Swap your skis in for wheels this winter when you head to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and explore the fat tire biking trails in St. Ignace.
Fat Tire Biking in St. Ignace
Wintering in Northern Michigan demands grit, curiosity and layers (a lot of them). But we Northerners have plenty of activities to embrace this season with joy, reflection and purpose; we gather around bonfires with friends, sweat in saunas, and trek snowy trails that surround our communities. Fat tire biking is an increasingly popular activity that many have added to their arsenal of winter fun. These mountain bikes with wide tires float on top of the snow and are an efficient way to explore crunchy white trails throughout the entire state.
One city in the Upper Peninsula is embracing this trend and has all the amenities and trails you need for a fun day of exploration. St. Ignace is the first city you encounter on the north side of the Mackinac Bridge. It sits on the shores of Lake Huron and is bordered by the Hiawatha National Forest. Their impressive cross-country ski trail system was the ideal proving ground for fat tire biking trails. My wife and I headed north to try these trails for ourselves and meet the enthusiastic local riders who help maintain them.
Before heading north, we rented fat tire bikes at Einstein Cycles in Traverse City. Then we drove over the icy Mackinac Straits early on a Saturday morning; a frigid north wind threaded snowflakes between the bridge’s suspension cables that arched toward a gray, featureless sky.
Silver Mountain Fat Tire Biking Trail
We met our guides at the start of the newest trail just outside St. Ignace. Silver Mountain is an abandoned ski hill off Cheeseman Road, 5.3 miles from downtown. We shook hand warmers to put in our gloves and geared up in the parking lot while our guides reminisced about the good old days when there was a tow rope and the ski hill was a focal point for community gatherings.
Since the ski hill shut down, small birch and spruce saplings have replaced the ski tracks and slalom courses, but the laughter and comradery remain. In the summer, the area is a scenic disc golf course, and on a good snow year, it’s a popular spot to go tubing.
With unreliable snowfall making tubing difficult though, a few industrious locals thought it would make a perfect fat-tire biking trail system. And that’s exactly what it is—a 1.7-mile trail system that winds its way around the property and crests the top of a hill with views of Silver Lake, the surrounding area and even Mackinac Island.
The trail is specifically maintained for fat tire biking, with a regular grooming schedule and bermed corners.
We followed our guides down cedar-lined corridors and filled our lungs with the fresh air and laughter that everyone needs in any season, but are somehow sweeter on a cold winter day.
Sand Dunes Fat Tire Biking and Ski Trail
If you’re looking for even more distance, the Sand Dunes Cross Country Ski Trail off Brevort Lake Road features some of the best fat tire biking trails on the east side of the Upper Peninsula. The forest service keeps it well-groomed and they’ve omitted the classic cross-country ski tracks to make the trail more friendly for fat-bikers.
There are more than 9 miles of well-marked trails in this system. Make a plan and view a trail map online before you go. If you’re driving from afar, call the St. Ignace Ranger Station before you head up if you want to know the trail conditions at 906.643.7900.
Related Read: Ice Fishing Getaway in St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula.
What to Expect When Fat Tire Biking
Fat tire biking borrows many tips and tricks from other winter outdoor activities. Get started on the right foot with advice from our guides before you head out.
Ideal Trail Conditions for Fat Tire Biking in Northern Michigan
Weather conditions matter anytime you bundle up to go outside, so make sure you plan accordingly. Riding on a mushy snow surface is like riding in soft sand—it’s hard and tiring.
Ideal fat tire biking conditions require cold weather and a firm snowpack. Avoid riding a fat tire bike on trails if the temperature is above 30 degrees, not only is it hard, it can destroy the trails for future users.
A hard freeze that follows a thaw will really firm up the trails and improve riding conditions. Trails with a lot of fat tire bike traffic are well compacted and flow well, which is why the trails in St. Ignace are great for your first time out.
Unless the trail is groomed, fat tire biking after a big snowfall is hard. If there are more than three inches of snow on the ground, we recommend you call the ranger station to ask about their grooming schedule. The best beginner conditions are groomed trails that have had time to set in cold weather. A few inches of snow on top of a firm hard pack is a treat. Riding on ungroomed trails is possible, but not if there is a deep snowpack. A light dusting (2–4 inches) on top of dirt is also fun, but challenging.
How to Dress for Fat Tire Biking in Winter
Your pace and skillset will determine how you layer. Dress like you’re going cross-country skiing. You’ll work up a sweat, so either start the ride a bit chilled or plan on shedding layers as soon as you start to sweat. You want to avoid the cold, clammy feeling of wet base layers during your ride.
You’d be surprised how comfortable you can be when riding a bike in the winter—even when the temps are in the single digits. As long as you’re dressed appropriately, the body heat you generate while riding a bike will keep you surprisingly warm.
Snacks and Water for Fat Tire Biking
Slip a water bottle into an old wool sock to keep it from freezing. If it’s really cold, fill your bottle up with warm water before you head out. No one’s complained about a few trail snacks, so don’t forget to pack your own. Place them in a pocket inside your coat so they don’t freeze. Looking for bonus points? Make some hot chocolate in a coffee thermos and slip that sucker into your water bottle cage for a mid-ride treat.
What to Do After Fat Tire Biking in St. Ignace
While not as busy as summer, St. Ignace has a lot to offer in the middle of winter. Some businesses are closed in the off-season, but you’ll still find places to eat, craft cocktails and warm pretzels as big as your fat tires. My wife and I grabbed a bite at the Village Inn in downtown St. Ignace.
The Driftwood Motel and Restaurant is also open year-round. The recently remodeled dining room features great burgers, wings and hot sandwiches.
If you’re staying the night, you’ll find lodging options at The Driftwood or Super 8. A day trip to St. Ignace is easier than you may think. For one, crossing the Mackinac Bridge is often the quickest way to find the snow you’ve been waiting all winter for. Lake-effect snow and cold temperatures greet this quaint town well before many areas in the lower peninsula.
So, when your snow dance isn’t working, head north! Rent some bikes, grab some snacks and get out of the house for a day of adventure. It was our first-time fat tire biking in St. Ignace, and it won’t be our last.
Related Read: St. Ignace is Home Base for Upper Peninsula Birdwatching.