Hiking Trails

New trail on Belle Isle in Detroit part of the longer Iron Belle Trail

Michiganians looking for long-distance hiking and biking adventures need look no further than Detroit after a new trail opens on Belle Isle.

The first phase of the Ralph Wilson Skywalk and Trail opened last week, serving as the official starting point for the Iron Belle Trail South Trail.

When completed, it will serve as the first six miles of more than 2,000 miles of Iron Belle Trail that stretches across the state. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources said the Iron Belle, which runs from Detroit to Ironwood on the Upper Peninsula, is the longest state-designated trail in the country, with those miles split between a hiking route and a cycle route.

It is unclear if anyone has completed the course. MNR staff said they heard of people using the bike path for several days, but no one made the two halves. If anyone did, they would have hiked almost the same distance as the multi-state Appalachian Trail which stretches about 2,200 miles from George to Maine.

A view of the pergola with picnic tables at Ralph Wilson Gateway and Trail on Belle Isle in Detroit.

The beauty of the trail is that it can be enjoyed even over short distances.

“It’s a beautiful space that gives users a nice balance,” said Amanda Treadwell, DNR spokeswoman. “They don’t need to go overboard, but they can still enjoy the outdoor space and their surroundings.”

Belle Isle is a unique space that most cities don’t have: It’s the largest city-owned island park in the United States, Treadwell said. With the completion of additional trails, it becomes even more valuable to the public.

“It’s important to have trails in urban areas,” Treadwell said. “It’s a great way to invite our people to the more urban areas outside, because we have it here in the middle of the city.”

Studies have shown that having outdoor pathways and spaces, especially in more densely populated areas, can help make physical activity more accessible. Recently, the Belle Isle Conservancy partnered with ParkRx after seeing visitor numbers increase during the pandemic. ParkRx is a park prescription program that encourages people to spend time in nature.

A wide view of the landscape at Ralph Wilson Gateway and Trail on Belle Isle in Detroit.

“This is a great opportunity to be intentional about how we support this community space and how this space actually supports the community that uses it,” said Ayo Thomas, engagement associate at Belle Isle Conservancy. .

Thomas said the goal is to provide a natural treatment opportunity in addition to conventional medicine, not in place of it.

And, regardless of their health, people can go outdoors and experience the same health benefits of being in nature.

The DNR said it was something it wanted to pursue, according to Elissa Buck, commercial services and land use program administrator at the agency.

The Ralph Wilson Trail allows people to see parts of the popular park they would otherwise miss.

Only half of the trail is complete, but the current route starts from the walkway along the island beach. Construction of the other half is expected to begin next year.

An information sign at Ralph Wilson Gateway and Trail on Belle Isle in Detroit.

It will connect to the Eugene and Elaine C. Driker Trail, which is currently under construction. This trail “will allow visitors to stroll…in the more natural environment of the island around part of the Blue Heron Lagoon and past the Livingston Memorial Lighthouse,” according to a news release.

The DNR does not take into account the number of people who use the Iron Belle Trail, said Dakota Hewlett, trail coordinator. Different groups along the route manage the sections. But Treadwell is optimistic it would bring more people into the rugged green space.

“It’s an exciting time to get out and explore Detroit’s trails that are being carved out,” she said. “We have this, the Joe Louis Greenway – it has great outdoor spaces. It’s a chance to get out and recreate together.”

Other features of the new trail include a small plaza with picnic tables and a pergola, a parking lot, and a path to help visitors get to the new public art installation put in place earlier this year called ” One World…Under Michigan Stars”.

The new trail and footbridge were funded by private grants as well as funds from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, according to a news release.

A view of a pathway leading to the glass and steel sculpture at Ralph Wilson Gateway and Trail on Belle Isle in Detroit.

It is named after the late Ralph Wilson, founder and former owner of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and longtime resident of Michigan. Wilson created the foundation that bears his name and supports active lifestyles, economic development and more.

“It’s amazing that this beautiful walkway is named in honor of Ralph,” said Mary Wilson, his widow and lifetime trustee of his foundation, in a press release. “As someone who loved people from all walks of life, it’s important that the trail be a gathering place for families and friends to get out and enjoy each other and nature.”

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Twitter: @Hayley__Harding