If you’re seeking a cure for cabin fever, with warmer weather finally returning after months of torpor-inducing cold and gray, a bicycle and a trail just might be the perfect prescription.
May is National Bike Month, a great time to discover both the benefits of bicycling—among them, improving your physical and mental health, cutting down on pollution, saving money on gas and getting outdoors—and the many beautiful places you can explore on Michigan bike trails.
Whether it’s bicycling along a former railroad track or alongside a local county road or mountain biking across rugged terrain, Michigan has unique opportunities for bicyclists of all ages, types and skill levels.
Nationally recognized as “The Trails State,” Michigan has more than 12,500 miles of state-designated trails and 2,600 miles of rail trails, more than any other state in the nation.
There are generally two types of bike trails, linear trails and mountain bike trails.
Linear trails, also called rail trails, run from one point to another and usually follow an old railroad track, river or land feature. They typically cover long distances and can be either improved or unimproved, with various surfaces including asphalt, limestone or natural dirt.
“The improved linear trails are built to American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ standards, meaning they are 10 feet wide and meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance,” says Emily Meyerson, the DNR’s northern Lower Peninsula trail coordinator. “Typically we call these bike trails or multi-use trails.”
Mountain bike trails are narrower than linear trails. Usually, they consist of a natural soil surface with changing slopes and gradients and are often open to other uses, such as hiking, as well.
“Mountain bike trails are typically a single track-type trail, usually built in a system, and have multiple loops in varying degrees of difficulty,” Meyerson says. “They often have obstacles there on purpose, such as log or rock jumping.” Mountain bikers have some options when it comes to what type of riding experience they’re looking for.
“Mountain biking trails can be very cross-country with hard-packed trails and smooth, fast flow or more technical, with lots of obstacles and jumps,” says Kristen Bennett, Iron Belle Trail coordinator for the DNR.
The DNR allows mountain biking on many of the state pathways and state park trails found across the state. To search for a list of Michigan state parks, recreation areas or rustic state forest campgrounds with designated mountain bike trails, visit www.michigan.gov/recsearch.
Michigan is also home to some of the best road bicycling in the nation. Low-traffic backroads with incredible scenic vistas connect small towns and state parks. Bikes are allowed on all paved and non-paved roads in all 103 state parks and recreation areas. The Michigan Department of Transportation has regional maps showing the best roads for biking, and those to avoid.
One great way to start your biking adventure is to jump on the Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail, the longest state-designated trail in the nation at more than 2,000 miles long. Running from Belle Isle Park in Detroit to Ironwood in the western Upper Peninsula, the trail goes through 48 counties and 240 townships in the state.
The Iron Belle Trail features two routes, one for biking and one for hiking. The 791-mile bicycle route, now 64 percent complete, utilizes existing multi-use trails and follows U.S. 2, a designated national bicycling route in the Upper Peninsula.
The Iron Belle Trail continues to expand, thanks in part to fundraising efforts that are enabling development of new trail segments.
The Michigan Fitness Foundation—in partnership with the DNR, MDOT, the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance and local community groups—is spearheading the Iron Belle Trails Campaign to raise $168 million in private funding to leverage the investment state, federal and local government agencies and other partners have already made in building the trail.
“The goal is to create a trail system where both residents and visitors can enjoy the scenic views, cultural heritage, vibrant communities and natural resources that Michigan has to offer,” says Michigan Fitness Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer J.J. Tighe.
“Trail systems have proven to be a boon to both rural and urban areas. They improve health, the economy and communities by promoting physical activity, tourism and community connections.”
Tighe pointed to Karen’s Trail—named in honor of Karen McKeachie, who was struck by a car and killed while biking on the road in 2016—as an example of projects the Iron Belle Trails Campaign will support.
Karen’s Trail is an effort, kicked off a few weeks ago, to help fund completion of the Border-to-Border Trail in southeastern Michigan and connect it to the Iron Belle Trail. Organizers aim to provide safe, non-motorized pathways for bikers and other outdoor recreationists to enjoy.
When completed, the Border-to-Border Trail will run 70 miles, following the Huron River from Washtenaw County to Wayne County, and will include an extra 44-mile continuous loop connecting the cities of Dexter and Chelsea, the Waterloo and Pinckney state recreation areas and the Lakelands State Trail system.
According to the Karen’s Trail website: “We hope to have the entire project finished by 2021, and when we do, it will instantly become one of the largest continuous, traffic-free trails in the Midwest!”
Tighe says Karen’s Trail is just one example. “We are seeing the same momentum from Detroit to Kent County to the more rural areas of the northern Lower Peninsula. This type of resource is great all across our state.”
While the Iron Belle Trail and other biking trails around the state offer many opportunities to explore pristine forests, pass along cool rivers and visit charming towns, some trails also give you the chance to learn more about Michigan’s history.
The multi-use, year-round Iron Ore Heritage Trail in Marquette County, for example, shares the story of the area’s iron mining past and how it changed the landscape of Marquette County and the United States through educational interpretive panels, sculptures and a connection to the Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee Township. In July each summer, Iron Industry Museum staff leads popular Iron Ore Heritage Trail bike tours.
The Native American Cultural History Trail on Mackinac Island helps visitors learn more about the history and impact of Native Americans on the Great Lakes through a series of interpretive stations, with bicycle parking, along the road around the perimeter of the island. (Check out the interpretive signs in this MyNorth video about biking on Mackinac Island!)
For those who want to make a weekend or a whole vacation of their biking adventure, there’s something called “bikepacking.”
“Bikepacking is riding a bicycle longer distances and staying overnight along the way at either hotels or campsites,” Meyerson says. “Bring minimal gear with you and stay in a hotel or pack up your panniers or trailer and camp out under the stars.”
Meyerson says the northern Lower Peninsula is Michigan’s premier bikepacking destination, with a network of more than 200 miles of bicycle trails crisscrossing the area and expanding every year.
“Bikepacking the northern Lower Peninsula you can stay entirely on easy, developed bicycle trails or combine trails and rural roads, creating an endless number of opportunities,” said Meyerson. “There are plenty of hotels and various types of camping opportunities. Small-town charm, historic sites and beautiful vistas are around every corner.”
You don’t have to stop biking even when winter rolls around again. Trails for fat-tire bikes, which are off-road bicycles with oversized tires designed to allow riding on soft, unstable terrain like snow, are becoming more common.
“Fat-tire bike trails offer a winter version of bicycling,” Bennett says. “This is the latest trend in cycling and is not available everywhere yet, but more and more trails of this type are being put in.”
Earlier this year, the DNR designated 10.7 miles of winter fat tire bike trail at the Little Presque Isle tract, situated a few miles north of Marquette in Marquette County.
“Little Presque Isle is increasingly becoming a popular place for biking, in addition to its attractions for anglers, campers, hikers and swimmers,” said John Pepin, DNR deputy public information officer. “These trails are just one example of the numerous biking opportunities available here in the Upper Peninsula.”
Learn about Michigan biking trails, and a variety of other trails, and find trail maps on the DNR website at michigan.gov/dnrtrails.
“Michigan trails offer so many opportunities for residents and visitors of all ages whether it’s families or individuals to enjoy the outdoors,” says Paul Yauk, state trails coordinator for the DNR. “Some of these trails might be in your own backyard, so get out and explore.”
—Press release provided by Michigan Department of Natural Resources