A Grand Adventure on Michigan's U.P.
Grand Island sits just north of the small town of Munising, on the waters of Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (U.P.) Munising is home to the only ferry service to Grand Island. It is also located within a short drive to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Grand Island is considered a National Recreation Area, part of the Hiawatha National Forest. Most people spend just the day on the island; with a little planning, however, I thought it would make for a great family bike overnight.
In Munising, we had one hour to pack two trailers and prep four bikes before our ferry to Grand Island left at noon.
"We're never going to make it," someone said.
The next hour was filled with your typical family-style bickering: Dad barking orders, mom trying to comply with neurotic requests, and the boys utilizing their selective hearing, switching between packing and battling with makeshift weapons they created.
We managed to finish packing at 12:01 and rolled over to the dock, quickly realizing that the noon deadline was irrelevant. The ferry can transport only a small number of people (and bikes). So now we had some time on our hands. I struck up a conversation with some kayakers preparing to paddle to the island for some overnight camping of their own. When our turn came to load, we struggled to push the bikes through the loading area. Our family took up the majority of the boat. The ride was short, just two minutes, to Williams Landing, which sits on the southwest edge of Murray Bay and serves as the island contact station.
We double-checked the map and headed to the western shore on the Perimeter Trail, which encircles the island and is 23 miles long. Additional hiking trails and a convenient dirt road (used for bus tours) cut across the middle of the island. The cut-offs allow for shorter loops for hikers and bikers.
As we rolled northward along the Perimeter Trail, I was reminded of the C&O Canal trail; it was sort of double-track farm road that is adversely affected by precipitation.
We made good time on the mostly level trail and found an empty campsite with beach access in the Mather Beach area. Campsites cannot be reserved on the island, so it is important to have a back-up plan. My goal was to create a sub 24-hour overnight trip, riding a total of only 10 miles, while ensuring plenty of time for exploring and relaxing. We set up camp and headed to the beach.
Although just a thin strip, the beach was empty with plenty of room for two pre-teen boys to explore and swim. The only downside of the beautiful, calm weather was the lack of waves. Between the swimming, rock exploration, and just playing in the sand we had a great afternoon. The boys especially enjoyed the area where Echo Lake Creek flows into Lake Superior.
While preparing dinner I discovered that in our haste to pack we had left our stove fuel behind. Luckily, we had a variety of food options to satisfy our picky eaters. We managed just fine. After dinner we discovered an old lodge with an amazing view from its back porch. We later discovered that it was a remnant from a time when the island was a resort.
We sat watching the calm Superior waters, reflecting on the history of the island. The first whites visited in the early 1800s, trading furs. The first permanent settlers arrived in the mid-19th century, setting up a trading post with the Ojibway Indians (often referred to as Chippewa in the United States).
Later in the evening we strolled back down to the beach to watch the sunset. Above, we spotted a bald eagle flying back to shore. The island also hosts deer, rabbits, grouse, ducks, and even some black bears.
After a fire and a few card games we quickly fell asleep.
In the morning, the winds had picked up and clouds were rolling in. After a quick, dry breakfast we packed up and started biking inland. Our first destination was Echo Lake. This was a quick out and back, but getting there required a creek crossing. I ditched my trailer temporarily and rode with the boys for a quarter mile to the large lake's southern shore. Here you can easily forget that you are on a small island.
After backtracking, we steadily climbed to the center of the island, heading south on a dirt road and eventually intersecting with the bus route. Now, when I say bus, I really mean a four-wheel-drive airport shuttle van. The tour it makes travels the southern part of the island and takes about three hours, stopping a dozen times at historical sites and viewpoints.
We descended into Trout Bay on the eastern shore, crossing onto the "thumb" of the island. The narrow isthmus that connects the main island to the thumb is actually just a tombolo, or sand bar. The Trout Bay area would also make a great place to spend the night, with its small sand dunes, hiking trails, and beach access.
Back on the trail, we pedaled southward uphill, passing Duck Lake and eventually rolling into Murray Bay. It was here that we encountered the large group of kayakers who had paddled in for the night.
From Murray Bay we had only two and a half miles of dirt road to get back to Williams Landing. Just outside of Murray Bay we discovered the Grand Island Township Cemetery, where the island's earliest settler, Abraham Williams, and his descendants are buried. After some berry-picking distractions we happened upon the stone Quarry Cabin, an early homestead that was refurbished by the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company. The president, William Mather, developed the island in the early 20th century as a game preserve and resort. The dirt roads we biked on were created during the logging era as the company began to harvest the forest. Finally, in 1990, the island was designated a National Recreation Area as part of the Hiawatha National Forest.
Rolling in toward the ferry dock, we stopped to spend a few minutes checking out the contact station; soon we saw the ferry tracking in our direction. As we loaded up and took our seats, my wife asked the question that had stumped us since arriving on the U.P. "So," she said to the captain, "we were wondering what a pasty is?"
You see, I had lost count of the number of signs we saw boasting of the "best pasty" or "homemade pasties here." It couldn’t be that … but what was it?
The captain answered calmly, correcting her pronunciation (it rhymes with nasty, not tasty) and then describing the meat-and-potato-filled, hand-held pie. Historically, these pasties served as nutrient-packed meals for copper miners.
With that, we arrived at the mainland, just under 24 hours from when we had set out. Next stop: Pasties!
Tip for this adventure: In addition to being a great family destination, Grand Island would serve hard-core bikepackers as well. The northern end of the island is even more remote and offers additional opportunities for exploring. Late summer is a good time to avoid the bugs and improve your odds for fair weather. It is also important to know the ferry schedule when planning a trip, as well as having a back-up plan in case your first campsite choice is unavailable. The Pictured Rocks area and Hiawatha National Forest offer tremendous bicycle touring possibilities. Marquette and Copper Harbor are also worthwhile destinations for mountain bikers. Lastly, don’t forget to stop for pasties!
Favorite local bike shop: Stock up on biking supplies before you arrive. Bike shops (and towns) are few and far between on the U.P. Marquette, about an hour away, is home to many bike shops as well as a vibrant off-road riding community.