Michigan Indian Trails

Michigan Indian Trails

For thousands of years, Native Americans crisscrossed Michigan on a system of trails that were in tune with the land and so perfectly placed that the routes are still in use today by our highways and state roads.  The Michigan Indian Trails were part of the Great Trail network, a trade route that extended hundreds of miles to the eastern seaboard.

Amazingly,  many of Michigan’s major Indian trails were not made by the natives but ranging bison herds. This was especially true in Southwest Michigan where the French explorer La Salle noted the herds in his journal.

Michigan Indian Trail Sand Road
Parts of Michigan Indian Trail Sand Road Still Exists

Indian Trails Had A Purpose

There were scores of other minor trails that linked the major trails or served to get to seasonal hunting, fishing areas salt wells or copper and mineral mines. Many of the trails crisscrossing Michigan’s Upper Thumb were seasonal for hunting, fishing and collection of maple syrup.

Portage à l'île Two Rivers
Portage à l’île Two Rivers – Bibliothèque et Archives Canada

Trails Linked Settlements and Trading Centers

The major trails in lower Michigan tended to link Indian settlements near Mackinac, Detroit, Saginaw and St. Joseph.  These were primarily used as a trade and seasonal migration routes. This triangle of trails was augmented by the water trails that were heavily used across the Great Lakes region.

Indian Trails of Lower Michigan

Assiniboin Encampment on the Upper Missouri between 1860 and 1870
Assiniboin Encampment on Upper Missouri between 1860 and 1870. Detroit Institute of Arts

Major Indian Trails in Lower Michigan

  • St. Joseph Trail –  From a historical standpoint, this is considered the most significant east-west trail route in Michigan  Its also known as Route du Sieur de la Salle, named after the 17th-century explorer who was looking for a route across the continent to China. Today this route is shared with I-96. 
  • Saginaw Trail – A major north-south Sauk trail system that went from the Straits of Detroit to Saginaw then north to the Traverse Bay area. Today this trail starts at the Detroit River and heads northwest up Woodward to Pontiac then continues up Dixie Highway through Flint then Saginaw. 
  • Sauk Trail – This major system ran between Detroit and Chicago.  Believed to be established by migrating bison, it was so well established that the state followed the trail for the Chicago Road (M-12) construction in 1827.
  • Mackinac Trail – An interior west northern Michigan trial to the Mackinac straits hugging the western forests. I-75 covers much of this trail system today.
  • Cheboygan Trail – An interior Michigan trail to the Mackinac straits hugging the eastern forests. State road M-33 follows much of this trail system today.  
  • Grand River Trail – The original pathway along the Grand River Avenue corridor was an Indian trail, a footpath used by the native population is now followed by the trunk line U.S. 16.
  • Maumee-Shoreline Trail – This is a hugely significant trail system that ultimately led the establishment of Michigan as a State. Part of the Great Trail system running to the east coast of the US.  
  • Shiawassee Trail – Its origin is shared with the Saginaw Trail from the Detroit River, The trail passed through the county diagonally from southeast to northwest. A branch of the Saginaw trail went to Shiawassee.  

Great Lakes Beaches
Indiana Dunes State Park

Minor Indian Trails in Lower Michigan

There are hundreds of smaller trails that serve to link major trails or provide access to hunting or fishing areas. Here are some of the most notable.

  • SandRidge Trail – An ancient seasonal hunting and fishing access trail from Saginaw to Port Austin in Michigan’s Thumb. This trail linked the Indian villages along the shore of the Thumb.
  • Pontiac Trail – Connected Pontiac area south of Orchard Lake to the major trail crossings near Ann Arbor.
  • Cadillac- Traverse City Trail – Also called Old Indian Trail – Ancient system from 700 BC that runs from Cadillac to Traverse Bay.
  • Potawatomi Trail Coming up the Huron River from its mouth at Lake Erie to Portage Lake, on the border between Washtenaw and Livingston counties.  This had two trails; one followed the banks; the other, during high water, went through the adjoining uplands. 


Archaeological Atlas of Michigan [by] Wilbert. Hinsdale, W. B. (Wilbert B.), 1851-1944.

Related Reading and Exploring

Michigan4You Logo

What do you think?

%d bloggers like this: