Southcentral Michigan is known for its sprawling farmland, so it’s not surprising that this region is also home to the Lower Peninsula’s largest state park.
The Waterloo State Recreation Area spans more than 20,000 acres, allowing locals and visitors to delight in the pristine natural beauty that is harder to come by in this part of the state.
Situated just outside the small town of Chelsea Michigan — not far from the popular college town of Ann Arbor — this state park is a favorite among visitors of all ages.
All About the Waterloo State Recreation Area
The Waterloo Recreation Area is a natural wonderland, offering more than 20,000 acres of wilderness to explore. Despite being the largest state park in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, it is still considered to be a hidden gem.
You aren’t likely to be suffocated by the crowds when you visit, though weekends in the summer are busier than at other times of the year. For the most part, everyone can find their own special places in this pristine park where they can be one with the great outdoors.
Where to Find the Waterloo State Recreation Area
Given the size of the Waterloo State Recreation Area, it’s important to consult a park map before making your journey. The specific destination you are heading to may dictate which entrance you use. In most cases, you can find the entrances in Chelsea.
You should use the Chelsea entrances if you are going to:
- Park Headquarters
- Eddy Discovery Center
- Sugarloaf Lake Campground
- Horseman’s Campground and Burns Cabin
- Green Lake Campground
- DTE Foundation Trail
It would be best to use the Grass Lake Michigan entrance if you are going to:
- Southfork Rustic Cabin
- Horse ‘N Around Stables
- Portage Lake Campground and Beach
Uncovering the History of the Waterloo State Recreation Area
The area that is now designated as the Waterloo Recreation Area has long been an untamed wilderness.
In the 1830s, settlers from Europe tried to make a home on the land, but the conditions were not ideal. Farms struggled to become successful because of the lack of fertile soil, and by the time the Great Depression arrived in the 1930s, most farmers abandoned their properties in this region.
Around the same time, the federal government was looking to create and preserve parkland, which simultaneously supported the mission of the Works Progress Administration.
Between 1935 and 1936, several dozen recreational demonstration projects were launched on the lands, many of which became campgrounds and natural recreation areas for young people in Michigan.
In 1943, the State of Michigan asked to lease the land from the National Parks Service and was allowed to with the condition that it would remain a public park.
Since then, the Waterloo Recreation Area has worked to promote conservation efforts in Michigan while simultaneously providing visitors with a space where they can fully enjoy the beauty of nature.
Things to Know Before Visiting the Waterloo Recreation Area
Before you head to the Waterloo State Recreation Area, here are a few things you should know:
- You will need a Recreation Passport to enter the park.
- The park is open 24 hours per day, but the registration office has daily business hours.
- Pets are welcome but must remain on a leash and are not allowed on the beaches in the park.
- There is a track chair available for wheelchair users to help them navigate and experience terrains that they might not be able to access in a traditional wheelchair.
Top Things to Do at Waterloo State Recreation Area
The Waterloo State Recreation Area can certainly be a Michigan day trip, but with so many things to do, you may want to extend your stay. These are the best things to do at the Waterloo Recreation Area.
Bike Along the DTE Energy Foundation Trail
The crown jewel of the Waterloo State Recreation Area is the DTE Energy Foundation Trail, a 10-mile trail that winds throughout the park.
This trail was designed with mountain bikers in mind, and the surface incorporates grades, out slopes, and a variety of terrains.
With four different loops throughout the trail, mountain bike riders will find the right option for their skill levels. Get ready for the ride of your life — this trail isn’t known as “Michigan’s Dirt Rollercoaster” for nothing!
Search for Sandhill Cranes & Other Wildlife
Preserving the habitats of sandhill cranes is one of the most active conservation efforts in the Waterloo Recreation Area. There are few places in the state where visitors can see these graceful, elegant creatures relaxing in their natural environment, but their population booms within the park’s boundaries.
One of the best places to spot sandhill cranes is at the Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Audubon Sanctuary, which encompasses more than 1,000 acres of parkland.
Paddle on an Inland Lake
Throughout the park, you will find 11 inland lakes, many of which have calm and serene waters that are perfect for kayaking and paddling. If you don’t have your own equipment, you can find rentals at both the Sugarloaf Campground and the Portage Campground.
Play a Round of Disc Golf
One of the newest additions to the Waterloo Recreation Area is the disc golf course, which is located at Big Portage Lake. The course was built in 2008 and features 18 holes, allowing disc golfers to experience the thrill of their favorite sport in a spectacular setting.
The elevation of the course is split between hilly and flat terrains, and most would describe it as a relatively challenging course. The holes are located in wooded areas, but there are many amenities nearby that enhance the overall experience.
Go Horseback Riding at Horse ‘N Around Stables
Horse ‘N Around Stables is a family-owned business located inside the Waterloo State Recreation Area, and they have been offering guided horseback riding experiences and group rides since 1998.
It’s one of the most popular ways for visitors to enjoy the equestrian trails that are located in the park, particularly those who are new to horseback riding.
Park visitors are encouraged to reserve a ride in advance through the stables so that the stables can pair each rider with a horse that will be right for their size, personality, and skill level.
Learn More About Nature at the Eddy Discovery Center
Sometimes there’s more to nature than meets the eye, which is why the Eddy Discovery Center aims to engage park visitors and provide more insight into the history of the Waterloo Recreation Area.
Inside, guests will find interactive exhibits about the park’s geology and the habitats that have existed in Michigan since the Ice Age. The discovery center is open daily during the summer, but it has limited hours during the winter months.
Pitch a Tent at Waterloo Recreation Area
With more than 100 campsites available across 10 campgrounds, the Waterloo State Recreation Area is one of the best places to go camping in the Lower Peninsula.
In addition, the park offers a rustic equestrian campground that features the space and amenities required for campers who want to bring their own horses along.
FAQs About the Waterloo State Recreation Area
What county is the Waterloo State Recreation Area in?
The Waterloo State Recreation Area is so large that it actually crosses the county border. Some of the park is located in Jackson County, while the majority is in Washtenaw County.
What lakes are in the Waterloo State Recreation Area?
There are 11 lakes in the Waterloo State Recreation Area — two of the largest and most well-known are Portage Lake and Sugarloaf Lake.
It’s worth noting that Portage Lake offers a public swimming area, while Sugarloaf Lake is reserved for campers who have booked a site in the area.
Dive Into Nature at the Waterloo State Recreation Area
Sometimes, you simply need to step back from the chaotic pace of everyday life and soak up the beauty that surrounds you. Whether you are looking to escape for a day or enjoy a weeklong camping trip, the Waterloo State Recreation Area is one of the best parks in Michigan.