While the COVID-19 pandemic called for all businesses to make adjustments, Round Barn Estate and Tabor Hill Winery & Restaurant — both owned by Moersch Hospitality Group — had a perfect plan.
Looking for ways to engage guests outdoors in spring 2020, they turned preexisting trails connecting the two Southwest Michigan properties into Mt. Tabor Trails, a 3.5-mile trail system for guests. It was a huge hit.
“The trail system is a total of 3.5 miles of trails that go through woods (and) vineyards … so guests can experience Southwest Michigan in its full,” says Jenn Wozniak, social media and PR specialist at Moersch Hospitality. “When guests arrive at either property, they can go ahead and grab a glass of wine, beer or a cocktail, and then they can go ahead and walk the trails.”
The trails are open rain or shine, 365 days a year — except for major holidays, she notes. The two wineries host a variety of events to support the trails, including a 5K run planned for September and nonprofit Chikaming Open Lands’ #10 Trail Challenge this month.
The trail system has already become a guest favorite.
“It’s just one of those things that just kind of blew up,” Wozniak says. “And now it’s a thing that people, when they come out there … they’re constantly asking us how can they use the trails or what the trail’s all about. And these are people from all over.”
Melissa Miller, who runs a personal blog called “The Beer Darling,” comes from Indiana to experience the trails. She is a longtime patron of the two wineries, and when she heard they were adding trails, she knew she had to check them out.
“I love the idea because I, like many of us around here, am always looking for new activities to do, especially where you can enjoy the outdoors,” Miller says. “And I thought it was such a creative way to use that existing trail space they already had between the properties.”
She has since been back several times, usually with family.
“It’s just fun going between the different properties, and one of my favorite things is to get one of my favorite drinks and take it on the trail with me,” she says.
“I would love for more people to know about it. It’s such a fun activity for anybody to do with their family or friends, so I’m really glad they ended up putting it together.”
While Round Barn and Tabor Hill dusted off their trails in response to pandemic-induced restrictions, wineries in the Traverse City area have had ties to trails for years — even decades.
Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation (TART) Trails was formed in 1998 when a handful of trail groups came together to create a vast system of trails in northwestern Michigan. Several wineries in the area in range of the system saw the benefit and wanted in.
“We currently have the Leelanau Trail in Leelanau County … so that provides quite a few connections to some wineries in Leelanau County,” says Kate Lewis, community engagement manager at TART Trails. “Many of the wineries see the benefit that the trails provide, and many of them are partners with us — we do events together, they are annual sponsors.”
Shady Lane Cellars in Suttons Bay is one sponsor of TART Trails and has been supportive of the trails since its opening in 1999.
“TART is a great organization,” says Rick DeBlasio, general manager of Shady Lane Cellars. “So we partner with them, sponsor every year some different events. We pay for a sign to be on the trail, which is one of the ways you can support the trail.”
Lewis notes that Shady Lane Cellars provides the wine for the organization’s Tour de TART fundraiser each July, which is a mutually beneficial arrangement.
“We think (TART’s) a great asset to the county, to the region,” DeBlasio says, adding, “It’s a major supporter of our business.”
The winery recently added a 3-mile extension to the TART trail that loops around the property. It’s meant for wintertime fun.
“In the winter, we have a groomed cross-country trail on our property that connects to the TART trail as part of that,” DeBlasio says. “So even in the winter we’re working with them and the folks that use the trail.”
Trail for All Seasons
Black Star Farms, whose 160-acre flagship property is located south of Suttons Bay, also has its own trails in addition to partnering with TART Trails.
“We have over 3 miles of trails that go through forest, orchard and top out at the top of our estate vineyard,” says Sherri Campbell Fenton, managing owner of Black Star Farms.
Black Star trails range from easy to challenging, with options for walking, mountain biking and snowshoeing.
The trails have been around “almost the entire life of our property,” Campbell Fenton says. Black Star also picked up its sponsorship of TART Trails again earlier this year. The winery has partnered with TART before and felt it was especially important during the pandemic to help guests get outside.
“Black Star Farms is a trail marker sponsor of TART Trails,” Campbell Fenton says. “We like to support people being outside and being active.”
One of the access points to the TART trail is a half-mile up the road from the entrance to Black Star’s property.
“It’s very easy to access,” Campbell Fenton says. “People hop on bikes here and just scoot out our entrance, and then once they’re on that trail, they could head anywhere through Leelenau County.
“It’s a beautiful, meandering trail. So it’s really, really fun to get on.”
Black Star offers seasonal packages for guests who want to take advantage of the TART trail.
“We’ve got a couple packages that provide opportunities for guests to just get out and explore the beautiful countryside,” Campbell Fenton says. “We’ve got one called an outdoor adventure package that’s offered spring through fall. And this has bikes that are delivered to the back door, ready for them to hop on, for a day full of bike riding and getting out on Suttons Bay.”
The package provides a picnic in a park on Suttons Bay and stand-up paddleboard and kayak rentals — a mini-lesson included.
But guests can enjoy the trails in winter, too.
“In the winter we flip that, actually, to a winter outdoor adventure package, and we offer fat-tire bikes and snowshoeing, with a hot lunch,” she says.
Campbell Fenton says the packages are popular with guests. “It’s been really, really well received, and something that’s been fun to see multi-generations take part in.”
Don’t Forget Water!
Nicole Kampe, a Waterford resident, took full advantage of the partnerships between TART and local wineries during a 2017 girls’ trip to Leelanau County. She and a group of girlfriends biked 20 miles in one day to tour wineries on the TART trail.
“We all stayed in a cabin together, and one day, we all got on our bikes and went on the trail,” Kampe says. “And it took pretty much the entire day, but we stopped at all the wineries along the way, and it was a great experience.”
Despite the challenge for less-experienced bikers (“Take lots of water with you,” she advises), the trail presents a perfect opportunity to experience the best of what Leelanau has to offer.
“Everywhere you turn there is either going to be a lake — beautiful water around you — or a winery,” Kampe says. “That’s part of what makes it so great up there.”