Northern Michigan Biking: Leelanau Peninsula's Cycling Valhalla

Northern Michigan Biking: Spin the two-wheeler over Leelanau County’s two-lanes and discover a land tailor-made for a cyclist’s heart; basecamp Fountain Point Resort.

If you happened to be, say, God of Road Cycling, and you set out to forge a land shaped to your people’s bike riding desires, there’s a good chance you’d create something like Leelanau County.

Leelanau County pokes out into Lake Michigan basically as a giant misshapen triangle, a peninsula of glacial moraines that rise 40 stories above the lake and that serves up about 40 miles of Great Lake shoreline on the east side and another 45 miles or so on the west side. For people who like comparisons, Leelanau County has more shoreline than any county in the nation except the U.P.’s Keweenaw County. And for people who like to pedal, those geographic happenstances of moraine and shore mean much.

Ranking high among the benefits: All that water acts as kind of a moat against cars, so even in the busiest bustle of tourist season, you can easily find peaceful roads in Leelanau. Second, in Leelanau, the terrain truly has something for every level of cyclist to love. For the fit-sters, those glacial moraines mean a rumpled landscape of hills and ridges—challenging climbs (but not mind-numbingly long) and swift descents (but not freakout-fast). For beginners, or those just wanting to take it easy, many miles of bodacious flat riding are also ready to satisfy. Lake Leelanau and the two Glen Lakes all have shady, lake-scented, easy rides around their perimeters, and a car-free 15-mile bike trail (a 30-mile out-and-back) from Traverse City to Suttons Bay runs along a former (flat) railroad bed.

As God of Road Cycling, you’d take that undulating, water-enshrouded land and overlay it with, well, precisely what is there. Orchards of cherry trees and apple trees run in long rows, tracing the rise and fall of those moraines. Likewise, arrays of vineyard trellises from the burgeoning wine scene lace across the ridges, (more than 20 tasting rooms dot Leelanau’s byways). The nearly 100 miles of Great Lake shore has given rise to marina towns—Suttons Bay, Northport, Leland and others, ideal places to lean the bike against a wall and head into a restaurant for a late breakfast, or to just wander a marina dock listening to the clank of sail rigging against mast and hearing seagulls squawking as they spiral above.

If this all sounds like an unabashed love note to Leelanau County cycling, it is, but it’s also a love note that’s been ground-truthed. I live in Leelanau and will put in a couple thousand miles on the two-lanes there this year, and I’ve been wanting to share some of this for a while. So, read along. Here’s my recipe for a weekend of fine Leelanau cycling. And of course, if you don’t ride bikes, all this trip intel—lodging, day trips and dining recs—works with four wheels and a gas pedal as well.

Fountain Point Resort

Perched at the eastern midpoint of Lake Leelanau and smack in the heart of Leelanau County cycling turf, Fountain Point serves well as your cycling basecamp. At summer’s height, the resort requires weeklong stays, but come September, weekend and daily bookings are welcome—perfect timing for people looking to ride at a perfect time of year. In addition to offering up great cycling terrain that starts at the driveway, Fountain Point has cool historical cred: the resort stands as one of the oldest continuously operating resorts in Michigan, and the sense of tradition here sets a memorable backdrop for the weekend.

The “Fountain” part of Fountain Point comes courtesy of Canadian oil drillers who hoped to strike black gold on the property way back in the 1860s. What they hit instead was a gusher of clear, marvelous water, a gusher that’s been spewing cold H2O steadily ever since. In the latter half of the 1800s, when the notion of mineral springs took hold of America’s health-minded folks, they traveled here to camp by the seemingly eternal springs. Campers built the first cabins in the 1880s, and when they built the hotel in 1889, Fountain Point Resort and Mineral Springs was born. The family that has owned Fountain Point now since 1936 has achieved that delicate balance of investing to keep the resort beautiful and comfortable without eradicating the sense of history that keeps Fountain Point special. So, they’ve made decisions like “yes” to new roofs and bathrooms and kitchens in all cabins, but “no” to televisions. The main hotel has 16 rooms and 7 bathrooms, so the family likes to rent it to groups—like, say, you and your cycling posse.

On a morning when I stop out this summer, the resort looks its best under a bright sun and blue sky, a timeless scene of cottages with red roofs and white clapboard arranged neatly around a campuslike square of lawn. The 20 cottages sleep between two and 30 (the hotel) people, and at 9 a.m. guests are beginning to emerge, ambling across the grass toward breakfast in the main lodge, their flip-flopped feet wet from the dew.

The only person moving with any real speed is Erik Zehender, who along with his brother, Theo Early, manages Fountain Point for the family. Zehender is striding across the lawn in a green polo shirt and navy blue shorts rounding people up for the morning’s special treat: rides in an instructor seaplane. Passengers can even take the controls under close supervision. By the time the bright yellow two-seater from the flight school at Northwestern Michigan College drifts down from the sky and sidles up to the dock, a few families have gathered there, and a boy of about 9 steps from the cluster and climbs aboard. Like a sports photographer, his mom clicks away nonstop with a telephoto lens. When the plane returns 20 minutes later, it’s a Pure Michigan ad campaign script. The boy hops from the cockpit and races across the grass. “Uncle Mike, I flew an airplane!” he yells to a man sitting on a porch.

“And you weren’t even scared?” his uncle yells back.

The vignette gets to the heart of Zehender’s vision for Fountain Point as he and his family learn to keep the resort thriving in the 21st century. They’re tapping into a clientele of active people looking to push boundaries and build confidence through outdoor experiences in Leelanau County. One of his key initiatives is positioning the resort as a destination for rowers. The long, slender and wind-protected southern lobe of Lake Leelanau is perfect for the likewise elegant, long and slender boats.

Zehender also wants to attract cyclists, because Fountain Point sits in the midst of some of the best cycling in the nation. Right from the Fountain Point driveway, riders looking for those beautiful flats can spin around North Lake Leelanau (16 miles) or around South Lake Leelanau (35 miles), or hook the lobes together for a longer pedal. Riders wanting to work it out on some hills need only turn their wheel to that rumpled ground that lies, well, pretty much everywhere else.

Friday Afternoon:

Arrive at Fountain Point early enough Friday to allow for a short but perfect introduction to Leelanau County cycling: an easy 16-mile ride around North Lake Leelanau.

Stop at the ride’s 11-mile mark in the harbor town of Leland to wander. (Hardcores: dial down that voice that says it’s too soon to stop, and give in to the tourist ethos.) Post–Labor Day, deals often abound, so scour the bookstores, clothing stores and souvenir shops. Don’t miss Fishtown, a fishing-shanty shopping area down at the river’s edge. The Leland Mercantile grocery has a nice selection of wines, beers and gourmet goods; sample something at Verterra wine tasting room across the street. Do the Leland must-do thing and buy fresh-smoked fish at Carlson’s, right at the dock. Three restaurant decks—Bluebird, Cove and Riverside—invite you to grab a bev and linger.

Done exploring, head on back to Fountain Point. Change into something restaurant-worthy and drive the short mile into Lake Leelanau village for dinner at Bella Fortuna North—elevated Italian fare that has earned a fine reputation in a short time. If Boathouse Vineyards Winery & Tasting Room is open, sample something tasty.

The route: From the Fountain Point driveway, turn left (north) to M-204 in the village of Lake Leelanau. Right a half-mile to Eagle Highway, left (north) on Eagle Highway to N. Lake Leelanau Drive (first left). Follow to T at M-22, turn left on M-22 to village of Leland. Continue south to M-204, turn left back to Lake Leelanau Village; right at S. Lake Leelanau Drive to Fountain Point. Map at MyNorth.com/leelanaubikerides.

Saturday:

Grab breakfast at Fountain Point and then head for Northport and the lighthouse at Leelanau’s tip. Riders longing for a 50-miler can push off right from the resort; riders looking for a 16-miler can drive to Northport to park and ride from there. Long ride or short, pack a snack and plan to break at the lighthouse. Wander, ogle the immaculately kept lighthouse, and roam the Great Lake shore. Back in Northport, more easy options await. Walk the marina docks, kick back in the harbor-side park, swim in the still-warm September bay, shop. Taste wine at hip MotoVino and head next door for eats at the Garage—a smokehouse-based menu (nachos with smoked pulled pork!) and decent beer selection. The decor is a captivatingly spare urbanity done in varnished plywood—somehow is perfect in Northport.

Back at the resort, change for the evening and head to nearby Suttons Bay, yet another lovely harbor town. Arrive early enough to catch the shops when open and their trove of antiques, books, housewares and fashion. For dinner, try Boone’s Prime Time (good pub fare), North Country Grill & Pub; find uncommonly good Thai at 22 Vines and Wines, a few miles south of town on M-22. After dinner, stroll the neighborhoods and marina.

The route: For the 50-miler, retrace the route up the east side of Lake Leelanau (see "Friday Afternoon" directions), but at the T at M-22, turn right to Northport. In Northport, follow the main road north through town and look for signs to the lighthouse—it's well marked. Ride as an out-and-back. (For a hillier alternative route with less backtracking, see the map “Lake Leelanau Village to Northport and Leland” at MyNorth.com/leelanaubikerides). For the 16-miler, park by the marina and ride north on the main road through town, look for signs to the lighthouse. Maps at MyNorth.com/leelanaubikerides.

Sunday Morning:

Breakfast again at the resort and then suit up for a lovely and not difficult 25-miler along the west side of South Lake Leelanau. Depending on how pressed for time you are on your departure day, you can stop at the midpoint in the village of Cedar to grab a fresh-smoked sausage at Bunting’s Market or Pleva’s Meats and picnic at the river. Otherwise, ride on back to the village of Lake Leelanau and stop in to Pedaling Beans, a coffee shop conceived with cyclists in mind, or find tasty pies—fruit pies and pot pies at Leelanau Pie & Pastry, also right in the village.

The route: Head into the village of Lake Leelanau and turn left (west) at M-204 to the first street past the bridge, S. Lake Shore Drive; turn left (south). Spin along a beautiful stretch of smooth road with wide shoulder; follow to Schomberg Road, turn left to Good Harbor Trail (C-651), turn left into Cedar. On the return, get back on Schomberg and stay north to French Road, turn right and follow back to M-204. Turn right back to the village of Lake Leelanau. Map at MyNorth.com/leelanaubikerides.

Maps to Routes and Even More Leelanau County Routes to Try

We mapped out some sweet rides for you in this story, but you can string together Leelanau County roads into a multitude of captivating routes—flat, hilly, short, medium, long. Find maps to the rides in this story and check out seven more rides we dreamed up at MyNorth.com/leelanaubikerides.

This article was originally featured in September 2012 Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Click here to order your copy!

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