In the short time I’ve lived in Northern Michigan, I’ve come to truly love and value the Top of Michigan Trails system. Though some might scoff and think of the Little Traverse Wheelway and other trails as old hat, new and old residents alike, along with thousands of annual visitors think of the trails system as a safe haven from road traffic that offers exercise, incredible views of gorgeous Lake Michigan, and unparalleled access to the almost otherworldly beauty of Northern Michigan.
The trails – both paved and limestone – are perfectly suited for people just like me – cyclists seeking simple recreation, sightseeing and/or exercise. For me, living just a few blocks from the Wheelway makes access safer and easier. I can jump on the trail and be in downtown Petoskey very quickly.
Though the Bluffs section of the Wheelway is still closed between Magnus Park and East Park, I’ve gotten used to making the short hop on U.S. 31 shoulder to where the trail connects again at East Park. The shoulder riding is too scary for some, but I’ve discovered that the highway features a wide, smooth shoulder, and motorists are generally courteous.
Rounding the curve across from the fairgrounds is now a little more dubious, since the state, for snow removal purposes, took out the plastic pylons that separated motorists from the guardrail section. Nevertheless, jumping on 31 – in spite of the obvious safety hazards, is still very manageable. The alternative is to either drive your bike to East Park and ride toward Charlevoix from there, or simply ride toward Harbor Springs. Either way, it’s an enjoyable time on the bike.
For me, however, the Petoskey-Charlevoix leg has been a steady favorite. Not only is the distance preferable (about 34 miles roundtrip), the scenery is, too. From beautiful, multi-level East Park, across the top of stately Bay Harbor and on to woodsy West Park and beyond, this section offers more – for me – than the Harbor Springs segment (about 20 miles roundtrip).
Patience plays a key role in the route to Charlevoix because, at the outset, there are a few miles of trail that parallel U.S. 31. This might seem uninspiring to some. But if they hang in there and keep riding another few miles, they’ll be rewarded with a fun descent from the old train trestle near Bay Shore down to the lake side. And that’s where things get more interesting on the way to Charlevoix.
The Wheelway passes through two roadside parks, both of which offer stellar Lake views and shore access. Plus, there are many other foot paths and deer trails that lead off to other areas of sandy, rocky shore – all of it absurdly gorgeous and fantastically close to the Wheelway.
In terms of bike and foot traffic, there are always more of both the closer I get to town. Other people are fewer and farther between a few miles outside town. That makes it nice on the longer rides to Charlevoix and anywhere really, for that matter.
A long, shallow climb near the old Big Rock Point nuclear power plant site leads to the Wheelway’s unique, mile-long wooden deck that delivers trail users across a pretty wetland. At that point, the destination draws near as the trail winds past Charlevoix Country Club, the community swimming pool and housing developments.
The Little Traverse Wheelway terminates not long after that, dumping cyclists out onto Waller Road, a flat, straight two-lane with a good shoulder and attentive drivers. From there, it’s just a mile into town, where the sites and sounds of Charlevoix await.
By the way, in my opinion, bicycles are the best way to both visit and get around Charlevoix in the tourist season. Parking cars and touring the community in a car or truck can be challenging, while a bicycle lets you access those little nooks and crannies that really bring out a town’s character. And Charlevoix has plenty of that!
Story and Photos by Eric Cox