Copper Harbor trails on my 'must do again' list
IMBA's 'epic' designation for U.P. singletrack is apropos
"Epic" is defined as "heroic; majestic; impressively great." That pretty much sums up the International Mountain Biking Association’s (IMBA) "epic ride" on the Copper Harbor trails. Finishing the 13-mile loop makes mountain bikers feel heroic, certainly the views of Lake Superior from the tops of the climbs are majestic, and the serpentine singletrack is impressively great.
In October 2009, IMBA designated the Copper Harbor trails as one of their epic rides. Previous to this, the only other epic ride in the Midwest was at Levis Mound. In June 2011, IMBA also named the Rock Lake loop of the Chequamegon Area Mountain Biking Association (CAMBA) trail system as their third epic venue in the Midwest.
According to IMBA’s website, mountain bikers should put all of their epic trails on their bucket lists: "Every single one of the mountain bike trails listed on this page will blow your mind. Guaranteed." After doing the Copper Harbor loop, I would have to agree. Although checking this trail off my bucket list is not something I want to do. Because I want to go back.
Our weekend in Copper Harbor started with setting up camp at Fort Wilkins State Park, about half a mile east of town. We had a campsite right on Lake Fanny Hooe, with Lake Superior a few hundred yards to the north. Even though it was Memorial Day weekend, dozens of sites sat unclaimed and empty, which surprised me given the holiday and how fine the sites were.
The sweetest part about camping here was once we parked our car, we never moved it the rest of the weekend. It was more convenient, as well as more fun, to ride into town for supper or for a spare tube or map from the Keweenaw Adventure Company, the smallest and coziest bike shop around.
On Saturday night, the bike pile outside Zik’s Bar was two to three deep. I haven’t seen that many bikes stacked up since my last crash at the Downer Avenue Criterium. The state park also has a few miles of flat, family-style trails that run around the park boundary and provide some nice views of Lake Superior.
Trying the trails
Though the camping situation was ideal, riding the epic trail was clearly the main attraction for us. We started our ride at the trailhead just across the street from Zik’s. About a mile in on the Garden Brook Loop, the trail starts to climb up Brockway Mountain. Even though I was riding a singlespeed (a 29er, geared 35-20), I found that entire climb was rideable mostly in the saddle. The pitch of the switchbacks are gradual, making the climbing almost as fun as the descending. Once we topped out on the ridge, we could see across the valley to the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge off Highway 41.
The Woopiddy Woo Trail brought us down off the ridge in a series of switchbacks and drops that didn’t leave me white knuckled. After crossing a couple of cedar bridges (it looked like the trail builders hauled in a portable sawmill to do the cutting), we started to climb again. There was one steep section on this climb, which would have been more rideable if we had known it was coming. Soon we were across the valley and staring up at the lodge, an impressive structure built in 1934 from area timber and rocks. If you eschew camping, this would be a cushy alternative.
Epic it is
The epic loop meanders back and forth on the lodge’s ridge along several trails: Dza Best, Here We Go, Simeh and De Deet before heading east on the Red Trail. The epic loop avoids Stairway to Heaven, an 800-foot series of cedar plank bridges that descend toward the trailhead in town or ascend up the ridge. Check out YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=QF8O5VQnm1w) for a nice video of the climb up the stairway. Punch in "Ride the Flow, Copper Harbor, MI" for another video of the descent on The Flow. one of the newest trails in the system.
The end of the epic ride uses some of the older trails in the system, at least they ride like old trails built before today’s standards and techniques. The Red Trail has some nasty descents over granite rock faces in sheer drops instead of looping switchbacks. Even intermediate riders will have to dismount and hike-a-bike this trail. Eventually the Red Trail spits riders out on the shores of Lake Manganese. After a few hundred yards down Clark Mine Road, the trails drops down Paul’s Plunge, which is just that – a plunge down a narrow drainage that is most likely where one would get wet on the epic loop. I did white knuckle my brake levers a couple of times down the plunge. The trail then crosses a whitewater creek on a nice sturdy bridge and drops riders out on Manganese Road, which takes riders right back to town.
Go with The Flow
Since The Flow trail wasn’t part of the epic loop, we decided to give it a go after some coffee, carbohydrates and a little venison sausage. We tried to access the trail off Highway 26, but all we found was trail building equipment and piles of rock and sand. Instead, we climbed up the pavement of Brockway Mountain Drive, which has some long views of the Lake Superior and town below, but these come only after scaling some seriously nasty pitches. I had to tack back and forth on my singlespeed across the macadam to make the steepest grades.
Near the top of the climb, we were passed by a pickup loaded down with downhill bikes and riders, and they were unloading when we reached the trail intersection. I unlocked my suspension fork and we dropped over the side. Since the trail didn’t go all of the way through, we knew we would be climbing back up again, but that mattered little since the trail did exactly as promised: flow. When the trail ended at the trail building Bobcat, we turned around and began climbing, and I was again impressed by how nicely the trail flowed both up and downhill.
At the top, we crossed the road and dropped down the trail on the other side of the ridge. Shortly we encountered the curling cedar bridges featured in the Ride the Flow video. I can’t remember if I closed my eyes or not. In any case, I did make it safely down the hill and eventually back to camp. With some time and practice, these bridges wouldn’t seem so intimidating.
I know I will never ride all of the IMBA epic trails, but I can now cross the three in the Midwest off my list. And I know I’ll get back to Copper Harbor someday. That is on my list. Permanently.
Mark Parman lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he teaches English and Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County.
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