Exploring M22, “America’s most scenic highway”
By Dave Foley
When USA Today and readers of the travel website 10 Best Travel Awards announced last September that the 116-mile M22 had topped 19 other nominees in their joint survey to determine the Best Scenic Autumn Drive in the Nation, I wasn’t surprised. Apparently the rest of the country is finding out what we, who live in northern Michigan, have known for a long time. And it’s not just for automobile touring, this is the place to go for a premiere cycling experience. The label Best Autumn Scenic Drive, I think, is a little restrictive. From when the first leaves emerge in late April until the last ones drop around Halloween, it’s bike tour season up here.
Beginning in the town of Manistee, M22 follows the Lake Michigan coastline north, up around the Leelanau Peninsula, before dropping south along West Grand Traverse Bay to its end point in Traverse City. While you could have a good ride doing a century-plus tour by staying on the highway, we do most of our cycling on the secondary roads that branch off that main artery. During July and August and at the peak of the color season, which is the first three weeks of October, the traffic on M22 can be heavy. My city-dwelling friends will laugh at me for making that statement because, by their standards, M22 isn’t that busy.
While the possibilities of bike routes incorporating M22 are unlimited, I’ll highlight a few of our favorites.
The Crystal Lake/Platte Lake Tour
We usually park in the town of Frankfort and head east around the end of Betsie Lake. From there we catch the paved Betsie Valley Bike Trail which follows a defunct railroad bed toward Benzonia/Beulah. Once you get to Beulah, if you’re into lake vistas and riding on flat terrain, follow the shore around Crystal Lake where you’ll often have unobstructed views of a lake that’s considered one of the most beautiful in Michigan. If you’d like to bump your mileage up over thirty, from Beulah go north to Honor, another little burg. From there take Deadstream Road around Platte Lake to M22 which will return you back to Frankfort.
The Glen Arbor area
North of Crystal Lake, the next forty miles of M22 pass through Sleeping Bear National Park. The village of Glen Arbor is near the center point of the Park and makes a good jumping off point. You’d better plan to do a mega-ride or spend a couple days to even explore the basic pedaling options here. Going north from town following M22, we’ll branch off to loop Little Traverse Lake and Lime Lake; this whole area really lights up with the fall colors, but the rides around these lakes are especially notable for their autumn splendor.
Once you cross the causeway separating Big Lake and Little Glen Lake, if you continue south you will be climbing hills all the way down County Road 677. Turn onto Osborn Road, pass through Empire, and if you want to really tax your quad muscles, choose the 7-½ mile Pierce Stocking Loop. There are some serious climbs here, but the payoff is magnificent views of Lake Michigan, Glen Lake, the Manitou Islands and Pyramid Point you get from the top of the dunes.
The newest cycling attraction is the Heritage Trail, a non-motorized path that will eventually span the 27-mile length of the Park. Last fall, we pedaled the 16 miles that have been paved, which included a section that had been recently devastated by a summer storm. Hundreds of trees were uprooted or snapped off, a complete transformation from what had once been heavily wooded. It’s a stunning example of what happens when the forces of nature are unleashed.
Rides out of Suttons Bay
From Glen Arbor, M22 swings north up around the Leelanau Peninsula, passing through the villages of Leland, Northport and Suttons Bay. Invariably, we’ll be biking on M22 for a few miles, but most of our time is spent on roads that branch off from it. This is wine country, with plenty of these vineyards offering free tastings. The terrain is rolling, much of it being devoted to orchards and vineyards. Although you’re miles inland, from the top of hills you can look out over Lake Michigan or West Grand Traverse Bay. For these tours, we’ll take off from a park near Suttons Bay. Here again, the options are much more than can be covered in a single ride. Head south and west and we’ll likely spend part of our trip pedaling along the shoreline of Lake Leelanau or Traverse Bay. Another paved railroad bed is the Leelanau Trail which runs 16 miles from Traverse City to Suttons Bay. North of Suttons Bay, numerous county roads crisscross the Leelanau Peninsula. The cycling options here are infinite, so even during the peak tourist season, bike traffic is minimal. Every route features hills, which tends to discourage those looking for easy, no-sweat tours.
Yes, this highway is becoming a big deal in these parts, so much that there’s even a store in Glen Arbor called “M-22” that sells decals, hats, t-shirts, mugs, beer glasses and license plates. Probably the best accessory to get is the Bicycle Map of Northwest Michigan, which can also be purchased online at http://www.cherrycapitalcyclingclub.org/. That’s been our “go-to” source to figure out routes for exploring the M22 area.
This spring, Jim DuFresne – who has written numerous hiking guides – published The Trails of M-22, a comprehensive guide to the off-road options for those who might like to explore the area on foot.