Distance: 3.5, 5.2 and 7.5-mile loops
Type: Nordic ski and mountain bike
Terrain: Stumb fields and pine forests
Hartwick Pines is not only the largest state park in the Lower Peninsula but it was also one of the first in northern Michigan to welcome mountain bikers when in the late 1980s it opened up its 10-mile network of ski trails to off-road cycling.
At first two-wheelers came in groves. But eventually their numbers tapered off partly because so many other mountain biking areas became available including Hanson Hills in Grayling and Aspen Park just to the north in Gaylord. Others bypassed Hartwick Pines because its trail system is mostly old logging roads and not technical enough for many off-road enthusiasts.
But don't let the lack of narrow single track stop you from leaving I-75 for an easy but intriguing ride in the woods.
Accessed from the Michigan Forest Visitors Center, the mountain bike trails are located north of the park’s famous 49-acre tract of virgin white pine. Although the area was logged at the turn-of-the-century, the pines that replaced them are still impressive while in the middle are vast stump fields.
The result of turn-of-the-century logging, the fields are now semi-open meadows where 50 or more relic stumps scattered all about like a cemetery devoted to giant white pine. It's an eerie feeling to ride through the middle of these grayish, ghost forests and see the handiwork of lumberjacks from more than a century ago, especially if you thought every pine in the park was a 300-year-old tree.
Hartwick Pines’ ski/bike system is basically a 7.5-mile loop with two crossover spurs to form three different routes. From the Michigan Forest Visitor Center trailhead, the Aspen Trail is an easy 3.5-mile loop, Deer Run Trail is 5.2 miles and Weary Legs Trail is 7.5 miles. Both Deer Run and weary Legs contain more hills and greater changes of elevation but the entire trail system is rated easy/moderate and presents few problems to mountain bikers. All three loops are followed in a counter-clockwise direction.
The most interesting loop by far, and the one described here, is Deer Run Trail as it takes you into the heart of the stump fields. All three trails are well marked and easy to follow with numbered posts and maps at all junctions. It's important to remember that the other trails in the park; Au Sable Trail, Mertz Grade Trail and the Old Growth Forest Trail that winds through the logging camp interpretive area, is off limits to mountain bikers.
When there is sufficient snow in the winter, the trails are open to cross-country skiers. Trails are usually rolled and set with tracks for classic skiing and throughout the winter night skiing is offered on a regular basis with part of the system being lit by lanterns. None of the loops are overly difficult like what you’ll find just to north at Forbush Corners as the hills you encounter are moderate with straight downhill runs.
During the winter the Michigan Forest Visitors Center doubles as a warming area for skiers with heated restrooms and drinking water. From September through May the center is open daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., excluding the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. You can call the park headquarters or the visitors center (989-348-2537) in regards to snow conditions, grooming and night skiing and other special events.
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