Looking for a long hike? New trail on Belle Isle is part of country's longest state trail

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

Michiganians seeking long-distance adventure on hiking and biking trails need to look no further than Detroit after the opening of a new trail on Belle Isle.

The first phase of the Ralph Wilson Gateway and Trail opened last week, serving as the official southern trailhead for the Iron Belle Trail. 

A view of the glass-and-steel sculpture One World Under Michigan Stars sculpture in the background at the Ralph Wilson Gateway and Trail on Belle Isle in Detroit.

When complete, it will serve as the first six miles of more than 2,000 miles  of Iron Belle Trail as it stretches across the state. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources said the Iron Belle, which runs from Detroit to Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula, is the longest state-designated trail in the country, with those miles split between a hiking route and a biking route.

It's not clear that anyone has completed the trail.  DNR staff said they've heard of people who have taken the bike trail all the way over a period of several days, but no one who has done both halves. If someone has, they would have traveled nearly the same distance as the multi-state Appalachian trail that runs for roughly 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine.

A view of the pergola with picnic tables at Ralph Wilson Gateway and Trail on Belle Isle in Detroit.

The beauty of the trail is that is can be enjoyed even in small distances.

"It's a beautiful space that offers users a nice balance,"  said Amanda Treadwell, a DNR spokesperson. "They don't have to go too far, but they can still enjoy outdoor space and their surroundings."

Belle Isle is a unique space that most cities don't have: It's the largest city-owned island park in the U.S., Treadwell said. With the completion of additional trails, it becomes even more valuable to the public.

"It's important to have trails in urban areas," Treadwell said. "It's a great way to invite our folks in more urban areas into the outdoors, because we have it right here in the middle of the city."

Studies have shown that having trails and outdoor space, particularly in more densely populated areas, can help make physical activity more accessible. Recently, the Belle Isle Conservancy partnered with ParkRx after seeing visitorship spike during the pandemic. ParkRx is a park prescription program that encourages folks to spend time in nature.

A wide view of the landscape at Ralph Wilson Gateway and Trail on Belle Isle in Detroit.

“It’s a cool opportunity to be intentional about the way we support this community space and the way that space actually supports the community who’s using it,” said Ayo Thomas, an engagement associate at Belle Isle Conservancy. 

Thomas said the goal is to provide a natural treatment opportunity in addition to conventional medicine, not in place of it. 

And, regardless of medical status, people can go outdoors and receive the same health benefits of being in nature. 

The DNR has said that is something it is interested in pursuing, according to Elissa Buck, a commercial services and land use program administrator at the agency.

The Ralph Wilson trail allows people to see parts of the popular park they might otherwise have missed.

Only half of the trail is finished, but the current route runs from the gateway along the beach side of the island. Construction on the other half is expected to start by next year.

A information panel at Ralph Wilson Gateway and Trail on Belle Isle in Detroit.

It will connect to the Eugene and Elaine C. Driker Trail, which is now under construction. That trail "will allow visitors to walk ... into the more natural environment of the island around a portion of the Blue Heron Lagoon and past the Livingston Memorial Lighthouse," according to a news release.

The DNR does not keep track of how many people use the Iron Belle Trail, said Dakota Hewlett, the trail's coordinator. Different groups along the route manage the sections.  But Treadwell is optimistic it would bring more people into the robust green space.

"It's an exciting time to get outside and explore the trails in Detroit that are being put in the ground," she said. "We've got this, the Joe Louis Greenway — there are some great outdoor spaces. It's a chance to get outside and recreate together."

Other features of the new trailhead include a small plaza with picnic tables and a pergola, a parking lot and a path to help visitors get to new public art installation set up earlier this year called "One World ... Under Michigan Stars."

The new trail and gateway were paid for through private grants as well as money from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, according to a news release. 

A view of a trail leading to the glass-and-steel  sculptture at Ralph Wilson Gateway and Trail on Belle Isle in Detroit.

It is named for the late Ralph Wilson, the founder and former owner of the NFL's Buffalo Bills and a longtime Michigan resident. Wilson created the foundation that bears his name and which supports active lifestyles, economic development and more.

"It’s incredible to have this beautiful gateway named in honor of Ralph," said Mary Wilson, his widow and a life trustee of his foundation, in a news release. "As a person who loved people from all walks of life, it is meaningful to have the trail be a gathering place for families and friends who want to get outdoors and enjoy each other and nature."


Twitter: @Hayley__Harding