By Leslie Ballard
Probably every person making their New Year’s resolutions last week listed exercise, weight loss or healthier living as one of their priorities, especially after packing on some Covid pounds. However, while getting on a treadmill and staring at the wall or making endless loops around the neighborhood aren’t too tempting, an exceptional site for all types of exercise exists nearby…the Kal-Haven Trail, where those interested in walking, hiking, running, biking, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, snowmobiling and geo-caching have 33.5 miles to do it.
The Kal-Haven Trail ranks number 1 on Trip Advisor as a South Haven activity for good reason. The trail crosses through wooded areas, farmland, orchards, streams and rivers allowing trail users to experience the motto “a trail for all seasons” through fall foliage, pristine snow, spring flowers and stretches of cool shade provided by interlaced tree branches. Sounds better than that treadmill or same stretch of concrete, right?
“It’s great to take old railways and use them for something everyone can enjoy,” said Tim Chamberlain, an Allegan resident who has snowmobiled on the Kal-Haven. “It’s cool we have one so close to home.”
Prior to the Kal-Haven, the trail was originally the site of the Kalamazoo-South Haven Railroad rail corridor from 1869 to 1971, hence the rails-to-trails designation. A group of dedicated citizens approached the DNR in 1973 with the trail concept. While the DNR endorsed the plan, funding was in short supply for recreational resources. In 1983 the Friends of Kal-Haven Trail incorporated as a non-profit, eventually playing an essential role in the DNR’s purchase of the land in 1987. This partnership served as a model for other communities and, according a former DNR director, the work of the volunteers to create the Kal-Haven, was “critical to the start of a trail system in Michigan.” The state now boasts over 2,400 miles of rail-trails.
Mandie Weber, Otsego resident and avid geo-cacher, visits the Kal-Haven at least 20 times a year. “Every season brings its own sense of beauty, especially with the canopy of trees. It’s Michigan – it’s pretty all year round,” she stated. In addition to geo-caching, she enjoys walking, skiing, snowmobiling and biking the trail, which she finds “a unique experience.”
For those who are unfamiliar with geo-caching, Weber describes it as a “GPS-based treasure hunt game.” Containers are hidden and cachers use their GPS devices to find them. What is in the container is not as important as finding it, she said, and containers may be as small as a thumbnail or as large as an ammo can. Once cachers have found the container, they are to hide it as they found it. If they take something from the container, the rule is to replace it with another item.
While she laughingly refers to a t-shirt slogan about caching that says “We’re using multi-million dollar satellites to find Tupperware in the woods,” her reason for doing it is the adventure. “Geo-caching takes you to places where you wouldn’t visit otherwise, and there’s a social aspect – you can connect with others on social media and search together.”
Trail users pay no fees to use the trail although donations are welcome. Yellow donation boxes are posted in South Haven, Grand Junction, Gobles and 10th Avenue in Oshtemo. Dogs are allowed on the trail as long as they are on leads. Water stations are available at South Haven, Grand Junction, Mentha and Kalamazoo, and owners are encouraged to clean up after their dogs and remove the waste from the trail.
The Kal-Haven has been designated as a Pure Michigan Trail and is part of the Great Lake-to-Lake Trails, a Michigan initiative to connect dozens of trails across the state culminating in five major cross-state trails. The Kal-Haven begins Route 1, which extends from South Haven to Port Huron, a distance of 275 miles, and is comprised of 19 individual trails. In 2019, the Inaugural Great Lake-to-Lake Ride took place to celebrate Route 1’s completion, taking the cyclists 7 days and 6 nights to complete.
The contribution of the Friends of Kal-Haven Trail has continued as it raises funds for improvements and projects and worked with the Michigan History Center to earn Kal-Haven the pilot award for the Michigan Heritage Trail Project (MHTP). The Friends of Kal-Haven Trail spent three years researching the history of the trail, and the project resulted in 31 interpretive signs being installed along the trail in 2019. The signs share information about the natural and cultural history of the area. Trail users can learn about vanished communities, an area once noted for peppermint production as well as revisit one of the sites where Joe Louis trained for his fight with Jersey Joe Walcott.
In 2020 a mobile app, using geo-location to alert trail uses to nearby heritage sites and designed for increased accessibility for the visually impaired, was added to the MHTP project. In 2021 the MDTP won an award from the Mid-America Trails and Greenways organization for its work on the heritage trail.
Amenities along the trail include boot brush stations at regular intervals and bike repair stands at South Haven, Bloomingdale and 10th Street in Oshtemo.
The DNR and other organizations work hard to maintain the trail and ensure a good experience for users. Currently the village and the township of Bloomingdale, the half-way point on the Kal-Haven, have partnered to renovate the 1870 train depot, the only original structure left along the trail. The museum that was housed there has been moved so that the renovation project can proceed.
Friends member and master gardener Sue Hodapp, along with fellow master gardeners Pat Reid, Alyssa Babcock, Carol Harris, Jan Zurenko and Marie Johnson, undertook a project between Avenues F and G to showcase native plants and to remove invasive flora. In Mentha, visitors enjoy a unique experience by sampling some of the same type of mint that was once grown on Todd’s Farm, a 2,000 acre peppermint plantation in Mentha. In 2022, the Friends plan to embark on a thorough census of the flora and fauna along the trail, according to Vice President Jeff Green.
Green also recommends that visitors add the Van Buren Trail to their itinerary as it is “a gorgeous trail.” The Van Buren extends for 14 miles and links Hartford to South Haven. It is also a multi-use trail, but its surface makes it more suitable for snowmobiling and hiking. As on the Kal-Haven, snowmobiling and snowshoeing require 4” of snow on the trail.
The Kal-Haven hosts a variety of races and walks, and interested groups can contact the DNR State Park headquarters in South Haven for more information and permits.
The Friends of Kal-Haven Trail also has a very responsive Facebook page where they post information about any issues on the trail and answer questions about conditions. Those interested can also access their website at https://kalhaven.org and can donate to their work at https://kalhaven.org/donate
So what are you waiting for?