Thursday, October 13, 2016

Three Northern Michigan Trails for Running

In August, we spent a relaxing and peaceful week at our family cottage in northern Michigan. I've had this post hanging around in my drafts folder since then. Inspired by my friend Grace's return to blogging (!!!!!) I thought it was about time I get this out in the world.

While I grew up spending weeks and weekends at the cottage every summer, these days Matt and I only get there every other summer, so we take full advantage of our time and don’t take one minute for granted. We do our fair share of touristing (let's just say that's a word) but we also make sure at least three days are cottage days. We fully embraced the internet-free time to read, play games, and just sit and enjoy the fresh air. It's refreshing to have an empty to-do list.

Early Morning Run - on the beach in Glen Arbor, Michigan

Northern Michigan boasts many great golf courses, so Matt always brings along his clubs. Typically, when he golfs, I run. My dad, who I should mention wrote several editions of a comprehensive non-motorized trail atlas for Michigan from the 1970’s into the early 2000’s, gave me a list of trails that would be worth our time. 

Platte Plains Trail (Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore)

Early Morning Run - Sleeping Bear National Dunes - Platte River Trail

The first course Matt played was Manitou Passage, just north of Maple City and south of Glen Arbor (a town we seem to visit on every trip). I selected the Platte Plains Trail system in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore for several reasons - Sleeping Bear is simply a jewel, I thought it was fairly close to the golf course, and with nearly 15 miles of trails in this one system, and several lookouts onto Lake Michigan, it seemed like the perfect spot for a run.

While the trailhead on Trail’s End Road, a dirt road off M-22, turned out to be quite a bit farther from the course than I had anticipated, I’m still glad I made the trip. The small parking lot was fine on a Tuesday morning but probably fills up pretty quick on a busy summer weekend. Only looking to run about 4 miles, I decided to start out on the Bass Lake Trail then connect to Lasso Loop to get me out to the Lake Michigan overlook and then turn around. 

The trail system winds through a pretty standard dense northern Michigan forest of pine and oak trees. The first mile was fairly flat while the Lasso Loop trail immediately starts to climb at the split (take a hard right) and the next .8 miles consists of a series of short but steep climbs. Since this is a sand dune, these climbs are sandy rather than packed dirt which adds a little flavor to the workout. The forest was calm and relaxing (and humid) but when I hit the overlook I realized it wasn’t an overlook so much as just the beach, which was a nice surprise. (Note: about .2 miles before the overlook and where the Lasso Loop veers left, a trail branches off to the right to a backcountry campground - stay on the trail).

This section of beach is much different than others along the Lake Michigan shoreline in the area that tend to be very rocky. Instead, this is beautiful, soft sand and it was completely empty. Not a person in sight. I spent about 20 minutes here enjoying the view and the sound of the waves, and cooling off from the crazy humidity, before I headed back to the trail and finished my run. 

What to know, if you go:
  • This is part of the National Lakeshore so a permit is required; be sure to stop at the visitors center in Empire to purchase your pass (it’s worth it to support the national park service)
  • The trailhead is about a mile or so down a dirt road from M-22; there’s a self-launch boat ramp into Bass Lake right near the parking lot, if you want to kayak or SUP
  • A porta-potty is available
  • Bug spray - along with water - would be a good idea
  • With several loops and out-and-back options, this is a great trail system for pretty much any amount of miles you want to run
  • Plan on enjoying a few minutes on the lake shore mid-run and then dip your hot feet in Bass Lake to cool down back at the trailhead

TART (Traverse City)

Early Morning Run - TART Trail - Traverse City

The second course Matt played was The Crown, about 15 minutes southwest of downtown Traverse City, so I opted to stay closer and finally run along the bay - something I haven’t done before, even though its always been right there. 

Quite a different type of trail than the first one, the Traverse City Area Recreational Trails (TART), is a network of trails, bikeways and pedestrian pathways, that runs throughout the Traverse City area (hence the name). Portions run where rail lines used to exist, there’s a trail around Boardman Lake just south of downtown, another section runs from near the airport through downtown along the bay and connects with the Leelanau Trail heading to Suttons Bay. It’s a pretty fantastic network of paved trails that makes it easy for people in various parts of town to get out on a safe pathway free of motorized vehicles.

While I’ve run part of the Boardman Lake trail previously (which I really enjoyed), this time I ran the section of the trail downtown starting at the east end of Front Street and running along the bay. Rather than staying on the trail and heading inland towards the Leelanau Trail connection, I continued to run along the bay for a bit longer then turned around and headed back. The trail is exceptionally well marked with signage and the TART logo spray painted along the path at various points to make it clear where to go. Although it’s fine if you go off course a bit to check out the boats in the marina, it’s not difficult to find your way back. 

Two benefits of this trail: it goes through parts of town making it easily accessible for locals and visitors, and this section specifically provides an up close view of the beautiful bay. Unfortunately, however, for runners who like soft surfaces this is not going to do it for you as the trail is paved. Also, this section runs right along a busy highway so while the bay is on one side, fast-moving traffic is on the other. Still, the trail system is great for the area and expansion efforts are ongoing.

What to know, if you go:
  • If planning to run the downtown section, park in the neighborhood just east of downtown where there’s free 2 hour parking
  • Be prepared for a lot of sun and little shade
  • This section also gets very busy throughout the day with locals and tourists visiting the beaches and marina, so go early or plan for some dodging and weaving
  • Post-run take a dip in the lake to cool down and grab a coffee at Morsels along the Boardman River
  • There are well maintained restrooms in Clinch Park, along with drinking fountains
Find more info and a trails map here:

Sand Lakes Quiet Area

Early Morning Run - running the Sand Lakes Quiet Area Trail

My dad recommended the Sand Lakes Quiet Area as a quality trail to run on one of our “cottage days” as it’s a pretty short drive from our place, so Matt and I ran this one together. 

The DNR-maintained trail system is reached via a dirt road off M-72 about 10 miles east of Traverse City. We took Supply Road, coming up from the south, and found it a bit tricky to find, which might play a part in making it a quiet and peaceful place to run, hike, mountain bike, or fish - as the name would imply. We were surprised to find the parking lot full of vehicles but it seemed they were all camping on the shore of the first lake within the park as we didn’t see anyone else as we were running.

With five small lakes and 11 miles of intersecting trails, plus the Shore to Shore trail which runs through the area, it could be pretty easy to get lost but the signage is fantastic. A can’t-miss marker at each intersection includes trail numbers, arrows, and a map, so it’s easy to figure out where you are and where you want to go. The trail goes through the Pere Marquette Forest, filled with pines, oak, and ferns. Some of the trail sections are really wide while others are quite narrow; packed dirt or loose sand for the most part; fairly flat to a series of steep rolling hills. 
We really enjoyed exploring this trail system and as it’s not that far from our cottage we’ll likely go back on another visit. 

What to know, if you go:
  • Look for the parking lot at the trailhead on Island Lake Rd east off Broomhead Rd.
  • Restroom facilities are not available
  • There are mosquitoes, so wear bug spray
  • The trail section that runs in a straight line north and south just east of three of the lakes provides an excellent hill workout

Have you run or hiked any of these trails? * Do you take your running shoes with you on vacation? * How do you find places to run when you travel?

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