On the Trail of a Great Trek

Hiking or biking, here are 150-plus miles worth exploring.
Iron Ore Heritage Trail
The Iron Ore Heritage Trail. Photography by Aaron Peterson

When Gov. Rick Snyder made an offhand comment several years ago that he wanted Michigan to become known as “the trails state,” it was something of a done deal. Michigan is already the trails state — and has been for some time. With its wealth of public land, Michigan has had a leg up on everyone else this side of the Mississippi River. State parks officials have pursued recreational trail opportunities for decades.

There are 12,500 miles of designated motorized and nonmotorized trail in Michigan — more than in any other state in the union. The Department of Natural Resources has been feverishly working on the Iron Belle Trail, which will allow continuous hiking from Detroit to the west end of the Upper Peninsula.

Michigan Trails run the gamut from narrow, winding footpaths through unspoiled national forest land to 10-foot wide, paved hike-and-bike trails in cities and suburbs. Many are multi-use; others serve snowmobilers, off-road vehicle users and equestrians.

Picking five top trails for hikers and bikers is a challenge, so I took it to Paul Yauk, DNR trails coordinator. Here are five trails Yauk says are exemplary:

The Little Traverse Wheelway, Yauk says, is “undoubtedly one of the most scenic trails and pleasant hiking and biking experiences in Michigan.” The 26-mile trail from Charlevoix to Harbor Springs follows old railroad routes that pass through hills and stretches of flat Lake Michigan shoreline. There are plenty of access points with parking, restrooms and water.

The Iron Ore Heritage Trail in Marquette County offers hiking and biking through old mining sites and ghost towns for 28 miles and includes a stop at the Michigan Iron Industry Museum. “There are interpretive exhibits that show how things used to be,” Yauk said. “It’s a great story of Michigan’s mining history.”

The Pinckney-Waterloo Trail covers 35 miles through Washtenaw, Livingston and Jackson counties, including two state parks. Originally put together by the Boy Scouts, this trail is for hikers only. “If you want to go on a backpacking trip anywhere in the country, this is a great place to train,” Yauk said. “The geography is spectacular, from glacial lakes to mature hardwoods.”

The William Field Memorial Hart-Montague Trail State Park, a 22-mile, 10-foot wide, recently paved asphalt trail, is among the first of the DNR’s state park trails. “It’s easily accessible, is highly used, and if you are on vacation in this part of the state, you should bring your bike simply to enjoy this trail.” The late Bill Field, a cherry and asparagus farmer, spent $175,000 to buy a 22-mile stretch of defunct railway through orchards, woodlands and waterways and donated it to the state for public recreation. Parts of it have been open since 1989.

The Keweenaw Mountain Bike Trail system is a series of 36 trails across the Upper Peninsula’s dog tail that juts into Lake Superior. Most notable is the Copper Harbor Trail system, some 30 miles of riding trails that range from easy to intermediate to expert, where riders can expect sustained climbs and descents of 600 vertical feet. “This trail is consistently rated in the top five in the country for mountain biking,” Yauk said. He noted it’s not for the faint of heart or body.

Bob Gwizdz is an award-winning outdoor writer who works for the Department of Natural Resources and resides in East Lansing with his wife, son and a crazy English setter.

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