From Steering Wheels to Shipwrecks, New Rail-Trail Serves Up Local Lore and Natural Splendor
In May 2008, I traveled to Michigan to explore the 62-mile North Central State Trail, which runs from Gaylord to Mackinaw City at the tip of the Lower Peninsula. I'd timed my visit for the trail's official opening that spring, and I spent several days enjoying the region's incredible natural backdrop.
My guide for the first day of riding was Emily Meyerson, Northern Lower Peninsula Trailways Coordinator for the Top of Michigan Trails Council. As we set off from Cheboygan, Mich., I remember she pointed out another undeveloped corridor that headed south from there for 70 miles to Alpena, on Lake Huron. I left that idea behind for the rest of the afternoon and focused on the North Central State Trail, which remains one of my favorite trail trips. But I heard from Meyerson again in February—this time with an announcement for the official opening of that 70-mile corridor coming up this June. In Michigan, trails happen quickly.
Surfaced in smooth, crushed limestone, the North Eastern State Trail (NEST) offers an extended journey through some of the most remote and unpopulated regions of the state. The rail-trail follows a former Detroit & Mackinaw Railway (D&M) line that serviced a series of lumber towns. Today, the largest community the trail touches is Alpena (10,483) at the southern end; the next largest is Cheboygan (4,867), and the rest of the towns range from a few hundred to a couple thousand.
Sometimes the trail passes through the hearts of these communities, or near state parks and recreation sites, boat launches and campgrounds. Yet at other times, you won't see a single building for miles. With so few signs of civilization, nearly every mile of this corridor—from its wetlands and woodlands to all sorts of waterways—offers an incredible wealth of scenery.
"The trail crosses tons of rivers and streams—I can't even count how many," says Meyerson. "The number of culverts on this trail is unbelievable."
Not surprisingly, cell phone coverage in some of these secluded areas can be spotty, and trail users are advised to carry plenty of water. But even if you feel alone, you probably aren't. The forests are often crawling with critters, and you might have coyotes, foxes, deer, raccoons and elk for company. Meyerson says it's definitely black bear country, and beavers are fond of all the wetlands and waterways (they've even caused a little flooding in some sections). You'll hear or see a wide variety of birds, she says, from osprey to hawks, eagles and other raptors. "Birders are going to love this trail."
So are history buffs.
The NEST hops from town to town, each with its own share of local lore and state history. If you pick up the trail in Cheboygan—where you'll find a brand-new, year-round trailhead facility with restrooms, and a seamless connection to the North Central State Trail—you'll shortly cross a historical trestle over the Cheboygan River and then cut along the east shore of Mullett Lake for 2.5 miles. Part of this waterfront stretch takes you through Aloha State Park and the village of Aloha. In 1903, when D&M laid tracks through this area, the railroad's chief engineer—given total freedom to name the stop, as the story goes—chose to name it in honor of Hawaii, where he'd recently traveled to visit the volcano Maunaloa.
Shortly down the trail from Aloha is the town of Onaway. Originally settled in the 1880s as a logging community, Onaway later "Steered the World" as the thriving manufacturing site of wooden steering wheels for the American auto industry. In 1926, though, a fire burned down the Lobdell-Emery Manufacturing Plant, and the industry never recovered. These days, the town carries the title of "Sturgeon Capital of Michigan," an honor officially bestowed by the state legislature in 1989.
Next up is Millersburg, the halfway point, and where the last remaining railroad depot stands; it has been renovated into a history museum. (Construction of a year-round trailhead at the Millersburg Depot is planned for 2012.) In 1908, the third-largest fire in Michigan's history ravaged most of Millersburg and much of the surrounding area, including nearby Metz, where the flames caught a train trying to evacuate residents (16 passengers died, and 38 people overall lost their lives in the blaze).
Around the town of Posen, known as the potato capital of Michigan, the landscape grows more farm-oriented. From there, the last leg of the NEST brings you to the city limits of Alpena, where you can link up with the 16-mile Alpena City Bi-Path—a paved, city-wide route that offers connections to many attractions, including the waterfront of Thunder Bay in Lake Huron. Famous for fog, heavy winds and rocky shoals, this stretch of the bay was known as "Shipwreck Alley" and is home to the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Access to the shipwrecks within the preserve is open to kayakers, snorkelers and divers, though the wrecks range in depth and accessibility. Glass-bottom boat tours are also available.
Wherever you pick up the NEST, the corridor beckons users of all kinds. Equestrians are welcome on the trail, as are snowmobilers during winter months (all other motorized uses are prohibited). The trail is already open to the public, but mark your calendars for the grand opening celebration on Saturday, June 23. Planners are organizing simultaneous ribbon cuttings in Alpena, Posen, Hawks, Millersburg, Aloha and Cheboygan, so you can choose the most convenient trailhead. There will be group rides, a lunch and party in Onaway, entertainment, vendors, prizes and an official trail dedication. To find out more about the grand opening event, visit the Top of Michigan Trails Council.
It's a fine way to kick off the summer trail season, and to commemorate another memorable addition to Michigan's expansive rail-trail network!