In Middleville, a trail for all

Want to kayak or canoe, birdwatch or bike, fish or finish a 5K? Along the Thornapple River in Middleville, one special trail offers all these activities and more. Don't let the summer slip by without a visit -- and before you go, read up on the Paul Henry Trail, a West Michigan gem.
Hot Summer, Cool Trail: Middleville Home to a Pure Michigan Summer
Lauren F. Carlson

A trail is just a trail. A flat, covered surface traversing a city, the country or the wilderness. Alone, a trail doesn't seem like much, but when paired with the right setting, passionate people and idyllic weather, that path can become a gateway to endless possibilities.
In Middleville, a town of just 3300 people, the Paul Henry Thornapple Trail offers a slew of activities that connect its residents and visitors to nature and their community. Whether they're tubing, running, biking or even ice fishing, users of this unique and diverse trail can easily find activities that make this an ideal West Michigan getaway. With a small village at its heart, this rural trail continues to develop north, providing more miles, more connections and even more activities for Barry County residents.

Fred and Carole Nolten bring their kayak onto the Thornapple River using the Paul Henry Thornapple Trail.Following the Thornapple River for approximately 35 of its 40 miles, The Paul Henry Trail takes advantage of "one of the most popular rivers to kayak and canoe," says Jean Lamoreaux, Middleville Village trustee. With boat launches in Middleville near the E. Main St. trailhead and Irving near the McCann Rd. trailhead that include adjacent bike racks, visitors frequently combine the two sports in one outing. Since the trail is conveniently located near campgrounds farther north in Hastings and other surrounding villages, campers often drop their tubes in the river, opting for a lazy afternoon of drifting down stream.

Fishermen also find a home here, seeking the small mouth bass, carp, crappie, pike and walleye that make their home in the river. All along the route (but particularly in Middleville's Mill Pond, a calm body of water created by the village's dam), fishermen find handicapped accessible docks ideal for a variety of users. At night, some can be found hunting fish with bow and arrow and, in the winter, others brave the cold to pitch ice-fishing tents.

Phil Van Noord looks for birds.Trail visitors also find a variety of birds near the trail, taking advantage of the fact that the Paul Henry houses all five of Michigan's woodpecker species. "[The trail is] just packed with bird people," says Village of Middleville Representative and Heritage Day Chair Tom Ackerman. The bounty of woodpeckers prompted Middleville representatives to found the village's first annual—and only second in the nation—Woodpecker Festival in 2010. Having just celebrated its fifth year this April, the festival welcomes birders from across the nation to participate in specifically tailored birding walks, golf cart shuttles to nesting areas, and canoe and kayak touring.

This particular rail trail provides ideal terrain for families, the elderly and those seeking an outdoor alternative for medical rehabilitation. "It's very flat," says Lamoreaux. "There are not any hills on our trail."
The easily traversable surface attracts young children learning to ride their bikes, especially during the annual helmet giveaway, a partnership event between Pennock Hospital of Hastings and Barry County in which the sheriff's department gives away between 300-400 helmets. By also offering helmet fittings and a mini-course teaching bicycle safety, the event seeks to position the trail as a safe haven for novice riders and families of all shapes and sizes. "There's a lot of families that come because it's free entertainment," says Lamoreaux.

In addition to being an ideal spot for recreation, the trail also recently began offering a guided option for exercise while visiting its flat surface along the river. A partnership between the Thornapple Trail Association, Thornapple Kellogg High School and Maple Valley High School, the Fit Strip is a guided workout program designed to maximize walking or running time on the trail. Designed by Thornapple Kellogg Physical Health and Education Teacher Lyndsey Fischer, this simple workout plan allows users to pick and choose between 16 workout stations at every quarter mile of the trail. To mark each station, students at Maple Valley designed and laser-cut plastic plaques in their shop class. Developed by educators, supported by students and coordinated by community volunteers, the Fit Strip is an accessible exercise plan for the entire community. "It was designed for anyone," says Lamoreaux.

For a more rigorous workout, the trail also hosts annual 5K and 10K runs in conjunction with Middleville's annual Heritage Days festival each August. A former smoker, Tom Ackerman began running late in life and soon took up long-distance running for exercise. After becoming the director of the run five years ago, Ackerman has continued to lead the widely attended annual event, as well as a twice-weekly running group on the trail. "It's just a group of novice runners," Ackerman says lovingly. Whether seasoned runners or novices, the participants of the run bring in $2000 each year for area's athletic programs for children.

As trail use grows and more impassioned community members become involved, the Paul Henry trail continues to develop. Currently in progress, a new pavilion designed specifically for the farmers market and located across from the Middleville Village Hall will be completed in September. The trail association also recently received approval for a $600,000 MDOT grant that will further develop the trail 3/4 mile north to Crane Road. Though the project has not received the green light, trail supporters are hopeful that it could be completed in summer 2016. In the future, the association hopes to pave the four miles north to Caledonia and to connect to its southern neighbor, Hastings. In between lobbying for support and funding, trail activists celebrate each small project. "If you don't have a voice for something, it doesn't happen," says Thornapple Trail Association Treasurer Phil Van Noord.

Hidden just a few miles outside of Grand Rapids, the Paul Henry Trail is an unexpected gem that provides myriad activities on the pavement and in the water. By partnering with many of Middleville's annual events, the trail association takes advantage of the small town charm and pure Michigan weather that allow for ideal outdoor summer activities. 

This article is part of an ongoing series, Moments on the Trails, and was made possible by the West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition. For more information about the WMTGC, visit

Lauren F. Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at, and she can be reached at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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