Long known for its sugar-sand beaches, stunning scenery and award-winning wines, Traverse City is suddenly attracting yet another group of fans. Mountain bikers.
Actually, the Traverse City area has always been a friendly place for recreational cyclists. Its glacier-carved landscape of gentle hills, long narrow lakes and winding rural roads is challenging but not exhausting, and there is a well-developed system of paved and unpaved trails. But lately, the trickle of serious mountain bike enthusiasts has become a flood and there's no better time to experience it than spring!
"We have some of the best bicycling anywhere in the country, period," says Julie Clark, director of TART Trails, which maintains several multi-purpose trails in the area.
Traverse City's best-known mountain biking trail system is the Vasa Pathway, located just east of town in the Pere Marquette State Forest. Designed as the home of the popular North American Vasa cross country ski race held each February, the trail features 16.7 miles of wooded trails in loops of varying distances from easy rides for beginners to challenging routes for the adventurous and experienced. (It's also part of the route for the grueling 28-mile Iceman Cometh Challenge, the largest single-day mountain biking race in the U.S., held each November.)
The Vasa system also includes a beautiful 13-mile system of winding, groomed single track trail created and maintained by the Northern Michigan Mountain Biking Association and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and a vast network of mostly unmarked trails known as the bandit single tracks that attract the supremely adventurous rider. Adjacent trails include the trail in Arcadia and the trail in Lake Ann.
More recently, mountain bikers have been discovering and developing a challenging series of trails much closer to the center of town. They're part of the 500-acre campus of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, Traverse City's former mental asylum, and they're a well-marked system of loops that wind through forests and meadows, across streams and up steep hills that lead to wide views of the city and beautiful Grand Traverse Bay.
Of course, the payoff for daredevil mountain bikers is always the wild downhill freeride, and the Commons has some trails that deliver major freeride thrills. The most popular section is at the southwestern corner of the campus, a high forested area known as Copper Ridge that offers some sizable (10 feet and more) drops. Its not a real distance trail, but makes up for its shortness with some of the regions most challenging terrain.
This season, the biggest news for mountain bikers is coming from the village of Bellaire (home to Shanty Creek Resorts) just a few miles northeast of Traverse City where the new Glacial Hills Pathway has just been completed. A joint effort of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and local governments, it provides more than 12 miles of fully-connected biking and hiking trails, with more to come.
Since the trails are on the same ridge system as Shanty Creeks famed ski slopes, the big draw at Glacial Hills is its dramatic elevation changes. (One recently completed loop has almost 300 feet of elevation gain from the parking lot to the highest point, with a 1.2 mile climb.)