Randy Cleves set a goal last year to ride every foot of all the paved bicycle paths in West Michigan with his wife Colleen and then 5-year-old son Regan -- the equivalent of taking a bike ride from Grand Rapids to Philadelphia.
The family logged more than 150 miles between the Kent Trails, the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail State Park and other local trails before time simply ran out for the family. And though they didn't traverse the entire system "such an accomplishment would've been impossible in other cities I've lived," says Cleves, 38, senior director of public relations for the Grand Rapids Griffins who came to the area by way of Kansas City, Dayton and Cincinnati.
Maija Cutler Hahn is on the trails three times a week, usually Kent Trails and its tributaries, with her two toddlers in tow in a chariot behind her bike. She cites the trails as one of the reasons she moved to Grandville a year and a half ago from the West Coast. "Seattle has mountain biking, mostly single-track trails," says Hahn, 37, a speech pathologist. "I would never have been able to do what I do here."
In his native Omaha, Josh Duggan had to drive nearly an hour to reach the type of trail assets and access to nature that is literally a short bike ride from any urban area in West Michigan. In Detroit, Karen Dunnam never found a trail where she could be free of the city's urban sprawl and obnoxious traffic.
While it may lack the sex appeal of a Medical Mile or downtown entertainment district, West Michigan's extensive network of walking and biking trails has quietly become one of its most marketable assets. Hundreds of miles of walking and biking trails radiate from the hub of Grand Rapids like spokes in a wheel, and investment in trails over the past decade has been staggering.
Here, There and Everywhere
Since launching in 2000, the West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition has overseen roughly $27 million in trail investment for the 585 miles of trail in its network. Last month it announced nearly $3 million between two projects on the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail that runs from Lowell to Belding. Several other Fred Meijer trials will soon be under construction, including critical connections in the Berry Junction, Kenowa and Standale trails. Meanwhile, the Lowell Area Trailway campaign just announced that it had met its $1.1 million fundraising goal.
Much of it built along abandoned railroads and with the same formula of public support, philanthropy and engaged citizenry responsible for the region's marquee attractions, several hundred miles of improved trails are now available or under development.
The dozen trails in the Fred Meijer Trail System will link Grand Rapids to Rockford, Cadillac, Big Rapids, Holland, Muskegon, Hart, Saugatuck and a host of communities in between. Shorter nature escapes such as Huff and Riverside Parks and Blandford Nature Center are minutes from downtown Grand Rapids. Single-track mountain bike venues are nearby. And there are also a wide variety of natural hiking trails in the region, including premiere segments along the Lakeshore and the North Country National Scenic Trail that passes through Lowell (its national headquarters) and northern Kent County on its way to the Upper Peninsula and onward to North Dakota.
For Dunnam, the city's bicycle planner when the position existed in 2005, the trails are a means of introducing citizens to cycling without having to interact with motorists, a potentially critical component for the region to increase bicycle commuters. To the 30-year-old Duggan, organizer of a popular fall color tour, the trails are a boon for the creative class.
"It wasn't the reason I moved here, but it's definitely one of the reasons I stayed," he says. "A lot of people my age are moving back into the urban areas. They want to live near where they work and where they shop. Here you can have that and still be close to all these natural resources."
When You Need a Break from the City
According to the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, a program that emerged through the city's Green Grand Rapids initiative, 65 percent of survey respondents use parks for walking and jogging, the most popular use.
"We're entering into a golden age of paths and walkways in Grand Rapids," says Steve Faber, executive director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks. Faber points to the shorter nature trails found in various city parks as a key resource for urban living. "People love living in the city, but they also realize that there is a trade-off to that. There is also a desire to get close to nature and have a peaceful walk on their lunchtime. There are some walks around the city that have become very popular for taking that little siesta."
The boardwalk at Riverside Park in the Creston Neighborhood is the most popular destination, with the Plaster Creek Trail and the nature trails at Huff and Garfield Parks also popular getaways, Faber says. For recreational walking and light to advanced hiking in general, there is a huge list of local trails between the assets of the city parks department and those of other local municipalities, the state parks and other lands with public access such as the trails at Blandford, Cannonsburg Ski Area and the natural areas maintained by the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.
"I love trails," says Jay Steffen, Grand Rapids Director of Parks and Recreation. "So many people can use them, whether you're walking or riding or pushing a stroller or rollerblading. They're multipurpose and multigenerational."
One of the top priorities of the parks department is providing greater access to several flagship trails and closing the gap between them , Steffen says. One of the top concerns that emerged from Green Grand Rapids was access to Kent Trails (connects Johnson, John Ball, Douglas Walker and Millennium parks in a 15-mile trail from Grand Rapids to Byron Township) and the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail State Park (connects 13 urban centers in a 92-mile stretch from Grand Rapids to Cadillac).
Thanks to grants from Michigan Department of Transportation and the Frey Foundation, the Oxford Street Trail already under construction will provide improved access to Kent Trails for the city's southwest quadrant, linking Oxford Street in the Black Hills neighborhood to Wealthy Street near the John Ball Park trailhead. A pending $850,000 grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund could lead to the long-awaited acquisition of an abandoned railway that stretches along the eastern bank of the Grand River between Ann and Leonard streets, the missing link between Sixth Street Park downtown and Riverside Park, which feeds into the White Pine Trail through the North Park bridge.
West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition Executive Director Sharon Nunnelee explains that the success of trails such as the White Pine, which passes behind dozens of backyards and developments between Grand Rapids and Rockford alone, has made additional investment less controversial.
Communities are fighting hard for trail investment and are finding tangible economic benefits from the traffic. Cyclists have become an important market for shops and restaurants in downtown Rockford with frontage on the White Pine. The Country Dairy Farm Store in New Era is a premiere destination for cyclists on the Hart-Montague Trail, soon to be connected to Muskegon via Berry Junction. Coalition members in Muskegon report consistently high numbers of Wisconsin cyclists coming off the ferry to tour West Michigan trails. And according to the National Association of Realtors, trail access has ranked second only to highway access in importance of community amenities to home buyers, well ahead of sidewalks, playgrounds, lakes, public transportation or other amenities.
"The trails are excellent for economic development, and we should do more as a region to take advantage of that," says Nunnelee.
Some Like It Rough
May 15 was the Grand Opening of the Grand Rapids Bike Park, a park with a pump track and a two-mile mountain bike and hiking path at 580 Kirtland in Grand Rapids near Burton Street and US-131. It is the only public pump track course in West Michigan and the only legal single-track mountain biking course in the city.
The typical mountain biker seeks trails with more challenging terrain and a more natural setting. He or she is looking for dirt and steep slopes, with twists and turns that make leisure cyclists flinch. There are significant single-track assets outside of Grand Rapids, including popular mountain bike trails in Cannonsburg, Rockford and Middleville. But it's unique to have a true mountain biking experience within an urban center.
"Having this type of access is huge," says Jason Dew, 35, a Wyoming dentist and president of the Western Chapter of the Michigan Mountain Biking Association, which partnered with the city to build the Bike Park. "In the long term this is the type of thing that attracts people to a region—the type of young, talented individuals that fuel-economic growth. The people who tend to be movers and shakers also tend to have hobbies."
Daniel Schoonmaker is a freelance writer in Grand Rapids. Among other things, he formerly was managing editor for Rapid Growth Media.
Randy Cleves with wife Colleen and son Regan
Josh Duggan (2)
Kent Trails (2)
Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved