Discovering Michigan’s Mountain Bike Trails

By BRAD PARSONS - Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Backcountry Trail Riding in Michigan - Mountain Biking

Michigan's non-motorized trails system has more than 3,000 miles dedicated to paved, gravel, and off-road single-track trails for bicyclists to enjoy 365 days a year. These public trails are situated in every region of Michigan at state parks, recreation areas, pathways, forests, and rail trails.

Michigan's natural terrain, along with varied seasons and access to public trails, provides a unique experience for all cyclists. As a Michigan Department of Natural Resources videographer, I have the privilege to help document and promote this recreation activity across the state. What I've learned is that nonmotorized bicycle trails can dramatically influence personal connection to the outdoors, build communities, and strengthen local economies.

About a year ago, in August 2019, I was assigned to film a promotional action video of the Waterloo State Recreation Area's DTE Energy Foundation mountain bike trail system in Chelsea, Michigan. At that time, my knowledge of mountain biking was minimal. I didn’t even own a bicycle.

What is Mountain Biking

A mountain biker enjoys one of Michigan’s flow trails.- Mountain Biking

So, what is mountain biking? It’s best described as riding a bicycle off-road, on trails specifically designed for bicycle use, over varied terrain. Two common types of mountain bike trails are flow and cross-country (or backcountry).

The DTE trail is classified as a flow trail – built with a special machine that carved berms, hills, and unique features into the pre-existing natural terrain on public land. 

Backcountry mountain bike trails feature existing natural terrain, including roots, rocks, and other obstacles found in the forest. These trails can sometimes be more technically challenging. Both types of trails are available on Michigan public land. 

A scene from 2019’s Global Fat Bike Day at Sleepy Hollow State Park in Clinton County - Mountain Biking

While I was capturing video clips of mountain bikers at the DTE trail, one rider decided to stop and introduce himself. It was Jason Aric Jones, creator of the trail. My encounter with Jason was inspiring. He encouraged me to bring a bicycle with me the next time I visited the trail. In response to this experience, I went to my local bike shop three days later and purchased my first mountain bike.

I then found myself back at the DTE trail for a follow-up video assignment, recording the trail with a 360-degree video camera mounted to my bike helmet. Long story short, I discovered the joy of mountain biking through a work assignment and inspiration from the amazing community of Michigan bicyclists.

Check out Brad’s 360 DTE Energy Foundation Trail video.

A New Way of Life

The bicycle has transformed my life and given me a new appreciation for Michigan trails and the mountain biking community. Mountain biking in Michigan became an accepted recreation activity in the late 1980s.

Story author Brad Parsons in a still from the DTE Energy Foundation Trail video he produced for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. - - Mountain Biking

A few of Michigan’s top destinations for mountain biking include Copper Harbor and Marquette in the Upper Peninsula, the Chelsea/Pinckney area near Detroit, Augusta, and Rockford in the western Lower Peninsula, and the Traverse City region in the northern Lower Peninsula.

Each of these destinations provides a unique type of terrain and challenges, and they welcome all mountain bikers, regardless of skill level. That is the best part about trails in Michigan – they are approachable for the novice or less-experienced riders. 

Fat Tire Bike in the Snow - Mountain Biking

And when the snow arrives in Michigan, a recent production of fat-tire bicycles enables enthusiasts to experience groomed trails year-round. 

A lot of progress has been made in popularizing the sport during the past 40 years with the help of mountain biking advocacy groups, volunteers, and the holding of special events. Advocacy groups help influence policies and rules and create or introduce new trail systems in partnership with the DNR.

Mountain Biking Organizations

The Michigan Mountain Biking Association, the state’s largest organization dedicated to the pastime, coordinates local and regional groups like the Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association in southeastern Michigan. Members of these groups provide financial support and volunteer their time to maintain mountain bike trails.

Development, management, and maintenance of mountain biking trails on state land is often a partnership between the DNR and mountain biking organizations. The DNR, as the land manager, works to balance the use and preservation of public natural resources, while allowing for great trail opportunities.

A scene from the “Top of the World” multi-use pathway at Little Presque Isle in Marquette County.

Local mountain bike groups perform the majority of on the ground trail work and maintenance of the trails with the help of many dedicated volunteers.

In addition to managing the land, the DNR also works with local groups to permit special events hosted at state parks and recreation areas. These events are vital to communities and to introduce the activity to new users. Mountain biking events also strengthen local economies, especially via increased patronage of bike shops and restaurants.

In my personal experience, local bike shops are the heart of every bicycle community. Not only have I purchased all my bikes through a local shop, but I’ve also learned about maintenance and other important information, like biking safety and etiquette, from friendly staff. If I have a question about anything related to the bicycle, I call my local shop for help.

Bike shops also provide jobs and maintenance services to the community by repairing old bikes that have been in storage for years or with monthly tune-ups for avid cyclists.

In my opinion, bike shops provide a product, service, and knowledge necessary for mountain biking to flourish in every community in Michigan.

I would encourage all bicyclists to get involved with their local biking community via a trail organization, biking events, and bike shops, or to participate in volunteer trail maintenance workdays. Riders should be good trail stewards and not ride when trails are wet after rains or during muddy spring conditions after the ground thaws.

“Riders should ride safely and respectfully when using trails during the COVID-19 restrictions, including spreading out to observe social distancing and being patient with other riders,” said Ron Olson, chief of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division.

Although Michigan is not known for mountainous terrain like the western United States, there is a tremendous wealth of fun to explore while riding a mountain bike in “The Trails State.”

Sept. 20-27 is Michigan Trails Week, a great time to get out and enjoy all of Michigan’s 13,000 miles of state-designated trails. Be sure to participate in the virtual Trails Week Challenge and get entered to win cool outdoor gear and Michigan-branded prizes. For more information, visit

Story author Brad Parsons, and Michigan Department of Natural Resources videographer, is shown on 2019’s Global Fat Bike Day.


To learn more about how to get involved and discover mountain biking, visit

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10 Things You Didn't Know About Owning a Cabin In Michigan

Owning a Second Home Is Not Like the First

Michigan Cabin at Night by the Fire

Since you're likely to only be there on the weekends and vacations, you don't have to keep up pristine appearances. With a rustic cabin or beachside cottage, you've got the ability to cut some slack on the cleaning. Old books, fishing reels, a TV from the 1980s or earlier! (with no remote), and ancient appliances can live out the remainder of their useful lives. We have a 40-year fishing boat that also makes it to the beach dock each year. Some of these old boats are great to cruise the Great Lakes

You Can Have a Fire Circle in Your Backyard

Michigan Cottage Fire Pit

Bonfires, a fire pit, a fireplace ring, or even a circle of rocks is all you would like to make an environment for wonderful stories and conversation. People drop in for a beer, or simply for a fast hello. Kids learn to make a fire, roast marshmallows, hot dogs, and popcorn.

It’s an exquisite opportunity to getting everyone together. As the evening fades into the night the stories tend to get longer and sometimes louder too.

Don't Need No Stinking Yard

The "lawn" is really a collection of weeds and encroaching wild geraniums. It's green and you can walk on it without shoes. That qualifies as a success as a lawn on the sandy soil that the old cabin sits on.

We let the old gravel driveway to be slowly taken over by grass and other greens. The two tracks leading up to the cottage give it a rustic feel. The only bad part is that sometimes the old lawn mower will find a rock from the old drive...zing.

The Homey Feel of Knotty Pine and the Smell of Quiet

Knotty Pine Cabin

The paneling and cabinets are over 50 years old and the tongue and groove pine board have a rich butter yellow tone from age and years of former owners' cigarette smoke. We have to be careful not to brighten it up too much else it looks weird.

Likewise, the smell is different too. Coming into the cottage after a long time away is always an interesting experience. Sometimes the smell is benign. Sometimes it’s dusty and sometimes it's musty. The initial smell goes away quickly has windows are opened or if someone puts a meal on the stove.

The Cabin Pantry - A Food Museum

Cabin or Cottage Pantry

If we aren’t diligent about checking out, using, and replacing the canned goods, it can be like entering a time capsule. We have found cans of beans and vegetables in the inner recesses of my parent's cottage that went back to the early 1980s. The cabin pantry is always a trip back in time.

Now, at the end of each season, we make a donation of our unused can goods to the Caseville Helping Hands food pantry. Caseville Helping Hands is an excellent thrift store and they host a curbside food pantry each week.

New Purpose For the Old Outhouse

Cottage Outhouse Northern Michigan

There was a time in the 1960s when the old cabins and cottages replaced the outhouses. Septic tanks were installed and along with its indoor plumbing. Some owners must have had a close connection with the old outhouse because rather than tear it down, many of them were converted to storage sheds. A few of the original outhouses can be spotted from time to time.

The Beach Is An Uninvited Guest With The Sandy Feet

Cottage Beach Northern Michigan

By late summer the vacuum cleaner has several pounds of beach sand in the bag. Sand is just part of being at the cabin and since it’s dirt or mud that shows up on the floor, no one really minds a bit of sand on the floor. Of course, it’s a different story when you jump into bed with a bit of a sunburn and find the beach sand has followed you in on those rough bed sheets.

Thank Goodness for the Party Store

Michigan Party Store

In Michigan, we call any little convenience store that sells beer, wine, booze, and a few groceries a party store. It's a Godsend especially during the summer when a trip into town is an ordeal. Plus you have to wade through all the tourists. (We don’t consider ourselves one, but some locals may disagree.) The little store is only a short bike ride away and it’s where some of us made our first purchases. It smells like bait, new t-shirts, sweet candy, and newsprint. You could just about find everything you needed for a day at the beach.

Keeping The Trash Panda's Out of Your Garbage

Garbage in Cage - Michigan Cottage or Cabin

We have to put our trash into cages in northern Michigan. Critters love the garbage cans. I once heard a horrendous racket outside only to find 3 young raccoons treed next to a dumped out garbage bin full of a week's worth of smelly food. Some enterprising souls make and sell small wire mesh enclosures to keep the critters out.

Warship on the Great Lakes - USS Michigan

 1844: First USS Michigan Enters Active Service on Great Lakes

USS Michigan

The USS Michigan was the United States Navy's first iron-hulled warship. Commissioned in August 1844, USS Michigan was considered a technical experiment using new techniques and materials as a working experiment for the U.S. Navy. The ship served for sixty-eight years, the third-longest active service of any Navy vessel. Assigned to patrol the long U.S. border with Canada from Niagara to Duluth, she rescued dozens of ships and hundreds of sailors, enforced law and order throughout the upper Great Lakes, and recruited thousands of sailors for the Navy. 

Building the USS Michigan -  The Most Advanced Warship at the Time

Attacks by rebels on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes during the 1837 Canadian Rebellion led the British to arm two steam-powered gunboats, stationed to defend their side of the lake. In response, the United States saw a need for an advanced U.S. gunboat of its own on the lakes. For these reasons, the USS Michigan was commissioned. The ship was built in Erie, Pennsylvania, and was propelled by the steam-powered sidewheel. As was common in early steamers, the USS Michigan also had 3 masts for wind power and the steam engine. The combination of steam engines and the use of sails was crucial for this technically advanced warship to further travel range and ensure the ship would be maneuverable in the event of a steam engine failure. The vessel was rated for speed 12 knots; an incredible rate in those days. 

The ship was assigned to patrol the Great Lakes from March to December. During the winter, the ship returned to Erie to stay for the duration of the winter. The ship was docked in Erie during the winter due to the ship's inability to travel the frozen Great Lakes.

Action on Beaver Island

When United States District Attorney George Bates decided to arrest  King James Strang on Beaver Island in 1851, he asked President Millard  Fillmore to support the iron-hulled paddle steamer USS Michigan the most formidable warship on the Great Lakes. The Mormons had mounted cannon on a sailing that was hard aground in the harbor. When the USS Michigan's arrived with it's imposing black hull, menacing eight-inch battery,  and a full complement of Marines, it assured that there would be no resistance to the federal arrest warrants Bates carried.

The Timber Rebellion

In 1853, the USS Michigan was assigned to stop massive timber thefts from federal land along Lake Michigan. During this period, the national government-owned large scores of land in the western Great Lakes region. These federal lands were heavily forested areas primarily located along the coasts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. The government's intentions with these lands involved harvesting the valuable timber from them to construct U.S. warships. An increasingly large assembly of criminals, tagged with the name of Timber Pirates, saw the stockpiles of government-owned wood throughout the region as easy profit. These pirates and rebels were a relatively unorganized group of criminals who scoured the Great Lakes region to search for timber to steal from existing government stockpiles. The goal of theirs was to steal and smuggle government-owned wood from the area to be sold for profit elsewhere. Her crew managed to capture several "timber pirates" who were then sent by train to  Detroit for trial before U.S. District Judge Ross Wilkins.

Collision with the Buffalo 

On May 5, 1853, there was a collision between the USS Michigan and the largest steam-powered timber ship to sail the Great Lakes. The USS Michigan was kneading south on Lake Huron off Port Sanilac headed for New York, for her yearly resupply. At 3am while the two ships were passing, the timber ship Buffalo suddenly vired 90 degrees into the  USS Michigan. While the collision badly damaged both ships, both were able to continue to sail. 

Commander Bigelow of the USS Michigan had woken up to the sound of the ship crashing into his. Incensed at this seemingly intentional collection, the USS Michigan turned around and pursued the timber steamship. He brought the warship alongside the steamer Buffalo and asked if the steamer's crew needed any assistance. The unit indicated that they required no help, so Bigelow let the Buffalo continue her journey.  However, he turned and followed the ship back to Chicago, where the USS Michigan was out of commission for two weeks of repairs. 

After repairs were made, the USS Michigan, with US Marines' aid, captured several timber pirates. These operations are credited with ending the 1853 Timber Rebellion in a federal victory. But the illegal logging trade continued to as late as the 1870s.

Murder on Beaver Island

The USS Michigan was moored to the dock at Beaver Island Harbor on  June 16, 1856, when two fallen-away Strangites assassinated their "king." James Strang on the pier just in front of the ship.  After the murder, the killers surrendered to the Michigan captain, who delivered them with the sheriff at Mackinaw Island, the nearest civil authority not controlled by Strang's men. However, the men were never convicted.  One theory is that the Michigan captain, Commander William Inman, knew of the plot. 

Civil War Service

During the first two years of the Civil War, the USS Michigan toured Great Lakes ports, enlisting four thousand sailors for the Union Navy.  In the summer of 1863, rumors of Confederate plots to invade the North from Canada caused the Navy to increase Michigan's armament to fourteen cannon, including six powerful Parrott rifles. In October 1863, Michigan was assigned to guard the Union prisoner-of-war camp on Johnson's Island just inside Sandusky Bay. While she was there,  Confederate agents did make two attempts to seize her and release the prisoners, but neither attempt was successful, and no Confederate force ever came within range of her guns.

Ironically, the government often used Michigan's armament and crew to keep civil order rather than repel British or Confederate invaders. During the Civil War, Michigan was called upon to use her imminent appearance to check draft riots in Detroit, Milwaukee, and  Buffalo. Just after the war, in 1865, her crew helped put down armed strikes by iron and copper miners at Marquette and Houghton. A year later, she thwarted a raid into Canada by hundreds of members of the  Fenian Brotherhood, Irish-Americans. In this battle of Fort Erie, the Irish planned to occupy Canada until Britain freed Ireland.

Final Years as A Training Ship

USS Wolverine

The USS Michigan was renamed the USS Wolverine in 1905. The ship remained in service as a training vessel until 1923. One of her last acts as an active warship was in 1901 when she was sent to Buffalo after the assassination of President McKinley due to the fear of riots. The Wolverine was recorded to have reached its record speed of 14 knots during the voyage to Buffalo.

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