It’s a dream come true for Northern Michigan hikers and cyclists: TART Trails—Traverse City’s nonprofit trails advocate—is launching its largest capital campaign ever, raising $5 million to build a 27-mile trail through the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We talked with TART’s new executive director, Julie Clark, about the project and about her decision to leave warmer climates and forge new trails in Traverse City.
First, are we talking about a trail that hugs the shoreline?The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail will weave through many habitats. It connects the most popular spots along and within the park to Empire and Glen Arbor.

So the idea is to make it easier and safer to take day trips without having to drive cars from spot to spot?
Yes. You can bring your bike to the dunes, go have fun, climb the dunes, get back on your bike, ride into town for a bite to eat, ride to the beach, swim at the beach, and THEN get in your car and go home. You’re not fighting for parking all day. You’re getting outside. You’re getting fresh air, and it’s a safe and convenient way to get around the park.

As I recall, it hasn’t always been easy to get biking and hiking trails forged through national parks. This was a long time under review. The park was extremely sensitive to make sure that what was being proposed fit within its original mission, and without disturbing its natural areas. And that’s what we did. We overlaid it with existing rights-of-way. So it’s wonderful in that it maintains the scenic integrity of the area, but it also gives access to areas of the park people were never able to get to before.

Is it tough terrain? Do you have to be master hiker or an expert biker?  It’s meant for all ages and abilities. It will be ADA accessible. The point is you can go with your 2-year-old and your 92-year-old, and in all four seasons.

How soon will we be able to use the trail? The first five-mile segment of the trail has already been funded through a federal and state grant. We are anticipating beginning construction in the fall of 2011. But the rest of the trail … it depends how fundraising goes. We expect it will be a 10-year project.

You started your job at TART in July. How did you get to Traverse City from Charleston, South Carolina?We wanted a community that was good for kids, and one in which we could continue having our one-car lifestyle. We needed a place where we could get around by foot or bike. We had to be purposeful. We looked at Boulder, Burlington, Madison. Then the opportunity for TART came up. I hadn’t heard of the area, but my husband’s family is from the Detroit and Bay City area, when we told them we were looking at Traverse City, they said, “WOW!” And then when we flew in to interview, we saw the bay and the woods, and my husband turned to me and said “Don’t screw this up!”