Pure Michigan: Mountain Biking on the Upper Peninsula

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula quite possibly may be the most remote and wild place in the eastern United States. Bordered on three sides by the Great Lakes, it is a land covered in thick forests and rolling hills, and devoid of most signs of civilization. Just how remote is it? Consider this.

Michigan is home to approximately 10 million people, and yet less than 3% of them live in the U.P. If you go there, don’t expect reliable cell phone service, speed Internet, or much in the way of amenities. What you should expect is some of the most down to Earth people that you could ever meet, an abundance of great outdoor activities, and plenty of adventure.

My travels in the U.P. took me to the town of Copper Harbor, which is located at the extreme north of  the Keweenaw Peninsula, directly on the shores of Lake Superior. It is a sleep little town that has just 80 year-round residents, but welcomes adventurous travelers, particularly in the summer.

One of the local businesses is the Keweenaw Adventure Company, which hosts kayaking trips out onto the lake, as well as guided mountain bike rides onto the nearby trails. But those trails aren’t just some run-of-the-mill singletrack with little to offer experienced riders. The network of trails in and around Copper Harbor have been rated as a Silver Level Ride Center by the International Mountain Biking Association, which means they rank amongst the top five in the world.

With that kind of a reputation, I was eager to check out the trails for myself, and one morning while I was there, a few of us grabbed some bikes, and hit the trail. After a bit of a warm-up on some flat and fast trails near town, we caught the shuttle up to the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, which is home to beautiful golf course, but also provides access to several of the mountain bike trails.

Soon, my companions and I were zipping off down the road to the trail head for a route called Garden Brook, which would eventually provide access to another called Bullwinkle. Within minutes, we were flying across a trail that was both technically challenging, and incredibly fun, mixing the twists and turns of downhill, with just a enough climbing to give your legs a good workout as well.

The lush green forests that line the hills around Copper Harbor made for a great backdrop to the ride. The trails wandered through those woods as if they were meant to be there, rather than something that was carved out by human hands.

The setting would have been almost serene, were it not for the breakneck speeds that were obtained on the sustained downhill portions of the ride. When you conjure up dreams about what a perfect mountain bike ride through a forest should be like, it will resemble what is found in the hills above Copper Harbor. Fast, demanding, wild, and fun.

The trail isn’t the only thing that is wild in the region. We had only been on the trail for a few minutes when we came across bear scat that was fresh from that morning. Black bears are plentiful on the U.P., and there was one wandering close by. Fortunately, we never came across him on our ride, although a bear sighting would have only added to the great sense of fun that was had that morning.

hansi photo curve
Photo Credit: Hansi Johnson

Both Garden Brook and Bulwinkle are narrow singletrack from top to bottom, with the occasional wooden bridge to help cross over parts of the trails that are easily washed out, or could cause damage to the surrounding landscapes. The route is easy to follow, even for first timers, and sign posts clearly mark the intersection of trails. We passed several of them on our descent, with each giving an enticing hint as to other possible rides that were available, if only we had time to take them.

Before we knew it, our morning on the mountain bike trails were over, and we had to turn in our bikes in order to move on to other activities. But the exhilarating, adrenaline-inducing run down the Copper Harbor trails stayed with us for the rest of the day. There were so many other trails to ride, and so much more to explore. I wanted to stay for several more days just to see what other opportunities were available, and I look forward to a time when I can return, to do just that.

Our next stop was off to the Adventure Mining Company, where we would eventually walk deep under the Earth into an old copper mine. That is a completely different story for another time, but while we were there, we learned about a unique mountain biking race that takes place each year.

It is called the Miner’s Revenge, and it challenges riders to take their bikes over, around, and through the mountain. That’s right, this race not only features a trail that wanders up and over the surrounding hills, but it actually goes into the copper mine itself, with riders traveling along the old tunnels that are still open there. Now that sounds like a crazy ride!

If you’d like to learn more about the mountain biking trails on the Upper Peninsula, and in Copper Harbor in particular, check out CopperHarborTrails.org. You’ll find an interactive trail map, information on local events, and more. It is a great place to plan your own mountain biking excursion to the U.P.

And for a good look at the trails themselves, check out the video below as well. It’ll truly give you a sense of what to expect.

Find out more about everything Michigan has to offer at Michigan.org.

Kraig Becker