Dreaming big: A walking trail spanning Michigan’s vast coastline

Michigan’s recreational trails offer jaw-dropping glimpses of the Great Lakes stretching out against the horizon. They feature cliffs that look like they were squirted with giant tubes of fingerpaint. And miles of soft sand to trudge ‒ a scenic way to tighten the glutes.

Wander off the public parks and more breath-taking vistas await (as well as the occasional trash-strewn shoreline, landfill or nuclear power plant).

This is the Michigan that author Loreen Niewenhuis experienced ‒ and more ‒ when she walked 3,000 miles around the Great Lakes and their islands from 2009 to 2014 and then wrote about her journey.

It’s the kind of journey that is an inspiration for the Next Big Idea for Michigan: A walking trail that traces the entire shoreline of the state.

Yes, that’s nearly 2,200 miles of trail around the Mitten and Upper Peninsula, the centerpiece of a 10,000-mile Great Lakes mega-route traversing eight states and Canada. To put a 2,200-mile Michigan trek in perspective, that’s roughly the length of the U.S.’s entire East Coast, from Maine through Florida.

“If Michigan leads, the rest of the Great Lakes states will follow. They’ll see what this could mean for local communities along the lake shore,” said Melissa Scanlan, an environmental law professor and leading proponent of ringing Michigan and the entire Great Lakes region with public-access trails.

Why would anyone want to walk thousands of miles along Michigan’s mostly delightful coastline? Because in Michigan, you can – at least theoretically.

Michigan law allows anyone to traverse the state’s coast along the water’s edge up to the ordinary high water mark of the land without being guilty of trespassing on private property.

That makes Michigan a good place to start building what could be the world’s longest public beachside walking trail, said Scanlan, a Wisconsin native who is now an associate professor and director of the Environmental Law Center at the Vermont Law School. Earlier this month, she pitched her idea, “Blueprint for the Great Lakes Trail,” in a talk at the University of Michigan law school in Ann Arbor.

It’s bold and fantastic to even think of carving a path along the length of the largest freshwater system on the planet. But perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come. This is, after all, what might be described as a golden era of outsized wanderlust, as depicted in splashy movies (“Wild,” about a woman’s 1,000 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail) and best-selling books (such as Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” about his journey along the Appalachian Trail).

Scanlan argues that a Michigan path could lead to improved tourism, economic development and job creation. Of course, you have to spend money to make money and neither Scanlan nor anyone else can put a price on planning and funding a vast project that could easily take decades to complete.

But Niewenhuis, perhaps the Michigan coast’s most popular adventurer, said the payoff could be priceless.

“By giving people access to the water, people will be more connected to it and care about it more,” she said.

Happy Trails

The Great Lakes shoreline crosses eight states in the U.S. and two provinces in Canada, spanning 6,582 miles around mainland, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Include the shores around islands and connecting rivers and Michigan’s path would exceed 3,000 miles, while a Great Lakes coastline would top 10,000 miles, or more than three times the distance from New York to San Francisco.

Michigan already is home to hundreds of miles of hiking trails including more than 200 miles on the Shore-to-Shore Trail that connects Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. Then there’s the Iron Belle Trail, proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012, that will be a 1,259-mile hiking route and a 774-mile bicycling route connecting old and new trails. Much of it follows the existing 4,600-mile North Country National Scenic Trail that runs from the New York-Vermont border through Michigan to North Dakota.

The state Department of Natural Resources plans to have the Iron Belle completed by 2017. Some portions opened this year.

A Great Lakes walking trail would augment and connect to the thousands of miles of existing trails in Michigan, Scanlan said. It could also end up being longer than the North Country National Scenic Trail, that meanders through seven states. That trail was created in 1980 and is not yet complete.

The idea is as deep and wide as the lakes themselves, but not impossible.

In 1988, Canadians started working on the paved hiking and biking Waterfront Trail along the Great Lakes with the goal of going as close to the water as possible. It spans about 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) along the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and the Niagara, Detroit and St. Lawrence Rivers.

Not yet complete, the Waterfront Trail is considered a tourist attraction that connects 68 communities with walking paths (which make up 21 percent of the trail), neighborhood streets (21 percent), and rural roads (58 percent).

Too big for Michigan?

Of 211 million visitors to Michigan tourist destinations in 2012 and 2013, about 5.5 percent said they hit the hiking trails, according to Pure Michigan, the official travel and tourism department in Michigan.

Dave Lorenz, spokesman for Pure Michigan, said he can imagine that hikers and beachcombers would love to be able to loop the state’s coastline on a public trail.

But he said he’s not sure that a trail would provide enough jobs and economic stimulus to make it worthwhile. The costs have yet to be researched. But long trails cost untold millions of dollars and involve private, public and conservation entities.

“It’s not on our top list of priorities. I personally want us to take care of what we have,” Lorenz said. “I’d be totally in favor, I’m just concerned about the cost. And the continued maintenance, that’s what gets you.”

Scanlan said she conceived the idea of a Great Lakes walking trail on a trip to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire, recently acknowledged as one of the most beautiful places in America. Walking along a beach, she ran across a no-trespassing sign that warned visitors to keep away from private land.

It turns out, not everyone is thrilled with breaking down barriers to public access along the state’s shoreline.

Marcia Wineberg, a director of a chapter of the Great Lakes Coalition that represents about 800 property owners along Lake Michigan, said a hiking trail on the shoreline presents a security and privacy threat to property owners because hikers don’t know where public domain stops and private property begins.

“The high water mark is a touchy subject,” she said. “I don't think there is a definite definition of it and I’m not sure that a lot of people who use the beaches know where it is.”

She said the coalition also is concerned about sand supply and erosion.

Since she bought her house in St. Joseph in 1975, Wineberg said about 100 feet of her property frontage has eroded, falling off into Lake Michigan ‒ along with two neighbor’s houses.

Fluctuating water levels could erode or cover parts of a public shoreline trail, she said. “It could be here today, gone tomorrow.”

Possible challenges from private property owners along the coast are not the only obstacle to a Great Lakes trail.

Dave Lemberg, a geography expert who mapped Lake Michigan along the Michigan coastline for a waterway trail for kayakers, said the natural barriers to a land trail are considerable: bluffs and cliffs, especially along the Upper Peninsula and in the Thumb; impassable invasive plant species take over some beaches; and, as Wineberg noted, water level fluctuations can swamp beach trails or redefine the high water mark that separates public and private land.

While Michigan has nearly 2,200 miles of Great Lakes mainland coast, not all of it can be traveled on foot.

“It would take a lot of effort to figure out the walkability of the shoreline,” said Lemberg, an associate professor in the Department of Geography at Western Michigan University.

That is not meant to discourage the creation of a Great Lakes Trail. “Everything is possible,” he said. “I think it hasn’t happened yet because people haven’t talked about it much.”

Opportunities, not challenges

Niewenhuis, the woman who has hiked most of Michigan’s shoreline, said private property owners and conservationists need not worry ‒ hikers would present few problems for the Great Lakes.

Niewenhuis used public access points to get to the Great Lakes shores, but because there is currently no public trail, once outside the public parks she had to improvise her own course along the water’s edge.

A Great Lakes trail would help educate the public on how to access the lakes and how to treat the lakes, she said. Along the water, hikers will be inspired and impressed by the water, the cliffs, the flora and fauna. They also may see a Superfund site formerly contaminated with asbestos, nuclear power plants, or areas that have “a toxic relationship with the lake.”

The decades of collaboration across industries, the research, as well as the millions in taxes and donations that will be required to make the Great Lakes Trail idea a reality could all be worth it if it brings people closer to the water’s edge, Niewenhuis said.

“Big ideas are important,” she said. “That’s how big things happen.”

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Big D in Cvx
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 10:04am
Oh boy. On the surface, a feel good idea. But, as noted, think about: Below the high water mark IS NOT a sound place to construct anything, at least not economically--fluctuating water levels, weather and unstable ground make it impractical. Ok, build a steel-plated concrete deep-piling ice-resistant structure (otherwise known as a "brick s-house") at immense expense--not a responsible way to spend taxpayers' money. Impacting lakeshore property-owners viewsheds would incite never-ending litigation. We will be spending enough to get the Iron Belle up and running, even though the North Country Trail pretty much has built most of the hiking portion already--hopefully that won't siphon off more road repair funding.
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 10:15am
My feelings exactly. A county in Florida recently built a walking / biking bridge across a 4 lane divided highway that was used to connect 2 portions of a walking / biking trail. Previously, trail users crossed the 4 lane highway at a traffic signal. Cost of the bridge - $3,000,000. Yes, three million dollars. How many obstructions (streams, rivers, roads) would a trail around the Michigan shoreline have to cross?
Big D in Cvx
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 11:41am
...no doubt they got a federal grant.
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 11:27am
Of course. It makes much sense to spend billions (trillions) on 'weapon systems' and wars than this kind of frivolous stuff.
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 11:42am
You are right! Very frivolous! How would you like to pay money for a lake front lot, enjoy a view with an ocassional beach walker, and have it turned into a pathway with lots of foot traffic? The northern areas wouldn't be to bad, but the areas around and in the big cities could be another story. A lot of people who visit the North and travel the roads have no respect for the land. You can tell by the roadside trash, the same problem with the public campgrounds.
Sat, 04/25/2015 - 10:50am
then buy a house on the lake like we did. Sorry we inconvenience you!
Big D in Cvx
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 11:42am
Off topic, Saul.
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 11:29am
With all the necessary road repairs needed, school funding, welfare, medicaid cuts amongst other things we need, Some tree hugger's pipe dream is a joke. Guess they better find the money from the people who use this! Maybe Donald Trump has some to spare!! ABSOLUTELY NO STATE MONEY!
Betty Tableman
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 11:36am
If construction is limited to impassible spots, fine. Otherwise you are destroying the beaches for property owners and others.
Dean S. Smith
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 2:51pm
Its great vision. Think back to the philosophy of the American Youth Hostel Association and include all forms of personal power rather than just one. The value and rewards are the same. I can see the value of organizing venture clubs where groups with a sponsorship and leaders are involved. There is a lot of value in sharing traveling together.
Bryan Taylor
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 3:31pm
We wouldn't have to take on the whole thing at once. The tip of the mit already has a shore to shore trail that we could turn into a loop by adding a shoreline route. And sections of the UP shoreline could be easier to tackle offering additional potential loops using existing trails. Considering that author Loreen Niewenhaus has already been able to walk the shoreline, many sections could be created without any construction, just better guidance. And the tourism could attract not only hikers, but people who want to also paddle and pedal the routes or do all 3 in one trip. You can't do that on the Appalachian trail. Plus our string of resort towns along the shore means that people could even do European style walking tours. That not only would generate more revenue, it would change the way people view Michigan.
John Q. Public
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 7:04pm
"Niewenhuis, the woman who has hiked most of Michigan’s shoreline, said private property owners and conservationists need not worry ‒ hikers would present few problems for the Great Lakes." Someone should introduce her to "The Tragedy of the Commons." "Niewenhuis used public access points to get to the Great Lakes shores, but because there is currently no public trail, once outside the public parks she had to improvise her own course along the water’s edge." Perfect. Let those interested in this 7,000 mile hike do the same.
Wed, 04/22/2015 - 10:01am
This is a warm fuzzy thought and project. I have been reading all the reports in previous Bridge publications. Michigan has much bigger issues to address than a shoreline trail; Detroit by the numbers -the truth about poverty, dental screening for all children entering kindergarten, isolation impedes health care for seniors, hidden poverty in northern Michigan, or the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained) population? And, these issues only scratch the surface Michigan must deal with before entertaining an idea like this one!
Dana Jackson
Wed, 04/22/2015 - 11:51am
I'd love to have a planned walking trail. I'm tired of driving along the coast and peeking between houses for a view of the lake. Canada has the right idea with their long stretches of lakefront public views and parks.
Wed, 04/22/2015 - 6:45pm
I have a mobility disability. Will it be handicap accessible so that all can enjoy it?
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 2:01pm
Nice to see a discussion here. I am quoted in the article and I do support this idea, but think it wouldn't cost much to begin expanding current trails and gradually increase a marked trail around the lakes. Since the State of Michigan has a law stating that the zone near to the water (that zone "scrubbed free of vegetation") is a public corridor, we already have the right to walk the shoreline. The issue is then informational: how do people safely access walkable sections of shoreline, and when that is not accessible (or unsafe or restricted), how to safely get around obstacles and then back to the shoreline. Canada has a marked trail from Montreal to Windsor (the last section near Windsor may still be in development). This Shoreline Trail was not blazed and constructed, but rather marked along existing roads (some of these roads have a widened, paved shoulder for biking), existing trails, and existing beaches. It even winds through the buffer zone of a nuclear power plant at one point, and through the grounds of a seminary at another point. There is considerable cooperation with industry, private lands, and public lands to mark this trail and give access to all. I walked this trail from Bellville, ON to Toronto, ON, and again along the Niagara River in Ontario where it is a wide, paved, lovely path. I have now walked over 2,000 miles along the edges of all five Great Lakes and have ventured out to many of the islands in their waters. I suggested in the interview (though this part did not make the article) that much of this information could be "crowd-sourced" and loaded into a website or app. Real-time input could be added (e.g. a storm makes a section of once walkable beach obstructed or washed away) so the information is current. This sort of app could be used for Michigan's shoreline where we already have the right to walk at the water's edge. I don't support putting millions of dollars into this idea (a bit of a misquote in the article), but do support slowly gathering information so hikers can safely walk the edge of our Great Lakes.
Sat, 04/25/2015 - 8:47pm
Loreen I can't agree more. I am not sure if you have heard of me yet. I am going to walk around Lake Michigan this summer. I am going to film my walk and make a documentary about it.
Fri, 04/24/2015 - 1:03am
What a wonderful idea. My Husband and I have done walks all over Europe. We are doing the North country trail through Michigan (1100 miles). But....it is very cumbersome as we need two cars to leap frog from point to point, as I don't want to Backpack it! Just look up walking without luggage type walking trips. I think if the hotel, B+B owners would look at the business model of Europe to move luggage, provide short pick up and drop offs to and from the trail.....its a Gold mine! If there is a section that is not walker friendly to terrain or owners.....gosh a quick jog through the town a few yards off the water would benefit all! Hope this idea keeps moving forward!
Sat, 04/25/2015 - 1:49pm
Great idea, let's take miles of scenic coastline and muck it up with a trail.smh this kind of thinking is why I moved back from Commiefornia. There has been enough "improvement" to our coastline and woodlands leave it be. Or " they paved paradise and put up a parking lot" will be Michigan's new slogan.
Sat, 04/25/2015 - 8:42pm
I see both good and bad things in this idea. Myself I love this Lake. I walk to the lake almost daily. Starting May 1st 2015 I am going to walk around Lake Michigan. I want to see all of the lake. Makes you think what would it look like with a trail all along the shore. I would just be happy if you could make it so my dog can go to the shore with me and not just in one small park (but that is a different gripe). I am going to film my walk to share with the world how beautiful our lake is and how it changed my life. www.facebook.com/walkingwithjerry
Sat, 04/25/2015 - 11:23pm
I love the thought, but have seen too many trails in Michigan be under utilized since everyone drives everywhere. only a few people would actually use the trails... And then, never too far away from returning to thier cars.
Lisa DeVitto
Mon, 04/27/2015 - 8:31am
The downside of this is that the gung ho trail people never seem to consider the environmental impacts. The shoreline is NOT a good place for a hard trail construction. Shore line is habitat. People should not be bringing their dogs and trash there. Plus yes it would have to be handicap accessible to get federal funds. Have more shore access, sure, in D me locations, but building a complete waterline "trail" is an example of destroying nature to "appreciate it.".
Mon, 04/27/2015 - 9:11am
Leave nature be. Use the money sparingly for bridges to cross rivers and such. No need for paved trails, or stakes or even garbage cans. Preserve nature as much as we can. Why ruin the art of hiking?
Sat, 05/23/2015 - 12:34am
Would love to see this happen. While living in Pittsburgh, I twice biked from Pittsburgh to DC and was struck by the positive economic impact on small towns all along the way. I encountered bikers and hikers from all over the country who traveled to DC and/or Pittsburgh to make the trek. The trail need not hug the lakeshore, but if it came close enough would be a tourism boon to the state. We have many existing trails in place already; what is needed are links in between the existing trails.
Kevin Sweere
Thu, 05/28/2015 - 8:31am
As a landowner of one small, pretty piece on Lake Superior, I'm more than happy see this trail and the Lake Superior Water Trail come to be.
Mon, 10/22/2018 - 9:37am

Your reference to the Michigan law regarding public use of land up to the "high water mark" was not available. Many shoreline property owners still ignore the law and dispute where the water mark is located. Steel and rock seawalls are popping up all along the shoreline now that the lake levels are rising forcing hikers to walk in the lake instead of the shoreline. Very contentious in many areas as property owners refuse to acknowledge the law.