Riding Adventure Cycling’s ‘North Lakes’ route from Minneapolis to Detroit

It seems the more fun a trip is, the more photos I take to document the experience, and therefore the longer it takes me to process/wade through everything and get a blog post written. This was also my longest bike tour so far at 18 days on the road (plus two riding around Minneapolis/St Paul).

(ok yikes, I started a draft of this post in August 2018. I’ve now procrastinated long enough to make this post one of my ’19 for 2019′ items.)

I documented highlights of my ride (and post about bike commuting among other things) on my Instagram, but I like to have at least a summary of each trip here as a reference point for others who may want to try a similar route (or for myself if and when I’m old and gray). I learned so much on this (my first solo) trip that it’s kind of overwhelming to attempt to summarize, but I will give it a go.

So. Upon realizing last spring that my dad and I would have to reschedule our Upstate New York Erie Canal trip due to family obligations (we are planning attempt #2 for this June!), I decided to put all the gear I had collected for the trip to good use on my first solo trip. A friend had mentioned the Adventure Cycling North Lakes route, and I decided to start from Minneapolis, cross over Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, follow the coast of the mitten and wind up near Detroit. The starting/ending points were chosen more or less based on cheap one way flights on Southwest Airlines (I particularly like Southwest’s policy of no change fees, should I need to adjust my travel plans). I had also heard good things about Minneapolis, and my brother and his wife, as well as a good biking friend, live just outside of Detroit.

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True to form, I procrastinated planning the details of my trip until about a week or so before I left. I had the gear (which I’ll do a separate post on), but not a good idea of where I was going to camp or stay. As it turns out, the route in Wisconsin was dotted with Warm Showers host locations, and one evening I forced myself to sit down and figure out the mileage I needed to cover based on my beginning/ending date parameters. Knowing that I didn’t have to worry much about elevation, I focused on plugging in a couple of low mileage and rest days between 70, 80, and 90 mile days (not having had to do this before gave me an all new appreciation of my dad for the planning he’s done for our GAP/C&O and Natchez Trace trips). My last fully loaded trip had averaged about 65 miles a day (pretty flat terrain) for a week, so I had no idea what 2.5 weeks of 80-plus miles a day would feel like. Fortunately, it worked out swimmingly since I was on my own and for this route, I didn’t have much to distract me from pedaling on to my next host or campsite.

I chose to take my commuter instead of the road bike that I used for Natchez Trace because I felt quite comfortable on the steed that gets me to work every day, and I also felt more equipped to handle any mechanical issues that might arise (spoiler: I didn’t have a single mechanical or flat tire for 1400 miles. Yeah, I know, I just jinxed myself for my next trip).

Although I had the gear and seemed to pack enough food to have camped the whole 3 weeks, this area of the country doesn’t have a whole lot to offer in terms of bikepacker camping. The options on the North Lakes route are generally to pay an RV/car rate ($40 a night when you need one single camping spot… no thanks), stealth camp (people are so nice that asking permission to park your tent in someone’s field wasn’t a problem), or find a motel. I love getting the chance to meet local people while traveling and I’m always looking for free lodging options; so while I did camp for about 1/3 of the nights of this trip, I took advantage of many wonderful Warm Showers hosts along the route (like couch surfing for bike touring). By doing so, I met so many fabulous Midwest locals, stayed by the most beautiful lakes, drank in the scenery, ate amazing food, and slept like a very pampered princess for a good bit of my trip. Not even close to the ‘roughing it’ that I had imagined while loading up on gear in REI before the trip..

Finding hosts on Warm Showers felt easy since I was just asking for a spot for one person and I communicated as best I could ahead of time so they would know when to expect me. Since most hosts have done their own bike touring, meeting new people every night felt more like you were staying with a family friend instead of a random stranger. More specifically, a family friend who has been on a bike tour and knows how wonderful it is to be welcomed in, offered a meal, and get a warm shower (thus the admittedly odd name of the hosting network). Technically, to be a host on Warm Showers all you really have to offer up is a place to pitch a tent, and depending on the location even just a secure campsite can be a perfectly suitable arrangement. But all of my hosts on this trip went completely above and beyond to make me feel at home and honestly, they all put “Southern hospitality” to shame. The Midwest is where it’s at, y’all.

So anyway, the biking and stuff. The first day was an aggressive 93.4 mile shot out toward Cumberland, Wisconsin. The Gateway trail (above) exiting east from St Paul was very pleasant and shady, and eventually spouted me out onto the smooth, rural roads of the Midwest I’d heard so many good things about. Before long, I had crossed over into Wisconsin (which I could tell, apart from the sign, by the intensifying accents. Not kidding, it was amazing).

The terrain on the North Lakes route is pleasant rolling hills, with well paved, low traffic roads going through bucolic countryside. Sometimes you could see in front of you for miles, which I found to be different from riding back home and rather pleasant (admittedly, by the time I got to southern central Michigan and the days got hotter, seeing in front of you for miles on end wasn’t quite as charming).

Although there were random surprises, like modern art sculptures in the middle of a field.

While riding through Chequamegon National Forest in Wisconsin, I had my closest wildlife encounter when I startled a wild turkey that must have been resting under a Jurassic sized fern by the side of the road. I got my bear bell out after that and had no other such wildlife encounters on the road, although I had hoped to see some elk crossings. 

Also, don’t ask me how to pronounce any of these place names. Amusingly enough everyone I met insisted on a different pronunciation, so I couldn’t tell you what the correct one is.

The best part of the North Lakes route is… wait for it… the lakes! Seriously, nothing better than riding 80+ miles and getting welcomed by your host with an invitation to go jump in the water. Glorious.

I even got to experience some brand new bike trail connections between Manitowish Waters and Sayner. The pavement had literally just been laid down about a week prior and I think it technically wasn’t officially open… Heh.

I hadn’t originally planned to dip off of the official route to go down to Sayner, but these trails were so good that I’m glad that the profile of a Warm Showers host (also named Mary, so you knew she had to be a good one!) caught my eye.

This area appeared to be popular with families, judging by the various ages and groups I saw pedaling on the connected bike paths and enjoying the lakes. It was clear that the bike trails had been well received in the area, and they were eager to keep building expansions to draw more tourism in the area. I really wish more small towns could see this example, because it really was wonderful to ride through, enjoy the scenery and see other people out and about, and not have to worry about traffic. 

PS – if you find yourself in Sayner, stop in at the Corner Store, get a blueberry pie ice cream and tell Mary I say hello!

After a whirlwind few days, I had gotten through most of Wisconsin and was ready to head into Michigan and the Upper Peninsula (aka the U.P. or “Yoop”). An incredibly kind Warm Showers host let me stay at her empty lake house, and while I wished I could have met her, it was a great chance to take a short 36 mile “rest” day, have some quiet reflection time out of the saddle, charge up my devices and organize my gear before I started the camping section of my trip.

This is pretty much everything I brought, except my ginormous tent was already on the bike. The blue stuff sack on the bottom left held my food and the black and blue stuff sack in the top right held my clothes. I could have done without the blue water bag on the right, and never used my bear spray, but everything else was pretty spot on. A full rundown of my gear will have to be in a separate post.

It was exciting to get to my third state after just one week of riding! 

It was also really exciting to finally see Lake Michigan and experience the Great Lakes, up close and personal.

I had a lovely view of the summer Strawberry moon as I stealth camped behind a church for my first night of camping. There was a campground a little farther down the road, but I wasn’t sure if there would be spots available by the time I got there, and didn’t want to get stuck setting up my tent in the dark. So I got my water refilled at a bar, and picked a church with a funny sign and pitched my tent behind it. 

Although the UP was pretty much just following route 2 west to east, the shoulders were wide (wider than the stretch in the shot above shows), and there were some really pretty sections that made up for the occasional bouts of traffic.

I also made a bunch of turtle friends along the way. This one looked particularly ancient, and particularly capable of removing a finger.

Camping can be… *in tents*

My second night in the UP consisted of stealth camping on a pretty spot by the river in Hiawatha National Forest (there were some RV and car camping spots but unfortunately no hiker/biker type spots).

I wish I had brought a hammock for this trip, the couple nights of stealth camping would have been easier and overall it would have saved weight and space, since the tent I have currently is large and way too much tent for just 1 person.

In the middle of the UP, I took a detour up to Lake Manistique and was treated to a boat ride and bird watching with yet another wonderful Warm Showers host couple. I saw a snowy owl and several bald eagles!

The next morning I headed out, planning on around 70 miles before camping around St. Ignace before spending the next day exploring Mackinac Island. But it was very foggy all day, especially around Brevort, which is supposed to be a nice scenic beach spot – so while that was a bummer, I ended up making it all the way to St. Ignace by around 6pm and took the ferry over the Mackinac Island. When I saw how touristy St. Ignace was, I thought I might end up paying the $37 ferry ride just to ride around Mackinac for an hour before crossing over to get to a campground by 9pm (it stayed light out until almost 10 that time of year). Buuut, things didn’t quite work out that way…

It turns out, Mackinac Island is absolutely gorgeous and there are a lot of photo ops to take advantage of.

I also had serious indigestion (note to self: limit dried fruit intake), so I had to stop and lie down on several different benches while making the simple 8 mile tour around the island. So what could have been a quick and simple tour took a lot longer than I had planned for.

I did get to enjoy a beautiful, peaceful sunset, and ended up spending the evening in a spot off a horse trail that a WS host had described.. which was definitely not planned, but given how much my stomach had slowed me down, turned out for the best.

The next morning I was back on the Michigan “mitten”, and started my tour down the west side of the state, which was pleasantly spotted with beaches where one can stop and take a dip.

There were also a lot of gorgeous vistas and other reasons to stop…

As the days got warmer, ice cream intake increased.

The roads around Petoskey/Traverse City were a pleasant mix of trails and waterfront roads.

Because I had shaved off time by spending a night on Mackinac instead of a day, I was able to spend a day on Walloon Lake with my brother and his lovely in-laws, where we enjoyed a boat ride and I made a vague attempt to work on my tan lines.

After a fun evening with another Warm Showers host in Traverse City, I spent the 4th of July exploring the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Monument, met some lovely people in Empire while watching a bizarre cloud formation roll in from Lake Michigan, and was invited to camp in a backyard, which I was glad to take instead of trying to find a quiet campsite away from fireworks.

Towards the end of my trip, I was still trying to use up the coffee and oatmeal I had started with since my hosts were all so incredibly kind and generous with meals. I thoroughly enjoyed cooking my breakfast by the beach as my lakefront time was coming to a close.

Then I got to central Michigan, where things intensified. Just kidding, the heat was quite bearable (especially from a South Carolinian perspective) and the route I had downloaded from League of Michigan Bicyclists that took me from Muskegon to Ann Arbor proved to be a good one.

I arrived in Grand Rapids, tired enough to not care that I was ruining someone’s wedding pictures as I got this shot with the famous blue bridge (see the background, above…)

And arrived to meet my final Warm Showers hosts, plus their awesome chickens…

…and even got a ride to dinner nearby.

My one place to strike out for a Warm Showers host was in Lansing surprisingly, but fortunately a kind stranger (who I met while standing in line for ice cream, naturally) offered me a camping spot in their back yard. Which turned out to be the huge lovely field pictured above. Not too shabby! I’m glad I packed thank-you cards for my trip, as they were the perfect thing to leave in their mailbox on my way out the next morning.

At long last I reached Ann Arbor, and got to see and stay at the new house that my brother and his wife had just recently bought.

I had one more stop before flying out of Detroit to see a friend, who was another 50 miles on a messy route that I would most likely not do again (definitely a Google Maps fail)… but it was pretty perfect to get to end my trip by seeing the friend who introduced me to road cycling and bike wandering!

So there it is, the fastest summary I can manage that just skims the surface of my first solo bike trip. Big thumbs up to the ACA North Lakes route and all the memories made on this journey.

Riding Adventure Cycling’s ‘North Lakes’ route from Minneapolis to Detroit

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