2018-08-16 / Life in Leelanau

Short History of the Heritage

Partners join to blaze Trail through the Lakeshore
by Kelsey Pease
of the Enterprise staff


SLEEPING BEAR Heritage Trail Ambassadors give directions to park visitors, answer questions, and note any need maintenance along the 22-mile completed stretch of the trail. SLEEPING BEAR Heritage Trail Ambassadors give directions to park visitors, answer questions, and note any need maintenance along the 22-mile completed stretch of the trail. Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear bright orange vests.

Known as Heritage Trail Ambassadors, such volunteers regularly ride the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, a 27-mile path connecting the park’s many attractions of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

As they ride along the trail, volunteers offer directions, answer questions from park visitors and note any needed maintenance. They are members of the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes (FSBD) organization.

But FSBD didn’t blaze the trail alone. It’s one of multiple of National Park Service partners that has made the trail a reality.

The Trail represents the culmination of the efforts of a number of groups that approached the Lakeshore in 2005 with a walk-and-bike concept. From those talks the Leelanau Scenic Heritage Route committee was formed in 2005.


BIKERS OF ALL ages enjoy the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, a 27-mile stretch spanning from Empire to Good Harbor Beach. The last five mile section of the trail is expected to be completed in the next five years, when adequate funding has been received. BIKERS OF ALL ages enjoy the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, a 27-mile stretch spanning from Empire to Good Harbor Beach. The last five mile section of the trail is expected to be completed in the next five years, when adequate funding has been received. “At that time, we were going through our General Management Plan,” said Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent of the Lakeshore. “It was the perfect time to consider it, and it was very well supported from the public.”

Following an environmental assessment in 2009 to determine impacts of the trail, the project moved forward. The first ground-breaking for the trail took place in 2011.

“The park provided the land and with private fundraising and grants, it was given to the community,” Ulrich said.

Two non-profit organizations spearheaded fundraising and the grant application processes: Networks Northwest and Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails, Inc., better known as TART Trails.

According to TART Trails executive director Julie Clark, a trail through the national lakeshore was seen by the non-profit as a natural addition to park activities as well as a cultural resource. After TART partnered with the National Park Service, the project started on a fast track.

“There was an unbelievable response across the board,” said Clark. “The pace of the campaign started out much more quickly than we thought possible and the first portion of 17 miles was completed less than two years after ground breaking.

“That’s pretty rapid for trail development, and the community was right there from the beginning.”

But not without some opposition.

“There are still people that feel it shouldn’t have been built or are unhappy about the locations,” Ulrich said. “But that’s true of any major project or decision.”

Building such a major recreational resource was expensive.

According to Clark, $9.9 million have been spent on design and construction so far, with nearly miles five yet to be completed.

But in the end, Ulrich reports that positive feedback has been overwhelming, noting that park visitors often thank uniformed rangers they pass by on the trail.

“By and large, it’s a very well-loved trail by both visitors and locals,” he said. “It is a way for families to enjoy the park because it is so accessible; not everybody who comes here is ready to hike across the sand dunes and steep trails to Lake Michigan.”

Plus, the trail welcomes more recreational activities than just walking. And its usage continues year-round.

“In the summer, people are mostly bicycling, walking or roller blading. After snow falls, we see snow shoeing, cross country skiing and fat-tire biking,” said Kerry Kelly, chairman of FSBD.

Some stretches have steep grades, and these are noted on trailhead signs and are marked with warning signs on the trail. Of its 22-mile span, only a 3-mile portion is unpaved, which is a crushed stone path through the Port Oneida Rural Historic District.

In Kelly’s opinion, the trail is a great addition to the park.

“I had seen so many cars or campers with bikes on the back and yet there was no place for people to ride them except on highways and campground roads,” he said.

After the Department of the Interior approved the trail under the condition that a partner organization handle its maintenance, Kelly said FSBD was eager to step forward. The nonprofit formed the Ambassadors program, which is still welcoming new volunteers.

“You can never have too many ambassadors,” Kelly said. “Any time someone is out on the trail, I hope they see at least one bright orange vest.”

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