By BRAD PARSONS - Michigan Department of Natural Resources
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Michigan.gov/TrailsWeek.
To learn more about how to get involved and discover mountain biking, visit Michigan.gov/DNRTrails.