In October of 2017, I was staying on the west coast of Michigan near Grand Rapids. I was feeling ambitious. Inspiration was always there for a bike trip, but one day I just decided I would map it all out and just…go. After a bit of planning (maybe a little under-prepared), it was arranged that I would be dropped off near the Lake Michigan coast in Grand Haven, and then ride all the way to the Leelanau Peninsula. It would be a total of about 220 miles. I totally understand that 220 miles is NOTHING to touring cyclists, but I had only done a day trip of about 50 miles previous to my planned ride. Other than that, my rides usually only lasted for about 12-20 miles a day for daily commutes to work. This was going to be my first solo bike tour.
Day 1 Grand Haven to Hart ~55 miles
As mentioned, I didn’t really prepare for this trip. I bought a rack and bag and threw a bunch of snacks and some clothes in it. I used bungee cords to strap my sleeping bag to the back, which I kept in a pillow case. I used Strava and Google Maps to draw a tentative map and marked all campgrounds along the way. My aim was for around 30 miles a day, so that I could make it more of a leisure camping trip.
I knew that the official U.S. Bicycle Route 35 was somewhere along the path, but at the time, I couldn’t find accurate information to link up with it. Thankfully, I ended up on it anyway and I didn’t need any maps whatsoever, other than Strava. I was able to follow the bike signs all the way to Glen Arbor, just west of Traverse City! I realized rather quickly that 30 miles didn’t take very long at all and I had it in me to go much further. I ate one big meal a day, usually at the end of the day or around lunchtime. The rest of the time I snacked on granola bars and jerky and random binges at gas stations.
I think I was dropped off in Grand Haven at a…fire station? The Strava route I punched in took me right to the bike route and from there I didn’t GPS until I left Route 35 up north. The entire first day was primarily rail trail, which was awesome. I rode through Muskegon, Whitehall, Montague, and a bunch of smaller towns on a paved bike path through the woods and fields. The path takes you right by Michigan’s Adventure: Michigan’s largest amusement park. However, it was closed by that time of year, so through the trees it looked like a creepy abandoned theme park.
I was virtually alone the entire time on the trail. It was peaceful and woodsy and beautiful.
I made it to Hart a little before sunset and stopped to have the biggest dinner ever at Kristi’s Pour House. I feasted on a cheeseburger, fries, and a tall Blue Moon. There’s a campground right down the street in Hart and I pitched the tent and passed right out. I was full and happy and feeling very impressed with how smooth the trip was already feeling.
Day 2 Hart to Manistee ~50 miles
I woke up on day two feeling stiff and battered. I woke up bruised and with a very stiff neck from using my extra clothes as a pillow. To make matters worse, I crashed the day before being stupid and trying to take a video while riding, and now it was finally catching up with me. I packed up camp and headed straight out. I can honestly say that this day was the hardest on me.
The morning was peaceful, more riding through the woods. I already felt like I was up north. I saw a lot of turkey and deer along the way. My favorite little town I passed through was Pentwater, which I think is technically a village. Once I pulled in, I decided to have a breakfast snack near the marina.
By afternoon I hit Ludington, which turned out to be mildly stressful. There was a lot more traffic and the hills were starting to get to me. I was trying to find a cool coffee shop that I had been to many years before, but Ludington ended up being a major unintentional detour that took a lot of daylight from me. The wind also picked up throughout the day, definitely slowing things down.
I was tired and sore and grumpy. Once I got back on track outside of Ludington I stopped at the only small gas station along the way. I had two of the biggest slices of pizza and a chocolate milk and worried about making it the last 15-20 miles to Orchard Beach State Park outside of Manistee (As a side note: I was just now discovering that I am lactose intolerant). That might have contributed to feeling absolutely awful after this dinner.
The sun was just going down and I made it to Manistee. I snapped some triumphant pictures and hustled to the campground. Orchard Beach State Park is right on the coast of Lake Michigan. The campground was open and pretty deserted…as to be expected in late fall. I watched the rest of the sun set over the lake and set up camp in the dark. This night it rained and the wind howled. I could hear the waves crashing angrily all night. It was cold. I showered to warm up and passed out hard.
Day 3 Manistee to Elberta ~30ish miles?
The soreness was really starting affect me by day 3, but I set off in a mild drizzle, feeling positive and excited for another day. Even though it had only been a couple of days, I was already in love with the routine and physical challenges of bike touring. There was nowhere to grab food so I had a granola bar and decided early that I was going to take it a little slower and opt for a shorter ride.
I rode for an hour or two to a very small village called Onekama. The town was empty and there were scarecrows all over the streets in preparation for Halloween. I stopped at a diner and feasted for lunch. I am SO GLAD that I got to fuel up here because I was about to encounter some serious hills. It was definitely a shorter length of riding, but the ride was so much more challenging!
The hills started right after leaving Onekama. I was told that there would be a lot of hills up north, but I underestimated them, for sure. There are 3 big ones that I was told are called The Three Sisters. The first of The Three Sisters is a 5% to 8% grade for 1.75 miles. After that is a long ride down through the valley to Arcadia.
Just outside of Arcadia is the monster hill. It’s a short half-mile hill, but it has a 12-15% incline. In that moment, I had no idea how many more hills I would encounter and how much worse it would get. I was getting tired. I ended up walking my bike a few times on that second hill.
There’s a scenic viewing point on top of the hill, and even though my heart was beating out of my chest, I ran up all the stairs to drink in the view from the top. The downhill portions on the ride were intense for me. It’s the fastest I’ve ever gone on a bicycle! There was one more major hill after and then I was in the clear.
I made it to Elberta with a lot of daylight to spare. I stayed at a nice family owned campground called Betsie River Campsite. After setting up my tent I rode back into town for, of course, a cheeseburger and some beers. I even rode a little further to the lake to watch the sunset. The showers at Betsie River were awesome and heated. I warmed up and went right to bed. I had yet to actually build a fire and camp.
Day 4 Elberta to Glen Arbor ~35 miles
At this point in the trip I realized I was making great time. I took another short and easy day. I stopped for the most amazing Turkey sandwich at Shipwreck Cafe in Empire. Then I made it to the sand dunes. Again, my body was exhausted but my mind and spirit were alive and buzzing with excitement. So I made sure to stop and climb the dunes. I made it to my campsite at D.H. Day Campground in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park very early. This is the first night I made camp and had a fire. I was finally able to heat up and eat the cans of ravioli I had been carrying with me. It was still a little chilly at night but I finally had a really nice restful sleep.
Day 5 Glen Arbor to Leelenau State Park ~40 miles
My last day. I rode back into Glen Arbor for coffee and breakfast. The whole day was very easy. I breezed right through Leelanau County and I was able to hang out in Northport for the afternoon. I had some more coffee and gelato at a cafe. I spent an hour or two laying in the sun as I waited for my car ride to get closer to the meeting point. I pushed myself through the last few miles to get to the tippy top of the Leelenau Peninsula. I made it a point to write my name on the chalkboard at the entrance of the park and walked straight to the Grand Traverse Lighthouse. TAG. 220 miles. Made it.
My ride back home ended up meeting me at the lighthouse and we were able to drive all the way back down the coast along most of the route that I had just rode. It was very surreal experience.
If you’ve made this ride, or plan to, feel free drop a comment below with any questions you have, or experiences you want to share. I plan on doing many more tours on my bike in the future, so if you’d like to share another route as well, please do.
Thanks for reading. 🙂