Waterloo – Pinckney Trail

The Waterloo Pinckney Trail spans 35 miles of Southeast Michigan’s hilliest landscape.

What is it? The W-P Trail is Southeast Michigan’s premier long distance hiking trail. It spans 35 miles (not counting the walks to and from campgrounds) from Waterloo Recreation Area, though Park Lyndon County Park, and then to Pinckney Recreation Area. There are hills to climb, ridges to walk, and marshes to meander amongst a green tunnel of foresty goodness.

What route/itinerary options are there? This trail is fairly adaptable depending on how strong of a hiker you are. If you are used to hiking more than 10 miles a day, you can do this in 2 or 3 days of good solid hiking. It can be done in one day if long distance trail running is your forté. For slower hikers like us, I recommend a four or five day hike.

The trail seems to be designed as a 3 day, 2 night hike. The first night would be from Portage Lake Campground to the rustic backpacker-only campground The Pines, which is about 10 miles. The next leg would be to Green Lake campground, about 13 more miles, with your finish being at Silver Lake, another 12 or so miles.

The Burns Cabin made for an excellent place to rest after a day of hiking.

For this hike, we chose to turn this into a 5 day, 4 night affair. We are moderately slow hikers, plus we really like to stop and look at as many plants and as much wildlife as we can. Our first night ended at a parking lot where the trail crosses Mt. Hope Rd. From there we decided to sleep in luxury at the Burns 1 Rustic Cabin. This was a 2 night stay minimum, so we used our cars to shuffle back and forth. In order to maintain the thru-hike, our second day we picked up our car at Portage Lake, dropped it off at the end at Silver Lake, and continued our hike from Mt. Hope Rd, where our car remained for the rest of the trail.

The rest of the trip was fairly straightforward, hiking past The Pines and back to the rustic cabin. From there we completed our trip by staying at Green Lake Campground, then splitting the “final day” in two by staying at the hike-in only Blind Lake Campground before hiking out the next morning to Silver Lake, where our other car awaited.

What were the conditions? We set out to do this trail as soon in the season as our gear would reliably allow. This time of year was warm enough for our 3 season gear, but not late enough for the mosquitos to hound us anywhere other than the marshiest areas. Our first day was a bit rainy, but we had dry conditions after that. We had a mostly dry spell before heading onto the trail, and parts that had previously known to be muddy ended up not a problem at all. There are some sandy areas, mostly where the W-P Trail follows horse trails in the Waterloo Recreation Area, but overall nothing felt unpassable or too strenuous.

Recommendations: We definitely recommend taking the extra time to do this trail. Our first attempt the year before was met with an injury and a Pretty Bad Time after we tried to complete the trail in 3 days. Along the same lines, take it easy on Sackrider Hill if you are used to the lack of elevation gain Southeast Michigan typically sports.

We spent a very windy night overlooking Green Lake.

We are really glad that we did the trail at the time of year that we did. Backpacking is a favorite for us in spring and fall – for good reason. The weather is much more agreeable, and there are much fewer bugs out as well. This is especially true of W-P recreation areas, where a bug net is all but required in the warmer months.

If you are able to stay at The Pines, I highly recommend it. We stayed there on our previous attempt, and it was quiet, clean, and a nice addition to the trail. Staying at the cabin however, was a very nice morale boost, and allowed for a couple days of slack packing that you may not have been able to get otherwise.

We found this wood frog after looking in a pond where we heard them calling.

Discussion: This trail can make for an excellent first thru-hike or backpacking trip with a little planning. Starting early and taking your time, as well as a little bit of car shuffling will get you to where you need to go. There is also an excellent variety of trail types throughout to keep you entertained. If you like elevation gain, there are several steep ups and down throughout, and if you like cruisey sections, there is that too – notably through Park Lyndon. Some spots are sandy, rocky, muddy, rooty, grassy, and some even just plain packed dirt. There is not a ton of road walking and a good amount of plants and wildlife to be seen if you know what to look for.

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