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Discovering a city thriving with nature

One of the reasons I love living in Grand Rapids is because I can get the best of both worlds. If I want to get a little break from the city, I can easily go on a hike somewhere close. If I want to go on a bike ride, I can ride the Fred Meijer M-6 or Kent Trails, all within 10 miles from downtown.
Entrance of Kent Trails

Entrance of Kent Trails /Jenean Zahran

Where to find parks, hiking spots and bike trails:

After a long-awaited return, spring has finally graced us with its presence. With the temperatures slowly getting warmer every day, the first thing I think of is where and how I am going to spend my free days outside.

When I moved to West Michigan at the age of 10, access to nature around me was a big change for me. I was born and raised in New Jersey, just 20 minutes outside of Philadelphia. I experienced mostly an urban environment growing up, and the most nature I would experience was the jungle gym at the local park with my friends or camping in my backyard with my brothers, pretending we were in the woods surrounded by bears. I was not close to any real parks and reserves that offered the kind of beauty West Michigan offers to its residents.

Grand Rapidians are blessed to live in an area that provides us with both city luxuries and nature-filled areas. From where I live in Byron Center, I can drive 10 miles north if I want to experience the city life, or I can take my bike two miles over to the Kent Trails right off 84th Street and ride the trail all the way to John Ball Zoo. If I’m feeling like  a hike, I can visit Linus Palmer Park in Wyoming to get away from all the noise and enjoy some beautiful scenery. Getting lost in the woods can make you forget that you are just seven miles away from downtown.

The southern tip of Fred Meijer White Pine Trail, Michigan’s longest rail-trail, is located in Comstock Park. This 92-mile-long trail goes through five counties: Kent, Mecosta, Montcalm, Osceola and Wexford. Starting in Comstock Park heading north, the trail overlooks the River Rogue Dam in Rockford just eight miles along. There are 21 miles of paved trail you can run or ride your bike on north from the starting point in Comstock Park. 

Millennium Park, located on the southwest side, is a short commute from downtown and a personal favorite of mine. Visitors are able to hike, fish, bike and experience many other outdoor activities. Swimming in the lake is something I remember doing there as a child. 

It is extremely convenient to have such beautiful parks so close to us – and I believe most of us take it for granted. Yes, other states have regions with just as beautiful scenery and places for recreation, but in most cases people living in urban areas have to travel miles to see them.

I admit that I did not appreciate all of the rural areas around us until recently. Years ago I wouldn’t have been caught dead walking around my neighborhood, let alone in the woods. After going to college in the Upper Peninsula, I slowly warmed up to the outdoors. My love for nature grew stronger as I experienced what natural beauty Michigan has to offer. The beach was less than a mile away from campus, so visiting Lake Superior was constant. Hiking was a regular thing you would ask your friend to do with you every week. I rode my bike daily last summer. Camping with friends was something I thought I would never enjoy doing, but yet the best memories I made while in Marquette are set in the middle of nowhere. After I graduated in December, I knew I was going to hold on to the outdoor activities I’d become accustomed to in Marquette and bring them with me to Grand Rapids. 

Now, I leave my phone at home when I go on a hike with friends. I take solo bike rides to clear my head. I [attempt to] run on the Kent Trails. I explore new parks and discover wonderful untouched spaces. I find a sense of relief not having to check my phone every five minutes out of boredom or habit with my mind wandering outside. 

There was no excuse for me not taking advantage of what West Michigan’s outdoors has to offer before - it costs me absolutely nothing.

But what I gain is a chance to experience life, rather than seeing it on a screen. Those vast pockets of green throughout the Grand Rapids area give me back my sanity. 

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