Whirlwind Tour of the North 2016

Road Trip

After doing a short 3 day road tour on my own last month I wanted to do something a bit longer and farther out.  With our recent purchase of a van, and the fact that my wife’s best friend would be in town for a few days to keep her company I embarked on my first solo road cycling road trip.  So my buddies Luke and Eli are old hands at mountain bike road trips, they have both traveled all over the country solo and could write far more interesting blogs if they were inclined but I had 5 days to play with and tried to make the most of it.


Planning for this trip was virtually non existent.  I literally knew nothing about the places I was going, just the names of towns where there was suppose to be good mountain bike trails.  I desired to travel North where it would be cooler and after looking at the map for a about 30 seconds decided to drive up through Indiana and lower Michigan, cross to the Upper Peninsula, then shoot back home through Wisconsin.  I used MTBproject.com and singletracks.com to find some of the best trails I would be passing by.

My first spot would be Brown Country State Park, only 3 hours from home near Bloomington IN.  I’ve been there before and it’s got to be some of the best riding in the lower Midwest.  I wanted to stop there just to break up what would otherwise be a day long drive North.  The next trail would be Marquette in the Upper Peninsula, then Copper Harbor, and finally I’d head down to Hayward Wisconsin before coming home.  Of course I would be doing this as cheaply as possible, which mean camping in the van every night, though I wasn’t really sure where I’d be camping, though I was strongly considering wal-mart parking lots.

5 Dollar Bike Permit?

When I arrived at Brown County a gentleman asked me to pay nine dollars to enter the park.  I guess that’s something I’m a bit spoiled about, being from Southern Illinois we have many outdoor areas that cost nothing.  I considered turning around but decided I could go for it, then the guy said I’d need to by a 5 dollar bike pass if I wanted to ride advanced dirt trails.  I told him I wasn’t an advanced rider and would stay on the easier trails, and got away without buying the pass.  Brown County was great, though I only had a couple hours to ride.  Could have easily rode 4 hours there.


6 hours later I pulled into the  St. Johns Michigan Wal-Mart at 10 PM with my fingers crossed, this would be my first attempt at Wal-Mart camping.  I’d read about it on the internet but wasn’t really sure if it was a real thing.  There was already an RV in the parking lot so I parked near it and put up my curtains, then went inside for some snacks.  It was a problem free way to spend the night.

mackanaw bridge 1

The next day I spent time sight seeing at Mackinaw City waiting for a storm to blow through.  I couldn’t help but think of Shauna and how much she would enjoy the tourist shops and walking along the beach.  The Mackinac bridge was the longest bridge I’ve ever seen.  Driving across the upper peninsula was interesting for awhile, but 2 lane roads that go straight for 100 miles with nothing but huge trees on either side of the road can get a bit dull.  I did some sight seeing in Munsing and finally made it to Marquette in the late evening.

mackanaw bridge 2

I tried camping at the Marquette tourist park, which had multiple open tent spots but when I went to register I discovered that they had all been reserved.  They did have a full hookup RV spot available for 34 dollars but I went to Wal-Mart instead.  There were many campers already in the Wal-Mart lot.  In the morning when I left I was astonished to see a couple tents pitched in the grass.  This leads me to a little mini rant.  The cost of camping in many campgrounds is ridiculous.  Primitive tent spots are often relatively affordable at around 12 dollars, but many campgrounds offer a tiny number of these spots and 20 or 30 times more RV hook up sites which cost 20-40 bucks.  Then when you figure in many states have a separate fee just to enter the park you might as well go to a motel, or sleep at Wal-Mart.

Marquette Rules!

mount marquette


I rode the South trail system in Marquette the next morning.  It was awesome.  The trails were not easy, there were occasional tricky technical areas, lots of rocks, and plenty of climbing.  They were exceptionally well built and maintained.  Kiosks at every intersection featured a map so it was easy to navigate.  They were just so much fun.  I was the first person to the trailhead parking lot that morning at 7AM, but when I returned a few hours later the place was packed and many riders were leaving off.  Several families were there letting their kids play on the pump track.  I felt great and wanted to try and hook up with a group, but I had a long way to go still.


Yet I felt so good that I wanted to try out some of the paved trails on the lake shore.  I brought my road bike for just such and occasion.  I ended up doing a 25 mile road ride on some really awesome roads and then riding through the downtown area checking out the architecture and whatnot.   So many people were out riding, hiking, trail running, and just being outdoors. Marquette was truly an awesome town.

Copper Harbor

copper harbor lighthouse

I guess I’ve heard a few people mention Copper Harbor, but when I was checking singletracks.com for the best trails in Michigan it was number one, it’s certainly not easy to get to.  I had now driven 16 hours in the last couple days.  I stopped to check out a historic copper mine near Houghton and arrived at Copper Harbor in the early evening.  Unfortunately there was no Wal-Mart in town, but they did have a nice campground at Fort Wilkins that was 24 dollars a night.  That evening I did a short road bike tour of the area, there were so many cyclists and so much natural beauty to take in.  Eventually I stopped to take pictures and talked to a young couple hanging out on a dock.


The young guy said I should get the shuttle service, it was a steal at 45 dollars a day.  I told him I enjoyed riding up trails.  He told me the riding was brutal and I would really need a full suspension bike.  “These trails are full of rocks and stuff.”  I took his warning with a grain of salt.


The next morning I went to the towns trailhead to see that the trails were closed for a running event until 11 AM.  This aggravated the crap out of me, I rode a couple miles up the highway until I got to a trail crossing where there was an aid station for the running event. The people there were super friendly and gave me a map telling me which trails the runners had already been through and how to avoid them.  Since there are no maps out on the trails having a copy of this map was very useful.


I’ll avoid giving you a play by play of what I rode, but I’ll say that these were some of the funnest trails I’ve ever ridden, they aren’t brutal, though there were some tough technical challenges in places.  The Downhill “Overflow” trail was like nothing I’ve ever ridden, of course I didn’t do the jumps, and in fact many places were so steep and scary that I walked down them.  Near the end of my ride I encountered a large group of guys with all kinds of skill levels, I rode with them for a couple miles at a bit more speed then I’d been riding by myself and took more risks then I would alone.  I ended up snapping my saddle in half.  About half the group had crashed behind us.  It was one of those deals were the front 2 guys make it to the next intersection in 5 minutes and then wait 20 for the remaining 6 guys to show up.  I took my leave of them and returned to the campground.


I could have easily spent another day here, but I had one more epic area to ride, CAMBRA trails in Wisconsin.  Luke had good things to say about this large area of trails.  I arrived in Hayward at 9 PM and found refuge at another Wal-Mart.  I awoke Monday morning to the sound of rain, then hardcore storming with winds that rocked the van back and forth.  There was a break in the weather at 7AM but radar showed many waves of storms approaching so I made my way South.  Very strong storms would pass through the area that day causing flash flooding and killing 2 people in the area.  I’m very glad I left.


I arrived at Camrock near Madison Wisconsin around noon.  Camrock is a county park shared by the towns of Cambridge and Rockdale, it has around 20 miles of mountain bike trails and a nice gravel trail as well.  I found this place on MTBProject and knew nothing about it.  In the parking lot I encountered a guy named Bruce, he was an older guy on a very sweet custom singlespeed, the first single speed I’d seen the whole trip.  The whole trip I’d been dressed out of place.  I don’t have separate mountain bike clothes, I have jerseys and spandex shorts.  Style really isn’t my thing.  Today was even worse since I was wearing a Hi-vis jersey.  Bruce on the other hand wore baggy cargo shorts and a T-shirt. I asked if I could tag along behind him to learn the trails.

I soon found out that Bruce had one speed, fast.  Most singlespeeders are like this, it’s almost a requirement.  For the first time really on the whole trip I was on the rivet.  This guy was really fast, and he attacked every climb out of the saddle.  My heart was beating out of my chest and I was just barely holding his wheel as we railed one bermed corner after another.


The trails at Camrock aren’t overly technical, but they have some challenges, especially when ridden at speed.  Between nearly killing me Bruce told me all about the area and the trails, he was a member of the club and even though kept downplaying his role in modesty I was beginning to think he was a major player in the area.  We took the trails back to Cambridge where he was showing me around the town and the plot of land where they preparing to build a pump track.

Listening to Bruce speak was like being in another world, “Yeah funds aren’t a problem, we’ve got plenty of money, working with the county is great, they gave us this plot of land, they bought that building and gave it to us for our trail building equipment.  Over here we just got a wetlands study done so we can now build right up to the creek, over here we’re going to build a connector, over here we’re going to build a pump track, we’ve got a youth team, things are really taking off.”

Oh wow, I mean back home we’re not even technically allowed to be on the trails, and the horses turn them all to crap faster then anyone could maintain them.  I keep thinking I live in the wrong place.  I guess in Wisconsin the outdoors are for more then killing or riding animals.

A new group of riders approached, a young guy, and a couple middle aged guys, both bigger like me.  This turned out to local royalty.  The Mayor of Rockdale and his friend Gomez who runs the website www.fat-bike.com  I did another loop of the trails with these guys at a much more relaxed pace.  Gomez was one of the funniest people I’ve ever ridden with and believe it or not he had been to Southern Illinois, telling me he proposed to his wife on the river to river trail in 1986.  It’s a small world after all.  I tried to keep up with the young guy, who was a salty rider.  He was so quick in the corners.  I was trying to corner at his speed and ended up washing out for my first crash of the trip, though it was minor.

In Conclusion


I spent the night at one more Wal-Mart that evening and finished my drive home Tuesday completing my first solo mountain bike trip.  Upon reflection I was very happy with how things went.  The trip was incredibly cheap.  I spent about 275  dollars for 5 days of traveling and rode the best trails I’ve ever seen in my life.  I’ll never forget the view from Mount Marquette, or riding “On the Edge” and “Stairway to Heaven” at Copper Harbor, and it was blast meeting so many cool people and seeing how awesome things are at Camrock.  My only regret was that I didn’t take more time.  I could have easily spent twice as long riding at every location.  Still for the amount of time and money I had I couldn’t imagine a better trip.



About Matt Gholson

Cycling, school teaching, husband.
This entry was posted in Barn Door Cycling, lifestyle, Mountain BIking, Rides, Stories and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Whirlwind Tour of the North 2016

  1. Kate says:

    Oh man, that sounds like an awesome trip! You definitely need to make it back up to the CAMBA trails. We rode some of them during an adventure race last June and they were some of the most fun trails I’ve ever ridden.

  2. Moe says:

    Sounds like a great trip! Yes, MTB trips need to have more time to play and less drive time. Sounds like you met some pretty awesome guys on the trip too!

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