree roots) and there aren’t too many driveways to cross. Still, you should always exercise caution when crossing any driveway on a side path.

This particular side path might be especially dangerous on a Sunday, as this seems to be church alley, with four houses of worship representing Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, and Pentecostal denominations. Last comes an ironically- (or perhaps purposely-) placed liquor store, where you’ll want to exercise even more caution.

After two miles on Gibraltar, you’ll turn south on Gateway Dr., wending your way through a light-industrial park. If you’re like me, you’ll be glad to reach an actual forested park at Maguire St. (which makes me wonder, why do they call it an industrial park, anyway?). You’ll soon pass the lavishly constructed Flat Rock Community Center and then emerge into a cleared power line strip next to the forest. The roar you hear off to your left is I-75, which you’ll cross over in another mile.

The impressive Flatrock Community Center
The impressive Flatrock Community Center

Beyond the freeway, you’ll ride for a bit more than a mile on another side path that travels along both sides of Woodruff Rd. before curving through the grounds of Carlson High School. Shortly thereafter you’ll leave the side paths behind as you cross W. Jefferson Ave. and then S. Gibraltar Rd. to enter Lake Erie Metropark. Pause to examine the paired cannons from the War of 1812, and a plaque stating that this war ended scalp-buying in North America.

Cannons at a memorial of the the War of 1812.
Cannons at a memorial of the War of 1812.

From this point, it’s all nicely paved bike paths through the length of Lake Erie Metropark, first through forests and stands of hawthorn and honeysuckle, then through more grassy park lands. Continuing south from the children’s play area and water park, you’ll have outstanding waterfront views to your left. The body of water here is technically still the Detroit River, but farther south, the wide blue expanse of Lake Erie yawns to greet you. You’ll cross a marshy inlet with abundant bird life (especially redwing blackbirds when we were there).

Marshy inlet of the Detroit River in Lake Erie Metropark
Coastal marsh along an inlet in Lake Erie Metropark

In another mile, you’ll reach the end of the path at Maple Beach, where there’s not much beach but a nice patio area with picnic benches and coin-operated binoculars for viewing birds, boats on the lake, and the shores of Grosse Ille to the northeast. Purple martins flitted about as we took a lunch break here, and one or two sailboats made their way out of the nearby marina (where you’ll also find restrooms).

Viewing patio and picnic area at Maple Beach
Viewing patio and picnic area at Maple Beach

The Marshlands Museum and Nature Center is well worth a visit (open weekends only). To reach it, head back north, returning to the intersection near the play area. This time, go right to travel east of the wave pool along a path that leads eventually to the nature center. Even if the nature center is closed, you’ll find nature trails here that lead to lagoon and canal overlooks, passing through an intriguingly named “hawthorn thicket.” I’m not sure what a hawthorn thicket is, and I regretted not having the time to find out, with 20 miles left to ride back to the start.

Honeysuckle or hawthorn? A shrub very like this one was in bloom at the edge of the "hawthorn thicket."
Honeysuckle or hawthorn? A shrub very like this one was in bloom at the edge of the “hawthorn thicket.”

If you’re doing a one-way trip, the museum parking lot and the lot adjacent to the marina make good options for dropping a shuttle vehicle. If you’re doing an out-and-back trip as we did, use the park roads to travel from the museum to the open area near the main office, where you’ll once again pick up the bike path to take you back north.

Route Directions

Begin at any of the parking areas off South Metro Pkwy./Haggerty Rd. in Lower Huron Metropark, such as the Tuliptree Picnic Area. Completionists will want to ride north a mile or so to where the bike path ends on an old roadbed that dead-ends near Hannan Rd. Since views of the Huron River on that northern bit are very similar to what you’ll see for the rest of the trip, you’ll be well served by just heading south from wherever you’ve parked in Lower Huron Metropark. Mileages in this description are measured from Tuliptree Picnic Area.

You’ll have few navigational challenges as you make your way south and east through Lower Huron Metropark. Between mile 3 and 4, use caution in maneuvering through an extraordinarily tight caution gate at a railroad crossing.

Crossing under I-275 and entering Willow Metropark, you’ll come to a visitor center (with restrooms) and Washago Pond at mile 6. Bike paths make a big circle around this park. To stay near the Huron River, turn left just before the visitor center to follow the eastern half of that circle.

After winding close to the river, the path heads straight south across a grassy area, crossing Chestnut Road to reach a bike path junction just before mile 8. To continue south toward Lake Erie, take the left option, marked with the Downriver Greenways sign. Or, if you want an out-and-back trip of about 16 miles, you could go straight ahead to circle Willow Metropark (but be aware of a couple of poorly marked intersections on this western half of the loop where you’ll want to consult your park map.).

Just south of this junction, the path crosses Willow Rd.; use caution here, due to the poor sight lines. The path is straightforward through Oakwoods Metropark, bringing you to the bike path junction just before mile 11, where you have the option to go straight ahead to visit Oakwoods Nature Center a half mile ahead, or turn right to continue toward Lake Erie.

Continuing south from this junction, cross W. Huron River Dr. and another set of train tracks, then pass behind a new housing development. Just after mile 13, cross one branch of the Huron River to enter Huroc Park at a T-intersection. You can turn either left or right here, circling this island park to reach the covered bridge, easily visible from this point.

Across the bridge, the path puts you out near the intersection of Arsenal Rd. and Huron St., where the best option is to ride in the street. Make a right-left jog to continue east on Huron. Reaching Telegraph Rd., look for the bike route signs and follow them straight ahead. (You may be tempted to ride the next several blocks on sidewalks, but it’s not recommended since this is a business district.) After two more blocks on Huron, turn left on Church St. (The bike route signs point left and right here, but ignore the rightward option, since it leads to a dead-end at the moment.)

After one block on Church St., turn right on Gibraltar. Continue two more blocks to a point where Gibraltar curves left, with Garden Blvd. intersecting on the right. At this point, you should cross to the north side of Gibraltar, either by making a left-hand turn or crossing at the crosswalk, to find the side path paralleling the road. As noted above, use caution when traveling this side path, watching for vehicles crossing the bike path on the many driveways.

After a scant two miles on the Gibraltar side path, turn right at Gateway Dr. From this point, follow the well-placed signs that guide you on side paths on Gateway, Commerce, and Maguire St., finally traveling through a nice forested stretch past Flat Rock Community Center.

After traveling along a power line right-of-way, the path meets Woodruff Rd. at about mile 17.5 (1.5 miles from Gibraltar Rd.). Make a sharp left here to cross over the freeway on a wide shoulder designated for two-way bike traffic.

Beyond the freeway, the path continues on the north side of Woodruff for a long block to Fort Rd., where you’ll cross to the south side of Woodruff and continue heading east. (Don’t turn right on the equally nice side path heading south on Fort Rd., unless you want to end up in “downtown” Rockford.)

After a mile along the south side of Woodruff, the path crosses once again to the north side of the road, and soon turns left along a path taking you onto the grounds of Carlson High School. Continue along this path as it curves right, with sports fields on the right and a parking lot on the left.

Where the path turns left to cross the school’s entrance driveway, signs direct you (not very clearly) to cross to the north side of the driveway, then follow the sidewalk east to cross W. Jefferson Ave. Now you’re once again on a side path on the north side of S. Gibraltar Ave. In another block, the path crosses the road for the last time, to put you back on a separated bike path. (Personally, I would just exit the school by using the driveway for cars, crossing Jefferson with the light, then riding on the nice shoulder of Gibraltar to meet the bike path a block later.)

Now you’re once again on a real bike path through park lands as you make your way into the fourth major park of the day, Lake Erie Metropark. Continue south through forests, then cross several branches of the park’s road system near its main office. From this point, the path enters a large grass area, traveling south to a children’s play area and wave pool. Turn right here to continue toward the park’s southernmost point at Maple Beach. The marina just to the west has a large parking lot and restrooms.

If you’re doing the out-and-back option, you could just retrace your route for a total of 45 miles. But if you’d like to visit the Marshlands Nature Center, turn right when you reach the children’s play area you passed earlier. The path continues to the east of the wave pool and reaches the nature center at about 24.5 miles from your starting point.

From this point, the most direct way to continue your return journey is to follow the roads toward the park exit. You’ll soon recognize the bike path on your right, across from the park offices.

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