Equestrian trails a big part of Michigan's outdoor recreation scene

Several horses, and woman leading one of them, on a wooded trail

Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Oct. 19, 2017

Though it's a saying often credited to former President Ronald Reagan, the belief that there's "nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse" is one likely shared by Michigan's passionate community of equestrians who take to the trail whenever they can.

Fortunately, Michigan is home to quality horseback-riding opportunities in many regions of the state, and autumn is an excellent time to get out and enjoy them.

head-and-shoulders view of Elissa Buck, standing outdoorsIn fact, Michigan - fast cementing its reputation as the nation's Trails State for rich offerings to a variety of trail users - boasts more than a thousand miles of state-designated trails open to equestrian riders and 20-plus equestrian-friendly campgrounds located in many Michigan state parks and on state forestland.

Elissa Buck, an event coordinator with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Parks and Recreation Division, has a few suggestions on where to start to find equestrian facilities in state parks. She's also pretty committed to reminding residents that these trail resources and amenities are here for their use.

"Our state parks, trails and forestland belong to the people of Michigan. We're working every day to bring one-of-a-kind outdoor experiences to them, and that includes equestrians," she said. "There are a lot of opportunities for beginning and veteran riders, and programs and events put on by local riders' associations that are geared toward bringing more riders and their horses out to the trails."

Buck said the following locations are just a few of the many worth checking out in the Lower Peninsula: 

  • Ionia State Recreation Area (in Ionia County, between Grand Rapids and Lansing) offers a 15-mile trail system, 47 equestrian-only campsites, a large equestrian staging area and diverse terrain. Earlier this year, a DNR pilot project saw the installation of horse corrals at seven of the campsites; the work was part of a larger volunteer workday organized by the Ionia Horse Trails Association.
  • side view of saddled horseBrighton Recreation Area (50 miles northwest of Detroit), one of the state's premier riding destinations, has a full-service riding stable, horse rentals, guided trail rides, a 17-site rustic equestrian campground and 19 miles of scenic trails that wind past meadows, hardwoods, lakes and streams. Buck credited the work of the Brighton Trail Riders Association for the quality of the area's equestrian trails and facilities.
  • Big Oaks Equestrian State Campground (in Montmorency County, on Avery Lake) just opened in spring 2016 and offers a hilly, secluded atmosphere. The rustic campground includes a total of 24 campsites (including buddy sites), potable water (with generator hookup), a hand pump and vault toilets, and access to a day-use parking lot. Partial funding for the campground was provided by the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, with support organized and funded by the Equestrian Friends of Big Oaks.

For those who want to horseback ride north of the Mackinac Bridge, consider:

  • Thunder Valley Equestrian Pathway (in Marquette County) is an 8.8-mile stacked loop that takes riders through one of the Upper Peninsula's few oak forests. It travels along high ridges offering spectacular views and a large equestrian staging area. Proposals are in place to connect the pathway to the nearby Marquette County Fairgrounds.
  • Bill Nicholls Trail (in Houghton and Ontonagon counties) is a 38-mile trail that offers top-notch access for a number of recreational pursuits, including horseback riding. Trail riders will encounter three train trestles, allowing them to cross more than a hundred feet above the Firesteel River. It's a crossing that yields great views, especially during the region's peak period for fall foliage.

fall view, woman on horse, side viewUnderstanding and planning for multiple-use trails are things Janet Holmstrom, the Upper Peninsula representative for the DNR's Equine (horse) Trails Subcommittee, knows very well. She's also a member of the Michigan Trails and Recreation Alliance of Land and the Environment (known more familiarly as MI-TRALE), a group that oversees nearly 600 miles of ATV, ORV, multiuse and horse trails in the western Upper Peninsula and advocates for safe, responsible use of trails for motorized and nonmotorized recreation.

"Here in the U.P., equestrians share trails with pretty much all other users. MI-TRALE works to educate trail users on proper etiquette for meeting horses on the trail, because safety for everyone is paramount," she said.

Holmstrom credited MI-TRALE's large, multiuse membership (roughly 250 members from all over, not just Michigan) with making it easier to develop trails that meet multiple needs.

"Having an active board and membership also gives you a lot of creativity and input into what people want to see and do on trails," she said.

Anticipating and delivering the trail communities' desires - while working with real-world budget and usage constraints - make up the majority of Paul Yauk's workday. Yauk joined the DNR 42 years ago and has spent the last 25 years working in some capacity with the state's trails system and land management.

Yauk has served as the DNR's state trails coordinator for almost three years now, and he's excited about the progress that's been made on equestrian trails.

head and shoulders view of Paul Yauk in front of equestrian wall photo"There's a lot of opportunity for equestrians in our state. We have linear state park trails, dispersed camping, quality events for riders of all skill levels, and access to an incredible wealth of public lands that, frankly, just isn't available everywhere," he said.

"People who want beautiful, accessible places to ride come to Michigan from other states because states like Indiana and Ohio don't have the equestrian trail miles and facilities that we have here," Yauk added. "In the U.P. we have some excellent trails that regularly draw people from Wisconsin."

Yauk cited Michigan's statewide trails plan, introduced in 2013, as key to guiding the DNR in moving the equestrian trails program forward. Some of the plan's identified goals include: 

  • Improving and maintaining trails for everyone.
  • Making connections among existing equestrian trails (for example, between Pontiac Lake and Highland recreation areas) to create a longer ride, travel between multiple parks, and a better rider experience.
  • Creating new connections in urban and outlying areas of the state.
  • Developing a modern equestrian facility in southern Michigan.
  • Continuing to work closely with equestrian friends' groups, riding associations and other stakeholder groups.
  • Offering greater diversity of trails in Michigan.

"We're trying to build sustainable trails to accommodate all outdoor recreation uses. That takes tremendous effort, and there's no way we could do that alone," he said. "If not for the valued equestrian friends' groups and partners at the local, regional and state level, Michigan simply would not have the quality trails system that we do.

"To put it simply, these groups are the backbone of Michigan's equestrian trails."

Al Davis knows a thing or two about saddling up a horse. Davis is president of the Michigan Trail Riders Association, established in 1963 to protect and promote the Michigan Shore to Shore Riding and Hiking Trail, a 220-mile-long network of trails that runs between Empire on Lake Michigan and Oscoda on Lake Huron. He said the northern Lower Peninsula is the area his group is most familiar with and where it does the most work.

women with horses talking"We have a nice selection of camps and trails in northern Michigan for equestrians. With the amount of state and federal land … you can see an entirely different view of Michigan's abounding beauty," he said. "Of course, we would always like more marked equestrian trails, but we have enough to show a great riding experience in many different types of terrains and views."

Davis said the association has always maintained close relationships with local entities involving the trails, especially where trails cross private land, as well as with the DNR and the U.S. Forest Service. He said both agencies are critical to working through temporary challenges presented by bridge construction and repair, reroutes and logging operations. In those situations, he said, "collaboration has become a necessity for the trails' survival."

The Michigan Horse Council, representing a mix of some 50 businesses, organizations and individuals, is another strong partner of the state's equestrian community and equine industry. Council President Don Packard says the group's main focus is on industry education and research, and that includes a grasp of the widespread equestrian trail resources and support network found here.

autumn view of horses and riders on bridge"The trails in Michigan are absolutely marvelous. When people come here from other states, they're always amazed at the trail system we have," he said. "Our partnerships and friends' groups are a big part of what keeps those trails in such great shape. I myself belong to five different clubs. I love hitting those trails."

Packard said the horse business is one that provides upwards of $3 billion to the state, citing the costs associated with trucks, trailers, veterinarians, feed stories, tack shops, bedding, hay and other related products and services, not to mention the racing industry.

Packard's colleague, Jean Ligon, agrees wholeheartedly. Ligon is the incoming president of the council; she'll take over when Packard finishes his term in a few more years.

Ligon has been involved with the American Horse Council's recent efforts to update its national economic impact study. She said Michigan is one of the breakout states being looked at more closely by the national organization.

"If you think about it, it's pretty valuable for a community to also be home to a strong horse community. Equestrians and horse owners buy almost everything locally that's needed to support horses - feed, tack, bedding, etc.," she said. "We fully expect the national study to bear that out."

Ligon said that it's extremely important to the equestrian community to have quality trails and places to ride, and that means largely on public state and county lands, where some excellent resources already exist.

"Don't think you have to get in the car and drive 100 miles to ride a horse in Michigan. There are beautiful places to ride throughout the state," she said. "The more we do to accommodate riders in this regard, especially in southeast Michigan where most of the horses are, the better off we'll be."

For the DNR's part, Yauk said he and his trails colleagues continue to look ahead.

"We're always thinking, and we're always trying to be creative in opening up new opportunities to serve the equestrian community," he said. "Our focus is on improving, fixing and maintaining Michigan's trails for everyone's benefit and enjoyment."

Interested in learning more about equestrian opportunities for riders of all skill and experience levels? Visit the DNR website at michigan.gov/dnrtrails.

Check out previous Showcasing the DNR stories and subscribe to upcoming articles at michigan.gov/dnrstories.

Note to editors: For more information on this story, contact Elissa Buck, 989-313-0000 or John Pepin, 906-226-1352. Accompanying photos are available below for download. Photos courtesy Michigan DNR unless otherwise noted.

Jean_Ligon.jpg: Jean Ligon, incoming president, Michigan Horse Council. Photo courtesy Jean Ligon.

Don_Packard.jpg: Don Packard, president, Michigan Horse Council. Photo courtesy Don Packard.

Paul_Yauk.jpg: Paul Yauk, state trails coordinator, Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Horses_on_trail.jpg: With more than a thousand miles of state-designated trails open to equestrian riders and 20-plus equestrian-friendly campgrounds throughout the state, there are plenty of opportunities for horse and rider to explore Michigan's great outdoors.

Elissa_Buck.jpg: Elissa Buck, event coordinator, Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Parks and Recreation Division.

Riders.jpg: Alex Kaat of Bruce Crossing, left, and her mother, Deb Dix of Ontonagon talk together after a horseback ride Tuesday afternoon in Ontonagon County. 

Janet_Holmstrom_on_horse.jpg: Janet Holmstrom is the Upper Peninsula representative on the Michigan DNR's Equine Trails Subcommittee, and also a member of MI-TRALE, a group that oversees nearly 600 miles of ATV, ORV, multiuse and horse trails in the western U.P. Shown her with her horse, Holmstrom gets out on the trails as often as possible.

Ready_to_ride.jpg: This beautiful horse is saddled up and ready to hit the Michigan trails. Photo courtesy Jess Summers.

Bill_Nicholls_multiuse_trail.jpg: Riders enjoy the journey and the scenery along the Bill Nicholls multiuse trail, a converted rail-trail in the Upper Peninsula's Houghton and Ontonagon counties. Photo courtesy Janet Holmstrom./