This route begins and ends in the village of Northport, a charming town near the tip of the Leelanau peninsula in northwest Michigan. Northport has a character all its own, probably because it’s the most geographically remote of all the villages in the county. It has a locals feel with a touch of the tourist influx. There’s an active scene during the warmer months of the year. It’s a nice place to hang around when the weather’s good for cycling (and these days, with the popularity of fat-tire bikes, that’s becoming a year-round adventure). And when you’ve saturated yourself in town, there are some nice places to explore, not least of which is the Grand Traverse Lighthouse out at the very tip.
There are some nice places to eat in town, some good ice cream, a charming bakery with infamous cinnamon rolls, and a small Tom’s Food Market for the essentials. You can even picnic at Bay Front Park at their port that looks out onto Northport Bay and further to Grand Traverse Bay. If your eyes are good you can see Eastport way across to the other shore.
Northport was originally named Waukazooville for one of its founders back in the late 1840s. A few years later someone changed the name to Northport. I have mixed feelings about that. I like the name Waukazooville, though I would have gone with just Waukazoo.
Grab a cinnamon twist and a cup of coffee, chow them down, then let’s roll out. The first part of this ride is on gently rolling roads. It’s a nice contrast to much of the county and its spiky hills. Leave the park and ride west up Nagonaba Street to Mill Street (M-201). Turn right.
Ride north out of town past the nicely restored homes, the bed & breakfasts, then further into the light industrial area and past that on to a tree-lined roadway with fruit farms all around. Though it is a main road and there is occasional fast moving vehicle, traffic is relatively light. In the late summer, early fall, there’s an extra treat at the intersection of M-201/County Road 640 and Kilcherman Road at mile 1.7, the Kilcherman Antique Apple Farm. They specialize in heirloom apples and those taste mighty good as a bike ride snack.
The road swings right and downhill with views leading over the multi-colored (on the weather cooperative days) Northport Bay. It’s quite a dramatic scene. Swoop down, nearly shore side, and then up a rise past Northpoint Point Road on the right and continue on Woolsey Lake Road, or what is now County Road 629. It rises to a forested line of mixed deciduous and evergreens for the next mile or so. It emerges in an opening of Woolsey Memorial Airport at mile 3.5. On the left is one of the more interesting terminal buildings you’ll ever come across. It looks like it’s out of a Dr. Seuss tale, a spunky piece of architecture made of fieldstone with a circular back and yellow roof. The building is actually a converted creamery/milk transfer station. The field was once a farm. It’s worth a stop to check it out.
The story of the airfield is actually quite tragic, as it was set aside as a memorial to Clinton Woolsey by his family and the township. Clinton was a Northport native and a test pilot back in the early days of flight. He died in a plane crash in 1927, a young, talented man full of promise gone in an instant. But if there ever was a charming place to honor someone’s memory, this is it. It makes me smile every time I ride past. For more of the story, see the Traverse City Record Eagle article dated August 5, 2010, “Clinton Woolsey was a heroic Army pilot,” by Loraine Anderson: Woolsey Airport.
At the northern edge of the airfield is Densmore Road (mile 4.1). This leads nearly a mile back along the marshlands of Mud Lake to a parking area for a trail system in the Leelanau State Park and out to Cat Head Bay. From the parking lot it’s another mile or so to the beach. These aren’t bike trails, hiking only, but if you’re so inclined to hike back, either parking your bike at the lot (advised) or trudging back with it until reaching the woodland margin of the sand dunes where they’re not allowed, Cat Head Bay beach is magnificent and often relatively quiet, with a view of the Fox Islands. There are further hiking trails worth a wander as well.
Continue past the airport on 669, first along a wooded area, then opening to farm fields. There’s a particularly interesting assortment of distinctly red farm buildings at a farmstead at a dogleg in the road at mile 6.9. At certain times of day the sun plays on these with stunning brilliance.
The following straightaway leads you to a densely wooded left turn into the park at the point (mile 8.3). This is the location of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, a primitive campground, and a long jutting beach riven by the winds, a mix of sand, marsh, and tall brush. It’s one of the more unique ecosystems on the Lake shoreline.
Of course, the lighthouse is the main feature here. Check the website, www.grandtraverselighthouse.com, for more info. The lighthouse is restored as a lighthouse keepers home from the 1920s and 30s. The lighthouse itself dates back to 1858. This area is a nice place to get off the bike and walk around.
If you’re looking for a nice place to camp and you don’t mind a lack of showers, this is a very pleasant campground. Evenings here during pleasant weather are quite memorable. Between the sky, the lake and the beach you can’t go too wrong. Be aware that it gets quite windy and hard driving in inclement weather.
The way out is the way in. Return down 669 heading south, past the open fields, the red buildings, the airport, the wooded sections, Northport Bay and back up to Kilcherman Road at mile 14.9. Notice the Kilcherman’s Christmas Cove Antique Apple Farm on the corner. If you ride by during a non-apple season, make note of the location. You’ll want to return when the apples are ripe. These antique apples aren’t a hundred years old, their heritage is, and you’ll want to explore these Paula Reds, Saint Edmond’s Pippins and Esopus Spitzenburgs when the eating is good. See their website at: www.christmascovefarm.com.
Now, for a loop toward the infamous cove itself. Head north up Kilcherman Road past the apple orchards themselves. In a mile, the road turns 90º west and becomes Christmas Cove Road. At mile 16.4, Christmas Cove Road continues straight and the main route, Scott Road, swings left. If you want another look at Lake Michigan, or if you’d like to take a dip, there is a small public beach at the end of Christmas Cove Road 0.63 miles ahead. If not, swing back south on Scott Road. There are some pleasant farmsteads and orchards along this section with a good downhill roll to Peterson Park Road. Turn right. There’s a restored and updated farm on the right and if you’re lucky the sheep will be out grazing.
Roll up and down until you reach mile 18.5 where you can once again take a small detour, if desired, into Peterson Park where there’s a bluff with an observation deck that looks over the lake, a picnic area and restrooms. Otherwise swing south once more onto Foxview Drive. This will take you up a rather steep, but relatively short pitch past some sizeable orchards. Once over the top, the reward is a long downhill stretch through some more beautiful countryside. Pinch yourself. Places to ride don’t get much better than this.
The road sweeps left as it takes you back toward Northport. But first, another option. This ride takes you back into Northport and then back out again, heading southwest. For some, this loop will be all the ride they need for the day, that’s why I’ve redirected it back into town. If you want to cut over to the continued route rather than head back to town, then turn right at mile 20.2 onto Clausen Road. It will T into Johnson Road where you’ll take another route and be on course. If you do that, then minus 2.72 miles from the totals I give past that point for the rest of the ride.
I’ll continue as if you’re headed back through Northport. Ride east on what is now Melkild Road, becoming 3rd Street as it crosses into the residential outskirts of town. 3rd arrives at Mill Street, the main thoroughfare at mile 21.6. Turn right and roll to the T at Nagonaba Street.
Turn right, then left onto Waukazoo Street in the heart of town and follow it up to Main Street. Turn right, then left onto Shabwasung Street. This is all more obvious than I can make it in writing. It’s the main flow in and out of Northport, twists and turns and kind of a fun way to lead back to such an interesting place. Shabawasung south out of town comes to the main intersection with M-22 at mile 22.1. Turn right onto M-22 south. You’ll soon come upon a sign that says Leland 11, Empire 37, Frankfort 60. You’re not going to any of those on this ride. Something to consider for a future day, though.
Parts of M-22 can be busy. The segment from Leland to Lake Ann is quite busy at times and the shoulder is sometimes non-existent. It’s not for the faint of heart around cars. In contrast, from Northport to Leland there’s a sizeable shoulder the whole way. Even if the traffic zooms past it feels like there’s a buffer of some kind. This section is quite beautiful. For now, you won’t be on 22 long. This ride takes a right onto Johnson Road at mile 22.6. Johnson Road is quiet with a healthy uphill climb right away. It passes Clausen Road at mile 23.5. This was the crossover point mentioned previously. It’s still climbing after this, uphill for nearly three miles in all, then a rolling up and down all the way back to M-22 at mile 26.2.
Turn right onto M-22 and ride past open fields, orchards, farmsteads, and copses of trees to Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern at mile 27.6. Fischer’s has been a fixture in the region for quite a while. I remember going there when I was in my late-teens back in the…yeah…back then. It’s the kind of place that conjures up days of old (or perhaps better thought of as days of young). It hasn’t changed much over the years, and in this case that’s a good thing. It just has a good vibe. It can get busy as well. Stop in after the ride, or use it as your mid-ride meal. Then go climb some more hills with a belly full of food.
Sally forth to Jelinek Road at mile 27.9 and turn left. Did I mention a climb? Go. Up. At mile 29.5 the road swings left onto Omena Road, while Jelinek continues straight. Turn onto Omena Road. You may have noticed that this climb takes you as close to the clouds as any on this ride in a little under 2-1/2 miles. At mile 30 you’ll have reached the apex, with Christianson Road on the left. Continue going straight on what is now Omena Road (though the temptation to sweep down Christianson is drawing you back toward the Happy Hour, isn’t it?). At mile 30.9, the road joins forces with Jacobson Road for a short stretch. Then Omena takes a left at mile 31.2. Turn and stay on Omena Road heading east.
Let me digress for a moment and say that you can take most of these other roads (Christianson, Jacobson, Kovarik, and so on) and have a perfectly wonderful ride. The options are numerous in Leelanau County and there’s hardly a klunker making any choice. I’ll be setting forth other options in other route descriptions, but keep in mind that if your legs can take all the topography and long hours in the saddle not much will disappoint out here. However, be aware that it’s easy to get spun around in this county as well, so carry a good map and/or a GPS device to stay on some kind of course that will work for you.
Continue to the T at Overlook Road (mile 33.1) and take a left. (If you’re thinking that you’d love to and drop in on the sweet little village of Omena, then take a right, swing left on Tatch Road and plummet down to the small village of Omena. It’s a few miles farther on the ride, but Omena is worth seeing, situated on the bay as it is. The Tamarack Craftsman Gallery is also worth wandering through. It’s one of the highlights of the county, as are the post office and the adjacent buildings. Once you’re ready to move on, ride north on M-22 to Cracker Road. Turn left and climb away from the lowlands. It’s a 3.0 mile detour if you’re up for it.)
Otherwise, after turning left onto Overlook Road, ride up and down past orchards on either side of the road to a high point at mile 34.6, and there’s the view over Northport Bay. Drop rapidly down to M-22 (mile 35.6) and turn left. Traffic is relatively heavier here at times, so take care. There is a narrow shoulder. The ride here is flat to gently rolling.
Pedal to the intersection where M-22 swings back south, only you go straight, returning to Northport. At the intersection with Main Street at mile 38.0 take a right and drop down, riding past Waukazoo Street and straight into the residential neighborhood to the swing left at Bay Street. A block up is the harbor and the place where this ride began.