Metroparks For All…

Folks living in southeast Michigan don’t know how lucky they were when in the shadow of looming war in 1939, voters in a five-county region went to the polls to decide whether to tax themselves a new park system into existence.

Some people thought it wasn’t worth the quarter of a mill to build a pearl necklace of parkland strung from the shore of Lake St. Clair, arcing south and west, then finally east, to the shore of Lake Erie. Fortunately, the more forward thinking voters carried the day, and the Huron-Clinton Metroparks were born. In hindsight, what a difference it would have made to the region’s residents had the proposal gone down in flames.

Now, facing near-record to record-high fuel prices this summer, southeast Michigan residents and others from surrounding states have a park system that is ever changing and improving. They’ll find an “Up North” experience only a few minutes away from their homes by car. A 13-park system that in 2007 served the needs of more than nine million anglers, swimmers, skiers, skaters, boaters and bikers, golfers and disc golfers, birdwatchers and people watchers, joggers and walkers, and countless others who’ve picnicked, reunioned, enjoyed symphony performances and fireworks and innumerable other outdoor pursuits.

What some said what now is one of the largest regional park systems east of the Mississippi River wasn’t needed is considered one of the best in the country as well.

To help you plan your visits to the Metroparks this summer, let’s take a peek at what each has to offer. Stories later this spring also will highlight some of the great fishing opportunities available at lakes both in and nearby the parks.

Metro Beach Metropark plants a curvy, elvish footprint on the shore of Lake St. Clair east of Mount Clemens. It’s all about the water here. If you’re walking the two-mile paved hike-bike trail to the Huron Point gazebo, you’ve got beautiful views of others enjoying the lake in boats, on sailboards windsurfing, PWCs, or flying kite boards.

If you’re launching your boat at the Black Creek launch for some of the world’s best smallie fishing, you’re cruising past the park’s three marinas holding up to 320 boats. If you’re walking the two miles marsh and woodlot trails, you’re watching water-born wildlife.

But for the more than 1.4 million visitors who come alone, as couples or as family groups each year, the biggest draw is centered around the main plaza, which this year has all-new cement walkways and a fresh look.

Some come to give toddlers their first taste of water fun at the Squirt Zone, which opened in 2001. At the water spray area, kids can run through squirting cannons, watery circles, arcs, “Os” and cannons, and best of all, it’s free. Teens and other families settle in on the mile-long shoreline that includes a 1,000-foot-long sandy beach.

The Olympic-size pool with separate diving area also has two water slides, and there’s also an 18-hole par 3 and a putt-putt course. You can also fish off fishing decks near the Black Creek mouth, and in the marina, where each fall you can preview the next year’s boats at what’s been billed as the country’s largest in-water boat show, this year Sept. 17-21. Used boats will be there, too. The newest, the Great Lakes Sports and Leisure Show May 16-18, will preview all ways to have summer fun, from RVs and pop-ups to boats and motorcycles.

Each July and August, Discovery Cruises, in partnership with the Michigan Sea Grant, leave the park to explore Lake St. Clair wildlife, lake wetlands and St. Clair Flats to educate young and old about the lake’s ecology while getting a great introductory cruise on the lake for non-boaters.

Metro Beach is that perfect example of a park that holds enough fun so no one will get bored. For more information, call 586-463-4581.

Wolcott Mill Metropark south of Romeo, is all about history. The creek of the old water wheel still echoes inside its 160-year-old grist mill standing along the North Branch of the Clinton River, which in spring also hosts a decent steelhead run. Interpretive programs at the mill tell its story. Tours also are available by appointment.

Up Wolcott Road, walk the grounds of a 250-acre working farm where you’ll see modern milk production and take the kids to pet animals from chickens to sheep. There also are wagon rides on select weekends. Special events include the Country Fair June 21-22, with old-fashioned farm activities like an antique tractor display and parade, pie-eating contests, peddle tractor pull for the kids and sawmill demos.

Back at the mill, the annual fall Civil War Skirmish, Civil War reenactors depict battles and you can also visit bivouacked troops and purchase handmade crafts. It’s Oct. 18-19 this year. You can also geocache here, and at all other Metroparks, too. The mill also is one of 29 sites selected to host “Up North with the Hemingways,” June 6-22, a retrospective on the life of young Ernest Hemingway in northern Michigan. For more on the mill, call 586-749-5997.

Stony Creek Metropark near Rochester is all about trails. If you’ve not been to its 4,500 acres since last summer, stop in at the new nature center deep in the woods at the park’s north end near the start of six miles of nature trails. Five more miles of trails are reached via separate entrance off Inwood Road, part of which was developed as a wetland mitigation site in only the last few years. Joining those on the park’s southwest side are 14 miles of mountain bike trails (helmets required). There’s also a six-mile paved bike trail with single-speed bikes rented at Baypoint beach in summer.

Summers are made for its two swimming beaches on 500-acre Stony Creek Lake, a great fishery for bass, walleye and other warm water species. A state record crappie and other Master Angler-size crappies also came from the lake. Like Kent Lake, which we’ll detail later, Stony has a 10 mph speed limit. Boat rentals are available.

Events include one of the largest inland lake American Powerboat Association sanctioned hydroplane races in the country taking place this year Sept. 20-21. For more on the park, call 586-781-4242.

Dive into the depths of a kettle pond through a unique acrylic-domed underwater viewing room at the James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center at Indian Springs Metropark in White Lake Township, 10 miles west of Pontiac, the park that’s all about discovery.

Kids can romp in the new Spray ‘N’ Play water zone, bouldering wall and cargo net, a chain link fence maze that’s harder than you think, and a toddler play area.

There’s an 18-hole regulation golf course, and hikers will find miles of trails emanating from the park’s nature center through dense forest and wetlands. At the EDC, see 60 acres of restored native ecosystems so visitors can imagine what Southeast Michigan looked like before European settlement. For more on the park, call 248-625-7280.

Kensington Metropark is what many consider the system’s crown jewel. At 4,500 acres, the park hosts more than 2.5 million visitors a year. When the gates opened in 1948 as the system’s first, it was said that residents were so eager to get in, traffic backed up from the entrance along Grand River Avenue all the way east to Farmington, a distance of 12 miles. Kensington, as it’s known, is all about everything that makes a great park great.

See its herd of deer, which often can be seen commuting from the woods to the 18-hole golf course. At the park’s wetland near the nature center, witness soaring osprey, cackling great blue heron, and the ever-nuisance swans.

The lake is known among bass anglers as one of the region’s top producers, especially in spring. It’s the site of several fishing tournaments each year and for good reason. A recent lake survey revealed that it holds up to 36-inch northerns, 20-inch largemouth and 26-inch walleye.

In winter, pitch a shanty on the lake while you send the kids to the toboggan and sledding hills.

At Martindale Beach, one of the lake’s two beaches, Splash ‘n’ Blast opened last year with two, 250-foot waterslides, one open, the other a dark slide, plus a water spray area. A separate admission fee is charged.

Bike Kensington’s eight-mile paved trail which is also popular with joggers and walkers. There are also 8 ½ miles of foot trails, some of which double as cross-country ski trails in winter when conditions permit. Picnic areas are throughout the park, and fishing piers are near the west boat launch. Rowboat rentals are available, as are kayak rentals and you can also paddle part of the Huron River down to the lake through Heavner Canoes and other liveries near Milford.

Events include the big Fourth of July fireworks over the lake at dusk, and Colonial Kensington, Aug. 9-10, with re-enactors portraying British and French settlers and American Indians encamped at Martindale. For more information on the park, call 248-685-1561.

Nearby Huron Meadows Metropark, south of Brighton, hosts surprising Maltby Lake, one of the best-kept fishing secrets in the Metroparks. Problem is, there are only six boats for rent (at the golf starter building) that anglers can go after the lake’s large population of bass. There’s a fishing dock, too.

There’s also a great golf course, hiking and in winter, cross-country skiing when conditions permit, including a 6.2-mile trail groomed for skate skiing. For more information, call 810-231-4084.

We’ll combine the next three parks since they’re so close to each other. At Hudson Mills, Dexter-Huron and Delhi, the pleasure is in the paddle. All three are known for kayaking and canoeing on the middle Huron River. Skip’s Canoe Livery at Delhi will transport you upstream to Hudson Mills for an eight-mile float downstream, or to Delhi for a three-mile trip. An added treat in fall is a stop at the Dexter Cider Mill in Dexter.

There’s fishing for panfish, and even a few walleye in the river. There’s also a golf course at Hudson Mills, a 3.5-mile paved hike-bike trail that travels to north Territorial Road, where a new 2.5-mile stretch of trail will open in fall plus a two-mile hiking trail. Two great disc golf courses host major tournaments each year.

The 122-acre Dexter’s and 50-acre Delhi are made for picnickers. For more information and events on all three, call 734-426-8211.

Lower Huron, Oakwoods and Willow metroparks are the gateway to Southeast Michigan’s Downriver area and they’re all about biking. One great trip we take annually is the hike-bike trail connecting all three, including a three-mile connector between Lower Huron and Willow that runs near I-275. It’s 15 miles each way.

You’ll enjoy great Huron River views, great flowering redbuds and dogwood in spring, a trailside preview of the 18-hole golf course at Willow and a chance to watch anglers at Willow’s Washago Pond. The trail ends at Oakwood’s nature center near the river’s backwaters.

New this summer is Turtle Cove. Opening on May 24 to replace Lower Huron’s 50-year-old swimming pool, you and the kids can zoom down two waterslides, float its endless lazy river, and have fun getting dunked by a 300-gallon dumping bucket at its playscape and enjoy other water features. Lower Huron also has a par-3 golf course. Two of the summer’s most popular events are Cruizin’ The Park at Lower Huron, a great classic car show, this year Aug. 22-24, and fireworks at Willow around Fourth of July. Four other parks also host sky shows starting June 29. Check for schedules.

Willow also has an Olympic-size pool, a great skate park, and disc golf. Oakwoods is highlighted by its nature center and its four miles of trails. Willow along with Stony Creek, Kensington and Metro Beach, also feature free concerts by the Detroit Symphony during four evenings in mid-July. For more information on events, 734-697-9181.

As the name implies, Lake Erie Metropark is all about the lake that it brushes. Erie’s duck hunting heritage is highlighted at the marsh nature center. There’s also a great antique fishing lure collection, antique duck hunting boats, decoys and original paintings by Michigan artist Jim Foote. There’s also a 1,300-gallon aquarium so the kids can see what they’ll be fishing for.

Kids can jump in the big wave pool to jump waves up to three feet high. There’s also an 18-hole golf course, fishing and observation decks on Lake Erie, and a big boat launch that gets you to upper Lake Erie’s walleye quickly.

Bikers can pedal a four-mile hike-bike trail. Lake Erie, along with Metro Beach, are among the top birding spots for birds of prey in the nation and Erie is also part of the new Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Its annual Hawkfest to watch for migrating birds is Sept. 20-21, but you can also spot soaring bald eagles here all summer. Lake Erie’s Discovery Cruises, similar to those at Metro Beach and featuring history of the Detroit River are in July and August.

For more information on Lake Erie, call 734-379-5020.

Combined with the state parks scattered across the region, the Metroparks are gems waiting to be discovered by your family this summer.