Belle Isle to 8 Mile: Time to go outside

The equinox has passed, the Nain is on vacation, and meteorologists have begun offering good news: April has arrived and the outdoors has become great again. Whether you’re looking to jog off those February thighs, catch a movie under the stars, explore amazing parks, eat streetside, soak up rays and suds, or play outside, Detroit has you covered for outdoor fun. 

Recreational, commercial, and cultural signs of spring and summer abound throughout the city--from the crack of bats at Comerica Park, to rooftop seating at Motor City Brewing Works, Kefi at the Hellenic Museum of Michigan, Movement Electronic Music Festival, the reopening of neighborhood farmers markets, films and concerts at New Center Park, architectural walking tours with Preservation Detroit, movies at Balduck Park hosted by the Alger Theater, the opening of the Belle Isle Practice Center, tennis and yoga at Palmer Park, baseball at Clark Park, and new signs of life across the city’s hundreds of urban gardens. Alongside these beloved new and longtime traditions, however, are a number of more off-the-beaten-path or more unique celebrations of sunshine. City residents have shown incredible creativity and energy in creating outdoor destinations--often utilizing Detroit’s vacant land and numerous parks--that make Detroit a particularly special place to live during the warmer months.  

The following is a selection of excerpted outdoor recreational and cultural listings from Belle Isle to 8 Mile: An Insiders Guide to Detroit

Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Center -- Opened in 2007, the Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Center educates area youth on the historical significance of the Buffalo Soldiers and exposes children to horses by teaching horseback riding. The beautiful and bucolic center, housed in a former mounted police station within Rouge Park, is home to a large barn, several large fenced horseback riding paddocks, and a display area featuring a number of Buffalo Soldier artifacts. The president and resident reenactor, James H. Mills, prides himself on the center’s youth-oriented programming, including reenactments, educational lessons, and riding sessions on the center’s nine horses. Horse and pony rides are available for youth aged four and older and the facility is open year round, except during rain. If you visit, bring carrots and apples for your equestrian hosts! 21800 Joy Rd., 313-270-2939.

Detroit Rugby Football Club - Rugby has a legacy in Detroit that is more than 40 years old and more than 1,500 players proud. A men’s team originally dubbed "the Cobras" (for its players who engineered the Ford sports car) began playing competitive rugby on the fields of Belle Isle in 1968, and moved its practice and home field to northeast Detroit in 1979. DRFC has three teams, including a Division II men’s team, a Division I women’s team that won national championships in 2003 and 2004, and an over-35 "Detroit Old Guys Select" (D.O.G.S.) that plays under modified rules. The verdantly gritty Farwell Field hosts three pitches, which are cleared of tall grass for clean, proper play. Spectating at spring and fall matches is welcome, though seating is BYO. Alcohol prohibited. Self-selecting prospects are invited to apply. Farwell Field: 4400 E. 8 Mile Rd. Read on about Detroit Rugby here.

Doll’s Go Kart Track - With the elephant-sized speaker pumping bumping disco jams, Doll's is hard to miss, which is a good thing for go kart fans, because the next closest facility is almost a half hour drive away, and would most assuredly offer less attitude. Especially on weekends, Doll’s pulls in a steady rotation of aspiring racers, and boasts five laps around the tire-lined oval track for a mere $3. Though they don’t offer the latest in video entertainment, video game fans will be relieved to know that Doll’s does offer a small arcade, so bring quarters. Doll’s is open seven days a week. Come on now, go, kart! 4455 Oakman Blvd., 248-508-3747.

Dorais Velodrome - The Dorais Velodrome, initialized during the infamous summer of '67 and completed (perhaps apocryphally) the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, is a certain anomaly for the Motor City. This 250-meter ovular concrete bicycle racing track with 45-degree banks and a green median featuring sunflower plants has endured a generation of neglect and abuse to persist in its present state. The track has been tagged with spray paint and is scarred with cracks and patches up to four inches in height, so road riding is somewhat dicey, but attentive riders will find the track navigable. The velodrome is set in well-maintained Dorais Park at the foot of Derby Hill, but sees little casual use. Several times a year it comes alive for Thunderdrome, a woodstock-on-wheels-style bike, moped and motorcycle race. Mound Rd. and East Outer Drive.

Ford-Wyoming Drive-In Theater - A Detroit treasure that is technically located just outside of the city limits, the Ford-Wyoming--billed as America’s largest drive-in--offers a nightly two-movies-for-the price-of-one deal. Showing largely first-run Hollywood blockbusters interspersed with vintage cartoon concession advertisements between pictures, the theater features an original, art-deco main screen and four ancillary outdoor theaters. Veteran visitors sometimes bring lawn chairs for a laid back silver screen experience, and are rumored to occasionally bring their own refreshing beverages. Family friendly, several of the theater areas feature swing sets and other playground equipment in front of the screens for that between-film stretch. Movies are only shown after dark. 10400 Ford Rd. in Dearborn. More info on the historic drive-in here. 313-846-6910.

John’s Carpet House - Every Sunday in the summer between 2 p.m. and sundown, music fans in the know can catch live (amplified) music from some of Detroit's finest blues musicians in the fields of the near east side. The event started as a regular jam session in the garage of John Estes, who insulated the walls with carpet to muffle the sound, inspiring the descriptive nickname of the ad-hoc venue. Though Estes passed away long ago, and his house and garage no longer occupy the site, the honored tradition of a free public Sunday jam session continues today. Visitors are welcome to bring their own brown-bagged food (or beverages), but can also enjoy tasty fried chicken and other down-home vittles from the food trucks and stands that set up shop near the action. If you feel like dancing, you’re in luck--just make sure you bring your best moves because the regulars know how to cut a rug. Though there’s no admission fee, guests are encouraged to "put a ducket in the bucket" to give the musicians a little something for their time and to make sure the grass gets mowed and the porta-johns get emptied. St. Aubin St. at Frederick St. 

These entries were originally written for Belle Isle to 8 Mile by contributors Ryan Healy, Matt Lewis, Andy Linn, Emily Linn, and Rob Linn.

Illustration of Ford-Wyoming Drive-In Theater by Emily Linn for Belle Isle to 8 Mile.

Belle Isle to 8 Mile: An Insider's Guide to Detroit includes more than 1,000 Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park attractions, sites, institutions, events, restaurants, bars, shops, and curiosities from the essential to the obscure described over 448 pages. The book is available at City Bird and Nest in Midtown and here, as well as at other online and brick-and-mortar retailers. 
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