Sixty-eight-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled to Yosemite to meet thirty-three-year-old John Muir in 1871. Upon arrival, Emerson commented how nice it was to be out from under the scrutiny of his critics back home on the East Coast. Muir responded by sweeping his arm up the valley, saying,

“Forget about them. Up there lies a new heaven and a new earth. Let us go to the show.”

That sentiment drives many here in southeast Michigan 150 years later to get out and “go to the show.” The outdoors is therapeutic. It is restorative. It is recreational, or as some like to think of it, re-creation. 

The DTE Energy Foundation Trail

mountain biker riding over large rocks in wooded area in Michigan

Photo: Facebook

Nestled on the banks of Green Lake in the Waterloo Recreation Area just seven miles north of Chelsea on M-52 is a slice of heaven on earth – the DTE Energy Foundation Trail. It is a network of multi-use, non-motorized trails that continue to be developed. It has quickly become a Yosemite of sorts for mountain bikers all over southern Michigan. And like Yosemite, the DTE Foundation Trail also has its champion in the form of Jason Aric Jones.

“The challenge now is looking at where people’s interests lie in interacting with nature and our natural surroundings,” Jason says. “And how the DNR can best serve those interests going forward.”

Jason has served as Chair of the DTE Operating Committee under the Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association. He has also been on the PMBA Board and Michigan Mountain Biking Association Advocacy Chair. He has been tenacious in his advocacy for trail development.

Comparing the intentional engineering behind the DTE Trails to the Potawatomi Trail, another older but revered trail in the area, he explains, “DTE is a bike optimized trail created with bikers in mind, but it’s also multi-use, much in the way the Potawatomi Trail is used in many ways. The Poto was originally created for foot traffic, and mountain bikers were added later as the sport took off.”

Designed Specifically for Conservation

person using small earth moving machine to build a trail through the woods in Michigan

Trail construction involves some machinery and a whole lot of sweat equity. Photo: Facebook.

Jason first conceived the idea for the trails back in the mid-90s. The task was daunting as he began advocating for a new mountain bike trail system. Jason set to work pressing through bureaucratic wall after wall, jumping rock pile after rock pile of red tape. Sometimes, the project seemed dead, but he continued pushing forward with more and more people coming on board. There were people on his side. There were people in opposition. Many people in opposition have come around after seeing the diligent stewardship with which Jason and his group care for the trail and environment.

Ground was broken in 2015, and the Green Lake Loop officially opened in the spring of 2016. The much more technical Big Kame Loop opened the next year, the Winn Loop opened in 2018, and the Sugar Loop followed a few years later. The trails are a fun and exciting combination of flow track, climbs, downhills, and manufactured features. They have been accurately described as “dirt roller coasters.”

The DTE Trails are constructed with cutting-edge environmental engineering for mountain bikers. These are sustainable trails with careful attention to sloping and grades for proper drainage to prevent erosion from water run-off.  In the same way, it protects the flora and fauna from sediment run-off.

The DTE trail stewards keep a close eye on weather conditions. If it is too wet, the trail is closed to avoid the erosive ruts bike tires leave in the mud and post holes from runners. There is also a spring ban on use until the frost gets out of the ground. With this environmentally friendly management, the trails have remained pretty much in their original state since opening and will continue to do so.

trail sign saying there is construction ahead on the trail in a wooded area

Photo: Facebook

“I’m finding that the community is becoming stakeholders in it,” says Jason. “They’re embracing it and protecting it along these lines, and the trail system is getting quite a large following.”

Not the B2B

“People confuse us with the Border-to-Border Trail,” Jason says. “There’s a stark difference. The Border-to-Border is a shared pathway, much of which is paved. It is designed for easy, non-technical cycling. Mountain biking is technical riding over rocks, roots, logs, and other features.”

Where’s the Money Coming From?

person riding a mountain bike on a log in the woods in Michigan

Manufactured features such as this trimmed log have opt-out detours if you don’t want to give it a try. Photo: Facebook.

It has been a goal of the Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association to create some accommodations for mountain biking in the Waterloo Recreation Area for a couple of decades. After getting the concept incorporated into MDNR’s Master Plan, the planning and fundraising began in earnest.

“Mountain biking trails were built all over the state in the 90s and early 2000s by groups of dedicated volunteers,” says Jason. “For this project, I just didn’t think we could amass the volunteers it would take to construct such an extensive system. Basically, we decided it would be better to hire a professional trail builder.”

That trail builder was Spectrum Trail Designs, which has a reputation for building world-class trails that have gained national recognition. They have built trails in the Midwest and Colorado. They focus on creating natural surface trails that minimize impact and sustain the environment.

The price tag for the DTE Energy Foundation Trail system is $5 per linear foot or around $660,000 for the entire project. That’s a lot of fundraising and swag to sell. Once again, the task seemed impossible, but Jason, who was ever-inventive and persistent, had an idea.

“Stadiums sell naming rights, so I thought, ‘Why couldn’t we sell naming rights for the trail?’” Jason said, “We shopped out title sponsorship or naming rights to numerous corporate interests, and DTE Energy was the first to respond.”

“We sold the naming rights for $250,000,” Jason says. “Grant money has come from REI, 5 Healthy Towns, and Southeast Michigan Community Foundation, as well as individual and corporate donations. The trails are fully funded up through completion of the Sugar Loop.”

All It Takes is a Little Tenacity for National Recognition

group of people receiving an award surrounded by woods

Jason Jones holding one of several awards surrounded by stakeholders from DTE, MDNR, and others. Photo: Facebook.

The DTE trail system is steadily climbing the ranks of nationally recognized mountain biking trails. The website is the premier listing of mountain biking trails across the country. If you look at the top 100 trails list, you’ll find the well-established trail systems in Moab, California, and Colorado listed there. However, Michigan also plays a vital role with the Copper Harbor, Marquette, and DTE Energy Foundation trail systems.

MDNR Director of Parks and Recreation Ron Olson calls Jason one of the most tenacious guys he’s ever met.

“I think that’s it in a nutshell,” says Jason. “I may not be the smartest guy, but it shows that if you’re determined, a lot of things can get accomplished. There were plenty of times when I thought it wouldn’t happen. But you can overcome a lot if you just stick with it. And in the end, here we are.”

Some Details

person riding a fatbike over a snow covered trail in the woods in Michigan

A portion of the trails 1are groomed for winter fat-tire biking. Photo: Facebook.

The DTE Energy Foundation Trail is a biking destination located within the Waterloo Recreation Area, about seven miles north of Chelsea, MI. It features four loops that total over 20 miles of single-track trails plus a seven-mile connecting trail to the 17-mile Potowatomi Trail.

Here’s a breakdown of the trails:

  • Green Lake Loop (5.2 miles): This is the first loop built, and it’s a good option for beginners and intermediate riders.
  • Big Kame Loop (4.75 miles): This loop is more challenging than the Green Lake Loop, with steeper climbs and more technical sections.
  • Winn Loop (8 miles): The Winn Loop is the longest and most challenging loop on the trail system. It has a lot of elevation changes and some very technical sections.
  • Sugar Loop (5 miles): This is the newest section of trail and the most technical. It’s designed for experienced riders only.

Some additional details:

  • Trail conditions: Trail conditions are regularly updated on the DTE Energy Foundation Trail Facebook page.
  • Daily Trail Directions: Be aware that the direction of travel alternates depending on the day. Signs are posted at the trail entry points. Bikers and foot traffic always move in opposite directions.
  • DNR Recreation Passport: A DNR Recreation Passport is required for vehicle entry into the Waterloo Recreation Area and to park at the DTE Energy Foundation Trail parking lots. You can purchase a Recreation Passport online or at any Michigan Secretary of State office.

The DTE Energy Foundation Trail is great for mountain bikers of all levels to ride. The trails are well-maintained and offer a variety of challenges. Check the trail conditions before you go, as the trails can close due to wet weather.

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