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Glacial Hills Pathway and Natural Area: A Community Treasure

We are extremely excited to offer you the first of a two-part series on the history of the creation of Glacial Hills Pathway and Natural Area. We asked our friend Art from the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy to help share the story of how all of our organizations have come together to shape this wonderful outdoor resource.

If you ask Tim Reicha what he enjoys most about the Glacial Hills Pathway and Natural Area, you might think this avid mountain biker would first talk about its truly world-class trails.

There’s no question Reicha can go on and on about the more than 30 miles of trail that flow through gorgeous, forested hills in this 765-acre natural area just north of Bellaire. He’ll talk about their sustainable design, their diversity, the things you can see as you ride. But the first thing he mentions when asked about Glacial Hills is instead the folks who use, support and maintain this wonderful community resource.

“To me, it’s really all about the people,” said Reicha, who works at nearby Short’s Brewing Company and chairs Friends of Glacial Hills. “Glacial has a reputation for being a really fun trail, and it’s a fun trail that’s in a great community, quite frankly. A lot of great people use this trail and help make it what it is.”

Glacial Hills has become a tremendously popular natural area that draws thousands of users a year (more than 26,000, according to a recent survey and economic impact study. It’s popular with mountain bikers, hikers, snowshoers, birders, wildflower enthusiasts and more.

“There’s something for everyone, and that’s a big part of what makes Glacial so special,” Reicha said.

The beginnings of Glacial Hills date to 2003, when the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy began working with Mark Sevald. Sevald owned 345 acres of land situated between public parcels already owned by Antrim County and the Village of Bellaire, and protecting his land was the key to creating the massive natural area enjoyed by so many today.

“Mark’s family had a great conservation ethic, and he was very interested in seeing the land preserved,” GTRLC Land Protection Specialist Todd Vigland said. “Everyone who enjoys that trail and natural area today does so because Mark decided to protect that land instead of selling it for development.”

The Conservancy was interested in protecting the land not only for public recreation, but because of its tremendous conservation values. The property has substantial ecological diversity, with 12 distinct habitat types that support more than 20 species of trees, more than 100 species of flowers and over 100 species of birds, including great-horned owls, the threatened red-shouldered hawk and dozens of songbirds.

GTRLC helped Forest Home Township and Antrim County apply for separate Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) grants to acquire separate portions of the Sevald property in 2006 and 2007. MNRTF is a wonderful resource that uses money gained from the sale or lease of state-owned mineral rights to provide grants to local municipalities that want to acquire lands for public recreation.

The end result was and is a single, contiguous public natural area owned jointly by the Village of Bellaire, Antrim County and Forest Home Township. Friends of Glacial Hills is a joint recreation board made up of representatives from those municipalities and at large members, including GTRLC.

“Glacial Hills simply wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the Conservancy,” Reicha said. “And to continue to have GTRLC involved at the board level is just a great resource to have.”

Part of the reason the trail is so popular, at least from a cycling perspective, is the topography and quality trail design.

“There are places where you can get momentum and coast up hill. The way it was built, and the terrain that it’s built on, just lends itself to that,” Reicha said. “When you ride here, if you didn’t already know what the term flowy meant, you’ll figure it out really quickly.”

Patrick Boyd, who owns the Bellaire outdoor shop Paddles & Pedals, says people from across the state and beyond rave about the trail when they’re in his shop. Part of this is due to the trail’s sustainable design, which ensures that it’s rideable even after heavy rains that render other trails temporarily unusable.

“People are blown away the condition of the trail. I’m quite frequently told that this is the best trail in the state by far, and there’s a lot of trail in the state,” Boyd said. “There’s a lot of people that travel here to ride.”

Boyd has also noticed that Glacial Hills has formed an excellent gateway for people looking to get into trail-based activities for the first time.

“It’s a really inviting trail that allows people to get into outdoor activities like hiking, biking. It’s challenging, but it’s not overly challenging,” he said. “It’s friendly to get going on.”

Whatever the activity, the trail has become a point of pride – and connection – for the entire Bellaire and Antrim County community.

“The trail has really become a focal point for social groups – a nice meeting place in the community for folks who want to do something together,” said volunteer Bob Holtzmann said. “Especially if you’re looking to do something active or outdoors, Glacial Hills is just a natural for that – you couldn’t ask for a better spot.”

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