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Where Did Michigan’s Trails Come From?

There is a reason why Michigan is considered one of the best states for outdoor recreation. There are more than 13,000 miles of state-designated trails for anyone’s use, made up of an extensive network that ranges from biking and hiking to snowmobile and equestrian trails. Appreciated for its contribution to quality of life, Michigan has come to be known nationally as the “Trails State.” Many gorgeous trails run right by Delamar Traverse City, making it the perfect place to start trailblazing through the historic wilderness!

The sheer magnitude of trails begs the question: where did they come from? The answer is as winding and numerous as the trails themselves but by looking at fragments of history, a more holistic view can be formed on the origin, development, and current state of Michigan’s trails. 

Native Americans Established the First Trails

Many of Michigan’s iconic trails find their roots in those used by Native Americans who had originally inhabited the region: namely, the Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi people who together comprise what is called the Three Fires Council. In tandem, these three tribes laid down a network of foot and equestrian paths that connected numerous villages with hunting and fishing grounds. 

Surprisingly, some of the region’s earliest trails were formed by ranging buffalo herds in migration, forming pathways that Native Americans would later also use. These trails still make up segments of the familiar Michigan trails enjoyed today. 

Settlers and Expanding Trails

The early French and English fur traders that came to Michigan further propagated the use of the trails established by Native Americans, as they were a reliable means to travel through the state on their route westwards. 

Later, those same trails were used by thousands of settlers from New York, New England, and Virginia who passed through or settled in Michigan in their hopes of establishing a new home. With the arrival of these settlers who transported their possessions in oxen-drawn wagons, many trails were widened significantly from 12 to 18 inches all the way up to several feet wide. With each trail used by traveling settlers, their guarantee towards posterity became more certain. 

Early Market and Military Roads

When the Territory of Michigan was established in 1805, road districts were constructed by the Governor to create routes connecting local farms to markets as a means of enabling the livelihood of regional farmers and settlers. However, many of the early road districts remained local and could only support a limited number of bodies. As a result, larger roads began construction in 1813 as an aid to the Federal military who sought a route from Toledo to Detroit and later expanded northward. Many of the old market and military roads have found their way into parts of the current trails used today. 

20th Century Developments

In 1930, Michigan had more than 50 state parks. However, Roosevelt’s initiation of The New Deal allotted increased funding to expand the number of state parks and recreational areas throughout the state. A portion of The New Deal’s funds also went towards constructing more trails that lead through the newly established parks and neighboring wilderness.

Current Projects

Following in the tradition of its ever-evolving trail network, Michigan is still looking to add new routes for people to explore and appreciate nature. One current trail that is still under construction is the Iron Belle Trail which crosses 48 different Michigan counties. The Iron Belle Trail relies on the previously existing system of trails while making new connections and extending more than 2,000 miles, the longest federally designated hiking trail in the nation. While it is not yet complete, more than 70% has already been established in 2019 with ongoing efforts to finish this incredible trail. 

Scenic Overlook #9 at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This overlook offers a stunning vista of Lake Michigan

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with views of Lake Michigan.

Explore Michigan’s Trails

Much of Michigan’s extensive trail network had been established hundreds of years ago by the Native American peoples that had inhabited the region. Through settlers and the growing population of the early United States and beyond, those original trails had been expanded to accommodate the increased necessity and demand. 

Today, there are countless trails to explore the state’s stunning beauty that caters to novices and experts in all aspects of outdoor recreation. Perhaps this is why Michigan’s trails have been, and always will be, such an important touchstone to its residents and visitors. If outdoor adventure is your interest, there may be no better place to stay than Delamar to begin your autumn outdoor exploration! 

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