There are a lot of ways to begin a talk about the Merrell Trail. After all, it isn’t like any other trail in West Michigan. It was designed by mountain bikers, for mountain bikers, and was funded by the very generous people at Wolverine World Wide. It was completely built, and is completely maintained, by local groups, and has quickly become one of the best spots to ride in our area. This review will be from the vantage point of a trail runner though, so I hope the bikers take it easy on me in their comments. But before I get into the actual review, I need to emphasize a few important points that will help you enjoy your time here.
#1: This is a trail built for and by mountain bikers. What does that mean to us? I think it means that we are the visitors and should act accordingly. Officially, we are not visitors. The trail is a multi-use system for the community so anyone can use it. I just like to be respectful when I’m on “their turf”. I always follow a “leave no trace” philosophy, but when it comes to running at Merrell I step it up a notch.
#2: In my Trail Running 101 post I mention that I’m not a fan of headphones while running on the trails. On the Merrell Trail I would say that running with headphones is absolutely foolish. The trail was built to allow bikes to fly on certain sections and you need to be hyper aware when you are running those sections with bikes around. I would just leave the headphones in the car.
#3: Be sure to share the trail. If you have bikers bearing down on you, I wouldn’t wait for them to announce their presence with a “bike back” call…I would just get out of their way.
#4: Be sure to follow the flow of traffic. The traffic schedule here changes depending on the day, Tuesdays it’s clockwise, Wednesdays in counter-clockwise. And no matter what the trailhead sign says, you should follow the direction of the bikes. I discuss my reasoning in my Trail Running 101 post so I won’t go into it here, but for everyone’s safety, follow the bikes.
#5: Merrell is watched strictly and is closed if we get more than an inch of rain in the summer months or we have a winter day over 40 degrees.
The Merrell Trail has several different sections, all well marked, that allow you to really pick and choose the length and difficulty of your loop. The trailhead map is awesome and color-coded and every intersection on the trail has a post with trail titles and numbers indicating where you are. For this review I will describe it in the clockwise direction.
The trail begins, no matter which direction you are going, with Outbound and Cairn. These trails are really no more than southbound connectors to the “real trail”. They are narrow, roll-y, have a few rocks that require maneuvering, and just fun to run. Their in/out stretches run nearly completely next to each other so you can easily see who is starting or finishing. Watch out for the water vines!
Next up is Chameleon. I like Chameleon because it provides a chance to get warmed up before things get hairy. The elevation change is minor as are the obstacles. It has a few switchbacks and it gives you a good indication of what you’re about to experience. Moving through total hardwoods, Chameleon runs east-west along the northernly border of the trails property so to your right you can sometimes see people weaving through the many turns of Mix Master, and to your left you see the development of the community baseball parks. The introduction is completed when you run up on the two fun skill sections here designed to test the hardiest mountain bikers. Both have trails cut around them, but why… they’re also fun to run over.
As soon as you enter the pine forest you know you have left Chameleon and moved onto Wilderness. This is where the real fun begins. No , there aren’t any skills sections for the bikers to play with, but what you have is a winding, hilly course that meanders in and out of the pine forest, finishes amongst the hardwoods, and lets you see the first of many embankments that will remind you who this trail was designed for. Running Wilderness is far easier clockwise because you get to run down its biggest hill. Near its end you are faced with the first big decision that will rule what kind of day you are going to have: should I run the Wynalda Loop?
The Wynalda Loop is one of the three loops that you really never have to step on unless you want to. (Yes, I know that there is a cut off at the beginning of the Wilderness Loop that takes you to Mix Master and cuts off Wilderness, and Siren, and therefore Wynalda, Phaser, and Sawtooth. But if you continually choose to take that cut-off and miss over half of the trail, then I have to wonder why you even got your butt off the couch.) At almost two miles Wynalda is the Merrell Trails’ longest trail section. Added in the summer of 2012 it is also the newest. It features a nice hill climb, some fun scenic rollers, and a really rare trait…clear views of the sky! You don’t realize it until you run the Wynalda Loop but at no part of your entire loop here do you have sun on your back…unless you run Wynalda. At what I have to assume is the highest point on the property, amongst the cleared out Russian Olive trees, you have a few moments of clear sky and rest at the top of a very long climb. The rest, and the sun, don’t last long before you begin the steady descent back to Wilderness and the best sections of the Merrell Trail.
You aren’t back on Wilderness long before it transitions into Siren. It is in my humble opinion that Siren is a forgotten gem here...if you are going clockwise. The first quarter mile runs you along the high side of a dry stream ravine and the final half mile is a nearly consistent climb to a mid-trail map. It features some fun switchbacks, some amazing views, and plenty of challenge. Going counter-clockwise though it is mostly downhill and fairly uninteresting. Either way, I feel like it is more known as the home of Sawtooth and Phaser.
Phaser runs parallel to Siren and is built with similar features. It follows the ravine for a bit longer, features some mid-ridge rolling stretches, and a good final hill to deposit you at the Siren/Mix Master junction. My favorite part of Phaser…Sawtooth.
Sawtooth is the black diamond run of the Merrell Trail. It’s narrow, loaded with roots, has great climbs, and is a challenge no matter the direction you run. It has narrow man-made wooden bridges at the entrance and exit as well as caution signs. Can you get to it without going over the bridges? Yes. Yes, you can…but if the bridges are tough for you, then Sawtooth might not be for you. Apparently there were so many accidents with people falling off the bridges (on bikes!) that the local fire department asked that the bridges be widened. On foot though, the bridges are easy, fun, and bring you into the present to remind you that you are entering Sawtooth. It’s only a half mile stretch, but you will feel it when you are done. There is no parade at the end though because it spits you back out on to Phaser before you begin its final climb.
No matter your path to this point, if you follow the rules of the trail, you have to finish on Mix Master. Both Phaser and Siren flow into Mix Master and its 1.5 mile finishing stretch. Mix Master is the second longest trail at Merrell and it’s most frustrating. Please don’t misunderstand me, I love Mix Master. It is scenic, rolling, has some great switchbacks, beautiful stream/spring crossings, and two little skills areas to tackle (one ladder and one side hill rocky section). It can be fast and it has little elevation gain. So why is it frustrating? It winds back and forth on itself so many times that it’s difficult to know where you are. You will see other runners and riders and it’s nearly impossible to tell whether they are in front of you, behind you, or on Chameleon. Running Mix Master to get from one point to another is fun, but once per loop is enough for me. I’ve run Merrell countless times and still haven’t figured Mix Master out. Regardless, when you see the lights on the neighboring house you know you are close to Carin and Outbound and therefore the end. Enjoy the finishing stretch because as you progress through Cairn and Outbound, you start to realize, and feel, that you are reentering society. Whether it’s the water tower or the traffic light, when you reach the parking lot you realize how isolated you have been and that your “vacation” is now over.
8320 Belmont Ave NE, Belmont, MI 49306