BIG PRAIRIE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — After four long years, Michigan’s Dragon at Hardy Dam is creeping closer to completion. Nick Smith, the Parks Director for Newaygo County, expects the 42-mile trail system to be finished and open by next summer.

Approximately 30 miles of the trail system are open now and drawing in visitors from all across West Michigan. Work started on the system in 2019, offering different types of trails that wrap around Hardy Dam Pond.

“The (trail system) will have numerous scenic overlooks of Hardy Pond,” Smith told News 8. “It is really just taking advantage of the topography and the scenery of the Hardy Pond area. At the end of the day, it’s going to be a bi-directional mountain biking and hiking trail. It will be multi-use.”

(Courtesy Newaygo County Parks)

The current work is focused on Segment One and Segment Two of the trail system. Two more bridges need to be installed, which is set to be done in the next couple of weeks. A new parking lot is also being added to Segment One to make that portion of the trail compliant with the American Disability Act — accessible for people with wheelchairs or other mobility issues.

“(These trails) are 5 feet wide in all areas to allow two-way traffic for folks either hiking, biking, or if they are in a wheelchair or using a scooter,” Smith said. “If you go out on Segment Nine, you’re going to go up and down and up and down these hills, whereas the ADA trail is pretty well flat. … There is a maximum slope from front to back, side to side.”

He continued: “We had our engineers design the ADA segment. We went out in the field, flagged it out, did all of the elevations and figured all of that out. Then we partnered with the (Newaygo County) Road Commission, and they actually built the trailhead for us.”

Unlike most of the trails, Segment One will be paved with hard-pack gravel.

“Essentially, you put it in, you roll it in with a big roller and then over time as the rain hits it, it kind of sets up like concrete. It’s a very cost-efficient way to make an accessible trail,” Smith said.

The bridges are also placed with accessibility in mind.

“We focused on the approaches on the bridges, too. There are certain slope parameters on that. The bridges are more gradual, so people don’t have an issue where they are going too fast coming off of a bridge or not being able to get up onto the bridge,” he said.

Smith’s crew hopes to have the work on Segment One and Segment Two done before winter. But if the weather doesn’t cooperate, they may have to hold off some work until next spring. The final section of the trail system will be Segment Seven, on the northern ridge of Hardy Dam Pond. The trail is roughed in, but it still needs three bridges installed in some remote parts of the system. Weather permitting, they expect that to be done by August, completing the Dragon Trail system.

Still, Smith says people aren’t waiting for the full loop. Plenty of visitors are already checking out the trail heads and taking in the area’s beautiful views.

“(Since) Consumers Energy owns the land and is governed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, we are required to collect data on usage,” Smith explained. “We are using infrared trail counters, so it uses body heat as someone passes through the sensor. … Over the last 15 months, we have counted 59,000 people that have used the trail. … That’s almost more than the population of Newaygo County.”

He continued: “And that is really exciting because, at the end of the day, the whole purpose of this project is obviously to have a great recreational opportunity for our residents and visitors. But the big thing is it brings in another user base into the area for economic development, and we are seeing that already.”

A study conducted by Michigan State University estimates the Dragon Trail could bring in up to $4 million annually to the area.

The Dragon Trail is co-managed by the Parks Departments from Newaygo and Mecosta County. Depending on where you access the trail, there are parking/admission fees. To open up more access to the Dragon Trail, they offer a special $60 annual pass that covers admission for any park managed by Newaygo and Mecosta County.