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Head for Van Buren Trail State Park and take a walk (or ride) on the wild side. Wildlife abounds on this rural 14 miles between Hartford and South Haven. While you might see deer, rabbit, fox and eagles, this is an undeveloped trail that has rough ballast stones, long sections of sand and grassy two-track. The combined result is a trail suited to hearty mountain bikers, birders and naturalists.
Heading north from the grass-covered parking lot in Hartford, which has portable toilets, you glide quietly over bridge spanning the Paw Paw River. Cruising northwest to South Haven you pass beneath tall pines, maples and various hardwood trees. The scent of pine lingers as you emerge from the woodlands and enter fields of blueberry bushes and vineyards.
At mile 8 the small town of Covert is located one block south of the trail. A convenience store in town has the only refreshments and restroom facilities on this rural trail. You have to navigate rural State Route M-140 at this point, with no real busy traffic.
The last 8 miles from Covert the trail passes through woods, open fields and commercial fields of blueberries (growing on treelike bushes) and grapes. This part of Michigan is noted for its wine and fruit. At 16th Avenue, just south of South Haven, you will see a connection to the Van Buren Trail Spur, which opened in November 2015. It offers a paved, off-road route to the 400-acre Van Buren State Park, where you will find more trails and access to the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Future plans call for a trailhead at the South Haven end of the trail and for a connection to the Kal-Haven Trail.
To start in Hartford, from Interstate 94, take the Hartford Exit. Head north 2 blocks past the first stoplight. Take a left onto Prospect Street and proceed for 2 blocks. The trailhead has a grass-covered parking lot with portable toilets.
To start in South Haven, take Lagrange Street to Aylworth Avenue (next to South Haven High School, across from McDonald's). Go west on Aylworth Avenue to Kalamazoo Street and then south on Kalamazoo to Lovejoy Avenue. The trail is 0.1 mile to the west on Lovejoy Avenue on the south side of the street.
I'm the director of the Friends of the Kal-Haven Trail and we oversee the Van Buren Trail.
One of the biggest problems people encounter on the VBT is that they're not prepared for riding on what's essentially an undeveloped railroad bed and may believe that since it's a state park it has been developed. It has not. Engineering has been done to that effect and a development project is in the works but still years away.
Still... as you leave the paved section at 16th Avenue south of South Haven and continue down what looks like a powerline ROW, the VBT is rought and rocky, muddy and ditched and yeah, it's a mess. But man, once you get below Covert, the area opens up to thousands of acres of blueberry farms, horse and cattle farms and cranberry bogs.
As the trail crosses the Paw Paw river you're passing through Pokegon Tribal lands and along the way the remnants of Michigan's past peak through the brush and extensive wetlands that make the trail both a challenge and an adventure.
And there's more! But you do need to look.
Future plans call for a complete resurfacing that can handle pedestrians, bicycles, horses and snowmobiles. A Heritage Trail program that is not unlike the award winning project on the Kal-Haven Trail. Benches. Outhouses and more... but, those things are years in the future (unless you've got $15 million laying around you'd like to donate?)
In the meantime, don't let the 'bad' reviews fool you for, as noted, the trail is an undeveloped asset today. But if you've got fat tires or you're on foot or horseback or a sled do not miss a visit to this little-used and under-appreciated wander through the rural Michigan countryside.
Really, don't miss the VBT because of some 'bad' reviews! It's a wonderful excursion on any day if you're prepared for its rough and ready nature.
If you have any questions or concerns about the VBT you can call the State Park office at (269) 637-2788. You can also visit the Friends of the Kal-Haven Trail on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or at our website, kalhaven.org or directly by email to email@example.com and we'll be more than happy to help you out.
PS: Please, don't steal the blueberries ~ as tempting as they are. I know! You're going to pass through hundreds of acres of them! We are working with a local farmer to allow a little more freedom in that but until such a time comes, stealing a man's income does not make for good neighbors and sets bad examples that others will use to stop trail development here, and elsewhere.
PPS: to the guy who had a small dog chase him... I've had a loose cow blocking my way and was attacked by chickens near Hartford! Okay, maybe 'attacked' isn't the right word... maybe 'crowded' by chickens is a better term? But think about it, isn't that part of the fun!? And for the record, the cow was cool. I found the break in the fence she had come through and walked her back through it.
PPPS: To the guy who wrote about the trash... yes, We've had some problems near Covert but ran a cleanup last year and hauled out two trailer-loads of refuse and debris and thanks to Martin Sell at the DNR we'll be back every year to keep the trail looking spiffy. Moreover, a new administration in Covert is trail-friendly so we expect more help from that community keeping things clean.
I arrived early on May 16, 2022, to South Haven for my next day’s ride on the Kal-Haven Trail and was planning to do only the paved portion of the Van Buren Trail out of South Haven and the spur to the Van Buren State Park. But when I got to the junction just before the underpass for I-196 the trail surface going towards Hartford was dual track gravel so I thought I should go for it. Not a good decision.
The gravel soon disappeared, and the Van Buren trail in turn consisted of mowed grass, black dirt, some loose sand and numerous wet spots. I did my best to say with the trail on my hybrid bike but soon abandoned it for the network of mostly flat and paved rural roads to get to Hartford. The roads run N-S or E-W while the trail goes SE, so it does take more miles. On the way back to South Haven, I took different roads and some of these were nice gravel. A good 39-mile day.
S Haven to Van Buren SP is paved and easy. The 14 mile spur to Hartford is not. Double track, sandy, probably muddy if it has rained. A nice adventure. Even on a nice May Saturday only saw 3 people. Fun if you are up to it. If you are expecting the Kal Haven trail you won’t like it.
There is now trailhead parking at the South Haven end of the trail. There is a parking lot on Aylworth Ave. between Kalamazoo St. and Monroe Blvd. The trail is also paved between that trailhead parking and Van Buren State Park.
Please be advised that motor vehicles included snowmobiles are NOT allowed on the paved section of the trail which begins just north of where the unpaved section runs underneath I-196 expressway. South of the expressway the trail is unimproved and snowmobiling is allowed to the Hartford, MI trailhead.
We started at the Hartford trailhead and road in 7 miles, about half way. This end of the trail is primitive two-track through field and swamp. As of the end of June 2019 we had to go through up to 16 inches of water at a couple of points. It was fun for us but not for everyone.
This trail is OK with a gravel or mountain bike. No chance with a road bike. I would not recommend for families with children as the water is too deep. Maybe try in August.
It is a great trail to ride for solitude and just looking at nature. I found cranberry bogs along my first ride. However, you have to be prepared for some tough riding in certain places. SE of Covert and before Hartford the trail can become very wet (as you approach the Paw Paw River drainage.) Wet in the spring up to 3-4 inches in some areas (these are few.) In the dry heat of the summer, the trail is dry. DNR occasionally comes through and mows down the grass. I ride this area frequently from the Memorial Day through Labor Day and find it a great trail for folks looking for a challenge beyond asphalt or crushed stone. At some stretches, there are weeds up to your waist. Yep, there are weeds. BUGS TOO! So, if you want a nice leisurely ride, this is not your trail. If you want to see SW Michigan's nature and all it has to offer....Then, load up your bike and pack. Enjoy your day!
The trails aren’t marked, there is trash everywhere. It feels like walking through someone’s back yard. Parking is crap! The trails are crap! The trash is ridiculous.
Reading so many negative reviews before I started to ride this trail had me expecting much worse conditions than I actually encountered. I rode from 12th avenue in South Haven to the Hartford trailhead, which took about 2.5 hours. I am not young (57) or in particularly good shape (200+ pounds), but I was able to ride virtually all of the trail. There were two large flooded areas, with one I was able to ride on the side and get through cleanly, on the other I had to walk on large sticks/saplings that people have put there for that purpose. Yes, there's some mud and sand, but I was able to pedal through all of it. There were a couple of trees down, and some that had been cut out recently, so no issues with trees at all. No issues with tall grass either, because I rode on a particularly cold April 6th. The temperature was right around freezing and the trail was mostly firm. Many of the reviews mentioned tall grass, but there was none at all when I rode.
A few times it did seem like I was riding in somebody's back yard, and I did have a small dog chase me at one point. I just talked to it and kept riding at the same speed and it lost interest. A few blueberry farmers were out, surprisingly, I guess they were pruning. One reviewer said that they stopped and ate blueberries, which I suspect is not allowed. There was a lot of signage telling people to stay on the trail.
I was very bundled up, and rode continuously, but even so, the 30-degree temperature was too much for me to think about riding all the way back. I stayed inside the Hartford public library (bike rack!) until my ride could come and get me. If I had had to ride back on my own, there were large sections where paved roads ran beside the trail, so using those would have made the return trip easier.
I did this ride on a 29-inch mountain bike, and you definitely would not want to try this on a road bike. It was a workout, which was what I wanted, as I try to get into shape for the riding season. The scenery was somewhat interesting, pretty much what you would expect to see in terms of vegetation, lots of trees with no leaves. Many people's back yards contained a surprising amount of probably-no-longer-useful items, so that provided some interesting scenery as well.
The paved section from South Haven to the Van Buren state park would be a nice ride for road bikes. I saw a skateboarder riding on the trail near 12th avenue in South Haven.
I think my ride yesterday was more fun, though much more challenging, than my ride of the Kal-Haven trail a few years ago.
Sometimes it seems like you are riding through peoples backyards. Some parts swampy. Some parts soft sand and we had to walk bikes. Rode this trail from Hartford to South Haven. Found alternate routes on the country roads for the way home. Won't be riding this again. Ever.
Ok, so my first go at this trail left me very underwhelmed, mostly because it seems to end in a campground only 4-5 miles out of town. Very short.
But if you're a newbie on the bike or a runner, then this trail is a great place to start. Not extremely hilly, paved nicely from South Haven all the way to the campground, plus you can park and start with views of Lake Michigan!
Van Buren trail is awful, awfull, awful. Did I mention this trail is a piece of crap? It is not well maintained and is 90% overgrown with grass and weeds. The only way I knew I was on-track was to follow the indentations left by off road vehicles, 4-wheelers and horse tracks. I didn’t give up though, as I was chased by several dogs running free in the countryside, helping me keep up the pace. I took as many roads as possible on my return from Hartford. Don’t waste your time on this trail and save your money for a bike friendly county.
The 5 mile section between South Haven and the Van Buren State Park is nicely paved. You'll be lost when you get to the state park. It dumps you into a sandy offshoot with no signs. I like to take a walking path at the first building by the woods. It takes you to the main road across from the beach access parking lot.
I've been hiking the trail in sections and it's a beautiful walk through expansive blueberry fields through the heart of Van Buren County.
If you're on a bicycle it's going to be a slog since it's grassy and sometimes a little deep but the county just mowed (early fall 2015) several sections and I assume they'll do more.
If you're on foot, this is a nice day out.
I am up for trying anything once-- especially a bike trail that heads to Lake Michigan. This one was a mistake. Spend the time you would've spent on the trail writing to county officials to further develop it and spend the money you'd have spent on gas making a donation to its upkeep. It's in a good location and has a lot of potential but it's not ready for bikers at this time. It's overgrown, dangerously bumpy, and parts of it are flooded. I did three miles thinking it'd get better but it didn't. You can't tell what terrain you're riding on because of the tall grass and at one point I hit a rut and was thrown from my bike. Still, it's worth keeping an eye on for when it's better developed.
Ran the section Covert to South Haven and back. There´s a small ballast open area/parking lot at the end of the cemetery st. I parked my car there and went for a run. That parking lot felt a bit isolated, but I had no issues. It rained 4 days ago but didn´t see any wet spots on the trail.
Starting at Covert, the terrain is mostly tall grass under woods. Flat course. Several road crossings, but most of them are not busy. Then halfway to SH it opens up and you are going through open fields and ballast ground. There´s not much going on for this trail. It is basically a bulldozer way cut through the country. At all times you are listening or going very close to a road. Didn´t have the trail "feel", in which you are away from civilization. I only met one couple riding bikes during my entire 2 hour run (on a thursday).
I will probably do the southern part of this trail, but I prefer exploring the other trails around this area before I return and do this again.
We tried the trail from Hartford, but gave up in a couple miles. It was completely covered with grass and you bounced along the ATV dented surface. If you are into cross country off trail biking, it would be nice. It could be great if some development was done.
From South Haven to the Van Buren State Park, the trail has been smoothed and topped with crushed limestone. It is much like the Kal-Haven trail. Most bikes can navigate this section. It may even get black topped next year. This is about a 5 mile section, and veers off from the main trail at 16th avenue. There are marked bike lines extending to the center of south haven and connects to the Kal-Haven trail. As far as the main trail to Hartford, the best I can say is that it is being kept mowed down in the grassy sections. There are occasional mud holes.
This is a rough trail. First couple of miles through South Haven and in Hartford are fine, but is mostly grassy and wet. Better for horses and endurance riders
cleared, open, some sand traps, water, and small branches; few people; good ride
Tuesday, 1400 start, 90 deg and sunny. started in Hartford and rode 4 miles and turned around. mile 1-2 are fairly clear, after mile 2.5, trees are down. most are small and ridable but multiple portaging over huge trees. the bugs are not as bad when you are moving. at mile 4 we called it quits and turned around.
7.7 miles, 1hour 28 min cannondale F4
Rode it both ways today (6/8/13). It's an endurance ride. Slightly uphill from Hartford to South Haven, enough to wear you down.There were no fallen trees or branches, so some minimal care is being given to the trail. Last fall I saw a lot of trimming being done at the South Haven end. Unfortunately that left some big ruts in the trail. There is a place near South Haven, at 16th avenue, where the trail splits and goes to the Van Buren State Park. You will see a small sign at the split. This section is much nicer and the ride over the sand dune (on a well packed trail) and the descent into the park is awesome. You will find yourself close to the beach and if you have a fat-tire bike you will naturally want to ride on the beach next to (and in) the water. I consider a fatty, a bike with 4 inch wide tires at low air pressure, the perfect bike for all of the trail.
My wife and I rode this trail in late September 2012. It was clear. It is not paved so don't expect it to be like a sidewalk. It is great if you wish to have a workout. We loved the quietness and the beauty. It was great to get away from civilization. I placed a photo of her, looking from a bridge, on my phone's wallpaper. Unfortunately, we left the trail and rode the back roads back to Hartford. The part we disliked was the traffic, especially on Red Arrow Hwy., avoid that road.
I road about half of this trail today from the Hartford end. It would have been much easier with standard mountain bike tires rather than road tires, but all-in-all a pleasant ride. I wouldn't try to ride this after a heavy rain, some parts are marshy, a few parts are sandy, just watch where you put the wheel. There was no debris on my trip, but again, after a heavy storm that's likely to change until it's cleared.
On the morning of July, 20, 2011, my wife and I attempted to ride this trail starting at the Hartford end. We consider ourselves average, casual cyclist. We both have mountain bikes. We were only able to go a little over two miles, before we had to turn back. Over the two plus miles, we were able to steer around many fallen branches and we were able to carry our bikes over two fallen trees. However, we did not try to get through the third fallen tree which was much bigger than the first two. Plus, we figured there would probably be more fallen trees ahead. After the first mile or so, the grass was much taller which made it rougher to ride, but doable, and there were patches of soft sand you needed to look out for. Oh ya, be sure to bring your bug spray.
The next day, July 21, 2011, we traveled to South Haven and rode the KalHaven Trail, which is extremely well maintained and a pleasure to ride. We would give that trail a four or five star.
If the Van Buren Trail were maintained a bit better, we believe it would have great potential.
If you are thinking of cycling this trail, you will need either a mountain bike or an all terrain bike, patience to deal with the unexpected, and stamina. This trail is not as popular as the KalHaven Trail although I do suspect it would be, if it were maintained at the same level. The scenery of southwestern Michigan, and the Lake Michigan shoreline, as well as the abundant flora and fauna, are pleasant, but the going is a bit rough. The trail sinks into several small boggy fens on the stretch between Hartford and Covert, and between the latter and South Haven, patches of soft sand pose an equal hazard. In addition, because of frequent stops and the necessity of walking the bike, you cannot depend on speed to create a resistance against the advance of mosquitoes.
It took me about three hours to do the entire trail from Hartford to South Haven.
I had one beautiful pause on the ride, coming across a blackberry bush with hundreds of honey bees (rare enough these days) flitting about the full bloom; their sound alone filling the empty woods.
When you reach South Haven, there is a small sign directing your way to the Kal Haven trail, via St. Joseph St., to your left as you exit the trail on Lovejoy. To your right is Kalamazoo St., which, if taken north, will lead you to downtown South Haven.
The trail might be easier going for cyclists in the autumn after the first couple of frosts deaden the vegetation.
I rode the entire length of the trail last weekend. I would say that 70% of the trail has a car tire path that you can ride in, the other 30% is grassy. I did it on a cross bike and it was a lot of work. You can not do this with a road bike. There is a section of 100 yards or so that is sand, I had to get off and walk. Otherwise it is a nice trail. I would like to see a little bit more attention paid to it.
"Don't waste your time with this trail unless your hunting or snowmobling. It is no way even close to a bike trail. It is unimproved since they removed the tracks over a decade ago. The trail is extremely over grown and in need of a little love. This could be a wonderful spur of the kal-haven trail but it atleast needs a crushed balast surface, if not blacktop. There is also the potential for the trail to continue past hartford(the east trail head) and go all the way to Paw Paw on the same abandoned railway (tracks still in place). Doubt this will ever happen in my lifetime."
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