It doesn’t take much searching through southwest Michigan cycling forums to discover that 6th Street in Kalamazoo Township offers the biggest hill for road cyclists in the vicinity. Even 20 miles east, at the Custer Cyclery in Augusta, this is the hill they recommend for roadies who want some climbing. And at 200 feet in 0.8 mile, with grades of as much as 9 percent, it is a big climb. But there’s a lot more to the area than one big hill, notably the exceptionally scenic Kal Haven Trail State Park. I got so distracted with the bike path that I nearly forgot about the road climbing.
The Falling Waters Trail is emblematic of so much in Michigan: beautiful on the surface, with just a soupçon of industrial ruin beneath. Yet it’s well worth an outing, whether you want to do just a portion of it with the kids or tackle the whole thing. The adventurous can extend their ride into downtown Jackson on the Inter City Trail and urban streets or do some hill climbs in the suburbs.
I decided to ride around Gull Lake on a lark after doing a bunch of hills to the south. From its south end, the lake looked small, although the number of boats docked at the marinas should have been a clue to its true size. Fortunately, the lake isn’t too big, so it only added about 12 miles to my day. That’s pretty short as a stand-alone bike ride, but there are plenty of other activities around the lake to fill your day.
The lake’s size was not the only surprise. It was also exceptionally pretty, even by Michigan lake standards. Another surprise was the W.K. Kellogg Manor House, which I had no clue about. For a minute I thought I had fallen into a T.C. Boyle novel (especially just after seeing the eerie Brook Lodge). Then I realized The Road to Wellville focuses on that other Kellogg, J.H., the one with the weird (not to mention racist) notions of sexuality, eugenics, and racial purity.
This is the first post in the series, “Best Family Rides of Mid-Michigan.” And what better place to begin than the Lansing River Trail? With a splash zone, a historic swimming pool, playgrounds, lakes, paddling, fishing, Potter Park Zoo, museums, and Old Town, all connected by a scenic paved path passing through woods and along streams, there’s plenty for both grownups and kids to enjoy along the way.
Before starting your Lansing River Trail adventure, it will help to consider how much of the trail you plan to do. Borrowing from long-distance hiking terminology, are you a “through-biker” who wants to complete the whole trail in one day? Or are you a “day-biker” who wants to break up the trail into smaller pieces or just hit the highlights? (If you feel you must cover every inch of the 25 miles marked as the Lansing River Trail on the map, then you’re a “completist.”)
If you’re bringing the whole family, you’ll want to consider the ages, endurance, and biking skills of the kids. For all but the oldest and most motivated of children, day-biking is probably the best option. Pick a starting point with fun activities nearby, stop for more fun at the many play structures along the way (marked with blue numbers on the MapMyRide map), and finish the day with the kids wanting to come back for more.
Several parking areas are marked on the MapMyRide route, but probably the best choice is the large lot at Hawk Island Park off Cavanaugh Rd. The only problem might be that the kids will never want to get on their bikes, with the playground, paddle boats, fishing, and splash park all in one place. (Through-bikers could park a scant mile farther south at the recently developed Maguire Park.)
Assuming you can convince the young ones to leave the delights of Hawk Island, head north on either side of the large lake at the center of the park. Beyond the lake, you’ll continue north at the first junction (left or right, depending on your approach). This is the greenest section of the trail, with a canopy of trees overhead and Sycamore Creek nearby. Bear right at the next junction, where a path to Scott Woods Park parking lot heads left. Then bear left twice where paths branch off to the right, one to a dog park and the other, unmarked, to Willard Ave. Beyond, bridges cross Sycamore Creek twice, making for some scenic views, with benches for those in need of rest.
At just under the two mile point, you’ll come to a crosswalk at Mt. Hope Ave., where you’ll want to have the kids together. If only there were sidewalks on Mt. Hope, Fenner Nature Center would be an easily accessible side trip. Maybe one day, if the “complete streets” vision becomes a reality.
Continuing north, the trail parallels Aurelius Rd. for a quarter mile before descending to a T-intersection (2.25 miles north of your starting point). A right turn here will take you under Aurelius and along a scenic section of the Red Cedar River, but beware of washouts from spring flooding, especially on the downhills coming off the bridges. Fortunately, a new group, Friends of the Lansing River Trail, has been formed to help the city address these maintenance issues.
In a third of a mile from the T-intersection, a brand-new but unmarked segment of asphalt turns right. Another third of a mile along this new stretch of trail brings you to Fidelity Lake in the middle of Ralph Crego Park. This newly developed 15-acre lake offers a less crowded experience than the lake at Hawk Island, with a fishing pier, dock, and other access points.
The stretch of the River Trail east of the Fidelity Lake junction is less scenic, with numerous railroad and freeway overcrossings, and one stretch running next to a freeway interchange. But if you’re a completist, another three-quarters of a mile will bring you to the Clippert Rd. parking area, and another mile beyond that, the MSU campus. (The segment of the River Trail through campus is currently being reconstructed.) [UPDATE 10/2/14: The reconstruction project through campus (as far as Farm Lane) has been completed and the new path is very nice! However, when the university is in session, watch out for pedestrians ignoring the “no pedestrians” signs on the path. It can be quite crowded.]
For those who choose to go left at the T-Intersection next to Aurelius Rd., Potter Park Zoo is just ahead (2.5 miles from your starting point at Hawk Island). If you’re here in spring before the trees leaf out, you might get a free view of the camels from a bridge over the Red Cedar just before the zoo. Potter Park also features picnic shelters and a large play structure.
Potter Park is a good spot to assess whether you want to go farther. As a parent who took both my sons on “death marches” in the mountains and deserts, I know how easy it is to cross the line from “wow, I biked farther than I thought I could” to “I never want to bike again.” The next real points of interest, the museums and the City Market, are over two miles away, and the ride there begins with a steep climb on the bridge over Pennsylvania Ave.
If you do press ahead, the trail wends its way along the Red Cedar and through an industrial part of town. [UPDATE 10/2/14: As Tom notes in a comment below, take care where the path descends to cross under roads next to the river. The sight lines on these underpasses are poor and the corners are tight. Ringing your bell as you approach these blind corners will help.] A mile from Potter Park, a trail branches left over the Red Cedar to Scott Park, with a play structure and a fishing point where the Grand and Red Cedar rivers meet.
Beyond Scott Park, this side branch crosses the Grand River twice, passing GM’s Grand River Assembly Plant and the Eckert Power Station and reaching Moores Park in one mile (5 miles from your starting point). This park offers tennis, shuffleboard, a play structure, and popular fishing spots along the river. Most impressively, the park is home to the JH Moores Memorial Natatorium (or simply the “Moores Park Pool”). Built in 1922, the pool is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the only public pool of its kind still in use. Lansing can be proud that such a gem is still in operation, and there’s a campaign to raise funds for its continuing upkeep.
Moores Park also features impressive views of the Moores Park Dam and hydroelectric plant and the imposing Eckert Power Station across the river. Sure, Eckert is a filthy, climate-change-inducing beast, but with the power of rushing water from the dam and the three concrete towers of the power station looming above it all, this is one of the most sublime spots in the region. Those who know my other writing might think I’m kidding, but I’m not: those smokestacks are 615 feet high, by far the tallest things anywhere around. We’re desperate for any kind of vertical relief in these parts. Maybe once the Board of Water & Light fully decommissions the plant (currently scheduled for 2025), the towers could be turned into a big outdoor climbing gym.
Continuing north on the main River Trail from the Scott Park junction, you’re now following the Grand River downstream. The trail passes under the many spans of the 496 freeway, and in another mile comes to the back of the R.E. Olds Museum with its murals of automobiles. Just beyond is the Impression 5 Science Center, another great stop for kids, and the Riverwalk Theatre. This cultural complex is 4.75 miles from your start at Hawk Island (assuming you’ve ridden directly to this point).
If you’re getting hungry, the many restaurants along Michigan Ave. and Washington Square in downtown Lansing are easily reached by leaving the River Trail and heading up Museum Dr. to Michigan Ave. The Lansing City Market, a quarter mile ahead on the River Trail, is another food option, with the Waterfront Bar & Grill and food vendors (though many of the latter are closed on Sundays).
Another attraction at the City Market is River Town Adventures, a canoe and kayak rental and livery service that opened in late May of this year. It costs $10 to rent a kayak ($18 for a canoe) for an hour of paddling on the flat water at the City Market launch site. The company also offers a variety of longer adventures where they’ll take you by bus farther up- or downstream. Another paddling option is Power of Water, a paddling store that offers clinics on the Grand (but no rentals) for both kayak and stand-up paddleboard. It’s a block off the River Trail at Saginaw.
Beyond the City Market, the River Trail passes beneath Shiawassee, Saginaw, and Oakland avenues before arriving at Brenke Fish Ladder and the North Lansing Dam. This is another great spot to experience the power of rushing water, and in fall you’ll have a chance to watch salmon climbing the spiraling ladder.
Just a short distance farther is the Cesar Chavez Plaza and parking area at Old Town (just under six miles from Hawk Island). Old Town is known for its restaurants, shopping, and especially its art galleries. There’s gourmet popcorn at Cravings and ice cream at Arctic Corner. The popular Preuss Pets, with its displays of rare reptiles, fish, and birds, is only a couple of blocks away on Grand River Ave.
Unfortunately, the Turner Dodge House, just a quarter mile north of Old Town via the River Trail, is closed until further notice due to a water pipe break (another victim of the harsh winter of 2013-14). But the house does look grand from the outside, and a nice park surrounds it. It also offers a small parking lot next to the trail, so this could serve as a northern entry point for your Lansing River Trail adventure. Completists will want to take the very steep trail west along the river to the wooden sign noting the end of the River Trail.
The distance from Hawk Island Park to Old Town and back again is 12 miles (with no side trips), making it a great tour for families with older children. But with so many things to do along the way, even that might be too much to tackle in one day. You could easily break the Lansing River Trail into four or five separate adventures, each with a different starting point and different activities.
Completists looking to do everything that’s labeled “Lansing River Trail” on the map (from the end of the trail past the Turner Dodge House in the north to Maguire Park in the south to Hagadorn Ave. on the MSU campus to the east, and with side trips to Moores Park and Fidelity Lake) will have to cover 25 miles.
Whether you take one day or several to ride the Lansing River Trail, there’s something here for everyone. In fact, with so much to do along the trail, I’ve probably left something out. Feel free to leave a comment with your Lansing River Trail suggestions.
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Mid-Michigan is known for its flat farmland, but we do have some pretty scenery, especially where roads pass near rivers, lakes, and state recreation lands. We even have roads overhung by canopies of oaks and maples so we can feel like we’re “up north” right here at home. The foliage adds variety to a long ride and welcome shade on a hot day.