Outdoor recreation in the heart of the Motor City
May 19, 2016
When it comes to good health, Detroit may have just what you need.
It’s widely known that outdoor recreation - or just spending time in green spaces - is linked to improved physical, emotional and mental well-being, and the Motor City has an abundance of these healthy, outdoor opportunities available.
Vacationers here increasingly are adding nature walks, birdwatching, canoeing down serene canals and natural history to their trip itineraries. They’re discovering what many Detroit residents already know.
“People need green spaces – parks, trails, natural settings and opportunities to enjoy a variety of recreational activities and gatherings – for optimal health, and Detroit has all of these assets,” said Ron Olson, chief of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Parks and Recreation Division.
The DNR manages an interconnected park system in downtown Detroit that includes Belle Isle Park, William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor and the Outdoor Adventure Center. The southernmost terminus of the state’s 2,000-mile, hiking and biking Iron Belle Trail is also located here at Belle Isle and is being developed in collaboration with the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.
“The DNR is committed to establishing, maintaining and revitalizing these parks and facilities for the people of Detroit and its many visitors,” Olson said.
Belle Isle Park
This 985-acre island park, situated on the Detroit River, has been a jewel of the Motor City since it was established in the late 1800s. Now Michigan’s 102nd state park, Belle Isle is owned by the city of Detroit and is managed and operated by the DNR, under a long-term lease.
With its combination of natural beauty – featuring the only wet, mesic (moderatley moist) flatwoods forest in Michigan and wildlife including numerous migratory bird species – an abundance of outdoor recreation activities, such as picnicking, kayaking, hiking and fishing and many cultural and historical resources, Belle Isle is a park like no other.
Belle Isle rehabilitation efforts have made great strides, with the help of several state agencies – including the DNR, Michigan Department of Transportation and Michigan State Police – and the Belle Isle Conservancy, the City of Detroit and its people and a great many Detroit-based and statewide partners.
The public has definitely noticed. The “People’s Park” drew over 3.8 million visitors last calendar year. In 2015, attendance was up 32 percent in June, July and August over the same summer time period the previous year.
The main indoor attractions on the island, including the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, Belle Isle Nature Zoo, Belle Isle Aquarium and Dossin Great Lakes Museum, have all seen double-digit, and in a few cases, triple-digit, percentage increases in visitor attendance over the past couple of years. The aquarium, for example, saw a more than 300 percent increase in attendance from 2013.
“With open and renovated restrooms, expanded vendor services - offering food, beverages and rental options such as beach chairs, bicycles, kayaks, canoes and snowshoes - Belle Isle Park has increased its draw,” said Karis Floyd, manager of Belle Isle Park and Milliken State Park and Harbor.
The DNR and its many partners continue to revitalize the park and increase park offerings. For example, many island canals have been cleared and opened for kayaking and canoeing, activities that haven’t been available here for years.
A universally accessible kayak and canoe launch, with two access points, recently was completed near the beach. One launch point is located with access to the Detroit River, while the other connects to an island canal. A pavilion, to shield picnickers from inclement weather, was constructed near the launch.
In addition, a multi-year plan is now under way, initiated by the Friends of the Detroit River to connect the inland Lake Okonoka and the Detroit River. This will improve fish habitat and provide more fishing areas for anglers and additional kayaking and canoeing options.
“We’ve seen a large increase in the number of people interested in kayaking and canoeing in and around the island, and so we’ve responded by opening canals, adding more entry points, and offering kayaks and canoes for rent,” Floyd said.
From mid-June through Labor Day, park visitors can experience the “Giant Slide,” a six-lane slide first opened in 1967. From noon to 8 p.m., for $1 a ride, children and adults can soar down the slide on a burlap sack.
Children also enjoy the renovated Kids’ Row Playscape. In 2014, $20,000 was invested to improve this park feature, with the revitalization work completed by a veterans group.
Getting to Belle Isle has never been easier.
As part of a pilot project, the Detroit Department of Transportation offers bus service to the island every 50 minutes using the existing No.12 Conant Route.
For $1.50 bus fare each way, the daily route – which continues through mid-October – offers rides to the island. Once there, bicycles are available for rent.
Bicycling is a great way to see the island in bountiful bloom.
Last year, the Daffodil Project donated and planted 42,000 daffodil bulbs around the island. The DNR matched the donation to double the number of bulbs planted. This fall, 90,000 more bulbs are scheduled to be planted.
The floral beauty of the park is also evidenced in the cherry trees along the basin of the James Scott Memorial Fountain. In 1994, Toyota – Detroit’s sister city in Japan – donated flowering cherry trees to the city.
Many of these trees were planted on Belle Isle. However, several of the trees died or had to be removed because they succumbed to disease or damage by insects. During fall 2014 and 2015, volunteers planted more than 100 new cherry trees.
The fountain flows 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day. Beginning at dusk, the fountain lights up, creating a spectacular visual experience.
Since Belle Isle became a state park in 2014, visitor satisfaction has improved.
In a recent survey, 78 percent of Detroit residents who visited the park within the past year were satisfied with the management of Belle Isle and significantly more inclined to think the $11 Recreation Passport – good for annual entry into all of Michigan’s state parks – was a good value, compared to residents who had not been to the park.
“In effect, if they’ve recently seen the park and its continued revitalization efforts, they return,” Floyd said. “Visitors are noticing the work done by the DNR and others and the increased recreational offerings now available. They want to spend more time here with their families and friends.”
The park is open daily from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. year-round.
William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor
Situated along the Detroit River – just a short distance from Belle Isle Park and only blocks from Hart Plaza and the Renaissance Center Towers – is this 31-acre park. Featured here is a wetland area, trails – including a portion of the 5-mile Detroit RiverWalk – and one of the state’s most popular harbors of refuge.
“A simple walk through the wetlands area, which includes interesting and educational interpretive signs, or a stroll along the RiverWalk can be quite relaxing,” Floyd said.
All of the wetland plants in the park are natives of southeastern Michigan. These types of plants were found in Detroit in the 1800s before the city was settled. Wildlife including hawks, pheasants, muskrats and fox can be spotted here, too.
Fishing from the pier, located near the miniature park lighthouse, is also popular with visitors. Yellow perch, bluegill, rock bass, walleye, largemouth and smallmouth bass are just a few of the gamefish common in the Detroit River.
Several picnic shelters are also available.
The park is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. year-round.
Outdoor Adventure Center
A combination education and recreation facility, built in the historic Globe building, the DNR’s Outdoor Adventure Center (OAC) is part of Milliken State Park and was constructed with the goal of bringing “up north” to downtown.
The center offers exciting outdoor adventures and learning indoors. Through hands-on learning, visitors engage in recreational opportunities, conservation efforts and natural resources learning opportunities.
The center opened in July 2015 thanks to a unique blend of public and private sponsorships.
“The Outdoor Adventure Center is a one-of-a-kind facility tailored to novice and experienced outdoor enthusiasts alike,” said Linda Walter, center director. “We offer exhibits, programs, field trips and special events that will resonate with children and adults.”
The OAC is known for its special events for the public, from a May 29 Dequindre Cut bike ride to archery classes to WOW-Wild Over Wednesdays, which feature special programs centered on specific monthly topics.
Visitors experiencing the OAC are treated to three levels of exhibits centered on nature, outdoor recreation and renewable and nonrenewable resources.
Hands-on displays include simulators that allow visitors to virtually drive over the terrain of a state park or reel in a big catch.
A 3,000-gallon, wall-sized aquarium features fish native to the state. Visitors walk behind and touch a waterfall with a 36-foot drop, cross a pond over stones and travel through an underground cave behind the falls.
A beaver lodge, duck blind and 35-foot tall bur oak tree are just some of the exhibits that visitors can enter and explore. And that’s just the beginning.
“The center is information-packed, but that information is gleaned in a fun and interactive way,” Walter said. “The hands-on component of the OAC is central to our mission.”
Walter said instead of reading about alternative lodging at state parks, visitors walk into a yurt. Rather than seeing photos of kayaking in some of Michigan’s 11,000 inland lakes, guests hop into an actual kayak simulator and paddle, while a large screen shows on-scene video footage from a lake.
“The OAC also gives next steps to our guests, suggesting places around the state to recreate in the out-of-doors,” Walter said. “Michigan is home to countless recreational opportunities and beautiful places to visit.”
The Outdoor Adventure Center is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, closed Mondays and Tuesdays. See the full hours schedule.
Iron Belle Trail
Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail, comprised of separate hiking and biking trails, spans the state from Belle Isle Park north and west to Ironwood in Gogebic County, in the westernmost part of the Upper Peninsula.
From Belle Isle, the trail crosses over MacArthur Bridge, travels along the Detroit RiverWalk, which runs through Milliken State Park and Harbor, and then connects to Dequindre Cut near Eastern Market.
A 1.8-mile portion of Dequindre Cut, further connecting the Iron Belle Trail to 20 additional miles of Dequindre Cut, opened in late April. In all, the DNR-spearheaded trail system will traverse over 2,000 miles when completed.
“The trail builds upon Michigan’s extensive trail network, linking many existing trails to provide a world-class experience,” Olson said. “The new route showcases Michigan’s spectacular natural, cultural and historical resources.”
In addition to great city attractions like Tigers and Red Wings games, concerts, restaurants or museums, Detroit is increasingly becoming known as a destination for healthy, outdoor recreation opportunities and picturesque places to visit.
And the Michigan DNR, along with countless others invested in the city's success, is proud to play a role in making that happen. Our goal is to inspire, educate and connect our guests to Michigan’s natural, historical and cultural resources.
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