I decided to take a trip on my bike. I had previously enjoyed riding on the 200+-mile Katy Trail in Missouri, and now decided to see whether I could find anything like that in Michigan. The League of American Bicyclists (which I had never heard of, before beginning this research, but whose site was so informative that I decided to sign up for their RSS feed) ranked Michigan only 16th in bicycle friendliness in 2010, but that appeared to be due primarily to legislative anal-cranial dislocation. I noticed somewhere else that Michigan had, as I recall, more miles of rail trails than any other state. (The link for that has vanished, but it probably came indirectly or directly from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy or possibly Rails to Trails US.)
I sketeched out the general plan for my trip with the TrailLink.com database. I decided to take the Musketawa Trail northwest from Grand Rapids, get on the Hart-Montague Trail, go up along Lake Michigan to the town of Hart, cut over to the west end of the Pere Marquette Trail in Baldwin, take that east to Reed City, and then take the White Pine Trail (a/k/a Fred Meijer Trail) back down to Grand Rapids. This looked like it was going to be about 250 miles altogether. I planned to use a hybrid bike with panniers and camping gear, so it would be somewhat able to go off the pavement but would be heavy and bulky.
The trailhead on the eastern terminus of the Musketawa Trail was in Marne. Although I couldn't find its exact street address, I approximated its location in Google Maps at 15279 8th Ave., Marne, MI 49435. (Note: I discovered, in the process of writing this post, that Google Maps was now apparently able to find nonexistent addresses. Last time I tried, Yahoo! Maps would balk if an address had not actually been assigned to someone or something. So if any of these addresses don't work for you in your mapping program, try them in Google Maps.)
From Marne, the Musketawa would run 25 miles northwest to Muskegon. Reading the trail descriptions and riders' comments, I gathered several things. First, the Musketawa was reportedly paved for its entire length. Second, however, that pavement was apparently graced by horse droppings. (Funny how we can speak of horseshit in other contexts, but when we actually encounter the real McCoy, we allude to it as "manure." There's something ironic about that. But I digress.) Third, people said there could be a stiff wind off the lake, so this might be a tough 25 miles. And finally, apparently there could be such a temperature difference that, a half-mile inland from Lake Michigan, you might be wearing shorts and a T-shirt on a summer day; but at the lakefront itself, you might need a jacket.
In Muskegon, the west end of the Musketawa was going to drop me off at what Google Maps - Street View located at about 2490 Black Creek Road, Muskegon, MI 49442. From there, I would have to make my way across downtown Muskegon to the start of the Hart-Montague Trail. It looked like this might best be done with the aid of a bike path along Laketon Avenue, which appeared to be only about a mile from the west end of the Musketawa. Specifically, from the latter trailhead, I planned to follow Black Creek Road north as it curved around into Latimer Drive and then Port City Blvd. At the corner of Port City and Laketon Ave., I would turn west and go about two miles to Wood St., take that about 1.5 miles north to Marquette Ave., take Marquette a quarter-mile west to its end, turn left on Western Ave., go a quarter-mile, turn right on Giddings Ave., and look for the trailhead on the right. The street address was somewhere around 100 Giddings Ave., but the trail was basically right at the entrance of Fisherman's Landing. And that would put me on what looked like a nice bike path that would take me across the harbor.
And then, after a mile or two that nice bike path would peter out, leaving me at about 2536 Lake Ave., Muskegon, MI 49445. Now I'd need to travel north for another five to ten miles on streets and highways, to reach the start of the Hart-Montague Trail. This process would begin by turning to the east on Lake Ave. and then turning north one block later, at the McDonald's, on Causeway St., which would soon turn into Whitehall Road. Whitehall was a fairly busy four-lane without shoulders or sidewalks. The alternative would be to make my way along country roads without shoulders -- which, in Michigan these days, had a good chance of being very cracked and potholed if not simply dirt.
Up by Montague, it looked like they had been expanding that trail southwards, toward Muskegon, since the time of its most recent writeup by Traillink.com. Specifically, as of this writing (June 2010), Google Maps street view was showing me that paving was in process where the trail crossed White Lake Drive -- at about 3438 W. White Lake Drive, Whitehall, MI 49461. It looked like that was as far as they had gotten, though it looked like they were preparing to continue paving on the other side of White Lake Drive. The tracks had also been removed further south, at 1820 W. Lakewood Rd., Whitehall, MI, but at that point no paving preparations seemed underway. It looked more like a four-wheeler type of trail. I wasn't sure if my hybrid tires would be able to handle it. Still further south, just a few miles north of Muskegon, the tracks were still in place. A mountain biker probably could have handled the path alongside the tracks nonetheless -- at, say, 240 W. River Road, Muskegon, MI 49445 -- but I decided it wasn't worth taking the detour to find out.
On the other hand, I did want to explore, and I figured I'd probably enjoy even a half-baked trail more than a highway. I decided that, if I could stand Whitehall Road, I'd go north along it for about three miles and turn east on Tyler Road. The Google Street view at 698 W. Tyler Road, Muskegon, MI 49445 made it look like other users had worn something of a single-track trail into the double-track worn by trucks and ATVs. The railroad right-of-way crossed Tyler just slightly east of Whitehall, so I wouldn't have to make a big detour to find out the state of affairs there. Then, if I couldn't make a go of the trail in its present condition at Tyler, I would continue north on Whitehall. As a fallback, if I couldn't stand Whitehall from the very start, I'd turn west on Giles, a half-mile north of the McDonald's, and then north on Horton and west on River to Lorenson Road, which appeared to be paved. Likewise, if Tyler did not produce a good trail, and if I had had enough of Whitehall, I could follow Tyler for a couple miles west of Whitehall to Lorenson, though Whitehall angled northwest and might thus save me a mile or so.
If I didn't get on the developing Hart-Montague Trail at Tyler, I decided my next try would be at White Lake Drive. Whitehall crossed it; Lorenson didn't. If I was on Lorenson, I would need to continue to its end at Lakewood Road; go west to the first road, Durham; take Durham north to White Lake; and go west on White Lake to the trail. Durham would cross the railroad right-of-way, so if they had made progress south of White Lake Drive, Durham would be the next place where I'd be able to see it. Once I did get on the Hart-Montague Trail, whether at Tyler or White Lake Drive, it looked like I would be golden for 25+ miles, all the way to that trail's northern terminus at around 5 Wood St., Hart, MI 49420. Users' reviews made it sound like the trail was not in perfect condition; I would just have to see what that meant.
In Hart, at the end of the Hart-Montague Trail, I needed to turn east on Wood Street (or on any of the next several streets), go over four blocks to Hart St., take that north a half-dozen blocks to Main St., and head east. I'd be back on streets and highways for the trek to the next trailhead, at 941 Michigan Ave., Baldwin, MO 49304. I pondered several routes, starting with one that would go straight east and then straight north, using potentially bicycle-unfriendly highways that might see a lot of car traffic and that didn't appear to offer shoulders. After several tries, I came up with a route that seemed like the best compromise, with some roads that might not be very passable. Despite using angling roads, the mileage came out nearly the same as with the simplest east-then-north option.
Much of this trip would run through the Manistee National Forest, where it looked like I could expect a different kind of dirt road -- more of a forest road, with sparse traffic and possibly fewer potholes than you'd get on a regular county backroad. At 7198 W. 16 Mile Road, Bitely, MI 49309, for instance, the road seemed very pretty and isolated. This wouldn't be high-speed travel, but it seemed like it might be pleasant on a summer day.
From Baldwin, I would go east to Reed City. Trail reports indicated that the trail was a mix of paved and unpaved sections, and that the latter could range from packed gravel to dirt to occasional mud. U.S. Highway 10 ran parallel to the trail, so I could probably jump over there if necessary. Most of the Pere Marquette trail lay to the east, between Reed City and Clare, but it looked like I would be taking the Chestnut Street exit. That is, the eastbound Pere Marquette appeared to cross the southbound White Pine Trail at approximately 10 E. Upton Ave., Reed City, MI 49677.
The White Pine Trail continued on to downtown Grand Rapids and connected with other trails to points beyond, but I would be getting off at 6 Mile Road. It looked like my landmark was this: when I get to Grand Rapids and find the River right next to me (on my southbound left side), it's almost time to get off the trail to the right. At this point, keep watching on the left. When the river recedes and you encounter buildings again on the left, get off to the right exactly there. If you get to the stadium and the freeway, you've gone too far, and you may as well continue on to 4 Mile Road and take that back to Marne.
When you encounter those buildings, cross River Drive and take Pine Island Drive back to the north for not quite a half-mile. Turn west on 6 Mile Road and go west for eight miles, to 8th Avenue. Turn south on 8th Avenue and go about two miles back to the starting point.
By the foregoing estimates, it looked like the trip would total about 210 miles, though I expected that it might run another 10 miles or so beyond that. That seemed like a good distance; I had gone on a couple of bike trips of about that distance on the Katy Trail, and I wanted another experience somewhat similar to those. This was new territory, and it sounded like the trail conditions would be rougher in spots than they had been on the Katy, so this felt like the right level of challenge for this trip.
Having worked up a tentative route, I needed to think about things like equipment, scheduling, and lodging. But that sounded like a job for another post.