Named after Albert Sabo, a previous director of the City's Utilities Department, Al Sabo is a land preserve in Texas Charter Township (right next to Portage in Kalamazoo county in Michigan).  It is a scenic area of trees, fields and streams.  It has an observation deck, as well as hiking and biking trails.  My discussion will focus mostly on the biking trails.

According to the Texas Township website, Albert Sabo was interested in the purchase and preservation of this land for recreation purposes as well as groundwater protection.  While the total length of the trails in the preserve is estimated at 25 miles, only seven of these are available for mountain biking.  Previously, all of the trails were accessible by mountain bikes, but many of the paths could not withstand this and the use of mountain bikes took its toll on the paths, requiring a great deal of restoration effort.  As a contingency to reopening the trails to mountain bikes, a restriction on which trails could be ridden was enacted.  Four separate trails, named Moab, Atwater, Lookout and Mandala, comprise Al Sabo and intersect in such a way as to allow for the picking, choosing and combination as per the rider's desires.

Moab

The only official entrance to the preserve, Moab is a wider trail that winds through a forest and is connected to an unmarked, dirt parking lot off of Texas Drive / Milham Road. Leaving the forest, the path becomes a two lane "tire tread", which is likely used for vehicular access by preserve maintenance crews. After about half a mile, the trail splits, with a winding loop about a mile long that goes through forest as well as open fields, or an alternative of one eighth of a mile that shortcuts this loop.  As the trail is extremely narrow on the loop, it is necessary to travel the shorter path when returning.  Moab is an easy trail composed primarily of solid dirt with only a slight grade and not many obstacles (mostly only scattered roots).  It is a good warm up for the remaining trails.  Moab leads from the preserve entrance to the Atwater trail.  Distance to Atwater is about 1.75  miles.  Back to the entrance is about 3/4 of a mile.

Atwater

Atwater is a a longer trail which is a larger loop which could be completed on its own.  Yet, it is more common not to travel the entire Atwater trail, instead leaving it either three quarters of the way through to take Mandala, or nine tenths of the way to take Lookout.  With a downhill section which can be difficult to navigate, covered with roots and gravel on "steps" going down steep slopes with multiple turns, Atwater offers an increased difficulty, yet still not extreme if care is taken.  Atwater winds through forest and fields, up and down hills and is a serene trip.  The trail is about 2 miles to the Mandala trail, 2.5 miles to Lookout trail, and 2.85 miles all the way around.

Lookout

The most popular route will take you to this trail, which is named after the observation deck that can be found about 0.2 miles from the start.  This trail is, by far, the most difficult.  Obstacles include lots of roots, trees that grow in the middle of the path and encroach upon you from the sides, thick areas of sand, and steep hills.  Lookout is home to the most difficult portion of the trails:  a large sandpit residing at the base of the steepest, largest hill on the trails, which I call the Hill.  Once you navigate through the sand, you are immediately confronted with a large hill to battle.  It would be unlikely for a beginner to successfully get to the top without walking at least part way.  While it is tempting to skip this area, it is not recommended; it constitutes a good deal of the entire trails available, and it is one of the few challenging areas. 

While there is only one official entrance, at the start of Moab, an entrance from 12th street can be found by taking Hickory Hill until it comes to a gated service path.  While the gate is closed, it is easy enough for bikers and hikers to go around.  The drawback to this is that there is over a 2 mile ride to the trails along the paved service path before you can even begin with the real trails.  However, it is convenient if you want to avoid riding along main roads (such as the dangerous 12th street).  The service road enters onto Lookout less than a tenth of a mile after the end of Mandala.

The Mandala trail exits onto Lookout about .78 miles along.  The entire Lookout trail is about 1.85 miles, exiting back onto the Moab / Atwater intersection. 

Mandala

Mandala is a lesser traveled trail.  Only .28 miles long, it is a shortcut from Atwater to Lookout (not skipping the most difficult area of Lookout, the Hill, though).  However, it can be useful for doing an additional "half lap" if one lap isn't enough, but two is too much.  Mandala, though short, is a very interesting and fun trail.  Lots of vegetation and deep in the forest, Mandala lays claim to the steepest (though not largest) hill.  The hill can be easily conquered, however, just by building up enough speed prior to its climb.  It is worth a look and can be useful when needing to make a trip shorter.

Tips and Suggestions

The following are routes I have taken as well as some tips I have learned regarding the various parts of these trails.

Suggested Routes:

  • Beginner - Starting on Moab, take the entire Moab trail, including the loop, to Atwater.  Take Atwater to Lookout and Lookout back to Moab.  Retrace Moab back to the parking lot.  You will encounter the Hill once, after which Lookout trail merges back into Moab, taking you back to the start.  A good starting trail, what is nice about this is that it lets you see almost the entire trail without a lot of backtracking.  The only trail missing is the Mandala trail.
  • Intermediate - Starting on Moab, take the Beginner trail listed above, with the difference being at the end of Lookout; instead of going back along Moab to the exit, go back along Atwater again, this time taking the Mandala trail.  This route is more intermediate, not only because it takes you along a longer path, but also because you will encounter the Hill twice.
  • Advanced - Take the Beginner route, but instead of taking Moab to the exit, take the Moab loop again, then go back onto Atwater, essentially taking the Beginner route a second time.  This will hit the Hill only twice as above, but is a much extended trip.  While a Beginner route could be considered a lap, the Intermediate is like a lap and a half, while the Advanced is two laps.

Of course, you can mix and match the different routes I've listed, or even create your own routes from the trails, for varying degrees of difficulty.  My suggestion is to try and incorporate the Mandala trail at least every once in awhile for a nice change of pace, although watch out for unmaintained trails, as it is not traversed as frequently as the rest of the trails are.

Tips

While Al Sabo is definitely not what would be considered an advanced set of trails, there are still some places that can be tricky.

  • the Hill - As described above, this Lookout obstacle is a large, steep hill, with a sandpit at the base.  The temptation is to build up momentum prior to the Hill with the idea of being able to get a head start on it before the need to expend a lot of effort.  Unfortunately, the sandpit is pretty good about sucking up any momentum that you have achieved and not propelling you very far up the hill, leaving you with an already exhausted energy supply for the remainder of the grueling ordeal.  What works better is contrary to what would be expected; take the whole hill, including the sandpit, slowly.  Instead of spending a great deal of energy trying to fly through the sand and up the hill, take it easy and drop into a very low gear, but not the absolute lowest.  As you progress up the hill, continue dropping the gears as you start to encounter difficulty continuing.  Since you didn't waste energy building up momentum that would only be lost, you should have much more energy, and a much greater chance of making it up the hill.
  • Atwater downhill - Atwater has an area with a steep slope going downhill.  There are many roots, short step-like drops and gravel.  Additionally, the path has several winding portions and trees that may get in the way.  Mostly, this is just common sense, but it doesn't hurt to be reminded; use your brakes.  If you have shocks on your bike (which I would highly recommend), you won't need to brake as much, but you will still need to on the turns.  That being said, this is a good place to get a lot of momentum and you should try to preserve as much of the speed that you safely can, as it will help with the next couple of hills.
  • Lookout Sand - Or, "Lookout, sand!" - there are a couple of large areas of sand on these trails, with the most concentrated, inconvenient ones being on the Lookout paths.  There are two areas on Lookout with lots o' sand right before a hill.  The trick is to use a much lower gear than you normally would, and try to keep most of your weight above the back wheel.  When going through sand, always keep peddling (even going downhill) to keep yourself from losing your tracking and wiping out.
  • Atwater at the Mandala entrance - if you are planning on staying on the Atwater trail instead of taking Mandala, you will need to make a sharp left turn at Mandala to stay on Atwater.  This turn is in a surprise sandpit, so just be warned and don't take the turn too fast. (My only fall on these trails occurred here when I was being careless.  Consider this my little PSA, the More You Know.)
  • Moab twists - just a warning that Moab has a lot of twists and turns.  You can take a lot of these at a pretty good speed, but be ready to use your brakes.
  • Pedestrians - All of the mountain bike trails are also hiking trails.  While the hikers are supposed to travel in the opposite direction as the bikers and get out of the way when they see a bike, they don't always value their lives enough to do that.  So, stay alert and keep an eye out for those on foot.


Sources:

  • Texas Township website (http://www.texastownship.org)  for trail map and preserve background
  • Route Ruler software (found at http://sourceforge.net/projects/routeruler) for distances



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