Pedaling in the park
Bike touring possibilities abound at the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore
Wednesday, April 30, 2014 9:50 PM
In 2011, viewers of ABC’s “Good Morning America” voted the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore “the most beautiful place in America.” And the miles of paved roads there allow cyclists to see it for themselves. From May through October, the national park might offer the best biking in Michigan.
Pierce Stocking Drive is a challenging ride, but the payoff is spectacular scenery at the top of the dunes. PHOTO BY DAVE FOLEY
Area business have capitalized on this. One local resort offers five-day bike tour packages, and rentals are available in the nearby village of Glen Arbor.
For us, living just an hour’s drive away, we often rack our bikes and head to the lakeshore for day trips. One of our favorites, starts from the city park on the edge of Glen Arbor. From there we pedal south along the west shore of Glen Lake to the causeway which bridges the lake at its narrowest point.
Riding on this roadway over the lake you can’t help but be awed by the sharply defined water depths of brilliant purple, blue and yellow stretching out on both sides of you. It’s obvious why Glen Lake is ranked as one of the most beautiful lakes in Michigan.
Arriving at the south shore, we can either turn east on County Road 675 and make the long steep climb to the top of Inspiration Point, or go west and head toward the dunes.
In this part of the state, if you’re near the dunes you’re likely in the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, which includes 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and delves inland to include thousands of acres of woods and lakes. We then swing west and north until we reach the Dune Climb where hundreds of tourists on any sunny summer day can be seen floundering in the sand. Heading toward Lake Michigan which (spoiler alert) doe not lie just over the first hill, we enter the large parking lot and purchase or show our park permit to the park official. Permits are $5 a day for cyclists, $10 for a week, $20 for a season.
From there we strike out on the Heritage Trail. Opened in 2012, this paved walkway starts at the base of the dunes and runs 4.25 miles to the edge of Glen Arbor. This is the first section of what will eventually be a 27-mile trail running the length of the park.
Following the asphalt path, we pedal along the base of the dunes which gradually fall away and become a sandy plateau of dune grass and scrub trees. We stop at Glen Haven, pose for a group picture with Lake Michigan in the background, note that the two museums – replicas of a canning factory and fishing ship – are busy with visitors, and then get on our way again.
Soon we reach the DH Day Campground, one of several in the park. The Heritage Trail ends at the edge of Glen Arbor, which is jammed with tourists. But less than a mile later, the traffic thins on Highway M22 north. Over the next hour-and-a-half, we’ll circle Little Traverse and Lime Lakes, climb a significant hill on Ryant Road, cross over to the north end of Glen Lake and follow it back to Glen Arbor to finish our 40 mile bike tour with a meal of Art’s Tavern’s classic bar food.
In autumn the red, yellow and orange foliage creates a spectacular backdrop for cycling tours in the park. We often go south from the Sleeping Bear Park headquarters in the village of Empire following M22 toward Frankfort. We leave the park for side road excursions, to loop the Platte Lakes or do a 25-mile circuit of Crystal Lake.
Platte River & Lake Michigan
If you’d like to ride fewer miles and still tour the lakes, the town of Frankfort is a good starting point. Though you are close to Lake Michigan, you won’t see it from M22. However, a quick detour up Point Betsie Road puts you in a postcard setting with an old lighthouse standing against a backdrop of sand dunes and the lake. Point Betsie is a haven for wind surfers and kiteboarders who will gather here when big winds are pushing massive waves onto the shore.
Another good view of the lake is found down Lake Michigan Road at the mouth of the Platte River. The beach and river can be a tourist magnet in the summer but in the fall it will likely only be just you and a few fisherman along with the occasional kayak or canoe. In September and October stop at the weir. Hundreds of salmon roil the water as they try to get past the barrier to their spawning grounds.
For our last road trip of the fall, our cycling group begins at Empire and heads north to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which takes us to the top of the highest dunes in the park. Getting there is a roller coaster ride, mostly up and fairly steep, but the view at the end more than rewards your effort. Gazing out miles across Lake Michigan or down some 400 feet to the beach, leaves one awed. This being mid-November, the foliage is gone affording glimpses of Glen and North Bar lakes shrouded by leaves for much of the year. As a bonus you may see gun toting deer hunters in their blaze orange garb.
The ride back to M22 features harrowing downhill drops and leg wrenching climbs. We invariably stop at the end of Pierce Stocking Drive to catch our breath and rejuvenate with energy bars. From there we may do a dozen or so miles around Glen Lake in preparation for the return to Empire on County Road 677, with its four one-after-another sprocket popping hills. This tour might only be about 30 miles, but we’re more than ready to end our day at the Friendly Tavern, renowned for its burgers and good beer.
When people think of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore – giant sand dunes, pristine beaches, and Lake Michigan comes to mind but for cyclists the allure lies in pedaling along the miles of blacktop that travels thorough the natural beauty of the area. This national park is a biking destination worthy of inclusion on everyone’s to do list.
Dave Foley is a silent sports enthusiast who bikes, paddles, snowshoes, cross-country skis, and runs in the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.