Suburban Gems: Dodge Park Trails & Historic Utica

20 Jul

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Psssssssttt, I have a secret to tell you. There is a place you can go in Sterling Heights where there are no strip malls, Wal-Mart or traffic lights; a place where deer roam freely, the Clinton River runs clear and you can be at one with nature, it’s called Dodge Park. Actually, it is a series of parks that are linked together by bike paths and trails leading you from Sterling Heights to downtown Utica. If you have never visited these parks, wait no longer.

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We ride here often and like to begin at the start of the trail; Clinton River Park South.  Keep your eyes open; just west of Schoenherr on Clinton River Road you will come across Edison Court; at the end you’ll find the trail entrance. As soon as you begin pedaling on the asphalt path you are greeted with a sense of tranquility. It’s astounding how quickly you are immersed in nature; completely unaware of the hustle and bustle taking place outside the park boundaries; here you are literally in the woods. Pathways curve right and then left, a slight uphill and then back down. Before long the Clinton River appears on your left and the path now mimics its route. Squirrels jump from tree to tree, butterflies visit wildflowers while ducks float down the river. I like to pause at the wooden bridge that takes you into Dodge Park to see what kind of activity is taking place on the water; today the Mallard moms were out for a swim with their ducklings.  Back to pedaling we continue to head northwest, the river always in full view now, the scenery picturesque. Once known as the Huron River it was renamed the Clinton in 1824; it was the main reason for this areas early development. At one time farmers tended large farms growing wheat and corn along with apple and peach orchards; looking about, it’s not hard to imagine.  Now the Clinton River Park Trail System passes through over 460 acres of Sterling Heights parkland in Dodge, Farmstead and Clinton River North and South parks. Mature trees keep the temperatures several degrees cooler than it is outside their reach; this summer that’s a really good thing. Bikes share the path with pedestrians, roller blades and plenty of leashed dogs. Where the trail parallels Utica Rd sprawling homes take advantage of  beautiful river views. The only reminder that you are in the suburbs is when the path takes you under the M 53 freeway, but just as quickly you immersed back into the peacefulness of your surroundings. The trail had been thoughtfully laid out so you never have to cross a street; a tunnel takes you under Riverland Drive. The Sterling Heights section of the trail ends at Van Dyke, a tunnel now takes you under the multi-laned road; the city of Utica picks it up from there.

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Heritage Park is on the west side of Van Dyke just south of M 59, this is the newest section of the hike-bike trail. The park has undergone improvements and  is home to a canoe launch and fishing pier, not to mention the newly paved trail. An impressive bridge was constructed last year that at last allows us to cross the river into Utica. Where the trail ends it is a short ride through the neighborhood; a left turn and then a right we find ourselves at yet another bridge. The water moves quicker here; the sound of running water just a little louder. Passing through the decades old tunnel we arrive in Utica’s newest addition Memorial Park. Memorial has been a welcome addition to this tiny city; folks now have a wonderful place to gather. Brick pavers set the stage for modern picnic tables and benches; lush landscaping adds color and interest to the area, massive hanging baskets spill over with fragrant petunias. A stairway leads down to the river; a swing and benches invite you to sit for a while and overlook the water. On warm evenings we often take advantage of the space and find others enjoying it as well.

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A short ride up Auburn Rd into downtown, the best hamburger around awaits you; I’m talking about The Shamrock Pub. Established in 1935 the bar has withstood a couple of fires and change of ownership through its many years. The inside is charming; wood tables and chairs, exposed brick, retro fixtures and a hint of Art Deco. This time of year you cannot beat the patio; brick pavers enclosed on three sides with low brick walls topped with planter after planter of bright red Geraniums, so pretty. The menu is simple stuff done well; just order the burger…..A side of fries is large enough for two to share, we recommend the seasoned variety. The place was doing a brisk business today, but it didn’t take long for our food to arrive. Burgers arrive open-faced on paper plates snapped into red plastic holders; a pile of lettuce tomato onion and pickle wait to be assembled between the burger(cooked over an open flame) and sesame seed bun, a pair of peppers act as garnish. No matter where we eat this is the burger which we measure all others by; this is still our favorite.

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After dinner we took a spin through the town’s historic district; the neighborhood is lovely. Houses 150 years old still stand gracefully on Cass Ave; a large Italianate home was part of the underground railroad. You will find a bit of everything here; Victorians with fancy woodwork, large colonials from the early 1900’s and small brick homes from the 30’s. Residents are proud of their city’s past; from distilleries and farms to the Utica and Romeo stage line, Utica has a surprising amount of history for a town of 1.9 square miles. With the 5 mile ride ahead of us it was time to start back; we’d had a pleasant day and a great meal….you can’t ask for a better day!

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