True Confessions of Two Fat-Bike-Beach-Rats

Ecrito y fotografiado por Julio y Gomez

Julio caught ‘beach-fever’ sometime last year and he’s been planning a fat-pack ever since. Somewhere along the line this summer, we agreed to take a little fat-bike adventure together and this is our beach-rat, ride report. We figured the weather could get dicey in late October, so we kept various options open till just a week before the trip. As the trip grew closer, the forecast started to look good for us to head to the northern shores of Michigan’s mitten….sort of, the end of the pinky…the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Julio’s Schlick Northpaw and my Moonie – Fully Loaded & Ready to Rock

The route Julio planned started from D.H. Day campground in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (SBDNL) and ended about 45 miles south, in Arcadia, MI.  We met up and camped in Arcadia on Friday night and then, on Saturday morning, shuttled our bikes and gear up to DH Day in Julio’s Jeep. We left my truck in Arcadia, where it would be waiting at the end of our trip. When we got up to DH Day, we self-registered into a campsite for the weekend so that way we could leave the jeep there and then proceeded to pack our bikes and get out onto the sand.

The first day’s route would take us along side some of the tallest dunes in the park. Our journey then took us past the town of Empire and ended at the Platte River Campground (still within SBDNL) which was just a short jaunt off the beach. The sun peeked through the clouds for a bit, in the morning and a bonnie north-wind was at our backs once we made it around Sleeping Bear Point. Beach touring is so casual. There’s usually great spots to take pictures and an interesting array of flotsam and jetsam that’s found its way to the water’s edge. The SBD beach was uniquely devoid of many obstacles. There was very little driftwood or large rocks, although we did encounter some nice ‘baby-head’ beach rock sections that made us work a little along the way. What we did encounter along the entire route….were dead loons. We had to have ridden past thirty or more birds that lay on the beach in various stages of decomposition. Apparently there’s currently a botulism outbreak that is causing loons and other fish-eating birds to die-off in alarming numbers.  Another discovery, along the way, was the personality of the sand.  Every beach is unique in that the sand has a character all its own and the sand along this stretch of shoreline was no different.  Once you were out of wet zone, and at times this meant by only inches, the sand turned super soft and any hopes of staying upright were lost.  You pretty much had to ride right at the water line the entire time, but when you found the right line, you were in Hero Sand territory!

Once we were past the town of Empire and started our way around Platte Bay, the sky turned dark and ominous.  The wind that had been at our backs for most of the ride, now crossed our path and pushed Lake Michigan’s chilly water into our shoes on a more regular basis. I was pretty happy (and secretly, so was Julio) when we reached the spot where Julio took us inland to a gravel road that crossed a designated bike path that we rode to the Platte River campground.

We rode up to the Visitor’s Center and went inside to register for a campsite. The attendant at the check in desk took a look at our bikes and reacted like most people do (delight). She asked where we had ridden from and we told her that we had come from DH Day along the beach. She asked us to wait one minute and went back into another room behind the counter.  She came back with a Park Ranger that wore his 40 cal on his waist in a cross draw holster. We answered the same questions that we had just been asked moments earlier, without hesitation, because we had talked to a friend that had ridden there before and during his trip he had talked to a park service guy that didn’t have an issue with him riding the beach. The ranger, politely and professionally, explained that bicycles were not allowed on the beach within the National Lakeshore boundaries. I felt bad that we had broken the rules and that must have shown through because we weren’t issued tickets or reprimanded in any way. The ranger was very nice and admitted that our beach riding resides in a gray area because of a Michigan State Law that allows public access to the lakeshore below the normal high, water mark.  However, under his clear interpretation of the National Park Service rules, bicycles are only allowed on designated bike paths and roadways.  That meant that most of the 18+ miles that we had ridden that day were NOT open to bicycles. True Confession…(We F’d up) Fortunately for us, our second day of beach riding was slated to take place outside of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The park service lady put us into a really nice sheltered tent site with a big ‘blair witch style’ stick house, where we built a nice warm camp fire, charged our batteries for day two of the trip, and wondered which one of us was going to be eaten by bears first.

Camp Swank

Temperatures dipped close to freezing overnight but Sunday dawned with the promise of a little more sun than the day before. We scarfed down some oatmeal, packed up the bikes, and got started on the trip down to Arcadia. The first few miles were on paved roads to get us clear of the National Lakeshore and around the mouth of the Platte River. We popped back down to the beach a few miles north of Point Betsie.

 Point Betsie

We were getting pushed along with a nice steady tail wind when we spotted Point Betsie Lighthouse on the horizon. It was all closed up for the season so we didn’t linger too long there. We had a few hike-a-bike sections up and over old pilings and rip-rap in a few spots, but nothing we couldn’t manage. After another few miles we rode out onto the Frankfort North Breakwater, all the way to the end, where an automated lighthouse resides in an iron tower (of power) at the mouth of the Bestie Lake/Betsie River.

North Frankfort Breakwater

It felt about ten degrees colder out on the breakwater, so when we rolled into Frankfort’s downtown area I suggested we grab a nice hot cup of coffee on our way through. We ended up stopping at the Crescent Bakery for a bowl of chili and some nuclear hot apple cider!  After lunch, and now newly refreshed, we cruised the shore bike trail around Betsie Lake and into the next town, Elberta, where we zoomed back out onto the beach for the home stretch back to Arcadia.

Playa Paraíso de Rata

We set sail on a southern heading towards Arcadia, while the sun warmed our smiling faces.  The last dozen miles flew by courtesy of a brisk tail wind directly out of the north and exceptionally firm sand conditions (that Hero Sand again). There was a small stream crossing and a couple additional hike a bike spots near the end that made sure we arrived in Arcadia with cold wet feet but that just made the cold beer taste better (Labatt’s and Old Milwaukee need all the help they can get)! We ended up with 27.5 miles for the day and it was all completely legal!

In hindsight, we shouldn’t have just gone off of local intel and should have called ahead to check the regulations about beach access before we decided to plan a trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes. Now that we know National Lakeshore rules don’t allow bicycles to be ridden on the beach, we’ll abide by those rules. We really do try to follow all of the rules and be responsible guests of any public lands that we visit.

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8 Responses to True Confessions of Two Fat-Bike-Beach-Rats

  1. Mark Peterson November 5, 2012 at 10:36 am #

    Looks like it was a fun trip. Sweet photos, Thanks.

  2. Johnny November 5, 2012 at 6:29 pm #

    Nice trip write-up

  3. Steve November 5, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    Sorry for the bad info, I was allowed to ride last year near the Good Harbor entrance, asking a young park ranger. Sunday, I received a written warning from a Park Ranger for riding. Under federal law “Vehicle=bicycle”, any park system can get you on that if they have “No Vehicle” signs up, even if it has a pic of a jeep on it. Word of advice: Never ask a park ranger out patrolling if riding a beach in Mi is OK, go into the office. That’s how I got permission to ride the Ped section of Silver Lake Sand Dunes last year.

    Not sure of the rules of another Mi State Park, a couple of years ago I got conflicting answers from rangers to whether or not I could ride, one of them told me to ask in the Park HQ, but I was out of time.

    Seems a lot of people are a bit surprised to see a fatbike, but do not want to dissapoint us either; some rangers also ride MTB’s. The guy that wrote me up Sunday and every ranger & land manager I’ve talked with around Mi have always been nice. If you get busted, don’t lie, and answer their questions about your bike – I’m thinking one ranger I showed my bike to last year went out and bought himself a Pugs afterwards:)

    • Gomez November 6, 2012 at 7:02 am #

      No worries, Steve…your local knowledge has been invaluable, to me, on my many trips over to your side of Lake.

      • Steve November 6, 2012 at 8:57 pm #


        If you get over near the Ann Arbor area, send me an e-mail – I’ve become familiar with the “A2 loop”, an official MTB trail that requires a bit of knowledge as it’s not really mapped or marked well. Someone I know from a bikeshop gave me a tour last year, and I’ve figured out a few more routes. One of the best rides outside of the Poto around here, requires a guide the first time out.

  4. MS November 8, 2012 at 8:24 am #

    What’s the fatty-sized regular front fender on Julio’s bike?

  5. Sven Haamer November 9, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    One thing I’ve noticed that helps Park Rangers and other “non-fat-bikers” understand our passion is to describe fat-bikes as “bikes with snowshoes”. The perception that many people have is more of a Jeep that tears stuff up. The snowshoe analogy gives a much better, low-impact perception even if it is not on snow!

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