Glacial Hills Natural Area has come of age and is currently providing some of the best mountain biking and hiking trails in Northern Michigan, just a mile northwest of Bellaire in Antrim County. There are currently around 20 miles of trail and more in the planning stages. It’s been eight years in the making.
“We’ve been working hard at this all summer. We opened the first loop a couple of falls ago, added around 10 more miles by early this summer, and continuing to add more trails as fast as we can. By next year we hope to be up over 30-some miles of trails,” says Brad Gerlach, stewardship coordinator for Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy.
The Land Conservancy helped broker the deal, allowing Antrim County and Forest Home Township to acquire 345 acres of property. It brought together three separate parcels owned by the county, township and DNR to create the 763-acre public-owned block, aka Glacial Hills Natural Area.
Although owned by three separate governmental units, Glacial Hills shares a combined trail system that’s excellent for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and hunting. The process started eight years ago, but has really gained momentum in just the last couple of years.
There are currently three trailheads with parking areas north of Bellaire. The west end entrance is off Eckhardt Rd, the middle trailhead is on Vandermark Road, and the east side trailhead is on Orchard Hill Road. You can access the Orchard Hill entrance biking from downtown.
Acceptance of the new trails has been fantastic, Gerlach says.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of use this summer by not only locals, but people coming from downstate who have heard of the project. And mountain bikers as well as hikers have had nothing but praise for the new trails. With the amount of trail system we will have here in the near future, we expect this to become a Midwest destination for mountain biking. I believe it has that potential.”
Shanty Creek is also jumping on board, according to marketing director Lindsey Southwell.
“Next summer we plan on promoting the mountain biking potential and running shuttles for bikers downtown and the trailhead,” she recently told me. “The area hasn’t had this kind of excitement since the 1990s when NORBA held a big race at the resort each summer and named the first American Olympic mountain bike team here in 1996.”
The Olympics, held in Atlanta that summer, was the first one where mountain bike racing became an official event.
One of the things that has made the new trail system so popular is that they have a nice, easy flow. They are wide and smooth with no surprises and few rough areas.
“We realized after making the Dry Hill mountain bike trails at Arcadia Dunes Natural Area that they were too hard for many mountain bikers and especially families,” Gerlach says of another trail system in Manistee County. “We started to do the same thing here, with the first set of trails built from the Eckhardt Road trailhead. They were too difficult for many bikers.
“We started employing different tactics with the trails built last fall and this past summer. There are no radical climbs. The trails are wide and easy flowing. We used lots of long switchback to get people up into the hills. It’s family-friendly.”
The first sets of trails were hand-cut, narrow and much steeper in nature. They now employ a mini-excavator run by volunteer help to initially cut the trail into the hillsides, then till them with a garden tractor to smooth them out. Finally, they roll the trails with a large drum holding 700 pounds of water to smooth them out.
“We may have to go back in and do a little handwork on some roots, but that’s about all that we need to do,” adds Gerlach. “It’s much faster, which has allowed adding so many more miles of trails this year.”
They plan on redoing some of the trails in that first rough section and adding an easier, flatter loop. Plans also call for going back to Dry Hill to add some easier loops there in the near future.
The property is woodsy, rugged, and has great topography that allows trails to be in close proximity without being on top of each other. It’s full of tall hills, ridges and deep ravines, all courtesy of the last glacier that carved up the landscape about 10,000-some years ago; hence the name of the natural area.
Once you get back into the system it feels remote, perfect for solitude and quiet recreation. There are a couple of overlooks off the first set of trails, off Eckhardt Road. One is a distant view of Lake Bellaire. It’s a peaceful hike or ride through a beautiful, upland forest. Fall with all the hardwood covered hills is especially beautiful.