Road Commission Blocks Off Popular Access to Stinchfield Woods Trails


After years of use, Stinchfield's southern point of entry has be blocked off.

By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter

Some outdoor enthusiasts looking to walk their favorite trails in Stinchfield Woods were recently surprised to find their way into the scenic preserve blocked off.

For years, walkers, runners, and cross-country skiers have been using a lane off of North Territorial for entrance into tall trees and hills of U-M’s Stinchfield Woods preserve. Most people know it as the entrance to the Dexter Animal Clinic, a quarter-mile west of Dexter-Pinckney Road.

While those who have never been to Stinchfield Woods may wonder what all the fuss is about, regular visitors appreciate the powerful impact the unique landscape can have on physical and mental health, which is why they return again and again.

UM makes the wide trails, tall trees, and rolling hills available to the public every day from dawn until dusk.

The lane is an access road to an old county-owned gravel pit managed by the Washtenaw County Road Commission (WCRC). Just past the animal clinic on the lane, a chained gate keeps vehicles from traveling farther. However, for years, pedestrians have been walking around the gate, down the lane, and onto Stinchfield’s trails. But now, plastic fencing has been erected, and brush piled up to block people from using the two-track lane. Two “Private Property No Trespassing” signs are posted at each end of the gate.

When asked about the abrupt change, Communications Manager for WCRC Emily Kizer explained, “The McCabe Pit property in question is owned by the Washtenaw County Road Commission but that doesn’t mean it is open for use by the general public. The access drive driveway in your photo is maintained by the road commission for authorized access to the property by our employees and authorized contractors but it is not a public road.”

Part of the confusion for people is the choice of signs—"Private Property No Trespassing.” Calling county land “private” immediately reminds some Stinchfield Woods users of a year ago when a neighboring landowner blocked off trails on the U-M property with brush, posting signs that announced the closures were for “respect of our neighbors privacy.”

In an email to Road Commissioner Barbara Fuller, shared with STN, Joe Galland writes, “I just discovered that although all the trails in Stinchfield are now open, the access to Stinchfield from Territorial Rd. has been closed. I no longer have access to my neighborhood trail. At first, I thought the same disgruntled property owner was behind this, but I’ve since learned that the Washtenaw Road Commission shut this road down. I don’t understand why. I’ve been running in Stinchfield using the Territorial entrance for more than 16 years.”

The Road Commission's reason for prohibiting public access is that the gravel pit is active.

Kizer confirmed that is was WCRC who put up the barriers and signs. “We put the signs, gate and brush piles up to make it very clear that this property is not open for general public use. It is an active site for us with equipment and materials coming in and out throughout the year.”

Stan Dinkel also enjoys walking the forested pathways of Stinchfield Woods and is frustrated by the lane closure after so many years of using it. In an email to the Road Commissioners shared with STN, he implored the Commissioners to rethink their stance, stating, “This is a very important access point for the health of our community, as fresh air and exercise is more important now more than ever. Please reconsider this closure, it is very important to me and many more in our community.”

The response Dinkel received reiterated that the pit is an active site and for safety reasons, it remains closed to the public as with other “maintenance and storage yards.”

Describing the area as an “active pit” also has some people scratching their heads. Looking at the carpet of fallen leaves covering the lane and trees growing in the pit itself, imagining the property in use at all is difficult.

One neighbor confirmed that the McCabe Pit is indeed in use, but not much. “We live within earshot and it's not unusual for there to be heavy equipment active there. But, it's not frequent, and I don't know why they couldn't allow the use of the road to access Stinchfield trails.”

“Was it always not for people to use?” asks Dinkel. “Of course, but it was kind of an unwritten rule. People have freely been entering through this area for a long time, maybe 30 years or longer. Why now all of a sudden?”

Located halfway between Dexter and Pinckney, approximately on the northwest corner of Dexter-Pinckney and North Territorial roads in Dexter Township, the 777-acre U-M research natural area is used for training in forest and sustainable ecosystem management. Under the School for Environment And Sustainability (SEAS) authority, the forested tract is primarily a research area that contains U-M's radio tower and the University's large radio telescope.

The University keeps the property open to the public from dawn to dusk. Trails winding among the tall pines, rolling hills, and mature woods make for scenic and tranquil hiking, birding, and snowshoeing. The land has had footpaths open to the public since U-M first began acquiring the tracts in 1925.

Despite being in the shadow of Pinckney, Waterloo, and Island Lake State Recreation Areas as outdoor destinations and many other parks, Stinchfield Woods has grown in popularity.

The public outcry is not simply a matter of people being petulant at not getting their way. Other entrances to the preserve are extremely limited. With the McCabe lane sealed off, families and individuals will have to try their luck at the Stinchfield Woods gate on Stinchfield Road. But getting a parking spot is a lottery draw.

Public access to the preserve is now primarily at the main gate on Stinchfield Woods Rd. With only 4 parking spots, hikers park along the side of the road in both directions from the small lot.

As Gallard states in his email, “The parking lot across from the Territorial entrance is the only lot big enough to hold more than a few cars. There is a lot along Dexter-Pinckney, but that’s for Huron River access and is closed all winter. The only other entrance where cars can be parked is on Stinchfield Woods Rd, and it’s just a trailhead, big enough to hold 3-4 cars. If more than a few cars want to use Stinchfield, they’re going to have to park along Stinchfield Woods Rd, which wouldn’t be nearly as safe as parking in the Territorial Rd lot.”

One hiker out on the Stinchfield trails wonders if the WCRC realizes just how popular UM’s preserve is and how dependent people have become on the McCabe lane access for their outdoor recreation. “To them (WCRC), it is probably just a line on the computer screen leading to a circle marked ‘gravel pit,’” he says. “They have rules for such things. We get that. But maybe they would take another look at this situation and its lack of use, visit the property for themselves, and make an exception.”

Kizer points out that the Road Commissioners invite public comment in multiple ways:

  1. “Attend a board meeting and speak during public comment – we meet on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month at 1 p.m. We will continue to meet virtually via Zoom through the end of this year. You can see the meeting schedule and instructions for joining a meeting here:
  2. “Attend Chat with the Road Commission – our weekly virtual office hours where members of the public can speak informally with a road commissioner and a member of our senior management team. RSVPs are encouraged but not required. Learn more about this program here:
  3. “Email the road commissioners – their email addresses can be found here:
  4. “Send a letter to the board at 555 N. Zeeb Rd, Ann Arbor, MI 48103.”

Photos: Doug Marrin

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It's been open, accessible and utilized heavily for decades by hikers and xc skiers, and there has never been a problem. I live up against the property and, I can tell you, that the level of "heavy equipment" back there is miniscule. They use it to store stone for road chip n' seal programs. In late spring, a gravel truck or two go back and dump stone. A few times throughout the late spring or summer, trucks will go in and take stone. It is not even remotely akin to an active construction site. I have never seen any access in winter, and the road is not plowed, so why not allow the xc ski community to continue to access the trails in Stinchfield Woods via the route? It appears WCRC has been as clueless about the use of this property for decades as UofM SEAS was regarding the use of Stinchfield Woods for hiking and xc skiing. When, last year, a local adjacent hunter landowner tried to get trails in Stinchfield Woods blocked off because he didn't want use to interfere with hunting on his land (or, maybe the U's as well?), the land manager of the property for SEAS told me, "there is no cross-country skiing going on in the property...that would be dangerous...the trails aren't suitable for it". The same clueless tone and tenor exists here from WCRC. They don't care that it has been a decades old asset to the community, just the same old specious claims about "danger" and "liability" despite the fact that there have been no issues in decades. Easier to say "no" than "yes", and entities like the University or WCRC could really care less what people think. Ostensibly, they answer to no one, and don't care what the community has to say despite going through the motions to act like they might in order to keep their "i's dotted and t's crossed". It is pretty sad, really.

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