Length: 22.7 miles
Trail end points: Spring St. and Water St. near Trailway Campground/Medbery Bike Trail (Montague) and Wood St. at Water St. (Hart)
The name tells the tale of the William Field Memorial Hart-Montague Trail State Park. Rolling for 22 paved miles through the farms, orchards, and forests of western Michigan between Hart and Montague, the trail may never have come into existence if not for the late William Field.
As a fruit grower from Shelby and an Oceana County commissioner in the early 1980s, Mr. Field couldn’t raise interest among his fellow commissioners to turn the re-cently dismantled railroad into a recreational trail. Fearing a lost opportunity, he bought the corridor in 1982 and donated it to the state. Seven years later, the trail’s northern half opened as the state’s first paved rail-trail, followed in 1991 by the second half. The state legislature honored his efforts by naming the trail for him in 2014. In 2016, the state completed a yearlong face-lift for the trail, which included asphalt resurfacing and widening to 10 feet.
The Chicago and Michigan Lake Shore Railroad originally built that rail bed in 1872 as a segment of its route from New Buffalo to Pentwater. It later came under control of the Chicago and West Michigan Railway, the Pere Marquette Railroad (depots still stand in Hart and Shelby), and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. CSX Transportation removed the tracks between Hart and Montague in 1982.
Starting in Montague next to a campground on White Lake, a 0.2-mile side trip via the connecting Medbery Bike Trail takes you to the world’s largest working weathervane on the corner of Dowling and Water Streets. The 48-foot-tall structure is topped by a replica of the Ella Ellenwood, a 19th-century schooner that carried lumber on Lake Michigan. Another trail, the White Lake Pathway, crosses White Lake into Whitehall, where it meets the Fred Meijer Berry Junction Trail, which goes south toward Muskegon.
Heading north on the William Field Memorial Hart-Montague Trail, you’ll pass Christmas tree farms, orchards, and the 100-acre Clear Springs Nature Preserve on the way to Rothbury (mile 6.2). Be on the lookout for deer in the fields and orchards, especially in the morning and evening. A 4-mile section between West Fruitvale Road and Rothbury is open for horseback riders.
The village of New Era (mile 10) is near the halfway point of the trail, and during the summer you can stop for homemade ice cream at the trailside dairy bar. Another 4.3 miles up the trail, the village of Shelby gained renown in 1876 as a hunting center for one of the last mass nestings of now-extinct passenger pigeons.
In 5.8 miles, the trail brushes the southern edge of Mears, another food and water stop. The farmland here gives rise to Oceana County’s claim as the Asparagus Capital of the Nation. If you arrive in Hart during June, you might see the National Asparagus Festival, complete with a parade and crowning of an Asparagus Queen. Any other time, you’ll find Hart is the gateway to the beaches and giant sand dunes of Silver Lake and Lake Michigan.
To reach the southern trailhead in Montague from US 31, take the Bus. US 31 exit toward Montague and Whitehall, heading west. Go 1.8 miles on Bus. US 31/E. Colby St., and turn right onto Bus. US 31/Thompson St. Go 0.5 mile—Thompson St. becomes Dowling St. on the other side of White Lake—and turn right onto Bus. US 31/Water St. Go 0.1 mile, and turn right onto Spring St. Parking is at the end of the block on the left, behind Whitehall Products.