Pumping the pedals hard, I powered up one of the few hills on the Rawley Point Trail on this hot summer day. It was 90 degrees when we left our Greenbush, Wisconsin, home in the Northern Kettle Moraine, but now Lake Michigan's natural air conditioning was kicking in. A southerly breeze was pushing lake temperatures my way and it felt good. The less humid 70s made biking a breeze.
This unique area of Manitowoc County juts into Lake Michigan allowing lake effect temperatures and snowfall (when cold enough) from south, east and northerly directions.
I caught up to large group of scouts, some as young as 6 years old, working on their biking merit badges. They weaved in and out of the meandering trail working one speed bikes with coaster breaks. Their zeal and enthusiasm brought me back to my early biking days.
Two area trails
The Rawley Point Trail starts in the small city of Two Rivers (population 11,712) and winds east through town ending at Point Beach State Park. This limestone trail travels 5.5 miles into the heart of this Lake Michigan forest land through swales, marshes, conifer stands and big canopied hardwood forests. On this hot sunny day, hundreds of inland refugees made the lakeside trip to chill out on the beach or tackle the hiking and biking trails.
The trail gets busier every year as more people find out about it, according to Point Beach Property Manager Guy William. "Lake Michigan and the Rawley Point Trail are the most popular features in the park. We have visitors from across the Midwest visit our park to bike the trail," said Willman. "You have to remember, this isn't a rail trail. It winds across a large portion of the park utilizing natural features and some boardwalks."
Not many trails have a sister, but Rawley Point does. A well-marked connector guides cyclists to the 6.5-mile asphalt Mariner Trail that runs along the lakeshore from Two Rivers to Manitowoc (population 33,736). This trail is directly on Lake Michigan, with miles of panoramic views of beaches, creeks, local art work, beautifully landscaped flower gardens and natural flora. Both trails are distinct, with the Mariner offering up a unique, urban Lake Michigan experience, while the Rawley Point has an enveloping forest feel, almost wilderness-like. Combine both trails for a 13.5 mile one-way experience.
The trails have become a major tourist destination for Two Rivers and Manitowoc. "Many people travel here specifically for the bike trails," Manitowoc County Chamber Executive Director Karen Szyman said. "It's been an excellent boost for tourism. Many cyclists stay for the night and enjoy our many restaurants. And most of the shoreline is dog friendly."
Observing that the chamber office is located on the Mariner Trail, I asked Szyman if she bikes to work. "I haven't yet, but this summer I will be biking to work, skirt and all," she vowed.
Several athletic events utilize parts of the trail, including the Manitowoc YMCA Triathlon held August 25, the Holy Family/Memorial Maritime Marathon held in late June and the Woodland Dunes Dash Trail Run, a 5K, held annually in May. The Two Rivers High School cross country team uses the Rawley Point trail for training.
The state forest
Point Beach State Forest contains six miles of beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline, including a separate dog friendly beach. The 3,000-acre park has variety of natural features that are traversed by 17 miles of hiking and biking trails.
Most visitors come for the day, but many take advantage the 127 campsites the park offers. From secluded camping to large outdoor group camps, the park provides a wide range of camping opportunities as well as two reservable rustic cabins located on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Make reservations early, as summer and fall weekends fill up fast. Two kayak accessible walk-in sites will be added in late summer as part of the Lake Michigan Water Trail. A handicap beach access ramp is located near the Lodge.
Hundreds of park visitors and a few canine friends were enjoying the cool air mass on the hot steamy day my wife and I visited the park. As we walked over to the dog beach area, I waded into the Lake and understood instantly why only the little kids were in these bone chilling waters. Yikes! Lake temperatures can be in the 50s until late summer or when easterly winds blow in warmer water.
The Point Beach area provides several surf breaks due to the park's orientation to the lake. It's one of the few places on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan where westerly winds can whip up rollers big enough to surf. Good waves can be had throughout the year, but the best swells start building in September. The beach scene includes paddle and kite boarding, the popularity of which is surging throughout the Midwest.
Another park highlight is the operational Rawley Point Lighthouse. Although it cannot be toured, many trails offer great views of one of the tallest lighthouses on the Great Lakes. Active duty and retired military can rent a cabin located at the base of the lighthouse through the U.S. Coast Guard. The tower rises 113 feet above Lake Michigan and is visible for 19 miles. Before the lighthouse was built, many ships foundered and sank in this area of Lake Michigan. The most tragic was the steamship Vernon, which went down with 36 crew members and passengers.
Significant offerings for walking and biking abound. One of my favorites is a five-mile segment of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Pick it up from Sandy Bay Road at Molash Creek and hike to a very picturesque dune area on Lake Michigan. The circuitous trail includes vistas of the stunning Molash Creek and a variety of unique ecosystems.
The Ridges Hiking and Ski Trails is a loop system of varying lengths starting at the lodge parking Lot. The shortest is the three-mile red loop; the longest being the 7.2-mile yellow loop. These are also excellent running trails, crossing the many swales, dunes and marsh areas.
During the winter months, the Ridges Trails are groomed for classic skiing, while the 3.5-mile Red Pine Trail is groomed for skate skiing.
There is no true singletrack mountain bike trails at Point Beach at this time. "We are hoping to add a mountain bike trail based on possible property expansion in the future," Willman said. "Right now, we are tapped-out on space, but bikers have can have an off-road experience on the Red Pine Trail."
Three natural areas are located within or near Point Beach State Forest, including the historic Two Creeks Buried Forest, located north of the park. The Buried Forest provides a record of the multiple glacial advances and retreats during the Wisconsin glaciation era. Layers of clay and silt are visible on a steep bluff where wave action has exposed ancient buried branches, logs, hemlock and spruce trees. Some of these have been carbon dated as 12,000 years old. Two Creeks Buried Forest is a unit of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve and is a popular study site for geologists, botanists, and climatologists.
Another well-known natural area is the Point Beach Ridges. This area features 11 alternating ridges and swales paralleling the Lake Michigan shoreline. The ridges and swales are old beach deposits formed thousands of years ago. This area features rare vegetation and unique coastal beach flora. The state's last known sand dune willow exists here.
Mike McFadzen enjoys cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, paddle sports, biking and running when his day job doesn't interfere. He serves on the Wisconsin State Trails Council, Friends of Wisconsin State Parks and the Sheboygan Nonmotorized Pilot Program. He lives in Greenbush, Wisconsin, with his wife, Karen, and dog, Woody.
If you go ...
Point Beach State Forest is located 4 miles north of Two Rivers on Sandy Bay Road (County Trunk O). The city of Two Rivers provides several restaurant and lodging accommodations. Nearby Manitowoc provides additional options.
Local restaurants include the classic Connie's Dine, featuring great burgers and soups. Recently remodeled with a 1950s motif, Phil Rohrer's which has been in business since 1964. Port Sandy Bay is located on the Rawley Point Trail adjacent to Point Beach State Park offers excellent pizza, Friday fish frys and other pub type fare. Other top TripAdvisor.com rated restaurants include Water's Edge and Kurtz's Pub & Deli in downtown Two Rivers.
Local lodging includes the Lighthouse Inn Hotel and the Village Inn, located south of Two Rivers on the Mariner Trail. Top ranked B&Bs include the Red Forest, Westport and Kessler Old World Guesthouse; all located within several miles of the Manitowoc Two Rivers area.
Access the Rawley Point Trail from Welsch Field in Two Rivers or the Lodge at Point Beach State Park. Access the Mariner Trail at the Lighthouse Inn in Two Rivers, the Manitowoc YMCA or the Aurora Two River Medical Center on Lakeshore Drive.
Several other parks offer Lake Michigan swim, beach and surf experiences, including Two River's Neshotah Park (across from Rawley Point Trailhead) and Manitowoc's Red Arrow Park.