CROSS VILLAGE, Mich. —In the mitten-shaped state of Michigan, there is perhaps no prettier roadway than the squiggly one up north bordering the outer tip of the state's ring finger. That's state Route 119.
It's formally known as the Tunnel of Trees, and as charming as that may sound, the moniker does not adequately describe the beauty of this narrow, twisting stretch of highway that lovingly hugs the northeastern shore of Lake Michigan, starting in the one-time lumber hamlet of Cross Village and ending all too soon in the fashionable Gatsbyesque land of Harbor Springs.
Though roads are seldom more than a means to get someplace, the cavernous, 21-mile-long Tunnel of Trees is a journey to be savored, especially by bicycle. My older son, Andy, and I soon discovered this last summer on the first leg of a 250-mile bike tour we took in northwest Michigan, a region that seems at least a world away from the grit and grind of industrial Detroit. Route 119 is the only state road in Michigan without a center line, which seems to suggest you should slow down, maybe weave around a little bit and take in the canopy of pines and broad-leaf trees that shade the route.
This was a highlight, but not the only one, in our five-day trek that began at the top-most tip of the lower peninsula and worked south around Traverse City, north up the Leelanau pinkie finger to Northport and down the dune-dotted Lake Michigan shoreline to the fishing town of Frankfort before pedaling back east.
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Michigan, of course, is the state that put the world on four wheels, as the Detroit corporate logos of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler attest. But before the car, whose invention prompted Woodrow Wilson to complain in 1906 that "nothing has spread socialist feeling in this country more than the automobile," there was the bicycle. Scores of manufacturers in Detroit pumped out so many bikes from their factories in the 1890s that, according to the Detroit News, outnumbered pedestrians feared crossing the streets because of all the cycling fanatics.
The bicycle gave birth to Henry Ford's Quadricycle in 1896 and, seven years later, the creation of the Ford Motor Co. Though Detroit and the nation gave up the bicycle craze more than a century ago, the generally isolated climes of far northern Michigan offer many miles of roads ideal for getting out of the car and cycling into the joys of the north country.
Anyone can argue convincingly that Michigan is not the economic dynamo it once was. The future of the domestic auto industry is, to be gentle, uncertain. Even up north, where ships and trains were drawn to the region more than a century ago for lumber and fur and made the little villages on the lake boomtowns, those days are long gone. But for those who like their travel on two wheels, Michigan is a broad-shouldered, bicycle-friendly state, and you will be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful landscape than northwestern Michigan to explore on a bike. The route is dotted by nine lighthouses, 460-foot-high sand dunes, breathtaking lake views and touches of rustic charm that define the meaning of getting away.
The beauty of doing this on a bike is you're far less likely to miss something.
We had no knowledge of the Tunnel of Trees when we strapped our bags to the bikes and departed on a cool, overcast Sunday morning from kitschy Mackinaw City, the southern link of the imposing Mackinac Bridge and a town whose economy is built on hotels, fudge and shops that traffic in T-shirts boasting each of George Carlin's seven words you can never say on TV. Our goal was to navigate some steep climbs on old country roads and make it to the 1920s-era Legs Inn, in Cross Village, for a lunch of pierogies, corned beef and whitefish.
This was an exquisite and wonderfully quiet start to the trip, which led us past the quaint general store in Good Hart to the picturesque resort town of Harbor Springs, with gracious 19th century Victorians facing the harbor and with tourists dressed like they owned those homes. (This is a pretense that is largely out of place up north. Most of northern Michigan is a testament to the arrival of the middle class, with cabins and modest second homes. Harbor Springs, with old Detroit and Chicago money, is the picture of lakeshore affluence and opulence.)
We followed the contours of Little Traverse Bay to the bigger and trendy resort towns of Petoskey and Charlevoix, finding along the way a concrete path that kept us in the comfort of shade trees and away from chaos of traffic. That didn't last long.
Be advised lengthy bike trips are seldom idyllic. Despite the soothing "Pure Michigan" TV tourist ads that portray large portions of the state as an unspoiled, pastoral nirvana, there are some dreadful stretches of highway that are pretty much unavoidable. Route 31, the major north-south route, is one of those stretches, marked by noisy trucks, vroom-vroom motorcycles and cars with drivers who just love to honk. Unfortunately, Route 31 was the quickest route to Torch Lake, our next stop, and we pedaled into a fierce south wind.
Our arrival on the eastern shore of Torch Lake brought us to a lovely, narrow lakeshore road and, more important, back to the quiet. Torch Lake, known for its bright turquoise hue, was dug out by glaciers (it is 330 feet down at its deepest point) and is the largest inland lake in Michigan, 19 miles end to end. The lake's popular inhabitants include trout, rock and smallmouth bass, whitefish and yellow perch. Despite being a magnet for development, Torch Lake maintains its sense of being a place that is away.
The next day we turned south and west to Traverse City, another unavoidable traffic maelstrom. The largest city in the region, Traverse City is a popular spot for conventions. For cyclists, it is a place to go through, and quickly.
We headed north on Route 22 toward the village of Suttons Bay, an old port whose 19th century purpose was to supply fuel to wood-burning steamboats that docked on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay. Suttons Bay, which boasts a marvelous bookstore and several good restaurants, is just shy of the 45th parallel, the geographic midpoint between the North Pole and the Equator. The distinction is noted by a highway sign. It's right around here that the really serious uphill work of the trip began.
The 12-mile stretch from Northport to Leland, on the west coast of the Leelanau Peninsula, provided the most satisfying riding of the trip. It started with a steep climb, just outside of Northport, and then became the concrete equivalent of an elevated roller coaster, with moderate climbs and dips that enabled us to maintain very good speed, even with the bags. We were approaching the midpoint of an 80-mile day, and the speed we got on this stretch was an unqualified delight.
Following Route 22, we continued south toward Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and then jutted off onto Route 109 for cardiac-testing climbs and spectacular views of the lake.
The biggest frustration of time-limited bike trips is the clock. Ideally we would have stopped for a day or two to enjoy the dunes and all the region has to offer. Ideally, our lunch at Legs Inn would have stretched into dinner and beyond. Ideally, we would have lingered an extra day at Torch Lake. But we didn't have the luxury of time, so we worked our way to Frankfort, a former hub of the Lake Michigan ferry boat fleet, where boats plied the waters to Wisconsin, Illinois and other ports in Michigan.
As it was, we stopped for the night in Frankfort and dined at Dinghy's, eating enormous burritos and drinking far too much as we admired the giant brown trout (36 pounds 13 ounces) mounted behind the bar. We were back on the bikes the next morning, pedaling to the airport in Traverse City to pick up a rental car for the drive back to Mackinaw City.
The road wasn't as much fun on four wheels.
IF YOU GO:
HOW TO GET THERE: We drove about a 7 1/2 hours from Chicago to Mackinaw City and left our car at the hotel (of which there is no shortage). We reserved a rental car in Traverse City at the end of the trip, throwing the bikes in the trunk and driving back north. Make sure you reserve one. It cost about $50 for a one-day rental.
HOTELS: Make reservations, because the region is very popular, and hotels can fill up quickly. Search the Internet for accommodations in towns you know you will visit, or go to michigan.org. Hotel costs ranged from $85 to $140 per night.
RESTAURANTS: Legs Inn, in Cross Village, is a must (legsinn.com). Get the pierogies; more than 100 varieties of beer from around the world. Entrees $15 to $25.
GET IN BIKE SHAPE: This is no light workout. The climbs in the western portion are steep, and riding into a head wind can almost stop you.
TAKE TIME FOR ... Sleeping Bear Dunes (sleepingbeardunes.com); South Manitou Island (leelanau.com/manitou/islands; a boat leaves from Leland); and the general store in Good Hart, which has a wonderful deli (goodhartstore.com).
A QUIBBLE: Some might argue the Upper Peninsula's Route 26, from Eagle River to Copper Harbor along the rugged Lake Superior coast is a prettier. But with nonexistent shoulders and a lot of blind turns, you might think twice before biking it.