After Labor Day and into fall is an ideal time to beach ride along the shore of Lake Michigan. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
- The lake is still warm making early morning starts 10-15 degrees warmer and a heck of a lot nicer
- There are generally still a lot of warm, sunny, low wind days
- Lake levels are typically lower than the spring and creek crossings are usually pretty easy
- After Labor Day, not a lot of people are out on the beach so you have huge swaths of shoreline to yourself
This past weekend I organized a group ride to go (almost, more on this in a bit) from one significant point along Lake Michigan to another. I am hoping that our amazing beach ride will inspire others to get out and ride some beach before the cold temperatures and storms of late fall make it tougher to beach ride along Lake Michigan.
Maybe I am just a dork (doubt anyone that knows me would refute that label) but I was fired up about riding from one major Point along Lake Michigan to another Point. You look at a map of Michigan or even the US and you can see the two distinct points on the shoreline. It just fires me up to think “I rode that!” The two points in question are Big Sable Point and Point Betsie.
So about this whole “almost” thing, mentioned above. Our ride didn’t actually start at Big Sable Point which is in Ludington State Park because just north of the State Park is the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness area. Riding along the boundary of the wilderness area can be a contentious issue so we started just north of it at the Lake Michigan Recreation Area which is national forest. There is a really nice campground there and it is a great starting place or home base for beach riding if you are visiting the area.
On the northern end of our route is Point Betsie. Point Betsie is basically the northern boundary for this section of beach riding because you get into a series of nasty break walls and then the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore shortly thereafter; another no-no beach riding area. There is approximately 50 miles of beach in between the Lake Michigan Rec Area and Point Betsie and it is some of the best beach riding I have ever experienced. After some discussion amongst the local fat bikers, we realized that it would be easy for us to spot vehicles and do a one-way ride along the shoreline. So from there the Point to Point ride was born!
Mother Nature handed us a beautiful Sunday with highs in the low 70’s and low winds out of the south. These were prefect conditions to do the trek north. There were 6 of us total but only 5 bikes. Scott Quiring’s significant other, Christina joined me on the fatty tandem for the ride. We were rolling a Bud on the back and the Vee Tire 2XL on the front of the tandem so we were well equipped for even the softest beach conditions.
The first section is nice wide beach and really easy riding but there is a stretch about 4 miles north of the Rec Area that is full of seawalls. This is one of two sections of the 50 miles that it really sucks to go along the shoreline unless Lake Michigan is really, really low. Luckily, there is a nice place just south of Gurney Creek to hop from the beach to the road and then another good spot at a county park name Magoon Creek to hop back on the beach. From there it is a fairly easy ride up to Manistee.
Manistee is a great re-supply point about 12 miles into the ride. There are several good bars and restaurants as well as a full grocery store a few hundred yards off the route over the river. It is a nice short ride from the beach, through a part of the downtown and over the Manistee River. We took the opportunity to ride through Andy’s (my fellow Fat Camp podcaster) front yard and leave a bunch of skid marks. Hopefully that teaches him to not skip out on cool rides like this! From there it was a quick ride along the shores of Man Made Lake before we popped up and over the foredune and back onto Lake Michigan.
A few miles up the beach from Manistee we stopped off at my house and re-supplied. I had loaded up on local peaches and plums the day before at the farmers market (every Saturday morning into early October and it is also right on the route through Manistee) so it was nice to top off and enjoy fresh fruit from the local orchards.
From there we rode the section north to the south Portage Lake Channel Pier. You can ride along the channel and then access a path/public access on the shores of Portage Lake (#22 on this map). The ride around Portage Lake is the only long beach detour on the Point to Point route. If you choose to ride around Portage Lake, plan on about 10 miles of road with nice bike lane for the whole duration. Onekama is a great re-supply point with a small grocery store and a couple gas stations along with a few good restaurants. There is also a spring where you can fill up on the best tasting water around. The spring is just west of Little Eden Camp on Portage Point Drive and is really easy to spot.
Another option instead of riding around the Lake is going across the channel. This isn’t advisable during peak summer season but is no problem in the off seasons. No need for a full on pack raft, if you want a cheap flotation solution you can plan a bit ahead and pick up a truck tire inner tube from Manistee Tire Service back in Manistee and then just ditch it at the public beach on the other side of the Portage Channel (and make a kid’s day in the process). Yeah, it sounds a bit sketchy to float across a channel but there is a long history of jumping off the Portage piers all summer long so it is actually a pretty normal thing to do in these parts. Because of where we live, we were able to easily spot a truck at the access point and drive around to Portage Point on the north side of the channel.
North of the Portage Lake Channel was one of the best sections of the trip. You go from wide beaches to riding along a bluff with a lot of springs flowing out of the bluff. The further north we went towards Piersport, the fewer and fewer homes there are. At Piersport there is “Old Facefull” which is another spring with great tasting water.
The great riding continued north of Piersport with more bluffs and desolate beach. You eventually end up at the Arcadia Channel which is a bit more rustic than its bigger, southern siblings.
The area south of the Arcadia Channel is technically private property but is also open to the public. We followed the sandy two track past fire rings until we connected with Chamberlain Rd and then headed north on M22. The Big Apple Bar has good pizza and beer on tap but there also is a gas station in Arcadia that makes a great re-supply point. We still had a lot of ground to cover so we pressed onward.
There is a nasty section of break walls just north of Arcadia. Luckily there is a small subdivision north of the village and a good beach access north of the big section of break walls. There are still a few sections of break wall north of there but nothing too bad compared to what we were able to skip. From there north is another amazing section of beach. We passed under the bluffs owned by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and below where some of the best mountain bike trails are in the area. North of the bluffs is the Herring Lake Outlet where Upper and Lower Herring Lakes drain into Lake Michigan. This can be a tough crossing depending on how much rain has fallen recently but when we came upon it, the crossing was an excellent “test of strength” challenge that was almost conquered by Jeff and dumped both Scott and James.
A few miles north of that was one of the coolest features of the ride; an old shipwreck. As a reminder of the fall storms to come, we rode past a big chunk of the City of Boston which went down during a November storm in the late 1800’s. The bow of the boat is a bit further out in the lake (but easily accessed if you swim) but a side of the ship has washed in near shore, allowing us to easily check it out on our ride. There were also some of the HUGE chunks of wood from the boat’s frame that washed up a bit further south.
From there it is was hammer down for us. It was getting late in the day and we were all a bit weary. The beach from the Herring Outlet to the Alberta Pier is nice sand with some sections of pebbles mixed in every so often. If the beautiful beach views weren’t enough to keep us entertained, we were able to watch several hang gliders soar around as we rolled up to the Betsie River Channel.
It was a short ride 4-5 mile ride around Betsie Lake. There is a mineral spring in town (with safe but not very good tasting water) but even better is Stormcloud Brewery which specializes in Belgian-style ales! It took some serious arm twisting to get me to not stop for a quick pint but the promise of being back at the brewery in an hour or so after our ride was sufficient to persuaded me to turn the tandem north and roll on.
The final section has a lot of loose large rocks and was pretty tiring (the above pic was before the rocky stuff started). The good part was that about the same time our bodies started to protest and give out from all the jarring, the rocky beach gave way to sand or small pebbles and we spied our final destination of the ride – Point Betsie! This is the oldest standing structure in Betsie County (built in 1858) and you can see its distinctive red roof for a mile or two before you get to it.
While the ride was over, the trip was not so we quickly got washed off by swimming in the Lake and loaded up to head back to the brewery. Many a beer and wood fired pizza were consumed and we stepped out just in time to partake in a perfect sunset. What a day!
We hope to make this ride a tradition and do a big one day ride each fall. For reference, it took us a little over 6 hours of moving time to complete but we were riding pretty fast and had perfect conditions. It was great as a one day ride but it would be just as good if not better to slow things down and make it a multi-day excursion. Here is a link to our GPS tracks to aide in navigation if you want to tackle all or part of this ride. There are a lot of great places to stay and/or camp along the route. You are never more than 15 miles from your next re-supply point but there are a lot of sections that feel really “out there” along the shoreline. If you can pick your weather window well, this would be an amazing 3 day, out and back bikepacking trip. If you don’t have a way to line up a shuttle nor do you want to do an out and back, both Manistee County (Dial-a-Ride service) and Benzie County (Benzie Bus) have dial-a-ride services that will pick you up and drop you and your bike off anywhere in their respective counties. It is a great shuttle option for not a whole lot of money.
Hopefully you enjoyed a glimpse into the first Point to Point ride and spurs you on to get out and enjoy some fall beach riding!