The Winter season has gotten off to a great start if you are one of those individuals who enjoy getting out in the midst of it. The fresh powder has been ideal for snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and the ski slopes. If you are one of those outdoorsy people who prefer a more low-key approach to braving the great outdoors, cross-country skiing may be the right fit for your lifestyle. 

My experience in cross-country skiing began in my early 20s. It seemed like a laid-back way to enjoy the serene Michigan woodlands, without a bunch of people around. Athletics were not at the top of my skills list, and to attempt downhill skiing would have definitely lived up to its name.

It would have been a total downhill experience with a likely hospital admission in the mix.

The idea of leisurely sliding along a quiet snow-covered trail sounded much more appealing. And it proved to be so. The only slight mishap that struck, during a bitter-cold skiing hike, was when one of my contact lenses fluttered from my eyeball after the sub-zero temperatures shut down my tear ducts. The last thing I saw was half of my vision blurred and a flimsy, delicate lens disappearing among the glistening flakes of snow. But other than that, it was great being outside and taking in the Michigan landscape. However, I ended up moving to California for a few years, and when I returned to my Michigan homeland, I never returned to the trails. 

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One of the benefits of living in the Battle Creek/Kalamazoo area is the Fort Custer Recreation Area which offers 3,033 acres of outdoor opportunities. The state park features three lakes, the Kalamazoo River, a modern and equestrian campground, a swimming beach, more than 40 miles of trails, paddling and fishing opportunities, and much more.

When I was a kid, I lived about ½ mile from Fort Custer. It was a full-scale military reservation at the time and hadn’t yet been portioned out to the DNR. My buddy "Gopher" and I would often sneak over the fence of the restricted area and hike the long-abandoned roads and fields, avoiding the posted “live ammo” ranges that may have still contained unexploded rounds. The DNR acquired a portion of Fort Custer in 1971, as part of President Nixon’s administration's Legacy of Parks program. 

The Fort Custer Recreation Area is a Winter gem, and a Recreation Passport is all you need to make use of its resources. The pass is only $12 if you purchase it along with your license plate. It is $17 when purchased at a state park, by mail, kiosk, branch offices, or at (a $5 service fee is tacked onto the 12 bucks). Personally, I tried searching the Secretary of State website for a link to purchasing a passport, without a plate, and didn’t have any luck...but that may just be me.  

Listed below are descriptions of various trails that wind through the recreation area, including trail length and skill level. 

Fort Custer Recreation Area Trail Guide 

Blue Trail: The 4-mile Blue Trail is open to both horseback and mountain bike riders. It's considered moderately difficult. It circles Jackson and Whitford/Lawler lakes and winds past the park's cabins. The trail can be picked up at the Whitford Lake picnic area or accessed via the Red Trail. 

Yellow, Red & Green Trails- The Yellow, Red, and Green trails are open to mountain biking, hiking, running, hunting, bird watching and, weather permitting, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. There is no horseback riding permitted on these trails. 

Yellow Trail: The 5-mile Yellow Trail is for beginner mountain bikers and families. Trail access is located in the campground. 

Red Trail: The 8.6-mile Red Trail includes more difficult sections, but also encompasses easier bypasses for less experienced bicyclists. The trail features a collection of winding hills accompanied by wooded sections that pass ponds and trenches. The trail can be accessed via the mountain bike trailhead. 

Green Trail: The 7-mile Green Trail includes some technical sections and travels past Eagle Lake and several other streams. The trail can be accessed via the mountain bike trailhead. 

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