Fat-Bike Destination – Free Soil Michigan

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P1160191Last week, I made good on a long standing plan to continue my exploration of the Lake Michigan Shoreline, just north of where I left off on a trip in 2012. The plan was to explore the area north of Ludington to the river town of Manistee. Over the years, I’ve visited and written stories about beach and trail riding from New Buffalo (near the Indiana border) to the shores of the UP and we even took a ferry trip where we boarded in Milwaukee with our bikes and gear and after we landed in Muskegon, cruised the beach down to Grand Haven, for a long weekend of riding, burritos and lawn parties, that raged, well into the starry summer night. Michigan has been a summer destination for me, for as long as I can remember. The Great Lakes are ‘all up’ in my blood and Lake Michigan has been a life-long companion (so far).

758Our own feature columnist, Ken Blakey Shell, lives up in Manistee and along with Scott Quiring have been key local resources for information about the area. Ken suggested that I order a National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map of the North Manistee National Forest. I got the map and started pouring over some of the mountain bike trail clusters, coupled with the Big-O ATV trail and the North Country Trail. It was clear that there were boundless recreational opportunities and that doesn’t even take into consideration the beach riding, the sand jeep roads or the Manistee River! So if you plan to visit and want to have a very detailed map to get lost with, you should order one. The other resource that I used on this trip is a regional cycling guide published by The Shoreline Cycling Club.  Both Ken and Scott are involved in producing the guide, called DIRTroad, along with other members of the club. The guide can be found here. It even has GPS coordinates to the trail heads. This year’s guide also features fat-bike rides!

So my trip was focused on Mason and Manistee Counties in the upper, eastern part of the mitten in Michigan. One of the cool things about this area is that it’s served by a Ferry that could potentially take travelers from Manitowoc Wisconsin over to Ludington. No matter how you choose to arrive, this area has every sort of ride for every ability of rider. On this trip, I brought along my plus bike for trail riding and my fatty for beach rides.

I started the trip with a visit to Quiring Cycles for a chat with Scott and Christina. After that I met up with Andy and Ken (the Co-Hosts of Fat Camp) to drop off some tires for Ken to dissect and a Jamis Dragon Slayer for Andy to test. We met at a cool little basement tap room below the beautiful Ramsdell Inn called T.J.’s Pub, right in the heart of Manistee. The Bell’s Brewing – Two Hearted Ale tasted pretty good after my long drive! We walked out of the bar a little after ten and it was just starting to get dark!


The next day, I took my Krampus, Silver, to the Big M Mountain bike trails, where the Lumberjack 100 had been held just the weekend before my arrival. All three of my local guides told me that the trail was completely buffed out from the racers. That,  coupled with just enough rain the day before, made for some really sweet trail conditions. I remember thinking that these trails and these conditions were perfect for the plus bike platform. The Big M trails are freak’n hilly, so get ready to climb, but at the end of every climb is a glorious downhill with just the right amount of technical difficulty that I look for in a trail ride! After the ride, back at my camp, I started to read the trail guide that I mentioned above and found out that there was a 3.4 mile family, fat or mountain bike, ride, right at the National Forest Service Campground that I was staying at in the Lake Michigan Recreation Area. The campground is just north of the only National Forest Wilderness Area, on Lake Michigan, that I’m aware of, Nordhouse Dunes. There’s no bikes allowed in Nordhouse, but the Lake Michigan Recreation Area is right up next to one of the most wild places in the Great Lakes. P1160194So after dinner and a few beers, I hopped on Otis and took a leisurely spin around the loop and stopped to take a look at the beach access, because the whole reason that I chose this spot to camp, was the beach riding. Being nestled up close to Nordhouse provided an incredible symphony of animal calls from dusk to dawn over the few nights that I camped. Coyotes and Owls sang me to sleep every night. There’s also some really nice dispersed camp sites right along the edge of that area, if you like to really get away from it all. (No Water / No Toilets). When I began my trip, I went with the intentions of taking advantage of the (free) dispersed camping in the Manistee, but in the end chose to camp at a USNF campground.

The next day, after breakfast, I packed a PBJ and some gorp and rode my fat-bike, Otis, right out the back of my campsite (avoiding any trails that led south to Nordhouse) and hit the staircase that led me down to the primary dune and then the beach! Lake Michigan water levels are above average right now, so I didn’t really know what to expect when I came to the water’s edge. I hoped that I could ride for a few miles.  What I found is very similar to the conditions that we’ve seen lately over in Wisconsin. Most of the beach is under water. You can see it P1160209and the outer shoal of the sand bar that we’ve become used to in this part of Michigan. Fortunately, the weather was picture perfect, so there was no problem with getting wet. In fact this seemed to be the perfect time of year for a nice slosh in the healing waters of Lago Michuacan. The conditions allowed for what I would call beach singletrack. Most of the beach was very close to the high water mark and the eroded edge of the dune grass that holds everything together in this sort of an environment was a three to 12 foot curb. Otis is all about beach singletrack! Dillinger fives mounted on 100mm HED BFR Rims eat up soft beach sand with the grace of a Heron. I rode for just over an hour going north with a steady tailwind. The stream crossings were frequent and stained brown from the tannic forrests upstream. The colors of the stream water created bands of color in the lake, consisting of different hues ranging from blue to brown. I saw a pair of Bald Eagles playing in the updrafts along the dunes and on my return trip came across a turkey vulture that had landed on the beach. I gave the vulture some space, but I stopped and watched that vulture struggle to find thermal help from updrafts to gain any altitude. I swore it was going to crash on several instances, but finally found it’s way aloft again. Despite the narrow corridor of ridable beach, this was the most enjoyable lake Michigan Beach ride, of recent memory.


Probably due to the fact that this was beach that I had never ridden before, so the exploration aspect of the day was perhaps the paramount influence on things. It could also have been the absolute perfect weather that I encountered for this adventure….either way, I look forward to returning to this very spot and riding here again!

P1160234I also did a couple of rides on sections of the North Country Trail from both the M10 and then the Free Soil Trailheads. I did them both as out and back rides. The North Country National Scenic Trail stretches approximately 4,600 miles from Crown Point in eastern New York to Lake Sakakawea State Park in the Dakotas. I’ve ridden bikes on the NCT in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Some parts of the NCT do  not allow bicycles, so you have to check the local bike policy before you ride. The NCT in the Manistee National Forest is open to bikes and pretty damn incredible. The trail feels like it’s been here for hundreds of years. The two sections that I rode on my visit were well maintained and marked. I can see why the trail guide provides GPS coordinates, because the trail heads were a little tricky to locate. Once you do find one of the trailheads, you’ll be in for a great ride. The trail winds through pine and hardwood forest and on both rides the smell of the pine was just the tonic that I needed! I came across a couple of reptiles on my rides. I found a blandings turtle out for a hike on the NCT. I also came very close to running over the tail of a four foot long, blue racer. I was just zipp’n along on one of the nice flowy sections, when suddenly a dark tree branch in the trail turned out to be a big snake. It kinda freaked us both out. I just kept on thinking how the miles and miles of perfect sandy singletrack were tailor made for plus bikes.


The trail in the photo above is very typical of the NCT north of Free Soil Road. A foot wide with a blanket of pine needs over sand and lined with fern and moss. The trail also goes across Deadhorse Marsh on an impressive boardwalk.


When I would return to camp, in the evenings, I would grill up some dinner and then enjoy a nice cruise around the little trail loop in the campground and the beach. I think a lot of travelers drive right by this little slice of paradise on their way to Traverse City or the UP. I think this area would make a great spot for a family vacation. There are quaint and historic places to visit in Ludington and Manistee with shopping and restaurants. There are all kinds of trails for all abilities and incredibly uncrowded beaches. Hell, there’s even a golf course up there, that has to have some pretty kick ass bunkers!


I hope you enjoyed this little travelogue from my visit to Mason and Manistee Counties. I’m on the brink of another road trip that will take me out west so stay tuned for more road reports right here on fat-bike dot com!


About Gomez 2576 Articles
Just an old cat that rides bikes, herds pixels, ropes gnomes and sometimes writes stories. I love a good story.


  1. If you are up that way and have time, you should hop on the NCT north of High Bridge Rd. (that initial section is closed to bikes, you can take dirt roads) and ride up to the Marilla Trial Head up near the Hodenpyl Dam. It’s one of my favorite Michigan rides.

  2. You definitely made a great choice to visit that area. My family loves to camp at Ludington State Park (fat bikes are perfect for the 1.5 mile trail out to Big Sable Point Lighthouse there), which is just on the South side of Nordhouse Dunes.

    Another great trail option just north of Manistee by about a half hour is the Arcadia Dunes trail, which is about 10 miles of singletrack in the CS Mott Nature Preserve. It was designed by the IMBA, can be ridden in both directions, and is one of my favorite trails in the state.

    Overall, it’s very hard to run out of things to do in that area to enjoy the great outdoors and some quality plus-size or fat biking.

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