The Socially Distanced Cyclist: 16 Days, 1,170 Miles, and Minimal Human Contact Around the Coast of Lower Peninsula Michigan
From August 9 to 24, 2020, I took a solo, self-supported bicycle trip to explore the coastline of my home state, the great state of Michigan. Being the Great Lakes State and a water wonderland, Michigan offers 3,224 miles of freshwater coastline to explore as well as 124 lighthouses, both of which are the most of any state. The following is a summary the trip, encompassing 16 days, 1,170 miles, and following the coastline of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron around Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
Day 1: Familiar Territory
Zeeland to Muskegon State Park: 67 Miles
It was a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon when I finally departed for my trip after a much longer than anticipated morning of final preparations. Bluebird skies and temps in the 80’s made it a day more fitting for a beach holiday than a long, sweaty bike ride. I would start the trip covering very familiar territory, a survey of the Lake Michigan beaches within just a short driving distance of where I grew up. I hopped on my overloaded bicycle and listened to the new squeaks and groans as the immense weight found its equilibrium on my old Cannondale, crossing my fingers that no spokes would snap (wanting to keep myself socially-distanced as possible, I chose to pack around 35 pounds of food so I wouldn’t need to re-provision the entire trip). My first leg would be the twelve mile distance to the white sand beaches of Holland State Park, with a ceremonial stop to see my beloved ‘Big Red’ Lighthouse, which would mark the first of many lighthouses I would stop to see on the trip.
The Holland area boasts many wonderful non-motorized recreational paths, and I followed one of them along Lakeshore Drive, past many lakeshore mansions, nearly all the way to Grand Haven. Grand Haven State Park, another beautiful white sandy beach, was packed with beach revelers on such a gorgeous day. From Grand Haven, I crossed the drawbridge over the Grand River and proceeded northward to Muskegon. This first day of the trip was marked by getting through some of the bigger metropolitan areas on the lakeshore to the less developed lands of the northern counties. North of Muskegon lies Muskegon State Park, a much quieter and forested lakeshore dune park than both of the state parks I had visited earlier. It was at Muskegon State Park where I would first camp for the night, and, as an omen for a good trip to come, I found a $20 bill on the road leading to the park.
Day 2: Storm’s A-Brewing
Muskegon State Park to Ludington: 72 Miles
Day two started fairly leisurely on the sandy beaches of Muskegon State Park, followed by a stimulating up-and down ride through the tree-covered dunes to the Blockhouse, the highest point in the park which offers great views of the dune ecosystem. Continuing northward, I followed the aptly-named Scenic Drive paralleling the lakeshore until I reached White Lake and the twin villages of Whitehall and Montague. As recommended, I found the Hart-Montague Trail, which was Michigan’s first Linear State Park and one of the earliest instances of Rail-to-Trail conversions in Michigan (1991). The Hart-Montague Trail runs for 22 miles and connects several small country towns that offer ice creameries and small cafes. Being a former railway, the trail is undeniably flat and straight, with mostly shrubs and brush for scenery. A few miles shy of Hart, I got the itch to return to the lakeshore for more expansive scenery and some hills for interest. I turned west towards the lake and the sand-buggy enclave of Silver Lake. Though I yearned to make the short detour to the remarkable Little Sable Point Lighthouse in Silver Lake, dark ominous clouds had begun building to the west.
I followed roads along the lakeshore through the city of Pentwater and past the cottages of Bass Lake. A few miles south of Ludington, the road passes right by the Ludington Pumped Storage Plant, once the largest pumped storage plant in the world! During the night, when there is excess electricity generated, the plant will pump water from Lake Michigan up into a 1.3 square mile reservoir over 350 feet above the lake. Releasing this water during the day generates supplemental electricity during peak demand. I stopped to gawk at its massive industrial workings, until a security guard came and asked me to leave. The guard said they were shutting down the overlook due to impending weather and showed me the radar on her phone. Yikes! I made a mad bike dash down from the high dunes to the city of Ludington, where I fortunately was able to set up camp before the heaviest rains set it. It was an eventful night as lightning flashed and thunder cracked overhead, but this would prove to be the only rain encountered on the whole trip.
Day 3: This is Hilly Amazing!
Ludington to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: 78 Miles
The storms had passed during the night leaving me with wet gear, but a warm sunny day proved to be in order once again. North of Ludington, Hamlin Lake and Nordhouse Dunes (Lower Michigan’s only federally-designated wilderness area) block road access to the lakeshore, so I took an inland route of country roads through the matrix of forest and small farms. Riding into Manistee took me back to the lakeshore, and proved to be stop with plenty of great parks to relax at along the lakefront. A few miles north of Manistee, while riding on Lakeshore Road, I got caught up in paying too much attention to a car behind me as I looked to turn left towards the beach access. My front wheel slipped off the paved roadway immediately bogging down in the soft beach sand and causing a slow-motion flip over the handlebars. Aside from a few superficial scratches on my hands, knees, and bike, I was shaken, but OK.
I continued on, albeit more wary of soft shoulders now, around Portage Lake and the small town of Onekama. Onekama is the southern terminus of Michigan Highway 22 (or M-22), that famed route whose highway sign is emblazoned on merchandise and bumper stickers all over Michigan. Reaching M-22 proved a dramatic change in riding conditions; here, the hills began. Whereas up until now things had been remarkably flat, M-22 began a series of long, winding, gradual 1-to-2 mile climbs up a sand dune, followed by a speedy descent on the other side. I maxed my downhill speed out at 39 MPH, which on a fully-loaded bicycle is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. I broke up the hill climbs with stops at the little Victorian town of Arcadia’s city beach, and at the much more bustling tourist town of Frankfort. I then turned my route inland toward the town of Beulah, in search of cherry pie and wine. Riding from Frankfort along the sizable Crystal Lake proved no relief from the hills, and slower travel over the terrain caused me to miss out on the treats found in Beulah. Hungry and exhausted, I made my camp for the night just a few miles to the north in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Day 4: I Bearly Got Anywhere Today
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: 37 Miles
However exhausted I was from the hill climbs the day before, I woke up very excited for the route I would cover today. I would be traveling through the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, perhaps the most scenic stretch of land in the Lower Peninsula (indeed, Sleeping Bear was named ‘The Most Beautiful Place in America’ by ABC’s Good Morning America in 2011). My bike, however, seemed less up for the challenge. As I had feared, all the popping and groaning coming from my crank were signs that my bearings were going bad, and my crank assembly had been growing disconcertingly looser and looser since day two. I would need to make a pit-stop to have that taken care of before I found myself stranded with no pedals to pedal.
I followed the quiet stretch of M-22 into the tourist outpost of Empire, where I met up with the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail. This trail winds through the woods through most of the park, providing most excellent riding scenery. The trail also goes over some very steep dune sections and around some very sharp curves which makes for a sendy route to keep riders on their toes. Highly recommended is the Pierce-Stocking Scenic Drive, which winds a course of seven miles over some of the biggest dunes in the park and past some of the best vistas of Lake Michigan on top of the 400-foot tall sand dunes. Unfortunately for me, and maybe fortunately for my bike, the Pierce-Stocking drive was closed in 2020 due to road construction. However, a short distance north is the epic ‘Dune Climb’, a large active dune blowout that guests are encouraged to climb. The vantages from the top are quite spectacular, and offer sweeping vistas of Lake Michigan, the dune systems, and the valleys inland. Sleeping Bear Dunes also offers opportunities for history hounds as well. Just north of the dune climb is Glen Haven, a former fishing company town that the National Park Service now maintains as a historic village. Tucked in pockets around the park are also the barns and farmhouses of homesteaders of yore. In the course of time, most homesteads folded in the region, and the main economic driver switched to tourism.
I finally stopped to have my bike repaired in Glen Arbor, and the mandatory afternoon of downtime was well spent enjoying a swim in the crystal blue waters of Lake Michigan, as well as doing some tourist shopping in Glen Arbor itself. Not a big day distance-wise, but one of the best places just to enjoy some time in the splendid destination.
Day 5: Up and Down on Leelenau
Leland to Traverse City: 84 Miles
Back in 2012, I had taken a short bike vacation with my parents to the Leelenau Peninsula, and this area offers so much for the bicycle tourist on shorter trips as well as longer ones. The bigger towns of Leland, Northport, and Suttons Bay all offer their own vibe and tourist amenities. I started my day by following M-22 into Leland, of which any stop requires a mandatory visit to the historic and artsy Fishtown. A pleasant and lightly-trafficked ride north on M-22 took me to the quiet town of Northport. About an 8 mile ride north of Northport, past many cherry orchards, I reached the very tip of the Leelenau Peninsula which is home to a state park and the impressive Grand Traverse Lighthouse. The lighthouse was open to tours, though the tower was closed due to COVID.
On my way south on M-22 towards Suttons Bay, just past Omena, I crossed over the 45th Parallel (I had actually crossed over it earlier in the day between Leland and Northport), which, being the geography nerd that I am, necessitated a reason to celebrate. The closer I got to Suttons Bay, the more traffic M-22 picked up, and the worse shape the road became. Though riding M-22 next to Grand Traverse Bay was scenic, I was happy to beat the traffic by picking up the TART Trail (Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trail) going into Traverse City. Being the ‘Cherry Capital of the World,’ I biked past many cherry and fruit orchards on my way into the city.
Day 6: On a Mission
Old Mission Peninsula to Charlevoix: 78 Miles
The start of the day would take me onto the Old Mission Peninsula, the very long and narrow stretch of land that neatly divides Grand Traverse Bay in two. I peddled up the Peninsula on the west side’s Peninsula Drive, which offers a very quick and flat route to the tip, going past miles of miles of really fancy waterfront properties along the way. At the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula lies the Mission Point Lighthouse and a nice beach with crystal clear waters. The route back to Traverse City, along the main highway M-37, offered quite a contrast to the solitude and ease of Peninsula Drive. M-37 goes through the middle of the Peninsula, meaning the road goes up and down many hills as it winds its way mostly through vineyards. Though the hills were challenging, they did provide some incredible vistas of vineyards and Grand Traverse Bay. Had it not been before 10AM, I would have stopped for a tasting.
Once back into Traverse City, I caught the TART Trail to its eastern terminus in Acme, a few miles away. I was glad to avoid the heavy development and tourist traffic along that stretch of US-31. Once the path ended, I followed the signed bike route through some bucolic country acres until I ended up at US-31 again. During route planning, I had wanted to bike that stretch of US-31 as it passes on a narrow strip of land between Lake Michigan and both Elk Lake and Torch Lakes. In hindsight, this was the only section of my route that I wish I had changed. US-31 along that stretch has only a narrow, crumbling shoulder, and the summer tourist car traffic is constant. Even worse, the route has absolutely no views of any lake along the way. As a plus side, though, the heavy tourist traffic does bring with it an abundance of roadside food, fruit, and sweet stands, and Elk Rapids makes a nice town to stop at. Given that it was an exasperatingly hot and sunny day, I made my fill of stops along the way to replenish my belly and refill my electrolytes with some pasties, pastries, and apple cider.
Day 7: Through the Tunnel of Trees
Charlevoix to Cross Village: 81 Miles
Whereas the previous two days were spent biking around the Grand Traverse Bay, today I would bike around the Little Traverse Bay. First stop of the day was in the harbor town of Charlevoix, outside of which I picked up the Little Traverse Wheelway bike path. With the underlying bedrock of the region being limestone here, I made several lengthy stops along the lakeshore to try my hand at fossil hunting. Being so close to Petoskey, I was really hoping to find a stellar specimen of the city’s namesake and Michigan’s state rock (even though Petoskey stones are indeed a fossil, they are not Michigan’s state fossil). Alas, good specimens of Hexagonaria coral (AKA Petoskey stones) were difficult to find, but it doesn’t take an expert paleontologist to soon pick out many other fossils in the mix; fossilized horn corals, bivalves, brachiopods, and crinoids all make the lakeshore a Devonian paleontologist’s playground. Following the nicely-paved Wheelway around Little Traverse Bay will take you to the towns of Petoskey and Harbor Springs, both of which offer plenty of dining and shopping amenities. Petoskey offers a large historic downtown area built into a hillside, whereas Harbor Springs caters to the yacht club upper-crust.
Past Harbor Springs, following Michigan Highway 119 (M-119) is both the motorist and cyclist eye-candy route known as the ‘Tunnel of Trees’. The Tunnel of Trees is a splendid, curvy, 1 1/2 lane highway that encourages you to slow down and enjoy being immersed in the trees as the highway meanders along a sand dune bluff for nearly 20 miles. Traveling, as I was, on a mostly cloudy evening, I encountered very little auto traffic (I let my eyes wander once again, forgetting entirely my days-earlier episode of crashing my bike). At the northern end of the Tunnel of Trees is the tiny settlement of Cross Village, most notably known for its iconic roadhouse, the Legs Inn. In the 1930’s Polish immigrant Stanley Smolak, along with the help of local Odawa craftsmen, began to build the fantastical building using local stone and driftwood. It is highly recommended as a place to eat, or at least walk in and feast your eyes on the décor. Wait times often exceed one hour. Though a hot meal and a beer sounded nice after such a long day, I was burning daylight and had to get to my campsite near Wilderness State Park.
Day 8: In the Straits, not in dire straits
Wilderness State Park to Mackinac Island: 45 Miles
Wilderness State Park is a fantastic, remote expanse of land on the northwest tip of lower Michigan. It offers wide swathes of pine forest and vast expanses of sand dunes, and is highly recommended to spend a full day there. My time in Wilderness State Park would prove eventful. I had just started biking for the day when I came around a corner and saw two young men frantically waving for me. I caught glimpse of a motorcycle stuck under a truck, which is what they were making a big fuss about. I stopped to help the two guys, both named Tyler, incidentally, to get the motorcycle out from under the truck. By that time, I had already pieced together the narrative that the man with the fresh patches of road rash had lost control of his motorcycle going around the curve, and had slid under the parked truck. Fortunately everyone was OK, and I helped Tyler clean up his road rash a bit. Of the three of us there, only my flip phone had cell service, and I stayed with them until they arranged a tow. Flip phone for the win!
Since I no longer had time to explore the vastness of Wilderness State Park, I picked my way along rough rural roads in Emmet County towards the very tip of the Mitt at Mackinaw City. Along the way, however, I couldn’t resist stopping when I saw a sign for the McGulpin Point Lighthouse (which, by the way, you could actually climb the tower). From the McGulpin Point light tower, I could get a great view of the Mackinac Bridge spanning the Straits of Mackinaw. I was at the tip of the peninsula, but the Mackinac was a bridge I would not cross (at least not on this trip). Nearby the lighthouse is the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, and the region is perfect for stargazing on a clear night.
Now that I was halfway through my ride and at the tip of the Peninsula, my crowning stop would be an afternoon spent on Mackinac Island, Michigan’s iconic and premier island destination. A former British fort and a tourist destination since the mid-1800’s, Mackinac Island was once even briefly a federal National Park (1875-1895). Today, the island is known for its bikes and horse-drawn carriages, its Victorian architecture, its fudge and tourist shops, and for being carless. It is a half-hour ferry ride to the island from Mackinaw City, and to get to the ferry terminal you have to pass through all the shops of downtown Mackinaw City that are hawking fudge and T-shirts. Once you land on Mackinac Island itself, you’ll be in downtown and will walk past all the shops hawking the same fudge and T-shirts as the mainland. But when you’re on the island, it’s special, and I did the touristy thing of buying fudge, popcorn, and postcards. The island is also great for history buffs, given Fort Michilimackinac and other historic buildings to tour, but I was there for the bike riding. A right of passage on the island is to bike the 8 mile loop on M-185 that rings the island. I had biked around the island once before on a family trip when I was in fifth grade, but biking on my own as an adult was so much better. Of course I had to make a stop at some of the iconic geological formations such as Arch Rock and Skull Cave. And there was no better way to cap off the day than by getting ice cream from the shop below the Grand Hotel’s world-record 660′ long front porch.
Day 9: Lonesome Limestone Highway
Mackinaw City to Thompson’s Harbor State Park: 74 Miles
United States Highway 23 offers a dramatic contrast to the commercialism of Mackinaw City. Never before had I been to northeast Lower Michigan. It is an region of small towns separated by large distances all built on the extractive industries. From Mackinaw City to Cheboygan, the North Central State Trail follows an old railroad grade paralleling Highway 23. Though the crushed gravel of the state trail was nice, I found I preferred the feel of pavement and the glimpses of Lake Huron that riding on the road afforded me. Traffic was light and the shoulders were wide, which meant great riding conditions.
The surrounding waters of Lake Huron are extremely treacherous, and have claimed hundreds of ships and lives over the centuries. These shipwrecks are all protected within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Forty miles from the Straits of Mackinac is the Forty Mile Point Lighthouse. Several shipwrecks lie in shallow water just offshore, but the remains of the 1905 wreck of the J.S. Fay lie on the beach near the lighthouse. Snorkeling, SCUBA diving, kayaking, or glass bottomed boat tours are all the best ways to see the wrecks.
From Forty Mile Point, one can get on the paved Huron-Sunrise Trail, which leads to Rogers City. Though Rogers City is small, its status as the only town of 1,000 or more people for 30 miles in either direction means that it has all the amenities a person would need. Rogers City is built on mining—mining the fossil-rich limestone bedrock that dominates the region. The limestone is crushed and used as an ingredient in cement, and Lake Huron provides easy access for shipping to distant markets. Outside the city is a special overlook that peers into the massive strip mine that gives Roger’s City its lifeblood. The Calcite Quarry, at over 1,800 acres, ships out 7 to 10 million tons of limestone each year.
Leaving Rogers City early in the evening, the sun was beginning to shine lower and lower on the horizon, while the blue open skies made the late sunshine feel quite tangible. I took a detour off of US-23 at Thompson’s Harbor State Park to search for the Presque Isle Lighthouses. Without directions or a detailed map, I followed an unnamed dirt road hoping it would take me to the lighthouses. The road dead ended at the outlet where water from Grand Lake flows into Lake Huron. The low gleaming sun, the slight warmth in the gentle breeze, the sound of the rocks rolling in the surf—it aligned all too perfectly. I had to stop right there for the day—I had to sit down and just bask in the beauty of the experience. If anything, that evening spent on the beach of Thompson’s Harbor was the defining spiritual experience of the trip. The video encapsulating my experience is included above.
Day 10: Here On Huron
Thompson’s Harbor State Park to Oscoda: 76 Miles
After my euphoric evening at Thompson’s Harbor State Park, I had to follow up with nothing short of a pre-breakfast swim in Lake Huron. My morning route would continue around Grand Lake to the small sleepy enclave of Presque Isle. I would find both the old and the new Presque Isle Lighthouses on a peninsula, and, not unexpectedly, both were closed for the summer. Nevertheless, taking the detour around Grand Lake to those small communities and idyllic harbors was well worth it. After passing another large limestone quarry, I reconnected to US-23 and had a short ride into the city of Alpena.
Alpena hails itself as the ‘Sanctuary of the Great Lakes’ owing to its location at the center of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It is a large city, as far as cities in northeastern Michigan go, and along with the extractive industries of fishing, lumbering, and limestone quarrying, Alpena boats a modest maritime tourist economy as well. Unfortunately the highly acclaimed NOAA Museum and adjoining glass-bottom boat tours were closed due to COVID. At this point in the trip, I had grown terribly tired of the food I had packed from home, so I stopped in downtown Alpena to get the greasiest cheeseburger Alpena could offer. While seated at the restaurant, a middle-aged couple started up a conversation by saying that they had seen me yesterday riding from Mackinaw City. We chatted a while about our Michigan travels, and they seemed thoroughly impressed by my stamina. They also paid for my meal.
I left Alpena headed south on US-23 on the mostly empty road past the endless forest. A peculiar place to stop would be Ossineke, where giant sculptures of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox great travelers on the highway. Nearby, a gigantic Jesus holding the earth aloft in one hand beckons visitors to come visit the Dinosaur Gardens Prehistoric Zoo, an eclectic and anachronistic mix of cavemen, dinosaurs, and Christianity. By the time I was ready for a break, I was passing by the small town of Harrisville, and I saw a sign for an outdoor concert at the lakefront pavilion. It was some good foot-tapping folk music being played, and after a few songs an announcement was made that it was the organizer of the concert series birthday today. A homemade carrot cake was cut up to celebrate. I was invited by a women to grab a slice. What great small-town hospitality! South of Harrisville, US-23 travels right next to Lake Huron, on what is called the ‘Sunrise Coast’. In a long stretch from Harrisville to Oscoda, the lake is lined with second homes and vacation rentals. I think I finally found where most of the east-siders go on their summer vacations.
Day 11: To the Thumb Pit
Oscoda to Standish: 71 Miles
The twin villages of Au Sable and Oscoda mark the finish line of one of Michigan’s most epic races: The Au Sable Canoe Marathon. In the race, competitors start 120 miles upstream in Grayling, paddling through the night to reach the finish line near Lake Huron. The race was cancelled in 2020, but seeing so many fine rivers as I biked along the coast made me itch to get out and paddle again.
A short distance later, I would be coming upon the start of the ‘Thumb Pit,’ better known as Saginaw Bay. The Tawas Point Lighthouse marks the start of the bay on the northern end, and Tawas City is a small tourist enclave. Continuing south on US-23, the highway is flat and runs right along the lakeshore. The tourist resorts and second homes disappear, and the landscape consists of forest and utilitarian buildings. Maybe it was something about this road, or maybe it was because I just started to put my head down and ride, but I began to notice an abundance of quarters, nickels, and dimes scattered on the shoulder. Another roadside find was a ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ flag, which was evocative of the region’s independent and libertarian leanings.
Day 12: Thumbs Up
Standish to Port Austin: 77 Miles
Today I would round Saginaw Bay and enter Michigan’s Thumb. Pure geographical curiosity had me wondering what it would be like to visit, though I have heard that the Thumb is very flat, rural, and agricultural. The rumors proved true: the Thumb is incredibly flat, rural, and agricultural. Very small farm towns dot the landscape. Biking south on M-13 going into Bay City, I passed through Pinconning, Michigan’s Cheese Capital. On the Thumb, the town of Sebewaing has a large sugar beet processing plant. It was not until the very tip of the thumb, in the towns of Caseville and Port Austin, where vacation homes and tourist attractions began to sprout up along M-25 by the lakeshore. The thumb-tip also offers a couple of nice state parks with sandy swimming beaches.
Day 13: Last Day Along the Lake
Port Austin to Lakeport: 84 Miles
Starting from the tip of the Thumb, today would be my last day biking along the lakeshore as I made my way south on M-25 towards Port Huron. M-25 runs right along Lake Huron, passing many small towns along the way. Even though the route is right next to a Great Lake, it remains agricultural and undeveloped. I biked past the historical company town of Huron City and then past the Point Aux Barques Lighthouse and former U.S. Life Saving Service Station. I continued biking past many sleepy towns enjoyed by the R.V. crowd, until I passed through more touristy enclaves like Lexington and Lakeport as I neared Port Huron.
Day 14: Eastward
Lakeport to Flint: 96 Miles
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and I was about to wrap up my travels along the Great Lakes and start the long trek eastward back to my starting point in Zeeland. I couldn’t help but say goodbye to Lake Huron with one final swim at Lakeport State Park. From Lakeport I would pedal eastward through the farm country in the heart of the state. I passed through small towns named Yale, Lynn, Capac, and Dryden. The roads were rough and had limited shoulder, and I bet that road bikers are a rare occurrence there. However, even with the unseemingly busy roads and all the trucks trying to get past me, every driver was courteous. By the time I biked to Metamora and Hadley, the farmland had turned to hills and forest. I would end the evening on the outskirts of Flint, after a very long, hot and sunny day.
Days 15 & 16: Wrapping Up
Flint to Middleville to Zeeland: 115 & 35 Miles
One final, scorching hot day was ahead of me as I aimed to make it to my friends Robert and Becky’s house in Middleville for the evening. From the outskirts of Flint, I was immediately back into farm country. I would pass through Durand, home of the Michigan Railroad Historical Museum. I would also pass through Laingsburg, where I began running into fleets of spandexed cyclists out for a Sunday morning ride. Out of Laingsburg, I would follow country roads that ran along the crisp and cool Looking Glass River, being thankful for the trees lining the road that provided some measure of relief from the sun. Once past the outskirts of Lansing, it was all sun-beaten farmland until Middleville. Wanting to avoid traffic, I wandered down country roads, meandering generally East and South towards my destination. While I succeeded in avoiding traffic, I also never ran into the gas station that I had optimistically been counting on to replenish my desperately low electrolytes. By the time I arrived at Robert and Becky’s house, it was well past sunset. An incredibly long day, but one the prospect of seeing old friends again had motivated me on towards.
From Middleville, it was a chip shot of a day to finish the remainder of the trip back to Zeeland. More meandering and country roads, and the unanticipated stretch of country gravel, but 35 miles later I had made the trip complete.
Martha’s Vineyard by Bicycle
A short distance off the coast of mainland Massachusetts lies a vineyard. It’s not just any vineyard, however—this vineyard is Martha’s Vineyard. And though the name doesn’t imply it, Martha’s Vineyard is an island. The peculiar name, as custom has it, dates from 1602 when English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold first sighted the island. Seeing wild grapevines dotting the island, he bestowed upon it the moniker ‘vineyard’; wanting to confer an honor to his family members as well, he also gave it the name ‘Martha’ after either his daughter or his mother-in-law. The Wampanoag peoples, however, the original inhabitants of the island, referred to the land as Noepe, meaning “land amid the streams”. And while it has never had many vineyards (and perhaps not many Marthas either) the island still has an abundance of offerings for the curious traveler. Though Martha’s Vineyard is most famous as an island retreat for the rich and famous (most notably the Kennedy clan), the Vineyard, as it is colloquially called, is neither a remote nor an inaccessible place. In fact, the proximity and ease of transport to Martha’s Vineyard makes this high-status resort island an open destination to even the common tourist.
From mainland Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard is blatantly obvious in all but the foggiest weather. Just over three miles offshore from the nearest ferry port in Woods Hole, the ferry ride to the Vineyard clocks in at a rapid 45 minutes. Ferries come and go on a sub-hourly basis in the summers, and for just a few dollars you can secure your passage to the island. For a few dollars extra, you can even bring your own bicycle and take with you the finest mode of transportation for exploring the gems that Martha’s Vineyard has to offer. As I have visited the Vineyard three times by bicycle over the course of the past summer, I’d say I’m fairly familiar with the island. But at 88 square miles, the Vineyard will continue to surprise any frequent visitor.
Your trip to Martha’s Vineyard will most likely start in the port village of Vineyard Haven, as it occupies the most protected and accessible deep anchorage on the Vineyard. Vineyard Haven offers an excellent jumping off point for exploring the rest of the island. As the ferry is docking in the harbor, you will find yourself transported amidst a milieu of sailboats. Well known ships, like the Black Dog’s Shenandoah and Alabama tall ships make their anchorages here. Though Vineyard Haven is one of the three major population centers on the island, it is by far the smallest. Main Street is populated with bric-a-brac shops and fine eateries, but the commercial district of the town does not extend far from the harbor. Starting in Vineyard Haven provides a digestible foretaste of what’s to come on your next two city stops on the Vineyard.
It’s time now to hop on your bike and head east along the bridged road that separates Vineyard Haven Harbor from Lagoon Pond. After a few miles of pedaling you will start to see massive Victorian houses appear; you are reaching the outskirts of Oak Bluffs, the Vineyard’s largest town. Oak Bluffs is distinct among Vineyard towns with its unique built environment and its lively culture as well. Formerly known as Cottage City, biking into Oak Bluffs is like riding into a storybook. The ornate ‘Gingerbread Houses’ are cladded with cookie-cutter ornamentation all painted in vibrant pastel shades. These grand old houses line an expansive ocean-side park laden with fountains, flowers, and park benches. Ocean Park, as it is known, is always comfortably busy with families strolling about and children flying kites. It gives off the whimsical aroma of an all-American town.
Before the Cottage City was built, groups of Methodists would flock to the Oak grove on the bluff to hold annual summer revival meetings in the early 1800’s. At first their camp colony consisted of a series of tents surrounding a larger meeting tent on the top of the hill. As the years went by, the Methodists gradually upgraded from simple tents to more and more elaborate buildings. Eventually, a large open-air tabernacle replaced the original meeting tent, and a village of Victorian cottages replaced the tents. The Gingerbread cottages then became a tourist attraction in their own right.
Methodists weren’t the only people attracted to Oak Bluffs. The island town has a long history of a community of color. The first blacks in Oak Bluffs were brought to America as slaves. By the 1700’s, freed blacks began moving to the town to seek work in the local fishing industry. The growing African-American population of the town then attracted black business owners to set up shop, adding to the growing community. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, middle and upper-class African-American families sought out Oak Bluffs as a vacation destination. Unfortunately they didn’t have much other choice in their holiday destinations, as discriminatory laws in all other towns on the Vineyard prevented blacks from renting hotel rooms. Oak Bluffs was the only town that welcomed the presence of black vacationers, and to this day Oak Bluffs remains a destination for prominent families of African-American descent.
Beyond the sheer visual stimuli that is the gingerbread cottages of Oak Bluffs, the main commercial streets are always bustling with tourist traffic. Oak Bluffs was the only town on Martha’s Vineyard consciously planned for tourism, and the businesses on the main drags show it. Walking the streets of Oak Bluffs, one will encounter an unfathomable smattering of ice cream stores, candy shops, souvenir shops, and even a flashy arcade full of jazzy amusements and a carousel. In sharp contrast to the more tactfully hidden tourist nature of the other Vineyard towns, Oak Bluffs pretends to be nothing less than a destination for the masses.
After getting overstimulated in in Oak Bluffs, it is time to stretch the bicycling legs again and take the scenic bike route six miles southeast into the Vineyard’s other most populous town, Edgartown. The trail to Edgartown rides smack between the open ocean and Sengekontacket Pond. This stretch of sand and water is perhaps the most scenic ride on all the Vineyard. Along the path you will cross the American Legion Memorial Bridge, made famous from the movie set of Jaws. Take a quick breather and re-create the shark attack scene. It is also a popular pastime at the bridge to jump into the water. Just when you thought it was safe…
Continuing on into Edgartown, you will see more familiar Jaws scenery. The fictional town center of Amity Island was filmed here. The brick sidewalks and wooden buildings provide an olden-day feel to the town. Edgartown has a much more relaxed ambiance than Oak Bluffs. Its maze of streets are lined with shops and eateries which cater to the more refined traveler. Also in Edgartown, you can catch one of the world’s shortest car ferries. At a distance of 527 feet, the ‘Chappy Ferry’ to Chappaquiddick Island is nothing short of endearing. Endearing too is the island itself, lightly trafficked and abounding with beaches, forests, and the Mytoi Japanese Gardens. Continuing south out of Edgartown is another way to escape the bustle of the large towns; some of the Vineyard’s most popular beaches, South Beach and Katama Beach, lie just a short cycle south.
After completing the trifecta of the major Martha’s Vineyard towns, it is time to get your bicycling legs in gear and make the long trek to the far western side of the island where the landscape becomes increasingly rural. Out of Edgartown, follow the bike path west. Soon enough, after passing through the outskirts of the town and a few boutique farms as well, you will reach the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, a sizable patch of pitch pines and other scrubby trees that occupies the heart of the Vineyard. The bike path is far enough off the road and is adequately shaded by the trees so that it starts to feel rather isolated. After a good stretch of smooth riding, the bike path ends. To continue further west, it is time to venture onto the roads. Not to worry, though. Western Martha’s Vineyard takes on quite a different character than the populous tourist towns in the east, and not much vehicle traffic abounds on this side of the otherwise congested island.
To continue west at the end of the paved bike path, take your pick of either North, Middle, or South Roads. As you could probably infer from their names, these roads refer to their geographical location on the island. Once in the west, the hills on the Vineyard begin to get more pronounced. The forest, too, encroaches on the road; the continuous tree canopy is punctuated only by the occasional pastoral meadow. Old stone walls line the road and heirloom cattle graze in the pastures. After riding for a number of miles, you’ll eventually reach the small isolated village of Chilmark, whose claim to fame was a once-thriving deaf community with its own system of signing even before the advent of American Sign Language.
The village of Chilmark is a one-horse town, occupying little more than a road intersection with a few boutique shops and community buildings. Take a quick break on your bicycle to look around, but then head north again towards the ocean. A few miles later you’ll reach the quaint fishing village of Menemsha, an aged relic from the days when fishing was still a mainstay of the Vineyard. Take a stroll along the docks and watch the fishing boats offload their catch. Small weathered clapboard shacks line the Menemsha basin and fishermen peddle their wares to off-the-beaten-path tourists. It was this village that served as the home of the salty shark hunter Quint from Jaws. As a special bonus for cyclists only, Menemsha offers the special treat of a bike-only ferry to traverse the stones-throw distance across the entrance of Memensha Pond. After seeing enough fish in the village, take the bike ferry and enjoy the short water transit.
On the other side of the bike ferry, you’ll find yourself in a land of sand and hills directly lining the ocean. Pause for a moment and think about the eastern end of the Vineyard just fifteen miles back—this has become a vastly different world. Rather than opulent vacation compounds, the houses here are beaten and weathered, laying spattered in the woods like an organic outgrowth of trees. It is here where you will enter into the Wampanoag Aquinnah lands, lands that are still held by the original peoples of the Vineyard. Also, at this point you should notice that you are biking uphill; this means that the spectacular Gay Head Cliffs are quickly approaching.
Once you spot the Gay Head Lighthouse in the distance you will know that you are near the end of the island. At its westernmost point, known as Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard abruptly drops into the ocean at the Gay Head Cliffs. These cliffs are made up of clay, a dissimilar material to the glacially deposited till that composes the rest of the Vineyard. As a geological phenomenon, layers and layers of the Gay Head clay—former seafloor sediment—were pushed upwards by the weight of the glacial moraine formed during the last ice age. Over time, the ocean has been reclaiming this above-water material and has formed the cliffs via erosion. Wampanoag legend holds that the god Moshup, a benevolent provider, lives in the cliffs. The red stains on the cliffs are from the blood of the whales that Moshup eats, and the black is the soot from the fires that Moshup cooks over. The Wampanoag peoples hold these cliffs and their mud sacred, and as a visitor it is easy to see why. This secluded end of the island is a special place, worthy of admiration. From the overlook of the cliffs, it is an easy enough walk down to Moshup Beach, where one can stroll along the sandy beaches under the towering cliffs. After such a whirlwind tour of the Vineyard, there really is no better ending.