Snooping out Michigan’s finest off-road secrets

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The North County Trail
Snooping out Michigan’s finest off-road secrets
By Gretchen Reynolds

Could tell you, but then, well, you know.”

Yeah, yeah.

“And if you tell anyone else, there’ll be some spiking of their Powerade with arsenic.”

My eyes roll. Serious cyclists and their “hidden” riding spots. They’re more ostentatiously secretive than any breed except perhaps nuclear scientists. Or fly fishermen. So here we stand in west-central Michigan, bikes at the ready, stranded by our guide’s sudden, unwarranted suspicions. Who would we possibly tell? There can’t be another soul for 50 miles. We smile
at him. “OK,” he says reluctantly, “let’s hit the North Country.”

You didn’t hear it from me, but the North Country Trail is the most lovely and least known off-road route in all of flyover territory. Part of a rocky, remote hiking trail that traverses much of the upper portion of the nation (from New York to North Dakota), it’s accessible to cyclists only at certain spots, the specifics of which are zealously guarded by locals.
And here, at an unmarked trailhead in the Manistee National Forest, is inarguably the best stretch. Clipping in, we drop into red-oak and sumac forest. Sunlight veins the leaves. Fallen branches crunch beneath our wheels.

Abruptly the trail narrows. And narrows. Soon saplings are whipping our handlebars. Snaking, curving, and intermittently tumbling, we accelerate downhill. Trees crowd in. We scoot farther back on our saddles.


(M)  mountain bike ride
(R)   road ride
W    water available
C     camping available
F     food available
I     inn nearby
O    other liquid refreshments
X    no services

Until, with a kind of whoosh, we’re funneled out onto an open ledge above a skinny river gorge. A silvery ribbon of water glints 20 feet below.

“What’d I tell you?” our guide whoops. Then, slowly, he turns toward us, eyes gleaming oddly. “Powerade, anyone?”

Route: The trailhead is near the junction of Michigan 37 and County Road 26. After about 50 miles the trail becomes impassably rocky. Contact: Trailhead Bike Shop, Ludington, 616-845-0545.

Maah Daah Hey Trail, Little Missouri National Grasslands  (M)
Welcome to the Badlands. Don’t forget your water. This is the desert, Midwest-style, where the antelope play and that low, mournful cry is probably a coyote coveting your CamelBak. The trail — marked by turtle silhouettes carved on fenceposts — is beautifully scruffy, whipsawing down juniper-covered gulches and over buttes. It’s technical, but
the local, half-ton buffalo once negotiated it just fine.  C I

Distance: 38 mi. Elevation Gain: 1,000 ft.

Route: Point-to-point from Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit to the Little Missouri River

Contact: Dakota Cyclery, Medora, 701-623-4808

Spearfish Canyon Road  (R)
Sheer limestone cliffs rise on both sides; Spearfish Creek runs briskly in between. Extra-wide shoulders ensure you don’t cruise accidentally into either. Time lunch to coincide with your arrival at Bridal Veil Falls. Or turn off onto Forest Road 222 (it’s unpaved) to gawk at the location for the final scenes in Dances With Wolves.  W F O I

Distance: 25 mi. Elevation Gain: 1,900 ft.

Route: Out-and-back from Spearfish City Park to Spearfish Canyon Resort in Savoy

Contact: Two Wheeler Dealer Cycle and Fitness, Spearfish, 605-642-7545

Omaha to Pierce (R)
The quintessential Great Plains sampler — rolling hills, huge, arching skies, camelhair-colored cornfields, and on weekends, the drag strip. (Scribner, midway along the route, is a major drag-racing center.) For snooty aesthetes, there’s also the Cuthills Vineyards, in Pierce, which plys cyclists with Nebraska varietals, and for refueling, there’s the
chocolate malt at the Ice Cream Parlor in Hooper.  W F O I

Distance: 120 mi. Elevation Gain: None.

Route: Point-to-point from Nebraska 64 to U.S. 275; then U.S. 81 and Nebraska 13 to Pierce

Contact: Country Cruisers Bike Club, Omaha, 402-553-4472

Flint Hills Death Ride  (M)
With a name like that, what did you expect? This unmarked, onetime stagecoach route is a killer mix of steep rises, raking winds, eerie ghost towns, wandering cattle, and more than 5,000 feet of total elevation gain. Thankfully, it’s set amidst the wildflower-dotted glories of the nation’s last great tallgrass prairie.  C

Distance: 70 mi. Elevation Gain: 5,300 ft.

Route: Loop from Madison High School west through Mattfield Green and back to Madison

Contact: Great Plains Bicycles, Madison, 800-792-2453

The Katy Trail  (R) (M)
A crushed-limestone bike path that stretches almost border to border, running beneath craggy limestone bluffs, along rivers, past sumac and sugar maples, and through “Rhineland,” the region populated by homesick Germans. (Don’t miss the schnitzel at the Landing restaurant in Hermann.) The grade almost never exceeds 5 percent. Where it does, there’s surely a
B&B nearby where you can revive yourself.  W F O C I

Distance: 185 mi. Elevation Gain: None.

Route: Point-to-point from the trailhead at Frontier Park in St. Charles to Sedalia

Contact: Missouri Department of Natural Resources, 800-334-6946

Paul Bunyan Trail  (R) (M)
A road for all riders:Half is paved, half is dirt, all is breathtaking in a far-northern, Fargo kind of way. Twenty-one lakes dot the route, together with deeply shadowed forests, one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in the Lower 48, and to instill an apropos Lutheran modesty, unseen loons hooting at your spandex.  W F C I

Distance: 100 mi. Elevation Gain: None.

Route: Point-to-point from Excelsior Road in Baxter to County Road 20 in Bemidji State Park

Contact: Brainerd Area Chamber of Commerce, 800-450-2838

Wabash Trace Nature Trail  (M)
One of the country’s prettiest Rails-to-Trails conversions. The path traverses squat sand mountains known as the Loess Hills, geological oddities found only in western Iowa — and the Yellow River valley in China. Heavy woods harbor deer, owls, and eagles. Don’t miss the trail’s bit of Iowa exotica: the $7 taco dinner at the Wabash Bar and Grill in
Silver City.  W F C

Distance: 63 mi. Elevation Gain: None.

Route: Point-to-point starting in Council Bluffs and ending in Blanchard

Contact: Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, 515-288-1846

Namakagon Cluster, Chequamegon National Forest  (M)
The best of the Birkie. The trails in this huge, fragrant forest, site of the wildly popular Birkebeiner cross-country ski race, become superb summertime bike routes. Forest roads dwindle to almost 300 miles of tree-lined singletrack. All this and the world’s largest fiberglass muskie, in nearby Hayward.  W C

Distance: 42 mi. Elevation Gain: 1,500 ft.

Route: A series of marked loops starting and ending at Rock Leg trailhead on County Highway M

Contact: Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association, 800-533-7454

Cedar Lake Trail, Shawnee National Forest  (M)
One word: slickrock. Nowhere else in the Midwest can you find it. The patches admittedly are short, steep, and slippery. But if you can’t get to Utah… The Shawnee also offers gorgeous, typical midwestern riding: long, leafy singletrack along the shore of Cedar Lake. (The slickrock doubles as the lake’s spillway.) There’s even a “Little Grand Canyon.” It’s
only 360 feet deep. But, hey, if you can’t get to Arizona…  W C

Distance: Ten mi. Elevation Gain: None.

Route:Out-and-back from trailhead near the Pomona boat ramp off Illinois 127. Stay on the trail; cycling is restricted to marked paths.

Contact:Phoenix Cycles, Carbondale, 618-549-3612

The Madison and Canaan Loop  (R)
An exercise in placidity. This century ride loops through such evocatively named towns as Farmers Retreat and Rising Sun. Cows ruminate by the roadside. Amish buggies amble by, and long, slow barges chug up the Ohio River. Drama isn’t nonexistent, however: There’s the annual September Muzzle-loading Rifle Fest in the town of — where else? —
Friendship.  W F O C I

Distance: 102 mi. Elevation Gain: 2,700 ft.

Route: Loop starting and ending at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Madison. Follow Indiana 56 to Indiana 262 to Indiana 62 to complete the loop.

Contact: Madison Area Bicycle Club, 812-265-3620, ext. 7006

Scioto Trail, Scioto Trail State Forest and Park  (M)
All singletrack, all the time — or, at least, much of the time; a stretch of doubletrack takes you to where the narrow path begins. From there, this is a fine, woodsy trail that encapsulates the best of midwestern off-roading: The climbs are steep but short, the creek crossings are rocky but refreshing, and the drop-offs, for those watching, are
comically endo-friendly. Happily, thick carpets of damp oak leaves soften the blow.  W C

Distance: 12 mi. Elevation Gain: 1,250 ft.

Route: Loop from the C-9 trailhead at the parking lot off Airport Road/Bethel Hollow

Contact: Just North of Daytona bike shop, Chillicothe, 740-775-7873

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