After the relative success of my recent beach safari to Michigan, I wondered how the beaches on our side of Lake Michigan were riding. The thing about beach riding is you really have very little in the way of a trail conditions report about how things are looking. The best way to find out how things are looking is to go look for yourself. Over the last few years, those sorts of excursions have been fairly abrupt, especially on days where there are waves breaking onshore (which happens pretty much every day). That’s why I drove over to Michigan to see if the lake levels have dropped and the beach riding paradise had returned!
I used to call an amigo that worked at ZuZu Pedals in Port Washington to find out if the beach was ridable. Port Washington is about 25 miles north of Milwaukee Wisconsin and about an hour and a half drive from mi casa. The last time that I called to inquire about beach conditions, mi amigo told me that the beach was still really tight but they had built some new singletrack trails that start right from where we usually park to access the North Beach. He suggested that I could get a decent amount of riding by hitting the South Beach, the North Beach, and the new MTB Trails. With that as my fall-back plan and high hopes for beach access like we used to have before the lake levels rose, based upon what I saw on my recent Michigan trip, I extrapolated a theory that the trip would generate maximum bike-fun points.
Between the pandemic and the high lake levels, I hadn’t been to Port Washington for a couple of years. The last time that I rode here was at the First Beach Funduro with a great crowd of fun folks. On this trip, I noticed that the lakefront has continued to attract big steel and glass condo development near North Beach. Everything is under construction over that way so I parked the truck at the South Beach.
In the old days, I’ve ridden this section of beach south for about five miles down to Lions Park. There are some tall bluffs along this section and they’ve endured some serious erosion during the high lake levels from wave damage.
I took the bike off of the rack and rolled south. The beach looked wider than the last few times that I’d visited. The official city beach was showing a good 40-50 feet of dry sand to the surf-line. City Beaches get some extra attention, in the form of truckloads of extra sand added to them so I wasn’t ready to celebrate quite yet. A few hundred yards down the beach, where the city beach ends, the sand became narrower and a little more gravelly but there was still plenty of navigable beach-scape to ride.
I rode past the first set of bluffs, where the waves had previously been slashing away the clay and rocks. This is a spot that had previously been impassable. So the lake levels have receded a bit and left a pathway that can be ridden.
About a mile into the journey south, I came to a rocky point that looked like it might be ridable if it weren’t for the two-foot waves. As I was rolling up, I saw a woman wading into the lake to go for a swim. I dismounted my bike and started to hike my bike in the surf zone. When I got around the corner, I could see that the swimmer had a little fire going on the beach. That made me think about camping nearby at a little hobo camp called the Driftwood. I guess that I’m not the only beach fanatic with an adventurous streak.
I hopped back on the bike and looking ahead, the coastal bluffs appeared to get taller and gave the impression that there wasn’t much beach to ride. The truth was there was about another mile of ridable beach before I hit a spot where I pulled the plug. I turned around at a spot where I could have climbed up onto the huge limestone boulders that had been placed there to stop erosion or wade into the surf that was crashing against the boulders. I decided to head back towards Port Washington to see if I could get a look at the North Beach.
By the time that I rolled back to the Truck, it had gotten towards lunchtime so I had a beachfront picnic with some leftover Mu Shu Pork. After lunch, I grabbed my helmet out of the truck and took the bike path through town past the Marina towards the Bandshell. I rode past the new crop of square glass condos being built to where I was told that the new MTB trails were located over across the street from the bandshell.
The singletrack rolls along a small creek that meanders its way along the path of a paved bike path. The trails are really fun and well marked. I think that I hit most of what’s currently there and look forward to riding there again.
With a big singletrack smile on my face, I rolled across the street and then around the water treatment plant to the top of the entrance to North Beach. I could see that the beach conditions were looking pretty good down below. However, getting from where I was, down to the beach was going to be somewhat formidable. I’d never seen the entrance to North Beach so completely fubar. There was a tangle of greasy clay goat paths above a marrass of big logs piled on top of huge anti-erosion boulders that seem to be a popular tool used on this side of the lake*
*Somebody needs to clue Wisconsin beachfront homeowners in on the gigantic sandbags (top photo) that I saw deployed for the same purpose over in Michigan.
I started down one of the goat paths and that petered out at a greasy clay four-foot step-down that stalled my progress. My sandals were clogged with the slippery clay from the hillside and I just didn’t think that I could stick the landing. I recalculated my route and backtracked down to the tangle of logs and boulders just above the surf line. It was the sort of hike-a-bike that would discourage some people but I could see that if I could negotiate this one small section, I could get to a point where I could ride for as far as I could see looking up the coast towards the North. So I took my time and hauled Ten Beers down to where I could ride. The first section of sandy gravel was fairly soft so I dropped some tire pressure. A Klik down the beach and I found myself riding the good firm sand that had spent the last couple of years underwater.
I’ve been riding this particular section of beach from the very earliest rides on my first Pugsley. Mi amigo Cale and I were probably some of the first fat- bikers to ride here so I know the lay of the land in these parts. There’s a landmark that we call Pink Floyd Rock at the North end of the City swimming beach that used to be twenty feet from the lake. In more recent times Pink Floyd Rock has been in the lake due to high lake levels. This trip, when I rode past PF-Rock, it was a good five or six feet from the water. It’s an improvement and gave me a little hope.
I rode past the old farm tractor and boathouse that used to have a dilapidated beach cabana we’d stopped at and partied in the old days. About a half-mile past the tractor I started to have to wade into the water to get around fallen trees and after a little over two miles, I had enough wading and turned around at a spot that felt right. I retreated and made my way back the way that I had come to the log jumble below the treatment plant. It definitely seemed easier to climb up that obstacle than it had felt descending it earlier.
Once to the top, I zipped across town to where I’d left the truck and called it a day. My Wahoo Elment Roam clocked 10.23 miles in an hour and thirty-nine minutes of moving time and a little over three hours of actual time, which included a picnic lunch. Beach rides aren’t like other rides and can’t easily or fairly be compared by merely looking at the mileage. I think that there’s some merit to looking at the time differential between moving time and actual time. Those are some precious few minutes spent soaking in the visual splendor that nature paints. Minutes that I get to attempt to herd some pixels onto a camera and hunt for pretty rocks are the kind of intangible blessings that make beach riding one of life’s true treasures that will keep me coming back for more.
I guess the current state of beach riding on both sides of Lake Michigan is that it has come one step back in the right direction. The other thing that’s clear is that Port Washington, Wisconsin is a solid choice for a fun day of fat-bike beachploration combining the North Beach, MTB trails along with the South Beach. I can’t proclaim that the beach is back like it was ten years ago, but it’s still a sterling option for adventurous fat bikers to enjoy. When your singletrack trails are closed due to rain, the beach is open for riding. There’s just nothing better than a chill beach ride with friends.