Glacial Hills History
In the spring of 2017 the results of a year-long impact study conducted by Avenue ISR of Traverse City, MI revealed some surprising facts about the Glacial Hills Trails system. The trail had a $1.45 million dollar impact on the economy of Antrim County which was generated by some 26,000 users during the period of the study. Considering the very modest goals of the trail’s original planners, these results were nothing short of remarkable. The story of Glacial Hills Trails is a tribute to the vision of the dedicated individuals who believed in the value of public land which is available for recreational use.
The acreage that encompasses the current trail network had been used for decades by local residents for hiking, hunting, some skiing and biking, and mushroom foraging. Old two-track roads crisscrossed the area and there were a few primitive trails in existence, one of which had been built by a local Boy Scout troop years ago. The property was originally a combination of public and private holdings.
Whenever you talk to someone who’s knowledgeable about the evolution of the trail, three names come up repeatedly; Terry Smith, Brad Gerlach, and Dean Crandall. While dozens of individuals ultimately had a hand in building the trail, these three gentlemen were the driving force behind the project from the beginning.
As Forest Home Township Supervisor, Terry Smith had pushed for the Township to utilize some recently acquired land for a hiking trail that could be used by local residents. He reached out to members of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy for help with the design and construction of a trail. The GTRLC was instrumental in both the Township and Antrim County acquiring some of the property, and one their guiding principles is the environmentally sound use of the land. As an employee of GTRLC, Brad Gerlach turned out to be the perfect person to get involved with the project at the outset.
Brad had grown up hiking in the wooded hills surrounding Bellaire and had taken an interest in trail design early on. While still in high school, he laid out a trail near Toledo, OH which is still in use today. As a naturalist, he focused on a sustainable trail design which would hold up well over time. Over the years as he hiked through the woods he had laid out different trail lines around Glacial Hills in his mind. His influence can be seen everywhere on the trail today. He was alone in realizing the potential for a far more extensive trail system than anyone initially imagined. The cost of having the trail built professionally would have been prohibitive, however. Design costs alone could run $30,000 to $40,000, and the trail itself would cost between $10,000 and $12,000 per mile to build.
The only solution was to adopt a plan for building one small segment at a time, waiting to see if people used it, asking for feedback on what people liked and didn’t like, and going from there. The first ½ mile loop off of Eckhardt Rd. (essentially 7-8-13-15) was built with assistance from a Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) crew which was trained and led by GTRLC members. An informal focus group was created consisting of trail planners, local business owners, government officials, and trail users to discuss future expansion. Feedback from initial users was very positive. Informational hikes helped educate the public about what was happening, and also helped recruit new volunteers to work on the trail. The segments from 13-17-18-19 and partway to 8 were completed by fall of the first year.
Work on the trail the following year really took off due to several factors; GTRLC had committed to another year of leading the project, Goodwill’s new Greenscapes crew worked several days a week, and a growing list of volunteers dedicated their time to trail work. Most of the original hand-built sections of trail were completed in this season. While enthusiasm for the project continued to grow, it was becoming evident that hand-building sections of the trail was not only difficult, it was going to be slow. The next year, Dean Crandall began working with the crew using his mini-excavator machine to do most of the rough-in work on new sections of trail. This sped up the rate of construction dramatically. Trail segment 29-28-27-32-24 was the first section to be completed in this way.
When the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) Trail School met in Bellaire, their staff was extremely enthusiastic about Glacial Hills. While the original plan for the trail was for use primarily as a hiking trail, word-of-mouth among the mountain biking community led an increasing number of bikers discovering the trail. Their excitement helped spur the trail crew to increase the pace of construction, and design considerations for bike use influenced the layout and design of the trailbed. Between the speed of machine building, continued help from Greenscapes, a new partner in AmeriCorps, and a growing list of volunteers, more than three miles of trail were completed in some weeks during this period.
Once the trail had reached, then crossed, Vandermark Road, it was clear that Glacial Hills was becoming a “destination” trail for mountain biking enthusiasts. The trail crew had become increasingly proficient, so the investment in a larger excavator allowed Dean to at least stay ahead of them. It took an increased level of commitment from Antrim County at this point to allow trail expansion beyond Orchard Hill Rd. Once that happened, the final miles of the current trail were completed. The area east of Orchard Hill was designed primarily with the more experienced mountain biker in mind, and there are still challenging segments of the trail there which were planned, but were never built.
Many individuals deserve credit for the success of the Glacial Hills Trails project. A major part of that success is due to the “buy-in” by the volunteers who dedicated so many hours to the building of the trail. There are examples around the country of trail systems that were planned, funded, and built with all the best intentions, but ultimately failed because the trail users didn’t take responsibility for their long-term maintenance. With luck, and the continued efforts of people like you, Glacial Hills will continue to thrive well into the future.