WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI – Two of Washtenaw County’s most popular trail systems for mountain biking will soon be united by an off-road connector, now mostly off-limits to bikes, bringing together more than 40 miles of trail for cyclists.
Beginning on May 31, a section of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, a roughly 35-mile stretch of hiking in the two state recreation areas for which it is named, will open to bicycles, according to Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials.
The new connector route cobbles together roughly four miles of the trail, a little-used gravel road, a short section of Park Lyndon and Washtenaw County’s Border-to-Border Trail to effectively create a bridge mountain bikers can use to cross between the Potawatomi Trail in the Pinckney Recreation Area and the DTE Energy Foundation Trail system.
Parks officials didn’t take the decision to open up parts of the hiking trail to cyclists lightly, said Pinckney Recreation Area Park Manager Charles Dennison.
The Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association, whose hundreds of members contribute to maintaining trails in the area, proposed a connector two years ago, he said.
Since the development of the DTE Trail system beginning in 2015 — several loops of singletrack open most of the year to foot traffic but optimized for mountain bikers — a subset of riders have looked for a way to travel on two wheels between the trails north of Chelsea and the 18-mile Potawatomi loop, according to association board member and DTE Trail Director Jason Aric Jones.
“We just wanted to provide some safe passage for folks to get over there,” he said, referencing the danger posed by cycling on North Territorial Road and other routes that currently connect the two areas.
After carefully studying the issue, parks officials landed on the proposed route going into effect at the end of the month.
It heads southwest from a section of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail already open to bikers in the Pinckney Recreation Area, before reaching Embury Road, which cyclists will travel for a short section before crossing North Territorial Road and using a half-mile section of trail in Washtenaw County’s Park Lyndon before re-joining the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail.
The county’s Border-to-Border Trail offers the key final connector to the DTE Trail’s M-52 trailhead, or a paved route south to Chelsea. The connector totals roughly seven miles.
“It opens up this whole connectivity of trail systems that’s very important to us,” Dennison said. Even though Waterloo Recreation Area is the Lower Peninsula’s largest state park and Pinckney totals 11,000 acres, parks officials want to avoid the need for new trails.
“The last thing we want to do is increase our trail density and put additional trails over undeveloped property in this park,” Dennison said.
Jones anticipates bike traffic on the new connector will be “fairly light.” Why? Riding the two existing trail systems and back would be a long day in the saddle, and that won’t be for everyone, he said.
The route will be signed, and the association and state parks officials have collaborated with the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission, which manages Park Lyndon, to ensure cyclists are aware that the vast majority of that park remains off-limits to mountain bikers.
Much of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail remains reserved for hiking and equestrian uses, and Jones said the mountain biking community has no desire to change that.
The four-mile stretch that will open to cyclists is a “straightaway section of trail with good sight lines,” he said, pointing to a 30-year history of biker-hiker interaction on the Potawatomi Trail, also commonly used for trail running and cross-country skiing.
Dennison is careful to refer to the loop not as mountain-biking trail, but a shared-use system. As with any trail, there’s always the possibility for conflict, but it hasn’t been a problem for Dennison during his almost 26-year career.
“There is not some laundry list of physical incidents and injury between bikers and foot traffic,” Jones said.
The decision has risen through the ranks in the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division, getting a stamp of approval from its director, as well as wildlife officials, Dennison said. Park staff will monitor usage when the connector is operational to track the number of people who end up using it.
The trail remains primarily a hiking route, according to the park manager.
“We’re not going to change the character of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail as you see it today,” Dennison said.
More from The Ann Arbor News: