Michigan’s Pere Marquette Rail-Trail

Posted 10/01/09 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America's Trails

Pere Marquette Rail-Trail | Photo courtesy Isabella County Parks Staff

Trail of the Month: October 2009

One of the hallmarks of rail-trails is the comfort and convenience of enjoying them. Their steady grades keep hills manageable and curves gradual, and wide corridors allow for plenty of users and different uses. What may seem like natural ease, though, is often the product of meticulous planning and maintenance. And few pathways take more pride in upkeep and user experience than the 30-mile Pere Marquette Rail-Trail of Mid-Michigan, which runs from Midland to Clare. There's no pea under the mattress on this evenly paved trail, and visitors are always quick to point out what a pleasant ride the Pere Marquette provides.

Joyce Halstead, who sits on the board of the Friends of the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail, has promoted the pathway since it was just an idea in the 1980s. The trail officially opened in 1993, and she's since talked to hundreds of users and heard countless accolades about the Pere Marquette experience. "It's the Cadillac of trails," she says.

Part of what makes the trail purr is its smooth, wide asphalt. "The quality of the surface is so good that we have people coming up from Detroit and Lansing just for the trail," says Dave Waite, president of the friends group. Larger organized rides have taken note of the Pere Marquette as well, with the annual Michigander using the trail this past year. Waite says the 14-foot width allows several cyclists to ride abreast, and the trail sees very few accidents.

Keeping the pathway in prime shape is no easy feat, especially since sections of the Pere Marquette are separately managed by several cities and counties along the route. Yet each managing body has made the trail a community focal point. Midland, for instance, worked with local foundations to create a permanent endowment to help maintain the Pere Marquette, says Nancy Krupiarz, executive director of the Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance (MTGA). As a result, Midland County has a reliable funding source to manicure its stretch of trail, including the buffer on either side of the corridor and a host of overlooks, trailheads and other amenities.

Pere Marquette Rail-Trail | Photo by Chris Collins
Pere Marquette Rail-Trail | Photo by Chris Collins

"It serves as a demonstration project when we're talking to other communities about trails," says Krupiarz. "We always offer to take them up to the Pere Marquette to show them what a trail can do for a community."

Of course, the Pere Marquette is famous for more than its good looks and management style. It follows the route of the Pere Marquette Railroad, which was incorporated in 1900. Their Ludington Division, which the trail uses, ran from Saginaw across the state to Ludington on Lake Michigan. This route cuts across a broad sampling of central-Michigan countryside, from small-town main streets to forests, rivers and farmland. You can do everything from launch a canoe to play 18 holes of golf within a few feet of the pathway, and the region's fall foliage is famously vibrant.

So if you're keen to see what all the fuss is about, a great place to begin is in downtown Midland at the end of Ashman Street. The trailhead picks up right where the Chippewa and Tittabawassee rivers come together at one of the Pere Marquette's most iconic views: "The Tridge," a three-way bridge that spans the intersecting waterways.

Heading west from this over-water crossroads, the trail passes by backyards and parks in Midland and then the edge of Northwood University. Just down the path from there you'll reach the Averill Rollaway, where logs were stored in the winter and rolled down the Tittabawassee River to mills during Michigan's timber heyday.

As you approach Sanford, you'll come to Alex's Railside Restaurant right off the pathway. Earlier this year, the city had closed off part of the rail-trail just east of Alex's to build a new road overpass. Construction took three to four months, during which time most trail users arriving from Midland were turning around at the detour and heading back rather than continuing on past Alex's, which offers outdoor seating and benches to accommodate trail-bound diners. The restaurant saw business thin by 30 to 40 percent until the trail reopened. "It was just a very visible example of how the trail helps support local businesses," says Waite.

Like Alex's, the city of Sanford has taken its own steps to attract trail users. They've built connectors from the Pere Marquette to access nearby attractions, from bogs and wetlands to Sanford Lake County Park, which features 1,100 feet of swimming beaches.

The next town along the corridor is North Bradley. An equestrian trail begins here—there's even a horse trailhead—with dirt tracks running on both sides of the trail. This hoof path ends in Coleman, yet the Pere Marquette continues on through Loomis, Herrick and Clare, where a recently opened three-mile extension has finally brought the trail to the center of town.

At every point along this trip, you'll experience a trail as well kept as it is well used. More than 170,000 visitors hit the Pere Marquette every year, and trail managers and local businesses are eager to welcome more. After all, they aren't putting in all the maintenance work purely for their own benefit. The Pere Marquette is a showpiece of the rail-trail movement, and its charms are free for all comers to enjoy.

For more information, photos and user reviews of the trail, or to post your own comments, please visit TrailLink.com.

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