According to this world traveler and cyclist, Northern Michigan bikers have some of the best cycling routes in the world. This story was originally published in the August 2014 issue of Traverse Northern Michigan’s Magazine, read on to find out more about his four favorite cycling routes.
I have cycled in some of the most exotic locales on earth, including Croatia, Tuscany, Spain, China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Australia, the Pacific Northwest and more than 1,000 miles across continental Europe, and despite all those miles in so many legendary landscapes, I still believe Northern Michigan ranks right near the very top of best places to cycle on Earth.
It’s not just that Northern Michigan has amazing scenery, fun beach towns and the lakeshore to explore, but it’s also because we have all that and a very safe place for cycling.
Safety is a paramount concern for me, as evidenced by the title of my recently released book, Biking Northern Michigan: The Best & Safest Routes in the Lower Peninsula. The book offers more than 35 bicycle routes illustrated with 56 photos and maps.
Northern Michigan is attracting tens of thousands of cyclists each year because we have so much to offer. Unfortunately, there’s also been a big increase in traffic throughout the region in recent years, along with the hazards of people texting while driving or talking on the phone. So for my book, I chose routes that emphasize quiet roads or include bike paths to keep riders out of harm’s way.
Our remarkable place offers routes for every level of rider, from the family that wants to cruise with their toddlers on the Boardman Lake Trail in Traverse City to hard-core road warriors who are up for riding 150 miles from Alpena to Cheboygan and back. Following are four of my favorite Northern Michigan cycling routes.
M22 from Frankfort to Glen Arbor: 30 miles
This is a great road-bike ride because there’s a wide bike lane that runs alongside M22 for more than 30 miles, passing through the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. You can really unwind with a high degree of confidence that you won’t tangle with any cars, and the scenery is superb all the way along the route. I’ve found that drivers passing through the park tend to be respectful of cyclists and are usually going slower to enjoy the scenery.
Route: Head out of Frankfort on Bellows Avenue at the park on the north end of town, and hang a left at Crystal Avenue (M22), and catch the bike lane on M22 all the way to Empire. From there, you can take the new leg of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail (no cars allowed) all the way to Glen Arbor.
Stops along the way might include the Point Betsie lighthouse, Riverside Canoe (rentals for canoes, kayaks and tubes) in the heart of the park, the Dune Climb and the maritime station at Glen Haven.
But don’t even dream of riding M22 anywhere north of Bohemian Road, where the bike lane crumbles into virtually nothing. The pavement is bumpy, making that stretch of M22 narrow, uncomfortable and dangerous.
Around Lake Charlevoix
This is the most challenging of the four routes noted here because it includes a long, steep climb up and over a hill on Horton Bay Road. But if you don’t mind pedaling up some hills, the stopping points along this 43-mile route make it worth the extra effort.
Those stops include the picturesque general store in Horton Bay, a ride on the Ironton Ferry, lunch or dinner in Boyne City or Charlevoix, and a cruise along the most scenic stretch of the Little Traverse Wheelway.
Route: Start at the Wheelway trailhead just northeast of Charlevoix, and cycle along the sparkling shore of Lake Michigan. Be sure to check out the little shrine to the Big Rock nuclear power plant (now decommissioned and dismantled) for some gee-whiz facts about its heyday.
About a mile south of downtown Bay Harbor, you’ll come to Horton Bay Road and head south. This is the trickiest part of the ride since there’s no bike lane for two-thirds of its length, not to mention some hills, including the aforementioned monster near its southern end.
You’ll want to grab a soda pop on the porch of the old-timey Horton Bay General Store before heading south a short way to Sumner Road and angling east to Old Horton Bay Road. From there you head south to Boyne City and the shores of Lake Charlevoix along Ferry Road. That takes you to the Ironton Ferry, where for $1 you ride the 1,000-foot gap at the south arm of Lake Charlevoix.
Thereafter, the route heads straight down Ferry Road, angling north to Ferry Avenue past a row of eye-popping homes in Charlevoix.
Caution: You may be tempted to ride the Boyne-Charlevoix Road or M66. Forget it; these are both busy roads with little scenery. The Top of Michigan Trails Council is working on a bike path between Boyne City and Charlevoix, but until then, the Wheelway is a far better route.
I also advise cyclists to wear fluorescent jerseys or vests on this route because you are on some roads that don’t have bike lanes.
Gaylord to Mackinaw City: 62 miles
This is a forest ride through country that Ernest Hemingway called “wild as the devil” when he camped here as a teenager. You, too, are likely to see some wildlife along this route, and a bonus is that the slope is all slightly downhill.
Paved with crushed limestone, the North Central State Trail departs from a soccer field off Fairview Road on the north side of Gaylord and rambles through state forest for 62 miles to the Straits. Highlights include the Sturgeon River in Wolverine, lunch in Indian River, and views of Mullett Lake in Topinabee.
Route: The path is all downhill because Gaylord is at 1,349 feet above sea level, and Mackinaw City is at 590 feet. Of course, that means a tougher ride if you’re cycling back the next day.
I recommend a hybrid bike for the trail and packing spare tires, bike tools, a first aid kit, sunscreen and rain gear; for long stretches you are far from the nearest bike shop.
Around Glen Lake
This 17-mile ride around Big and Little Glen Lake includes a glorious view from Inspiration Point.
I love this route because it includes a lunch or coffee stop in Glen Arbor near the end of the ride. Plus it’s a great road-bike ride with little traffic and some fast downhill runs. Starting from the Dune Climb in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, head south on either 109 or the new southbound Heritage Trail link to Harriger Road. That leads you east to highway 616, threading along the southern rim of the Glens.
It’s a bit of a climb uphill to Inspiration Point, but the western approach isn’t nearly as steep as the route from the east. Be sure to stop at the roadside turnoff at the top for those aforementioned views and exult over the fact that you’re over 900 feet above sea level. Be sure to check your brakes before attempting the screaming downhill run on the other side.
As is the case with many of the region’s big inland lakes, it’s hard to catch a view of the Caribbean-clear waters of Glen Lake because of the homes crowding the shore. The exception is at the Old Settlers Picnic Grounds just north of Burdickville Road—worth a stop.
After refreshments in Glen Arbor, you’ll want to take the Heritage Trail the last five miles back to the Dune Climb. Tough cyclist that you are, you’ll surely want to finish your ride with a hike up the dune’s sandy heights.