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Lansing River Trail: Connecting Walk and Urban Marvel

Updated on July 2, 2019
Stately Turner-Dodge House from Victorian era but in Georgian Revival style
Stately Turner-Dodge House from Victorian era but in Georgian Revival style | Source
Part of Old Town commercial district, showing historic charm
Part of Old Town commercial district, showing historic charm | Source
The North Lansing Dam--important for river management but difficult for fish to climb
The North Lansing Dam--important for river management but difficult for fish to climb | Source
The Brenke Fish Ladder--an unusual solution to fish management
The Brenke Fish Ladder--an unusual solution to fish management | Source
Impression 5 Science Center, one of many scientific landmarks along the River Trail
Impression 5 Science Center, one of many scientific landmarks along the River Trail | Source
Michigan Museum of Surveying--another scientific destination, and not just for surveyors!
Michigan Museum of Surveying--another scientific destination, and not just for surveyors! | Source
Entrance to Potter Park Zoo--a great adventure awaits.  Portion of River Trail is visible in background
Entrance to Potter Park Zoo--a great adventure awaits. Portion of River Trail is visible in background | Source
Young visitors enjoying view of rhino.
Young visitors enjoying view of rhino. | Source
A typical summer scene at Hawk Island Beach.
A typical summer scene at Hawk Island Beach. | Source
Aerial view of Hawk Island Park and Lake.
Aerial view of Hawk Island Park and Lake. | Source

Old Town: where Greenwich Village and New Orleans meet Lansing

Old Town is situated in the northern part of Lansing and was one of the first parts of the city to be settled, dating from 1843. In recent years, it has been the scene of a cultural renaissance, featuring many artistic and musical influences. It is also the site of the Turner-Dodge House, the cultural focus of North Lansing. The River Trail begins near this historic mansion and winds its way southward from here. Old Town features both a commercial district with many antique facades and a residential neighborhood with a variety of domestic revival motifs popular in America before the Twentieth Century. Old Town boasts a number of cultural festivals, including Jazz and BluesFests every summer and an Oktoberfest each fall. The Creole Gallery on Turner Street has hosted contemporary jazz greats such as Wynton Marsalis and other musical dignitaries through the years. Also found in the area are boutiques and shops displaying antiques, beads, glass and other goods that beckon the passerby. Although the Trail, mostly boardwalk at this point, hugs the Grand riverbank, it is easy to detour via staircases to sample the local wares. Another interesting feature at this part of the Trail is the Brenke Fish Ladder, which permits migrating fish to bypass the North Lansing Dam. Anglers should take note: while fishing is permitted on this neck of the river, it is never allowed in the Ladder. The only danger would come if the "greed is good" ethos took root here, which would cause rents to soar and induce a crowding out effect. It is hoped that this will never happen.

Lansing Museum District: an interface of museology

Continuing down the Trail, the next interesting cluster is found on and near Museum Drive. Here, there are several museums dedicated to diverse cultural pursuits. The Riverwalk Theatre, for example, features unusual productions with outside the box themes. It was also a pioneer in the "Black Box" format for staged presentations. The Michigan Museum of Surveying displays scientific instruments and is of interest not only to surveyors, but to intelligent general audiences as well. The Impression 5 Science Center contains a wealth of hands on experiments for visitors to try and also sponsors summer science camps for scientifically oriented youngsters. Outside on the Trail, a unique Planet Walk begins here that replicates the solar system in exact scale miles from the sun, with Impression 5 serving as our home star. Further on, the R.E. Olds Automotive Museum houses an impressive collection of vintage cars manufactured in Lansing and that were the economic mainstay of this community for a century. Although some factories have been demolished and production is now largely Cadillac and some Chevrolets, automaking continues in the great Oldsmobile tradition. At this point, the Trail diverges to the west, toward the large GM Grand River Assembly Plant and the Board of Water and Light utility plant near the Moore's Park Dam area. This is certainly worth a hike to gain an insight into Lansing's industrial past. Near this juncture, the Trail turns to the east to follow the valley of the Red Cedar River, a tributary of the Grand.

Potter Park Zoo: a riverside menagerie

Shortly past the point where the Grand and Red Cedar intersect, one enters Potter Park, one of Lansing's best municipal parks. Inside the park is situated the Potter Park Zoo, a popular destination for people of all ages and a great addition to mid-Michigan's cultural and scientific inventory. Here can be found creatures of every species, including rare big cats, birds from around the world and even an African porcupine with exotic colors and quills! In addition to the standard division of categories of animals found in most zoos, there is a dedicated effort toward the preservation of endangered species. Research is conducted into the habits of both people and animals and their interaction in the ecosystem. This gives the zoo's mission an extra importance beyond mere displayed exhibits. Annual events include "Boo at the Zoo" around Halloween and the Wonderland of Lights spectacular at Christmastime, both of which are obviously popular with children. Outside on the River Trail, another marker of the solar system is passed, as one goes by Pluto (itself recently demoted from full planetary status by NASA and other astronomical authorities). The Planet Walk continues to the Abrams Planetarium on the campus of Michigan State, reflecting our new knowledge of the solar system and the extension of its boundaries to the dwarf planet Eris. This latest addition to the River Trail plus further lengthening south of Hawk Island to Jolly Road brings its total length to seventeen miles! Although one may freely detour around the zoo, a visit here is highly recommended.

Hawk Island County Park: intelligent reuse of a former site

After leaving the zoo area, one comes to Aurelius Road. From here, you can proceed east to Clippert Street, formerly the end of the Trail. This stretch of the Trail is the most rustic, where it is easy to forget that you are in a metropolitan area. The mixture of trees and winding boardwalk creates an illusion of being away from it all. However, with the recent extension of the Trail, one can turn south at this point through Scott Woods Park to Hawk Island County Park, Ingham County's latest addition to an already impressive lineup of county parks. Featuring both summer and winter recreational activities, Hawk Island has something for just about everyone, as long as it pertains to the great outdoors. Formerly the site of the Sablain Gravel Company, the site was converted to a natural haven some years ago. A cross between a large pond and a small lake was developed, with an island in the middle. In summer, one can rent boats, swim or fish in the water, or simply hike and relax around the shore. In winter, there is cross-country skiing and a sledding hill available with well groomed trails for a variety of skill levels. As if all this was still not enough, there is the special Soldan Dog Park for dog lovers next door. Most surprisingly, all this escapism is within sight of the downtown Lansing skyline.

The Trail in reflection

Clearly, Lansing has something unique in this concept of bundling attractions across a span of some miles. Some other cities, such as San Antonio with its famed Riverwalk and Cleveland, with its well known "Emerald Necklace" of ringing parks and green spaces, have planners with the same general idea, namely the advancement of urban livability and preservation of the natural environment. Indeed, the recent extension of the Trail has moved Lansing into an upper percentile of America's most livable state capital cities. To whomever reads this: if you live along a river system and there are ecological, scientific, recreational or historical sights along the way, consider linking them together with a river trail--you'll help to create a treasure for your community.


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