Water Water Everywhere -and nowhere to ride a bike!
Last year, when we decided that May 2023 was the perfect month to resume our Mississippi Bike Trail ride in Burlington, IA, the one thing we didn’t take into consideration is that Spring is “flood season” on the Mississippi. A week or so before we planned to get started, the news began covering the rising flood waters. Uh oh!
Enter Plan B: What I jokingly started calling: The Frozen Butt Tour. We were already planning to be in Michigan for a few days before heading to Iowa, so I suggested we might as well stay in Michigan to ride. The idea of tracing Michigan’s outline -the Mitten- seemed like a fun project. We knew we were taking our chances with the weather, but we had less than a week to plan a “plan B” trip. We thought that our familiarity with Michigan would help us plan a last minute trip faster and with less stress than trying to research going somewhere we’ve never been before,
We agreed that it might be best to start the ride “down South” to give “up North” some extra time to warm up. While pouring over the map for a good route across the state along the Southern border, I found out that a trail organization has mapped a route across the state from Saugatuck (Lake Michigan side) to Port Huron (Lake Huron side). It is called the Great Lake To Lake Trail. They knitted quite a few community trails together by mapping out the road directions between the end of one trail to the beginning of the next one. It is a mix of roads and both paved and unpaved bike paths. According to the website, the total distance is 275 miles. With road bikes, we were a bit concerned about the idea of riding on unpaved trails, but I loved the idea of this patchwork trail across the state so we decided we’d give it a try.
It is marked as Route #1 on the map below:
Our sag driver for this trip was sister Laura. We’re grateful to have a few family members willing to go along as our support crew on these crazy trips! We decided to start just North of Saugatuck on the Lake Michigan side because it was about 40 miles West from where we were staying.
By staying in Michigan, we even had a couple of extra days to get sorted out and ready to go -and yet, we were still quite disorganized right up until we had to get in the car and head for the starting line.
Day 1: Saugatuck, MI to Gobles, MI – 41.5 Miles
Getting some last minute things taken care of before loading the car up this morning was NOT the moment to find out that my Mac laptop doesn’t seem to be compatible with our new Garmin bike GPS devices. I’d done some initial trip routing before we headed to Michigan on the desktop, but hadn’t downloaded anything to the devices before we left. I had planned to do it after we got to Michigan. I was flustered and trying to hurry and get this figured out. Nothing I was trying was working -and we were running out of time if we wanted to start our ride today. Luckily, I did happen to send the first day’s route to my GPS before we left Florida, so we could have guidance for today …but I knew I’d have to get this fixed later at the hotel. The “fix” ended up being that once I’d plotted a route on the MAC I could use my phone to send it to my bike computer. Unfortunately, I was never able to get the routes onto Mike’s bike computer.
We packed up the car – and the bikes… drove for about an hour to a gas station conveniently located next to our route. The bikes were unloaded and we made sure we had what we needed for the day, along with attaching the lights, rack packs and GPS devices.
We were so excited to get going, we forgot to take our official departure picture. Not far down the road, I stopped and Mike asked me “What are we stopping for?”… “For our official departure picture!”
Saugatuck is a very popular tourist town in Michigan. There are lots of cute little shops and restaurants. We haven’t been there in a long time, so I was looking forward to riding through the village.
We were following US Bicycle Route 35 for the first 20 miles or so. It is one of two marked bike routes in Michigan developed for bicycle touring. It starts in the Upper Peninsula and ends at the Indiana border. I started thinking that the bike GPS was “confused” and wasn’t giving me the right directions, so I stopped trusting it. There was a bit of confusion and wrong turns until I decided we should cut down a side street and go back out to the main highway. I knew the route rejoined the highway at some point, but the highway bypassed downtown Saugatuck, darn it! You can see the US Bicycle Route sign in the picture below. It is the green one below the yellow pedestrian sign. The route detoured us through Saugatuck’s neighboring village -Douglas – and then back to the highway. It was my first clue (of many) that I needed to “edit” the routes every day to avoid “wandering” unnecessarily.
Finally we got outside the city limits and onto what I call a “routine” Michigan highway for awhile. Then we turned more toward the lakeshore and began riding along a lovely woodsy road -the kind that the lakeshore cottages are lined up on. At one point we saw a deer crossing the road up ahead, but were too far away for a picture.
Our only glimpse of Lake Michigan came as we approached a curve in the road with blue water straight ahead. There was a small parking lot by this small county park so we stopped for a photo…then onward.
In South Haven, (about 20 miles from Saugatuck), we segued onto the Kal-Haven Trail. The Kal-Haven trail, unpaved, is about 33 miles long, running from South Haven to Kalamazoo.
There was a bit of pavement until we passed under the bridge.
We managed well riding on the surface, which was more solid than we’d imagined. We did have to stay alert for areas where the crushed stone got washed into piles because those could be somewhat loose and treacherous -like riding through sand.
I was a bit surprised at how really remote the trail felt. It felt like we were really in the middle of nowhere. We only saw a few towns along the way. The trail itself seemed like it was somewhat woebegone overall. There was a noticeable lack of upkeep, like for the informational signs and things like this once freshly painted caboose in the town of Bloomingdale, Michigan.
Laura met us where the Kal-Haven trail crosses the highway at Gobles, Michigan. As we came up to the highway, there was a little shelter with a picnic table in it. Laura waited for us there, but we couldn’t see her until we were even with it and heard a very familiar voice say “HEY!” The nearest hotel was 10 miles away in Paw Paw. We shuttled there, cleaned up, and went to find some dinner. We ate at a place called Brewster’s. It was really interesting inside. The building was originally a hotel and it seemed like the restaurant was occupying the original lobby area.
When I did the initial planning for this trip, I realized that if we wanted to, we could ride unsupported for several days after this first day. We decided we liked that idea. Back at the hotel, we unloaded everything from the car and reorganized it so that we could pack what we needed in our panniers and send the rest home with Laura for a few days.
Day 2: Gobles, MI to Battle Creek, MI – 64 Miles (unintended)
In all the excitement yesterday, I forgot to get my traditional “first day of the trip” picture with my Cycologist T-shirt. We did a better late than never picture when we got to Gobles to start our 2nd day of riding. I couldn’t put it on because of all the layers I already had on!
We said our goodbyes to Laura and hit the trail.
The closer we got to Kalamazoo, the nicer the trail got -both in condition and things like signs, benches and rest stops.
After about 15 miles, we popped out at the trailhead at the Kalamazoo end.
I took the picture above that showed the trail we just left and the next trail to follow.
For a short while, we were lucky to ride on lovely, smooth pavement. Heaven.
Before long, we emerged onto the streets of Kalamazoo. Because I wasn’t trusting my GPS to route us correctly, I assumed that all we needed to do was make sure we kept following the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail. Easy, right? NOPE!~ We had a bit of a struggle to follow the trail through the busy streets, but were managing OK.
The moment it became a d’aventure was when we stopped at a T-corner and looked left and right trying to figure out which way to go next. To the left, across the street, I could see a park and an obvious bike trail going into it. To the right, we saw a gas station a couple of blocks away and decided to go buy a cold drink and a snack before we continued. We turned in that direction, but about halfway there Mike heard yelling and noticed an altercation in progress at the gas station and said… Nope, not stopping there! We turned around and headed to the park we’d spotted and kept going.
I knew we were supposed to pass through a town called Galesburg -but we rode and rode -yet no Galesburg. On the sign in the picture above for the bike trails, it said that the Kalamazoo Nature Center was 11 miles. We passed the nature center and I thought OK…we’re on track! Except, a couple of miles later the trail simply ended at a road in the middle of nowhere. What the heck??? So I got out my phone and tried to figure out where we were. Where we were was LOST. We were about 8 miles NORTH of Galesburg! We were way, way, way off course. From that point on, we had to improvise a route to our hotel outside of Battle Creek. A 52 mile day turned into a 64 mile day. We were so focused on just getting there at that point that I didn’t take any more pictures that day. Our improvised route correction wasn’t much fun, but we made it there in the end.
Later at the hotel I was able to trace where we went wrong. It was at the point where we were between the gas station and the park. I had assumed the trail was linear, but it is more like a Y. The direction we needed to go joined the sidewalk (across from where we’d stopped), which then connected a couple of blocks later with the path we took going into the park. IF we’d gone to the gas station, on our way back we would have noticed the trail coming in from the side and would have stopped to double-check our maps before deciding which way to go. Instead, we took the trail we could see -and ended up costing ourselves extra miles.
Day 3: Battle Creek, MI to Jackson, MI – 50 Miles
After yesterday’s debacle, I decided to be a lot more cautious about double-checking our route as often as necessary if there was an ounce of uncertainty. I was starting to trust the bike computer a bit more, but the bike GPS screen only shows a small area of the route at a time. In a bit of serendipity, I figured out that if I pulled up the route on my phone using the Garmin app, I could zoom in or out and see more of the “big picture”. This became really helpful during the trip. We were able to be a bit more precise about staying on track and making decisions about our route as we went.
This morning, as we started out, we made an impromptu decision to save some miles by following a busier highway that crossed the route about 7 miles down the road. The highway had a good shoulder so we were comfortable riding on it. Our route took us along the outskirts of Marshall -so we missed seeing some of the historic homes the town is known for. The next town we rode through (not around) was Albion. It is a cute town with a nice park along the river.
We followed the bike trail through a nice park until we came to this construction barrier. We were looking for a specific road (the GPS was telling me we’d missed a turn) and after consulting the Garmin app for the route and then my phone maps, we realized this road was the one we needed. We saw some ladies walking in the park and they told us how to get around the worst of the construction.
The part of the road we rode on wasn’t actively being worked on -whew! Fortunately, we only had to ride on this for about a mile.
When I first sat down to plot this route at the Garmin site, I was happy to use the Great Lake to Lake Trail’s mapping. I was in a hurry and it was nice to just figure out how far we had to go to get to the next hotel. The reality is that the Great Lake to Lake Trail organization mapped this route to take riders from the end of one trail to the beginning of the next trail using lesser traveled back roads. This result is often not the most direct route from point A to B. Mike and I like to avoid unnecessary miles if we can (when we’re not getting lost!).
After Albion, we traveled some really, really, bad back roads. I told Mike we traded flood season on the Mississippi for pothole season in Michigan!! We even had to ride on the left side of the road at times just to avoid the worst potholes. Thank goodness we saw almost no cars for those roads. After all, what sane person would take their car down those roads? That was the point where we decided that we were more or less done following the exact mapping for the Great Lake to Lake Trail !!
Our next trail was the Falling Waters Trail, which would take us to Jackson, MI, our stop for the night.
We rolled up and saw this:
It wasn’t crushed limestone, it was out and out gravel. We didn’t think our bike tires could handle it. I checked my phone and could see that the trail crossed a road within maybe a mile, but that would be the last one for awhile. We gave it the college try, but only made it about 100 yards before we saw a cut-through to a parking lot for a business where we are able to do an instant re-route. We switched to the nearby highway, happy to find a good shoulder to ride on. From that point on, we made our own map to the hotel. There were a few wrong turns, but we got there!
(As I was writing this, I looked back at the route mapping and noticed that even though the GPS led us to this trail -I don’t think it was the right one! We were expecting a trail and saw a trail… but ???)
Categories: Around the Mitten -Part 1