Journey to Lake Michigan’s Sparking Shore

Kal-Haven Trail Sesquicentennial State Park

The Kal-Haven Trail Sesquicentennial State Park is a 34.5-mile slice of heaven, southwest Michigan-style. From the lively town of Kalamazoo, you travel through farmland, woods and rural villages to complete your trip on the shores of Lake Michigan and the resort town of South Haven. Once a railroad corridor linking nine towns by train from 1870 to 1970, the trail now connects pastures to towns to blueberry patches with highlights that include numerous bridges, including a camelback and covered bridge.

The relative ease of the trail—flat, crushed limestone—makes this a doable one-day trip, but there is so much to see on either end of the trail (not to mention the beauty along the way) that we recommend giving this adventure two days; on your first day, bike the trail one way from Kalamazoo to South Haven, stay overnight, and return to Kalamazoo the next day.

Note: If cycling just one way suits your fancy, there are several shuttle services available between Kalamazoo and South Haven. The 2 Valleys Shuttle Service (an affiliate of Trailspotters of Michigan) operates a daily service from mid-June through Labor Day. Kal-Haven Trail Shuttle is also a good option, but advanced reservations are recommended as it has limited space for bikes and riders. For bike rentals, Cabbage Bros. Bicycles and AEBike are two services in Kalamazoo ready to help set you up for your adventure.

Fly into Kalamazoo Battle Creek International Airport, just a few miles south of town. Kalamazoo has a large range of unique accommodations that are central to downtown and within five miles of the trailhead. The Henderson Castle B&B, a historic Queen Anne-style mansion, is perfect for those looking for a splash of architectural and artistic grandeur. Originally built as a private residence in 1895, today it functions as a B&B with a vineyard, organic garden, French restaurant and day spa. The Hall House B&B is another option for historic charm and modern-day comfort. Located in the National Historic District, you will enjoy this Georgian Revival home’s craftsmanship while having theater, restaurants and shopping at your fingertips.

 
Photo by: Annie Feeley

Though you will be set to begin the ride after a delicious B&B breakfast, consider stopping at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market (Saturdays from May through November, and Tuesdays and Thursdays from June through October) on the way to the trailhead to get some produce, meats and local goodies for a picnic lunch, while also getting a sense of the agricultural bounty you may soon be eyeing from the trail.

Day 1

Begin your adventure at the eastern trailhead on 10th Street in Kalamazoo. A refurbished caboose serves as the trail office and information center, and there is a large paved parking lot at the trailhead. You can also connect to this trail here via the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail, which is about a five-mile cycle from downtown Kalamazoo. There are many restroom facilities along the entire stretch of the trail, though places to refill water bottles and grab a meal are not as plentiful. Start your day with enough snacks and water to take you half-way through the trip.

The beginning of the trail is paved, sloping gently downward, and you are immediately surrounded by groves of trees that will continue to shade the trail for miles. The woods are full of life, and the easy pace of this trail allows you to divert some of your attention to the surrounding flora and fauna. In the spring, peer into the undergrowth for trilliums and other wildflowers, look up at the kaleidoscope of colorful canopy in the fall, and certainly be prepared for glimpses of wild turkeys, raccoons, deer and birds galore. Heading west out of town, you cross the first of seven bridges, which were once railroad trestles.

By the time you reach Mentha, a ghost town seven miles from Kalamazoo, the landscape includes some open fields. See if you can imagine, though you will no longer catch a whiff, miles of mint perfuming the countryside—the area was once well-known for producing some of the world's finest peppermint oil. Continuing west, you pass the south edge of Kendall in 2.7 miles, and 3.2 miles further, Gobles. Gobles offers a couple places to rest and grab some caloric fuel if needed: TJ’s Pour House and Mancino’s Pizza are just off the trail on South State Street.

The halfway point of the day, Bloomingdale—also a good place to stop for lunch—is 4.5 miles farther. On your way into town, you’ll cross the Skunk Creek Bridge, the shortest of all the trestles. Enjoy a picnic at Augustus Haven State Park. If you didn’t come with a packed lunch, simply head north a couple hundred feet on Van Buren Street until you reach Wagoner’s Grocery Store. They have a deli that should provide for all your picnic needs. Before you leave town, check out the restored Bloomingdale Depot, a museum filled with railroad and local history (Saturday and Sundays only, Memorial Day through Labor Day).

Railroads serving the state of Michigan closely paralleled land speculators who began arriving in the region during the 1830s, thanks to the new Erie Canal that allowed for easier and faster travel. Encouraged by the natural resources available, notably iron and timber, more and more people came to settle the territory, and railroads soon followed. One of the first chartered was the Detroit & St. Joseph Railroad Company in 1832. Kalamazoo became an important rail terminal, and service between Kalamazoo and South Haven was established 37 years later. This rail was soon after acquired by Michigan Central (MC). Through the early 20th century, this line was quite busy, seeing four passenger trains and two mixed freights, daily. Traffic was hit hard by the economic downturn of the Great Depression, however, and the passenger service ended entirely in 1937. Following this, the branch mostly witnessed just a single daily freight and finally closed altogether in 1970.

Today, Van Buren County is largely agricultural, and this becomes obvious when cycling the trail in the summer and early fall. Blueberry plantations abound, as do opportunities to pick them when in season. U-pick farms and farms stands are plentiful in the region and offer the chance to enjoy fresh blueberries, grapes, raspberries, peaches, apples and much more. If you don’t want to take the time to stop on the way, never fear. South Haven is the true blueberry haven, known to some as the Blueberry Capital.

Eight miles from Bloomingdale (past the town of Grand Junction), the Camelback Bridge spans Barber Creek to display its impressive curved style, originally serving to take vehicles over trains. In early spring, the trail here is lined with a white carpet of wild trilliums. From here, you are only 10.2 miles from South Haven. Look for the old-fashioned well pumps along the way; they are a good place to stop and refill your water bottles. Right off the trail, three miles before reaching South Haven, is Stephenson’s Farm (6783 Baseline Road). Stretch your legs, pick your own blueberries, or find out what prepared preserves and other luscious farm offerings they have available. When you reach the covered bridge over the Black River, you will know that you are nearing the end of the trail.

South Haven, on the shores of Lake Michigan and at the mouth of the Black River, has long been a port city. Initially incorporated as a village in 1869, South Haven became a popular staging area for harvested timber being shipped to Chicago and Milwaukee via steamboats and schooners. The cleared forests were used by fruit farmers, and the early industries of blueberries, peaches and apple farming took hold. The annual Blueberry Festival began in 1969 and continues to bring thousands of visitors to town each year to celebrate this agricultural heritage.

South Haven continues to be a popular resort town. Its beaches and marina are an irresistible lure for those seeking warm-weather-induced relaxation. Due to the town’s popularity, you will want to make reservations for your lodging in advance; keep in mind that some B&B’s require a two-night stay on weekends during peak season. There is a good range of accommodation options to choose from, from the highly rated, luxurious Yelton Manor to the simpler experience of camping at Van Buren State Park (6.3 miles south of the trailhead).

Get yourself settled in and back out on the town. Head to the Michigan Maritime Museum to learn more about the region’s maritime history; it houses permanent and changing exhibits, as well as a center for teaching boatbuilding and a research library. The museum also offers cruises on the Black River and sailing on Lake Michigan. Walk the cobble-stone streets of the Old Harbor Village on the Black River, a collection of shops (including restaurants and wine bars) modeled after a New England village. If a yellow lake perch sandwich sounds good, head to Clementine’s in the old Citizen’s Bank building. The restaurant is steeped in the past with antiques, tin ceilings and walls filled with black and white photos from the city’s early days. Make sure to leave time to watch the sunset from the South Haven Lighthouse on the south pier. Established in 1872, the lighthouse station is still operational, though the current lighthouse replaced the original wooden tower. The catwalk, linking the tower to the shore, is partially in its original form and is one of only four that survive in the state.

If you find yourself exploring the eastern edges of town, stop at local favorite Sherman’s Dairy Bar (1.5 miles east on Phoenix Road) for a generous scoop of ice cream. But you may not stray far from the water. South Haven’s Inter-Beach shuttle is an easy way to get between South Beach, North Beach and Packard Park, and the swimming, boating, hiking and bird-watching opportunities definitely make South Haven a playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Don’t forget to rest and relax for tomorrow’s ride back!

Day 2

Ready to do it all again…but in reverse? Well, if you didn’t spend much time in Kalamazoo upon your arrival, plan on doing so now. Kalamazoo is a lively college town (home to Western Michigan University) that is known for many things, including, but not limited to, music and beer. The Gibson guitars were first made here (est. 1902), and touring and tasting at Bell’s Brewery (est. 1985) is on the itinerary of many a visitor. Still, the cultural activities extend well beyond music and drinking. Art lovers can visit the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, and the Kalamazoo Valley Museum Planetarium has a theater that offers stunning design and beauty of a different, unearthly kind. Not dramatic enough? Plan a night at the New Vic Theatre or Farmers Alley Theatre. Before the show, stop in for dinner at Rustica, especially if you are a foodie that appreciates the use of fresh and local products but with a European flare.

Photo by: Russell Cooper
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