Two-wheel tourism has Northern Michigan in a spin
The hottest new tourism trend in Northern Michigan comes on two wheels with a fanny pack.
You can see that trend yourself on any drive along the Lake Michigan shoreline north of Charlevoix, where dozens of cyclists pack the Wheelway Trail each day.
“The Wheelway Trail from Harbor Springs to Charlevoix is just exploding with cyclists,” says Jeff Winegard, executive director of the Top of Michigan Trails Council in Petoskey, which spearheaded the 23-mile cycle path paralleling US-31. “We think a lot of people are coming to Northern Michigan these days just to use the Wheelway.”
Winegard says the Council plans to do a survey of trail users this summer to obtain data on who’s using the Wheelway and why. But, data aside, there’s a growing awareness among county planners and tourism officials in Northern Michigan that cycling is ‘where it’s at’ as a major draw for the region.
“So many visitors are coming to Northern Michigan to ride our bike paths, and it’s not just young people; it’s older people too,” Winegard says. “Retirees aren’t going quietly into old age -- they’re riding the trails in large numbers.”
Interest in cycle tourism is mirrored by the rapid growth of new bike paths and rail-trails throughout the region. The Top of Michigan Trail Council, for instance, has assisted in the creation of nearly 300 miles of trails since its inception in 1995, while its cousin to the south, TART Trails, has created 60 miles of trails in the Grand Traverse area in addition to upgrading dirt tracks such as the Vasa.
MICHIGAN A LEADER
At a time when America’s roads are deteriorating and widespread passenger train service is still largely a utopian dream, bike paths have become Michigan’s most successful transportation endeavor in decades, with several new trails set to open in 2013. Trail advocates say that by the end of the decade, it should be possible to cycle through dozens of communities from the Mackinac Straits to Grand Rapids and beyond.
“The DNR wants Michigan to be a leader in trail development, so they’re putting a lot of resources into creating trails across the state,” says Julie Clark, executive director of TART Trails in Traverse City. “There’s also a big push on by local communities to establish their own trails in addition to the regional efforts.”
Following is an update on various trail projects across the region:
LITTLE TRAVERSE & STRAITS AREA:
• A seven-mile paved segment of the new Northwestern State Trail opens this year from M-119 in Petoskey to Alanson. Winegard estimates that the remaining portion of the trail will be paved with crushed limestone within five years, running 35 miles along a former rail-bed to Mackinaw City.
“It’s a big deal because that’s a major transportation corridor,” he says. It will also offer a connector to Gaylord (below).
• Phase one of a 5.1-mile stretch of the Burt Lake Trail, is expected to open this year as part of an 18-mile connector between major trails running north from Gaylord and Petoskey.
The east-west trail will provide a link to the North Central State Trail out of Gaylord and the new Northwestern State Trail in Petoskey, both of which travel to the Straits. “That will make it possible to start looping around the region, rather than just point-topoint rides,” Winegard says.
• On June 23, the new Alpena- Cheboygan Trail will open, connecting the Lake Huron communities along a 71-mile pathway of crushed limestone. “It’s a beautiful rural trail that goes through all of these small communities that have a lot of history,” Winegard says. “The scenery and wildlife along this route are exceptional.”
GRAND TRAVERSE/LEELANAU AREA
• The first five miles of the new Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail officially opens on June 20, running from Glen Arbor to the park’s Dune Climb. A collaboration of the Park Service, Friends of Sleeping Bear, the Leelanau Scenic Heritage Route Committee and TART, the trail will eventually run 27 miles from Good Harbor Bay to the park entrance in Benzie County.
• Paving is currently underway on the 6.5-mile middle-section of the Leelanau County Trail. “We expect that paving will be done by early July, fully connecting Traverse City to Suttons Bay for strollers, roller-bladers, bikes and everyday use,” says Lee Maynard, trail planning and program director.
The paving project will effectively make the Leelanau Trail a commuting corridor for cyclists, paving a lengthy section which up to now has been accessible only to hikers, mountain bikers and hybrid cyclists.
The City of Traverse City has obtained funding from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund to extend the trail from Oryana Food Coop to 14th Street, with design concepts being considered at present. TART hopes to complete the trail to South Airport Road and entirely around the lake by 2014.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the $700,000 project is planned for July 20.
• Another new project is the West Side Trail, which will link the single-track pathways in the hills of the Grand Traverse Commons to the trail system of Hickory Meadows and on to the Leelanau Trail on the west side of TC.
Recently, TART received a $5,000 grant from the Traverse City Track Club to assist in the development of the West Side Trail, which will be accessible by walkers, runners and mountain bikers.
• A new 24-mile Boardman River Trail speaheaded by Richard Naperala is also in the works, intended for hikers and mountain bikers.
“The Boardman River Trail will connect the North Country Trail, the Vasa Trail and the Boardman Lake Trail,” says Julie Clark of TART. “It’s going to be phased in pieceby-piece to create a 46-mile loop.”
Using existing dirt paths and two-tracks, TART hopes to have the new river trail completed in two years.
• The long-awaited completion of the Boardman Lake Trail around the west side of the lake in TC is targeted for 2013-2014.
“It’s going to be a gorgeous trail with sweeping views of the lake,” says Clark. “People love what we’ve done on the east side of Boardman Lake, but the west side trail should be even better.”
• TART is also working with the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy to identify the best route for an Elk Rapids Trail that would link to Acme. “There are a lot of areas people want to get to between Acme and Elk Rapids and both communities are doing a lot of planning to see that it gets done,” Clark says.
Eventually, TART and the Top of Michigan Trail Council plan to collaborate on a trail that will link Elk Rapids and Charlevoix -- possibly by the end of the decade. This would make it possible to cycle off-road from the Straits to Traverse City.
• Manistee County Planner Rob Carson brings extensive experience to his job, having been part of an effort to link 15 counties with bike paths in North Carolina.
Carson has introduced the prospect of a Greenway Trails Master Plan in Manistee County that would link and develop many local trails and encourage projects in Onekema, Arcadia and other communities. Currently, the county’s standouts include the 18-mile Manistee River Trail and a new non-motorized Trail Park running along M55 east of Manistee.
“I’d like to see connections made between our localized trails and then branch out to other counties,” Carson says. That strategy would connect Manistee to Cadillac, Ludington, Traverse City and Frankfort.
“One thing to note – the trail map shows just the trail systems that we have GIS files for,” Cline says. “It looks like we are going to get grant funding to compile all trail files from agencies and trail users groups across the region so that they are the most accurate possible in order to present them online. I imagine that there are actually more trails out there than even this map shows. It speaks to why Up North should be considered a national trails destination.”
OUR TOP 5 TRAILS:
• The Wheelway from Charlevoix to Harbor Springs is a “must-do” weekend destination this summer for any cyclist. The trail wanders along the Lake Michigan shoreline traveling through Bay Harbor and Petoskey in addition to its anchor communities. Plan on a picnic and a full day of fun.
• The Benzie County Trail: This is another cycling opportunity which could consume either an afternoon or a full day, depending on how far you want to ride. The trail begins in downtown Frankfort and wends its way through Beulah all the way to Thompsonville. Along the way are dense forests and scenic views of the Betsie River and Crystal Lake. Most cyclists prefer the 11-mile ride from Beulah to Frankfort; but be sure to save the ride from Beulah to Thompsonville for another day if you’d like to see Benzie County at its wildest.
• The Leelanau Trail from TC to Suttons Bay makes for a great half-day out-and-back trip of around 30 miles, depending on where you start out. Two parking lots on Cherry Bend Road make for a good starting point and come July, the full trail will be paved, making for a relatively swift ride through the meadows and forests of Leelanau County.
• The North Central State Trail running north from Gaylord all the way to Mackinaw City makes for a full day’s ride of more than 60 miles. Much of the ride is through the Pigeon River State Forest, with communities along the route including Wolverine, Indian River, Topinabee and Cheboygan. You can park in a designated lot just north of Gaylord and plan on an overnight stay in Mackinaw City or Cheboygan. Suitable for mountain bikes and hybrids only. Be prepared to service your bike with tools and spare tires; much of this route is through deep forest, miles from any bike shops.
• The Vasa Trail from Acme to Kalkaska got an upgrade with new markers and improvements a year ago, making it more rider-friendly for mountain bikers. This deep-woods trail runs through the Sand Lakes Quiet Area along the same route used for the Iceman Cometh race in November.