Happy (Trails) in Orion Township

Community commitment pays off with Pure Michigan designation

All photos courtesy of the Charter Township of Orion

Paul Yauk tells a story about a Mick Jagger sighting on a trail in Orion Township a few decades ago.

As the Department of Natural Resources state trails coordinator explains, a state crew was working on the trail and noticed somebody that looked like the Rolling Stones front man running their way. Then they realized it actually was Jagger, and they talked for a few minutes. The Stones were in town to play The Palace of Auburn Hills at the time.

It’s an example of the universal appeal of accessible trails.

“You never know who you’re going to see on the trail,” Yauk says.

And Orion Township is among the latest crop of communities to be designated as a Pure Michigan Trail Town by the DNR. The Oakland County township joined two more municipalities — Cheboygan and Reed City — in receiving the designation this year, as announced at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism Feb. 19 in Grand Rapids. That brings the total number of official Pure Michigan Trail Towns to seven.

“The Pure Michigan Trail Towns designation for Orion will have a direct impact on promoting outdoor recreation, local tourism, historic preservation, economic vitality and encouraging healthy and active lifestyles in and around the region,” says Kristen Wiltfang, principal planner for Oakland County Economic Development & Community Affairs.

Enjoy the beauty of nature at Camp Agawam in Orion Township.

Best of the Best

Michael Morrison, state water trail coordinator and Pure Michigan travel program manager, says the program that designates Trail Towns and Pure Michigan trails began two years ago as an outgrowth of legislation in 2014.

“The legislation was unfunded, but it asked the DNR to work with the MEDC (Michigan Economic Development Corp.) to establish a way for areas to apply and be considered for the Pure Michigan awards, which are supposed to be the best of the best in the state,” Morrison says.

He explained that towns selected should have easily accessible trails for hiking, biking and the like. Beyond that, there should be community support for trails; amenities geared toward trail users, such as nearby restaurants, lodging and even bike rental/repair shops; signage; and other user-friendly features.

Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett was on hand along with other township leaders to accept the award at the tourism conference. Barnett says Orion Township’s approximately 40,000 residents are so committed to trails that they approved additional millage 20 years ago for that very purpose. This year alone, it meant $400,000 for trail maintenance and development.

Runners dash through the snow down the Polly Ann Trail at the Snow Dash 5K in Orion Township.

Connecting the Dots

The money gets put to good use in a township that boasts more than 50 miles of trails, chief among them the regional Paint Creek Trail and Polly Ann Trailway. There are also county, state and local trails, says Barnett, who is especially excited that the township is about to formally connect the Paint Creek and Polly Ann trails. They are part of the Iron Belle network that runs from Ironwood in the western tip of the Upper Peninsula to Belle Isle in Detroit, crossing through 48 counties and extending more than 2,000 miles.

“In the last five years, we have done a lot to continue to build our trail network,” Barnett says, noting that “where living is a vacation” has been a long-running slogan in the township — and appropriately so.

“It’s a real quality of life attraction to people who are looking to move into our community that we have this amazing network of trails and parks and lakes,” he adds. “It’s been a high priority of ours to continue to make these key regional trail connections, but also for the average resident, to give them close, safe access to get to our parks and key community landmarks.”

Biking the Paint Creek Trail.

Wiltfang says the county planning office has been both a partner and supporter of Orion Township’s trail efforts, working with the Polly Ann Trailway Management Council and the Paint Creek Trailways Commission for many years as well.

“These organizations have worked collaboratively to improve signage and wayfinding, host events, connect to downtown Lake Orion and provide a quality experience for trail users,” she says.

Barnett says his office overlooks one of the trails and he loves watching parents with strollers or people with bikes drive up, park and head out on the trail — residents and nonresidents alike.

“Every time I’m out on the trails, I meet somebody from Birmingham, Royal Oak — places that are not next door to us, places that are a hike away, a 20- to 30-minute drive,” Barnett says. “People love the fact that they can drive here and see the vistas, the views, the nature.

“It’s like they’re up north, but they’re in metro Detroit, which is what we’re really proud of.”

The Polly Ann Trailway in Oakland County is also a Pure Michigan Designated Trail, one of six announced in 2019 — the first round of awards. For a complete list of Pure Michigan Designated Trails and Trail Towns, or to find out more about the program, click here.