If you want to know the nature of a place, you have to get out in it.
The good news here in Kalamazoo? You won’t have to go far.
There are more than 100 miles of trails for biking and/or hiking in Kalamazoo County and even more in the surrounding region of Southwest Michigan. There are also 83 public lakes and several rivers. And that’s before you cross any county lines.
So start paddling, pedaling or blazing a trail to see Kalamazoo’s backyard in a whole new light.
Take the trails
Hikers and bikers of all skill levels have plenty of choices for local outdoor excursions. While some trails are designed for just one activity or another, many are multipurpose, allowing bike tires, shoes and occasionally even horse hooves to share the same beaten path.
If you want to take a hike, but aren’t sure of your fitness or skill level, the Kalamazoo Nature Center, at 7000 N. Westnedge Ave., is a great place to start. The KNC’s 10 miles of hiking trails vary in required skill level and allow visitors to explore woods, wetlands and prairies, with a chance to encounter the creatures that call these environments home.
Not quite as expansive, and good for a quick hike in the woods, is the Asylum Lake Preserve, which can be accessed from parking lots on Parkview Avenue and Drake Road or through an entrance along Winchell Avenue. It offers 247 acres of beautiful, diverse nature to hike through. Much of the trail system is unfinished, according to Western Michigan University, which owns and operates the preserve, but some hikers prefer that undeveloped look. Swans and other waterfowl are often seen on the lake, as are deer and other wildlife in the woods.
Less than three miles east is another WMU property, the Kleinstuck Preserve, which can be accessed from Chevy Chase Boulevard (where there are several parking spaces), Stearns Avenue, Hudson Avenue or a trail that runs behind the tennis courts at the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo. It encompasses 48 acres of upland and swamp forest, scrub and marshland for visitors to explore freely. Bird watching is great in the spring, and the white tails of deer can often be seen disappearing into the woods. A couple of benches on either side of the central marsh make for pleasant resting spots.
Offering both hiking and biking trails is Al Sabo Land Preserve, which can be entered from a parking lot at 6310 Texas Drive, in Texas Township. The preserve’s picturesque 741 acres offers about 25 miles of hiking trails. It is suggested that visitors bring a compass and a map to traverse Al Sabo’s trails, but even with a map the crisscrossing trails can be a bit hard to follow for some. (One person I know got lost in the park on a hot day while walking with a friend and three dogs. “Thank goodness we had water bottles at the car when we finally found it,” she said.)
The Al Sabo preserve was established to protect groundwater and is named after the former Kalamazoo Utilities Department director who initiated the purchase and preservation of the land. Biking was once allowed on most of its trails, but since 1993 bikers have been limited to seven miles of trails, according to the Texas Township website. The preserve was closed in 1992 due to excessive erosion caused primarily by bikes and then reopened a year later thanks to “many Saturdays of volunteer restoration work,” according to the website.
Bicyclists need not despair at the limited biking opportunities on Al Sabo’s trails, since there are many trails in Kalamazoo County and beyond designed just for biking.
The Maple Hill Mountain Bike Trail, for example, is five miles of pure bike loop on the west side of Markin Glen Park, which is located at 5300 N. Westnedge Ave. Designed to be accessible to slow-rolling beginners yet challenging and rewarding for those with enough skill to ride at higher speeds, the Maple Hill Trail features jumps, rock features and climbs that give riders “long descents” as a reward, according to the trail’s website. The direction riders can go on the trail alternates depending on the day of the week, to spice things up a little bit more.
The Portage Bikeway System contains 55 miles of paved and off-road trails for bikers to enjoy, connecting riders to nature as well as local retail businesses and neighborhoods. The Portage Bikeway connects several parks, including Haverhill and Millennium parks, Celery Flats, and Bishop’s Bog and West Lake Nature preserves. It also connects to the Portage Creek Bicentennial Park, which contains the Portage Creek Bicentennial Trail, a 3.5-mile multipurpose trail that even meanders out to Portage Road, passing by the Air Zoo.
One of the area’s largest multipurpose trails, the 34-mile Kal-Haven Trail, which runs from Kalamazoo to South Haven, has designated sections where horses are
allowed and permits skiing and snowmobiling during the winter.
The Kalamazoo River Valley Trail is arguably the crown jewel of trails in Kalamazoo County. The newest trail in the Kalamazoo County park system, this multipurpose trail has been in the works since 1991 and currently has 22 miles of 10-foot-wide paved pathway that connects River Oaks County Park, Mayors’ Riverfront Park, Verburg Park, the Riverview Launch and more, according to the parks section of the Kalamazoo County website.
And that’s just what the KRVT currently has to offer. In the future the county hopes that the trail will be 35 miles long. When it reaches that point, the trail will connect “Battle Creek to Lake Michigan, D Avenue to Portage, Augusta to Gull Lake,” the website says, and will also connect to the Kal-Haven Trail, Portage Bicentennial Park Trail and others — meaning that the KRVT will connect more than 140 miles of trails.
The KRVT (like parts of the Kal-Haven trail, planned Asylum Lake trails, and several other trails) is Americans with Disabilities Act compliant, meaning that it is accessible to anyone with a need for “motorized or non-motorized mobility devices,” the site says.
While hikes and bike rides through forests and meadows are nice, some people may be looking for something a little more … wet.
The Bow in the Clouds Preserve, along Nazareth Road north of Gull Road, for example, gives an opportunity for visitors to walk on a boardwalk over beautiful wetlands.
The same is true for the Bishop’s Bog Preserve Trail, in Portage, which travels through a bog that’s a holdover from the Ice Age. This trail is part of the Portage South/Central Greenway, where six miles of trail link five parks, and a quarter of the trail floats on bogs and marshes.
But if that’s not watery enough for you …
Get some liquid therapy
Look no farther than the area’s abundant lakes and rivers for some great paddling or float trips.
Start close to home on the Kalamazoo River by paddling or floating down any stretch of the river’s 123 relaxing miles. The lower section of the Kalamazoo River has been designated as a Natural River by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and, as a result, the river between Lake Allegan and Hacklander Landing in Fennville offers some very nice paddling with minimal development, according to the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council.
You can find on the council’s website (see box on Page 22) detailed maps of the Kalamazoo River, Battle Creek River and Rabbit River that showcase each of the rivers’ access points.
If you haven’t got a boat to float, you can rent kayaks and canoes from several local liveries and stores. Plainwell Kayak Co. and Lee’s Adventure Sports both rent watercraft, and Trailspotters of Michigan offers dropoff and pickup points on the Kalamazoo River.
Nearby, St. Joseph County offers miles and miles of rivers and creeks for enthusiasts to paddle as well. Those looking for some light whitewater fun might enjoy a trip on the Rocky River. The Three Rivers-based canoe and kayak livery Liquid Therapy offers an opportunity to paddle on the Rocky’s “wild and beautiful, sparsely populated” waters, with a “small class ll whitewater at the end” of the trip, according to Liquid Therapy’s website. The livery will also put paddlers on four other rivers.
History buffs might also enjoy the designated Michigan Heritage Water Trails of the area, which offer not only navigable waterways but history lessons along the way via historical markers (at bridge crossings) that highlight events or themes related to the waterway. The Heritage Water Trails in our area include:
- the River Country Heritage Water Trails, on the St. Joseph River from Colon to Mendon to Three Rivers; on the Portage River from Portage Lake to Three Rivers; and on Nottawa Creek, in St. Joseph County, from Shorts Road to the St. Joseph River;
- the Bangor/South Haven Heritage Water Trail, along the Black River, in Van Buren County; and
- the Kalamazoo Watershed Heri-tage Water Trail, which includes the Kalamazoo River and its many tributaries.
All in one
Finally, if you just have to do it all — pedal, paddle and hike — then Fort Custer State Recreation Area, in Augusta, is for you. With four miles of multipurpose trails, 15-plus miles of mountain biking trails with names like Amusement Park and Zoom Zoom, and three lakes and access to the Kalamazoo River, you can pretty much get all the nature you can handle here. If you bring your horse, you can ride that too. But you can’t ride a horse alongside your biking buddy, since they are not allowed on the same trails. The good news is that the recreation area offers cabins for rent and camping sites so you can truly experience it all.