It’s popular, but it’s not a happy trail
According to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore officials, the fourmile section from the Dune Climb near Empire to Forest Haven Road in Glen Arbor was supporting bicyclists, joggers and walkers before the blacktop even got a chance to cool off.
Debbie Walters of Clinton, who was recently biking along the new trail with her 12-year-old son Nick, is one of the enthusiastic trail users. The Walters family camps every year at the D.H. Day Campground on M-109 and she had already jogged the path earlier in the day.
“This has brought a lot of people to this area with the biking,” Walters said of the trail.
Other visitors come from a little farther away, like Sharon MacNevin, who hails from Sidney, Australia. MacNevin was impressed with the colors of the area — the rich green foliage, the sparkling blue water, and the tawny dunes.
“It’s nothing like what we get at home,” said MacNevin, who was hiking the trail with her mother and aunt. “It’s a truly beautiful area here. It’s not a ‘don’t touch me’ feel. You can be right in here with it.”
The Heritage Trail, which has been in the planning stage since 2005, will eventually follow 27 miles through the National Lakeshore. Divided into five phases, construction for the second phase, which runs from the Dune Climb south to Empire, will likely begin in the spring.
Bill Irwin, president of the Little Traverse Lake Property Owners Association, said his group is working to explore options that would take the trail closer to the Lake Michigan shoreline, following old and historic roadbeds located there.
“The point of this is to enjoy the most beautiful place in America. Why wouldn’t you want it along Lake Michigan? You can see and smell the water, you can see the Manitou islands, you can see Pyramid Point and the Whaleback, you can see the boats ... it’s more romantic, beautiful and enjoyable.”
The group feels that option would leave an environmentally smaller footprint than having the trail follow Traverse Lake Road, which would require cutting of trees or having trailusers walk along the road itself, which could be dangerous, Irwin said.
“We want the trail,” Irwin said. “We’ve got avid cyclists in our group.”
But the area between Lake Michigan and Little Traverse Lake, which is about a mile wide, is beeing managed as a Wilderness area, which by federal law must be managed as such, said Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent of the National Lakeshore. Wilderness areas are public lands that may not be disturbed by bikes or motorized vehicles. They are meant to provide areas of solitude and pristine conditions, Ulrich said.
“For us to even consider it as an option would take an act of Congress,” Ulrich said. “Even if that happened all that does is allow the park service to consider it.”
Another environmental assessment would have to be done to look at the impact of moving the trail, Ulrich said. There is more than a mile of area where there are no roadbeds or paths, he said.
“The trail would cut a new swath through unbroken wilderness,” Ulrich said. “Putting a trail back there would have a greater environmental impact than having the trail go along Traverse Lake Road.”
And it’s not likely to happen, he said. Park officials and others who have been working for years to create the trail have already gone through a lengthy, detailed planning process, he said.
Patty O’Donnell of the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, who is project manager for the trail, is hoping the third phase of the Heritage Trail, which heads north from Glen Arbor to Port Oneida Road, will also be constructed next year, though each phase depends on funding. The fourth phase, which will start at Port Oneida Road and end at Bohemian Road, is not scheduled for construction yet. Trail planners recently received a $1.6 million federal grant for construction of the fourth phase, but still need to raise $400,350 for survey and design engineering costs. There is no funding in place for the last phase that ends at Good Harbor Trail.
In all, the trail has received more than $8 million in federal and state grants, and has pledges for more than $1 million in private donations. Ten percent of the money raised privately will be set aside for maintenance of the trail, O’Donnell said. Total cost for the trail is projected at about $10 million, she said.
The Heritage Trail will eventually fit into a larger system of trails in Michigan that will go from lake to lake. A map of the trail can be seen online at www.sleepingbeartrail.org.