ANN ARBOR, MI – Ask a mountain bike enthusiast in Ann Arbor where they go to ride and chances are you’ll hear the words “local loop.”
The roughly 18-mile route chains together almost a dozen city nature areas, from winding singletrack trails in the northside’s Olson Park to stomach-clenching descents on the steep banks of Huron River in the Cedar Bend Nature Area.
It crosses two dams, tunnels under M-14 and briefly jumps onto the Washtenaw County Border-to-Border Trail, while mostly managing to stay on multi-use, wooded trails shared with dog walkers, cross-country skiers and others.
The exact route varies slightly depending on who you ask (and where they pedal from to reach it) and is firmly unofficial, mostly without the signage and difficulty ratings that distinguish mountain bike-optimized trail systems like the newer DTE Energy Foundation trails some 25 miles to the west near Chelsea.
But it’s also accessible without a car from points close to downtown, while customizable to suit a variety of skill levels.
The loop is the product of a “near three-decade history” of trail building and cycling activism in Ann Arbor — both underground and official — and includes a number of small connector trails, “gems” that aren’t widely known, said Garret Potter, a member of a local biking advocacy group now nudging officials to better embrace the community of riders whose ranks are only growing.
Among the asks Potter and other advocates made of the city’s Parks Advisory Commission in a presentation last November was a request to put trails like the local loop on the map, formalizing protocols for maintenance, improvements and signage.
Volunteers have dedicated hundreds hours to building and sustaining the loop over the years, mowing when grasses choke out the trail in the summer and dispatching downed trees. Among them is Carl Loomis, president of the Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association, the local chapter of a national network of mountain biking organizations, and a frequent rider and caretaker of the local trails.
Much of the loop’s connective tissue — like the trail between Whitmore Lake Road and Pontiac Trail that passes under the highway — were put in by volunteers with the association in the 1990s, with the trails in Olson Park, some of the only signed parts of the route, coming in the early 2000s, he said.
But there are barriers to making the loop official, including contending with shortcuts that cross private property or railroads. That’s not to mention the breadth of the loop.
“It’s just a vast undertaking,” Loomis said, referencing parks like the Bluffs and Kuebler Langford Nature Areas where trails noodle in and out. “There’s a lot of spaghetti in there.”
Still, while for years the route flew under the radar, spread through word of mouth, Loomis sees city officials looking at the local loop in a different light now.
“They’re starting to see it as an asset rather than a liability,” he said.
Last year, the route appeared on the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation website, part of a new addition to the biking recreation page that transformed it from “almost non-existent” to a fairly comprehensive resource spelling out area trails, volunteer opportunities and more, according city Recreation Supervisor Erika Smith.
“I think we would love to formalize, promote and have more information about it,” Smith said, referencing the work of a Parks Advisory Commission sub-committee that’s now exploring a range of bike recreation improvements, from a new asphalt pump track to upgrades to dirt bike jump areas at Bandemer and Tuebingen parks, both along the local loop.
Read more: Ann Arbor wants to create a bicycle pump track. So what is it?
The Tuebingen jumps and skills area, just north of the Leslie Park golf course, is an example of an underground spot that has been reborn as a recognized cycling amenity.
“Some earth moved and for a long time the city wasn’t really ready to claim that as one of ours,” Smith said. After volunteers asked for the “hidden” jumps to be recognized by the city, they now have a new kiosk and signage that list rules and safety guidelines, Smith said.
In the case of the local loop, railways and private property have posed roadblocks to promoting it as is commonly ridden, Smith said. The city website notes using those areas isn’t legal, and links to a map with the outlines of the parts of the off-road loop that fall within city natural areas.
Still, the parks and recreation official said, there are legal routes to connect the nature areas, often short stints on roads between trails.
One of the goals of the sub-committee is to inventory and study all of the trails that people use, taking advantage of technology like Strava’s Heatmap, a tool from the exercise tracking app that provides data on the routes users take across the globe.
Currently, the city doesn’t have any bike recreation staff or programming, but officials recognize the community is growing, and the COVID-19 pandemic prompted an surge in residents exploring places in their backyards, Smith said.
For Potter, the cycling advocate, the efforts ongoing now are laying the groundwork for more people to feel safe jumping on a bike and heading to into the woods or to some jumps in Ann Arbor.
“The city is full of basketball courts, full of baseball fields,” Potter said, but it also has thousands of cyclists and at least 11 bike shops. If the trails and places they ride are more formalized, more people will feel comfortable using them, he added.
More from The Ann Arbor News:
Connector will offer ‘safe passage’ between 2 Washtenaw County mountain biking loops
What’s new for Washtenaw County’s Border-to-Border Trail? See the latest plans
Controlled burns coming to natural areas around Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor to add bike lanes, eliminate parking along Barton Drive