A Little Loop in Michigan

Jun 6th, 2024

One of my favorite ways to see a new place is to make my own bike loop. I love pedaling away from wherever I am and returning a few days later to the same spot. There’s a magic in leaving and returning at the speed of your own legs.

This year I spent the winter caretaking a condo and dog in western Michigan, and after that I had a few days to explore. I decided to go on a little bike loop to see more of the backcountry and coastline.

Route Planning

To plan this trip, I just poked around the Adventure Cycling Association website and Bikepacking.com to see if there were any bike routes nearby. On the Adventure Cycling website I found the North Lakes cycling route, a paved U.S. bike route along the coast of Lake Michigan. The route had easy resupplies, great views of the lake, and plenty of camping options. And it passed directly through the town I was in!

I found the North Country Traverse on Bikepacking.com. This is a 172-mile non-technical singletrack route starting at a trailhead about 50 miles away. The route also showed plenty of backcountry camping options, water, and easy resupplies.

I compared the two routes and found they intersected at the northern terminus of the North Country Traverse at Traverse City, creating a near-perfect loop. I could ride out of town on the North Lakes cycling route, cut over to the North Country Traverse, take that to Traverse City, and then hop back onto the North Lakes route down the coast to where I’d started.

So that’s what I did! The total length of this route was about 300 miles, and it took me about a week and a half. I also wrote about my first day on this trip in this story.

Here are the details about this shorter route, and how to tackle it yourself.


Before I left, I downloaded maps of the area to my phone and tablet through Google Maps and Gaia. Google Maps is a free source for offline road maps. Gaia is an excellent app that shows detailed hiking and biking routes, campsites, and landscapes.

I also downloaded the North Country Traverse GPX files to my phone and tablet from Bikepacking.com.

The Adventure Cycling Association’s North Lakes Route can be downloaded through the Adventure Cycling Association’s Navigator App or as GPX files. Since I was only doing a short section of this route, I didn’t need to download those maps for this trip. But if I were doing a longer section it would have been useful. The Navigator App makes it easy to follow any of the Adventure Cycling Association’s bike routes.

Along my ride, I also picked up a paper map of cycling routes from the Michigan Department of Transportation. You can order or download that map from their website.

Landscape and Climate

I left in mid-April, which is technically spring, but in Michigan it still felt like winter! During the first few days of my trip, I experienced rain, sleet, snow, and a brief moment of surprise hail. Nighttime temperatures were in the 20s. A week and a half later when I finished my trip, flowers were blooming and temperatures were in the 60s.

The entire loop was mostly flat with some short, rolling hills. There were no mountain passes or significant elevation changes.

The North Country Traverse highlighted western Michigan’s secluded forests and dunes. The North Lakes Route reminded me of Adventure Cycling’s Pacific Coast Route, which I cycled last year. If you’re attracted to shoreline riding, the Michigan section of the North Lakes Route is a gem.

Camping and Resupply

I camped every night along the way. The North Country Traverse and my section of the North Lakes route both pass through National and State forest land with ample free dispersed camping. I supplemented my dispersed campsites with registered camping in Michigan’s extensive network of primitive campgrounds. As always, the Adventure Cycling Association and Bikepacking.com show campsites, lodging options, and grocery stores on their route maps.

I always bring tons of food with me wherever I go. I prefer to eat as much as I want all the time without having to measure or ration anything. I also often dehydrate my own foods ahead of time and take them with me. This means I end up carrying a lot of extra weight in food, but I don’t really mind.

On this trip I supplemented the food I brought from home with resupplies at country stores, gas stations, and grocery stores. There were plenty of options. I got most of my water in towns, but also occasionally filtered water from streams.

Bike and Gear

I don’t think you need the “perfect” gear to go on a bike trip. You just need the gear that will get you there and back, and keep you safe and happy along the way.

My setup is always a mix of things I happen to have, items that survive the test of time, and whatever new gear I’m testing for gear companies. You can see my full gear list for this trip here.

Creating Your Own Bike Loop from a Larger Route

Since 1976, the Adventure Cycling Association has mapped over 50,000 miles of bike routes across the United States. These bike routes intertwine and overlap, forming hundreds of possible loops. You can also make your own loop by splicing routes together however you want.

I’ve often planned my bike trips to start or end at my house or a friend’s house. That’s what I love so much about bike travel: you can start wherever you are, or aim for wherever you want to be. The adventure unfolds along the way.

To make your own loop, just choose a place to start or end and then pull out some maps. The Adventure Cycling Association’s Interactive Route Map is a great place to look. How close are you to a bike route?

The North Lakes Route Nuts and Bolts

Overview: The North Lake Route connects 1,600 miles of pavement and bike paths between Minneapolis, Minnesota and Denver, Indiana.

Distance: 1,600 miles (1,200 miles plus additional route alternates)
Route Surface: Paved
Terrain: Backroads, highways, and bike paths. Flat or rolling, with no major mountain passes.
Best Season to ride: Spring, summer, and fall (Adventure Cycling recommends May through September).
Bike: Any bike

Find more information and download maps through the Adventure Cycling Association.

The North Country Traverse Nuts and Bolts

Overview: The North Country Traverse is a singletrack bike route through western Michigan. It follows a bike-friendly segment of the North Country Trail (NCT), a 4,800-mile footpath between North Dakota and Vermont.

Distance: 173 miles
Route Surface: 86% unpaved, 66% singletrack
Terrain: Mostly non-technical with some roots, leaf litter, blow-downs, sand, mud, bridges, stairs, and other obstacles. Flat or rolling. The trail is well-marked with signs and blue blazes.
Best Season to ride: Spring, summer, and fall. (Bikepacking.com recommends April through November, or whenever the trail is clear of snow.)
Bike: This is a mountain bike route. Recommended tire size is two inches or wider.

Find more information and GPX files at Bikepacking.com.

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