Gary Hopp remembers driving out to Stony Creek Metropark in the 1980s to do some mountain biking with his friends.
The trails were crude and often dangerous. They were often user made, and safety was an afterthought.
“When I first started riding out here, it was really a homespun user group who was out here. There really wasn’t much direction as far as planning,” Hopp said. “Those old school trails just went straight up one hill and straight down the other side, and you kind of white knuckled it the whole way hoping the you’d survive. They were dangerous. A lot of people were injured. And the erosion was a constant battle.”
Hopp, 54, isn’t just a mountain biker. He’s also the interim eastern district superintendent of the Metroparks and one of the top administrators at Stony Creek. He’s helping to shepherd through a $425,000 comprehensive retooling of Stony Creek’s popular hike bike trails. More than four years in the making, the first new trails are almost complete and are expected to be done by the end of the year. More new trails will break ground late next winter or the early spring of 2021. The new trails will attempt to fulfill five primary goals: improve trail sustainability and safety, expand the existing system, add accessibility, improve signage, and reduce user conflict.
The decision to upgrade the trails, which started with suggestions in the Huron-Clinton Metroparks master plan in 2016, was produced after surveys and public hearings took place for stakeholders in the trails, like mountain biker and trail running groups and shops, the surrounding communities and others who have an interest in the Shelden Trails area of the park, located in its southwest section in Oakland Township. Stony Creek’s mountain biking trail system is the largest of any such trail system in the Metroparks.
Many of Stony Creek’s trails have been in existence for 75 years, with park-created and user-created trails being added over time. Sustainability of some of the trails, especially those created by users, has been difficult due to erosion from not only use, but also water. Part of the new plan will be to design new trails that move perpendicular to water runoff and eliminate those that run parallel to runoff. Ultimately, the remaining and new trails will remain durable over time with minimal maintenance.
Some trails will be brand new. And some will make use of existing trails to maintain the same type of rider experience but with a trail system that is more sustainable. Trails will be reconfigured to no longer run with fall lines that are susceptible to water erosion. And the simple decision on where to place a trail in relationship to a tree can not only help maintain the trail but also protect the health of the tree.
“If you put the trail on the wrong side of a tree, eventually through the wear pattern, you get into the root system of the tree, which then causes erosion problems, damage to the tree, and the rideability is less,” Hopp said. “Those sorts of simple fixes make a world of difference in the length of time that trail can exist without causing any damage. The erosion leads to safety issues. You need to lay trails out in a certain way. There’s nothing that goes straight up the hills and straight down the hills. All that older school thought of trail building is gone. Now we’re looking at trails that can sustain themselves for years to come and offer a safer biking, walking, running experience to all of our users.”
Most of the more popular trails will remain but may possiby be reconfigured. As part of the redesign, nearly six new miles of singletrack will be added, mostly beginner trails, resulting in approximately 11.5 miles of single track system. The trails will be redesigned into five loops that will improve rider flow and provide better connectivity to each loop system.
The trails will also provide more access for disable users, with the paths designed to welcome hand cycle users. Through a grant supplied by the League of Michigan Bicyclists, a hand cycle is available for rent at Eastwood Beach. The loop can also be used as a warm up for more experienced riders before heading out to more advanced trails. The loop stays within close proximity to the West Branch parking area and is accessible from different lots. The Metroparks are conducting a naming contest for those trails.
“The idea is that families will come out, enjoy the day, maybe have a barbecue at a picnic table,” Hopp said. “And then family members who may be beginner trail users can use that A loop. And you know as a parent, that when your child is on that Loop, they’re on a safe loop, it’s been designed for their skill set, and if they continue on that loop, we’re going to see Junior passing us once again every 10-15 minutes or so, or stopping for a meal.
“Experienced mountain bikers will have a new trail to explore and have fun on. And the new users will come in who may have never experienced a single track going through the woods and winding around. That’s going to be exciting,” Hopp added.
Running alongside and to the south of A Loop will be the B Loop, accessible from the F Parking Lot at West Branch. It’s 1.74 miles in length, connects to A Loop in two locations and offers a step up in the skill set and includes man-made obstacles, such as narrow wood bridges, rocky paths or boardwalk paths to traverse through. The B Loop will also offer connectors to the more advanced trails, Loops C, D, and E, deeper and further southwest into the park. Hopp said he’s hopeful Loop B will be opened soon, with Loop A and a connector to an Oakland Township park, The Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, which will open by the end of the year.
Loop C is a reconfiguration of existing single track, and Loops D and E will add looping opportunities to the western end of the system. Those loops are expected to be complete in 2021. Funding has not yet been authorized for those loops, but Hopp hopes it will be soon. Loop C will be 2.41 miles, Loop D 2.22 miles, and Loop E 1.11 miles.
Initially, much of the loop systems were expected to be completed by the end of 2019. But, unbeknownst to the Metroparks, there are very few trail-building companies in the country, and most were already fully booked for the fall 2019 trail building season. That left the Metroparks without a contractor, and plans had to be pushed back. The construction is being handled by FlowTrack Mountain Bike Trails LLC, based in Marquette, Mich.
“I don’t think we realized the limited capacity of this industry,” Hopp said. “Flow Track is one of the very few companies in the Midwest, if not the United States who is doing this type of work. We didn’t realize that at the time. Our goals were a little optimistic.”
One of the initial criticisms of the project was the loss of about 1.3 miles of advanced single-track and the closure of 1.67 miles of visitor-created or “bandit trails” that would deprive more skilled and adventurous riders from testing their skills and enjoying their more expensive bikes, which can cost thousands of dollars. Hopp said he’s not concerned about the loss of those older trails because of the new trails that have been created, which the help of local mountain biking groups like CRAMBA (Clinton River Area Mountain Bike Association). Many of the popular trails will remain in place, but with some fundamental changes.
“I know the user groups that are out there are excited about what’s going on,” Hopp said. “There’s a lot of chatter on Facebook pages, all those chat rooms are lit up with conversation about the work that’s going on out here. I’ve not heard anybody complain about the loss of an old school trail that might have been out here. I think these guys (the construction team) understand the goal and the type of riding that’s gone on out here, and they’re going to work hard to kind of duplicate that, but meeting the safety standards that we’ve put in place.”
One consistent complaint that will be addressed is better and improved signage. With the loop systems, riders are less likely to get lost, but the new waysigns will also direct riders to connector routes and help instill confidence that they aren’t going to get lost.
“By laying out these loops, and by removing the old bandit trails — the old social trails that have formed over the years — it’s going to be a much easier trail system to follow,” Hopp said. The waypoint signage is a big component to this. And we’re working to make sure that if you’re on that A loop, you will always know you’re on that loop and there’s not a bandit trail on that trail that gives you an opportunity make the wrong turn. So with all of those removed and the signage that’s going to go in, reaffirming that you are still on the right loop, our hope is that you will always know you’re on that same loop. Will be signage for connector trails as well.”
As manager of Stony Creek Metropark, as well as a still-active rider, Hopp admits he’s very excited about the reconfiguring of the mountain bike trail system.
“I’m really excited about it. Anybody who’s heard me talk about it is probably tired of me talking about it,” Hopp said with a smile. “I’m really happy that this is taking place. This has been a long goal for the parks. My friends and I started riding out here in the late ’80s, early ’90s. I’ve kind of seen the progress through the years. And I don’t think in anybody’s dreams at that point that we would ever be developing a trail system like we are here today. This is much more than what we would have envisioned possible.”
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic that closed down so many activities this spring and summer, brought an increase in the exploration of the natural world.
One publication has deemed Stony Creek Metropark in Shelby Township the top hiking trail in southeast Michigan.
As summer unofficially departs, there is still plenty of time to check out one of the two Huron-Clinton Metroparks located here in Macomb County.