Promoting the bicycling lifestyle in The Buckeye State
Mountain Biking the High Country Pathway of Michigan – Day 2
You can go back to Day 1 of this trip report if you haven’t read it already.
Brent and I arose from our tents not long after sunrise, packed our gear back up, and had some breakfast. I ate a bagel with Nutella, some dried fruit, and instant coffee. We got pedaling around 8:00am, I believe about an hour earlier than our start the first day.
We turned right out of the access road for the Tomahawk Creek Campground, looking for the blue markings where the High Country Pathway crossed. We didn’t see any marks before we came to Spring Lake Road, so apparently, we missed the trail. We decided to just head south on Spring Lake Road, since it paralleled the Pathway. About a mile later on this dirt and sand road, we finally picked up the trail markings again, and the Pathway actually followed this road for a short stretch. The sand got deep enough to be unrideable in one brief spot, and then turned back into the woods.
The Pathway went through one or two clearcut fields; sometimes the lack of features on these sections can make the trail even more difficult to follow.
There were one or two road crossings, and we came to a section of Pathway that was the most unrideable as we had seen so far–downed logs, dirt mounds, and severe overgrowth. We could see that a dirt road more or less paralleled the trail a dozen or so yards to our left, so we bush-whacked our way over to the road and proceeded to pedal happily unfettered. Since it appeared that we’d be doing more riding out in the open today, I stopped to apply some sunscreen to my face and ears.
We took out the map to see if you could figure out which road we were on, and what our next course of action should be. Many of the undeveloped roads in the area are not signed, and there are logging and maintenance roads that aren’t on the map, so it can be tricky. The rising sun was at our backs as we rode, so we figured we were heading west, more or less, and we concluded that we were on Clay Pit Road, which would lead us to State Route 33 again. This road had some long, rolling hills with some loose sand; I had to walk up one of the hills after getting bogged down in the sand at the bottom of it.
We reached M-33 and turned left (south). Not long after that, we saw a sign for the junction of Clay Pit Road, so the road we were on before was actually NOT Clay Pit Road, but another unnamed, unmapped road. We ended up in the same place as we had intended, though, so no harm done.
We had noticed another side road on the map called Tower Road, and off in the distance to the southeast, we could see a radio tower that appeared to be several hundred feet high, so it was obvious where Tower Road went.
This section of M-33 did not have a wide shoulder like the section we rode the briefly the day before. As we rode down the right half of the lane, Brent was a little spooked by the numerous large logging trucks that zoomed past us. I guess I just didn’t think about them enough to be bothered; I was just glad to be pedaling along at a good clip.
We went on for a few miles until we got to Clear Lake State Park, and turned right (west) onto County Road 622 along the south side of the lake. This paved road wound through a residential area until it turned to gravel, and then joined up with the Pathway.
The Pathway soon left the gravel road and turned back into the woods. The trail finally became much more rideable again, other than one brief stretch through a low marsh area where it crossed Van Helen Creek. There were a couple of steep but do-able climbs as the trail left the creek valley, including one past the Pug Lakes area.
We rode through a couple more clear-cut fields. One was especially rough, as whatever machinery was used left deep, soft furrows in the earth that went across the direction of the Pathway, making riding across them impossible. The Pathway followed alongside the three sparse trees shown on the right side of the picture:
We continued through more wooded sections, mostly rideable with a few short, steep climbs. We were getting closer to Rattlesnake Hill, which, from our pre-trip research, seemed to be the most notorious climb on the Pathway. Along the way, we pedaled up the side of one large mound, and were rewarded with a smooth, flowing descent down the other side that was probably the most fun and true singletrack experience on the whole Pathway. We ended up at a road crossing, at the intersection of Rouse Road and an unnamed service road, which I dubbed “Rattlesnake Junction.”
We proceeded on the Pathway, and soon were pedaling up some switchbacks, which eventually became a steep climb straight up the fall line. I managed to keep pedaling until I reached the peak, and for a short time was proud of myself for having pedaled all the way up Rattlesnake Hill.
We stopped for a while for a lunch break on the peak. I ate my last bagel with some pepperoni. It was a nice shady area, but there wasn’t much of a view, as it was blocked by surrounding trees.
This is where having studied the contour lines on the map more carefully would have paid off. It turns out, we were NOT on Rattlesnake Hill. We dropped down a very nice descent from this hill, and at the very bottom, there was a small sandy patch, with a downed sapling across it, which sucked all of my momentum. As the trail immediately turned steeply upward again, it was at this point that we realized that THIS was Rattlesnake Hill. I didn’t have the energy nor the will to attempt to pedal all the way again, so I stepped off the bike and trudged up sheepishly.
There is a bench at the top of Rattlesnake Hill, and the view is much more memorable. It is much more open and exposed to the sun, however, so at least I was comforted in believing that at least the “false” Rattlesnake Hill was a better place to stop for lunch.
The descent off of Rattlesnake Hill was a little rough; it looked like the trail had recently been re-routed, and the new trail was not yet very well-established. I didn’t bomb down, but just took it easy to stay in one piece. Not long after that, the Pathway re-joined County Road 622. We decided we had enough trail experience for a while, and stayed on the road to try to cover a big stretch of ground more quickly.
The road was the usual dirt, gravel, and sand. The sand was a little thick in spots, but never so much so that we couldn’t keep pedaling. It felt good to be pedaling along at a good, steady pace, but it was hotter out on the open road, and the sun reflected off of the sand, making me fell like I was getting double exposure. County Road 622 ends at Black River Road, which we took north until it intersected the Pathway again. There were a handful of residential houses on both roads; the people in them must really enjoy living off the beaten path.
We followed the Pathway (alternating between rideable trail and unrideable wooden bridges again) until it met Chandler Dam Road. We turned right (east) here to follow the road into the Town Corner Lake Campground in order to top off our hydration packs. Standing at the well, a guy came over from his RV parked at the adjacent site. He was wearing a mountain bike-related t-shirt, so he apparently recognized us as fellow adventurers. He was from Kalkaska, and told us about trails and events in the area that he recommended we try out someday. He mentioned that he had biked the Pathway in the past; I asked if he would do it again. He chuckled and said, “I think you’ve answered your own question.”
We headed back west on Chandler Dam Road until it ended at Tin Shanty Road. We intended to follow this north until it crossed Sturgeon Valley Road, but again, with scant road signage, we ended up going all the way to Hardwood Lake Road. This goes west until it joins Twin Lakes Road, which shortly brought us to the park headquarters and our car, for a total of 40 miles ridden for the day. We enjoyed an impromptu post-tour celebration.
I would conclude that the High Country Pathway of Michigan is a worthy challenge for any mountain biker looking for a unique backcountry adventure that can be completed in a couple of days. It’s an ideal testing-ground if, like Brent and I, you’re preparing for a longer off-road tour, such as the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. However, being that it’s not what the average mountain biker would call a “pure” riding experience, I would not say that it’s a trail that needs to be on every mountain biker’s “bucket list.”
Despite the couple of minor unplanned detours that we had, navigation of the Pathway is pretty straightforward. A GPS and/or compass may have helped a little, but the average person should be able to find their way around the Pathway using the map and common sense.
We were amazed that we suffered no flat tires, especially after having ridden (or pushed) through so many overgrown weeds, many of which were thorny branches. However, I later found at home the next day that both of my tires were flat, so that would have been something to deal with had I been on the trail a third day. I would recommend either tire liners, sealant, tubeless systems, or whatever your preferred combination of puncture-protection technologies is.
Similarly, we were amazed that neither of us suffered poison ivy; not long into the first day, we gave up trying to avoid it as we pedaled through the weeds. To avoid both the poison ivy and just plain being cut up by the weeds, I’d recommend long sleeves and some type of long pants or tights. As I mentioned before, the insects were not as bad as we had feared, but the dry weather may have given us better than typical luck in this regard.
Because of the rough and less-developed nature of the trail surface, a full-suspension bike would be ideal for traveling the Pathway most efficiently. However, I am still quite happy with the performance of my rigid Salsa Fargo, and wouldn’t hesitate to keep using it for other similar adventures.
There are couple of things that I learned from this trip that might influence further refining of my bike-packing setup (see Day 1 for the details). The slight changes I made to my cooking and eating gear for this trip really helped create the extra space I needed for food in the frame bag. Eliminating a lot of extra clothing saved me both space and weight on this trip, but I’ll still need to account for that on a longer trip through more varied weather, such as the Great Divide.
I found that I really didn’t need all of the snacks and personal care items so close at hand in the top tube bag. That stuff could have easily gone in my backpack, and for the times that I needed it, it would not have been that big a deal to retrieve it from the backpack. Maybe I can find a way to better utilize this space.
The only issue I had, and it was quite a minor one, was with the two zip-lock bags containing my tools and spare parts. During the first day, I had them in the front of the seat bag, with my sleeping bag and sleeping pad in the back of the seat bag. The irregular size and shape of the tools and spare parts left voids in the space between them and the sleeping bag and pad, causing the bag to sag a bit. On the second day, I put the sleeping bag and pad in first in the front of the seat bag, and then the tools and spare parts in the back. But, this put the heavier items more towards the back of the bag, so it still sagged more than usual and I had to stop and re-cinch the straps a few times throughout the day.
Maybe I can distribute the tools and spare parts between the top tube bag and frame bag, or maybe put them in the handlebar bag, and use the top tube bag for my smartphone and digital camera. Either way, it’s a good excuse to continue planning short adventures to work these things out.