Perched at the top of Michigan, the Keweenaw Peninsula might – at first glance – have a few strikes against it as a mountain bike destination: it’s hundreds of miles from just about anywhere, has long cold winters and short cool summers, and it’s in the Midwest. But , if you’ve paid any attention at all to the national press the pass few years, you know that the Keweenaw has managed to transform itself into a mountain bike destination in spite of the challenges, and has actually leveraged those challenges into additional perks of riding in the area.
There’s definitely no shortage of great singletrack in Michigan and throughout the Midwest. But what is it that makes the Keweenaw a truly special place to ride and worth the effort to get to? To find the answer to that, you need take a step back in time. Way back.
A geologic wonder, the Keweenaw peninsula is a veritable mountain bike utopia formed by plate tectonic activity that nearly ripped the continent apart a over a billion years ago. The process, which also eventually led to the creation of Lake Superior, involved the shifting of some plates, a few million years of lava flows, and a heavy dose of gravity. Collapsing under its own weight, the hardened lava was forced downward in the middle, creating the basin that would become Lake Superior, and upward along the edges, forming what is now the Keweenaw Peninsula to the south and Isle Royale to the north. Glaciers moved in during the Ice Ages, further scarring and sculpting the land and jump starting Lake Superior.
The peninsula extends from Copper Harbor towards Ontonagon. It is defined in part by the now-inactive Keweenaw fault, which runs the length of the peninsula and beyond, and in part by large basaltic outcroppings at the edge of the basin that holds Lake Superior. Rising several hundred feet above Lake Superior in places, an exposed ridge produced by the past geologic activity appears at numerous points along the peninsula and offers a mix of terrain unlike that found anywhere. While the elevation differences can’t complete with the Rocky Mountains, the craggy technical features etched into the bedrock and carved out by glaciers can hold their own against just about anything.
Dotted along the Keweenaw are no fewer than five independent trail systems, each fully exploiting the local terrain, which varies from exposed bedrock and 500+ feet of elevation change to gently undulating landscapes covered by tacky dirt and lush hardwood forests. Each of the systems has a unique feel, defined as much by the terrain as they are by the individuals who designed and built them.
While the Copper Harbor Trails are on many a bucket list, no mountain biking trip to the Keweenaw would be complete without sampling some of the 100+ miles of singletrack on offer at the Adventure Mine in Greenland, Michigan Tech in Houghton, Churning Rapids in Hancock, and Swedetown Trails in Calumet. Each of the systems – as well as the communities that surround them – has its own distinct flavor, making the Keweenaw a legitimate destination and one of the hot spots for mountain biking in the Midwest and beyond.
The trails are the result of 25+ years of hard work by a committed legion of volunteers and professional trail builders. And trail development continues. Thanks to the efforts of a pair of IMBA clubs, a number of groups, and committed individuals, each of the trail systems sees some expansion every year, in addition to ongoing improvements and maintenance. Though the population base might be small, the riders who are lucky enough to call the Keweenaw home value what they have and are dedicated to making the trails all they can be.
About the author: Chris Schmidt is a self-employed technical translator who considers himself lucky to to call Houghton home. A long-time biker, he maintains bikethekeweenaw.com to help spread the word about road and mountain biking in the Keweenaw.