Thursday, January 8, 2009

Little Traverse Wheelway is Rails-to-Trails Pick of the Month

Little Traverse Wheelway
Little Traverse Wheelway
photo Rails-to-Trails
from the Rails to Trails Magazine

n the 1880s and '90s, locals in Petoskey, Mich., had claimed much of the city's waterfront for a walking and bicycling path, which they called the "wheelway." The trail hooked around Little Traverse Bay in Lake Michigan, straddling wooded bluffs and resort beaches along Petoskey's shoreline. The Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, and later the Chicago and West Michigan Railway, eventually developed tracks over much of this route. Yet when rail service ended, the community decided in the early 1990s to reclaim the prized corridor for its original purpose.

For years, though, the rail-trail only grew in spurts. Five different entities managed sections of the pathway, and not all of them connected.

But through a concerted effort of the various managers—as well as the partnership of the Top of Michigan Trails Council —the Wheelway has finally come together, says Emily Meyerson, who works with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) as the trails coordinator for the northern Lower Peninsula. Meyerson has watched the trail grow to 26 miles during her 13 years in Petoskey. Today, 23 miles are continuous and paved, and the remaining three into Harbor Springs could be in place by this summer. So after nearly a century hiatus, the Little Traverse Wheelway once again offers trail lovers a front-row view of Little Traverse Bay from Charlevoix to Petoskey and on to Harbor Springs.

In its second coming, the "Bike Path," as locals call it, has grown longer and wider, yet the landscape remains equally captivating. Starting from Waller Road in Charlevoix, the trail breaks from Highway 31 and heads northeast out of town. You'll cross over a boardwalk through a wetlands area before passing the entrance to an old nuclear energy facility. At times over the next few miles, the pathway juts out into the bay on little peninsulas, like Nine Mile Point, where the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has developed recreational facilities.

Before hitting the midpoint in Petoskey, the Wheelway reaches its newest and most celebrated addition: a 1.4-mile segment, known as "Resort Bluffs," between East Park in Bay Harbor and Magnus Park in Petoskey that opened this past October.

A tricky gap in the trail for years, this part of the railroad corridor had been "benched" midway up the high bluffs on Little Traverse Bay. Highway 31 runs on top of the bluffs, halfway down is the rail bed, and below that is the shoreline—not an easy section to access or develop. "There was only one way in and one way out," says Al Hansen, director of parks and recreation for the city of Petoskey.

To bypass this section, trail users previously had to share Highway 31 on a shoulder. Now, the "Resort Bluffs" section has become its own mini-park with overlooks and picnic areas and steps down to the lakeshore. "It offers some very dramatic views of the bay," says Hansen, who has overseen much of the trail's construction in Petoskey.

The "Resort Bluffs" also provide a memorable welcome to Petoskey, where nearly all of the city's waterfront is a park. Cutting right along the shore, the Wheelway passes the Little Traverse History Museum, softball fields, the marina and acres of outdoors activity.

"[Petoskey] really is a premier place to be," says Meyerson. "I'm a runner and biker, and I'm on the trail quite a bit. It's part of the experience of living here."

She says the northern half of the trail offers its own unique experiences, including Victorian neighborhoods in Bay View, just up the trail from Petoskey. Another highpoint along this stretch is a new mural on the rear wall of a grocery store that depicts the history of the corridor—including its days as a portage site for the Odawa Indians who originally inhabited the area (traders used to travel across northern Michigan entirely by using the state's many waterways).

The final developed trail miles head north away from the bay between Round Lake and the sand dunes of Petoskey State Park. You'll follow the Highway 119 corridor all the way to Harbor Springs Airport, where you might pass right under small airplanes as they take off and land.

To reach downtown Harbor Springs, you'll have to follow the paved shoulder of 119 for three miles until the separated trail is completed. Visitors wishing to stick closer to the shore, however, can already loop back to the main Wheelway along Beach Road. Meyerson says you should be comfortable riding or walking with traffic if you try this route.

Winter, of course, greatly changes the complexion of the trail. "We're a winter city, snow-covered from around December 1 to April 1," says Meyerson. But the cold weather and powder don't freeze all the action on the Wheelway. It's a year-round playpen for the outdoorsy and active. So if you ever feel snowbound, that's a perfect time to be trailbound. Strap on some hiking boots, snowshoes or cross-country skis, and Little Traverse Bay is yours to enjoy. It won't take more than a moment, in any weather, to see why locals first made a trail here so long ago.

See Little Traverse Wheelway
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