This is a 25.4 mile loop ride. You can take it in either direction. I am going to describe the most challenging direction that puts a climb at the beginning as you leave Frankfort. Actually, I’m going to recommend a few options as you depart from that charming waterside town, all with climbs of some degree. Someone put hills in this area. Congratulations to those who love them. My heartfelt condolences to those who don’t. Be consoled that the rest of the route is relatively flat.
Begin the adventure down by the docks in Frankfort. A freighter used to make daily runs over to Wisconsin from here, one of the many Ann Arbor railway freighters that were part of life in Frankfort through the years. I know firsthand, since I took one back in the early 70s while delivering farm equipment (mainly cherry shakers) to Door County, Wisconsin for my dad’s business, MAP-PUL Equipment out of Traverse City. I think those were the latter days of this run, since we usually drove to Ludington for our sojourns on the mighty Badger after that. Watching these ferries swallow up entire trains is one of the great wonders of the world. To cap that off, the ship’s crew then loads the dozens and dozens of cars and trucks of the travelers waiting to cross.
But that’s all in Frankfort’s past. Now, the slips are filled with recreational boats and the town itself appears to be doing well. It’s very active with tourists and summertime residents in the warm months of the year.
From the docks, head up 5th Street, cross Main and ride on to Forest Avenue. Turn left. I think that’s the only option anyway as it’s one-way going west. I loop you this way because the houses in Frankfort are worth checking out. This is a beautiful neighborhood with houses that were built in the early days of the town, many of which have been carefully restored and maintained.
Take this to Michigan Avenue, a T, and turn right. Ride a block up to Leelanau Avenue at mile 0.6 and…
Main Option (all mileages are based on this option) – Turn right onto Leelanau Avenue and head east to experience some fascinating homes, some of the largest in town, set back on the rising barrier dune on the left. That’s not to take away from the houses on the right, which are nicely restored and maintained and worth a look as well. Wander slowly up Leelanau Ave until you reach M-22 and turn left. Follow this a couple of blocks (mile 1.2) and turn right onto 7th Ave. There’s a park on your right. Stay on this road as it swings north to become Bellows Ave.
The next mile climbs about 170’ up. There’s nothing gradual here. You’ll know it’s a climb. If someone talked you into going this way, don’t blame them. I did this to you. This is the “Main” Option and most people take the first option, don’t they?
Round the top of Bellows Ave at about mile 2.3, breathe the thinner air, and head forth on the well-deserved downhill coast as the magnificent blues of Crystal Lake draw nearer. This is an even steeper descent than the ascent you just rode up. It drops 180’ in a little over 1/2 mile. Zoom.
Hit the brakes as you approach E South Shore Road. Crystal Lake will come up fast. Take a left onto E South Shore Road and take this to mile 3.7, where it meets back up with M-22, and the other route options. Turn right onto M-22 and pedal northward.
Option 2 – At mile 0.6, continue left up Michigan Ave. The forewarned climb is apparent right off. It rises about 100 feet in a 1/4 mile, then levels off. It’s a leg warmer, but it’s relatively short. Once over the top, ride along this greensward, with most houses set a back off the road, to mile 2.2, where it meets up with M-22. Turn left and continue north.
Option 3 – If neither of these options sounds interesting, take M-22 north. It climbs, but it’s more gradual, though the traffic is busier and it feels more exposed. They all meet up at the southwest edge of Crystal Lake. There’s always another option as well. Take the route in the reverse direction. Though it’s not all downhill, it does avoid these early uphills, unless you decide on the Bellows Avenue route, which climbs steeply in either direction.
In any case, all options reconnect at South Shore Rd and M-22 at mile 3.7. From here on for a good many miles the famous rich blues and greens of Crystal Lake will be on your right. On gray, cloudy days, the lake will reflect back that gray. Be thankful either way, you’re still riding alongside beautiful Crystal Lake.
Be aware that M-22 is a main north-south route through the region. It has a popular cachet due to the eponymously named company that markets M-22 wares. Traffic volumes can be higher than on other roadways in the area, but it’s still relatively light, especially compared to US-31 to the east.
Though it’s not readily apparent from the roadside to the west, beginning at about mile 4.3 is the Betsie Dunes Nature Preserve, a 92 acre parcel of land along Lake Michigan set aside for, of all things, nature to take its course.
Detour 1 – At mile 5.5 is Point Betsie Road to the left that leads to the Point Betsie Lighthouse. It’s 0.7 miles back from M-22 and well worth a detour for those interested in Lake Michigan shoreline history, or if you simply like to look at lighthouses. A laudable hobby.
Detour 2 – If you’ve done this loop a few times and you’re looking for new distractions, here’s one for you. In between these two features, at mile 4.7 is Old State Road (not shown on map) to the left. It’s a short 0.7 mile detour up a short biting climb and over rolling terrain. It returns to M-22 where Point Betsie Road connects.
Follow M-22 north as it wraps around the northwest edge of Crystal Lake. Even with the large number of homes built in that tight strip between the water and the roadway, the views are steadily magnificent. The barrier dune rising to the left also lends a pleasant sense of enclosure along the way. At around mile 8.4 known as Winetka Point, the views open unhindered. The massive scale of the lake is in full view and the colors sparkle forth unencumbered.
A short way up, at mile 8.6, M-22 veers left and Crystal Drive arcs to the right. Take the right onto Crystal Drive. The roadway narrows and traffic lightens somewhat. This ride along the north side of the lake continues to offer great views of the water, though the volume of residences increases somewhat on both sides of the road. The only real menace might be residents running across the road in their swimsuits, towel in hand, with their attention on the water rather than looking out for cyclists. Watch out for people with other recreational agendas.
At about mile 14.7 the road takes a sharp right, and at mile 15.0, it meets with US-31. Turn right onto this busy roadway. Thankfully there is a wide shoulder. Turn right 0.2 miles up at 4th Street. This leads a half block over to Center Street where you’ll take a left and follow it south toward the downtown area. It’s pleasantly quiet with little traffic.
(If you decide to stay on US-31, 0.4 miles up is Benzie Boulevard on the right. There’s also a gas station/convenience store on the corner for replenishments. Downtown Beulah is just ahead. I mention the convenience store for your convenience if you need to replenish.)
Center T’s into Clark Street. Take a right and you’ll see Crystal Lake dead ahead. Pedal half a block to Lake Street and turn left (16.0). This is the waterside of the downtown area and often there are other cyclists and pedestrians milling about down here in the warm months of the year. Good chance you’ll catch sight of anglers in boats on the water. There’s a small beachfront here and it’s a nice place to hang out if you brought lunch or if you get take-out from one of the eateries a block over on Benzie Boulevard. Or, circle the block and stop into on of those establishments and enjoy a nice break. Perhaps take a short stroll around town. You’re just beyond the halfway point of your ride.
Once refreshed in this pleasant little village, follow the pathway that leads along Crystal Avenue south out of town. This is now the Betsie Valley Trail. The surface turns to a cinder base a short way up. The reviews on this particular surface are mixed. The challenge with cinder is to create a strong base so that it’s a good solid surface. Parts of this trailway are solid, but there are other parts that get a bit mushy probably because the cinder is on a sand base in some places. The soft surface makes the going squirrely at times. So, stay vigilant. It’s rideable, just not as consistent as it should be. Eventually, the trailway returns as an asphalt surface, but that’s still a few miles ahead. Narrow tired bikes may have some struggles here.
But, those miles along the cinder section are beautiful, so it’s worth the ride. In fact, the Betsie Valley Trail is a gem that should be highly valued, cinder or paved. Michigan is getting more and more fortunate with the number of high-level bike paths available, but this one is up there as one of the better ones, even in a land of plenty.
The first section of the pathway leads between Beulah waterside residents’ houses and their beachfront, but it still feels welcoming and enjoyable to ride through this shared use area. There are moments when the trail narrows considerably, along with a few tight, relatively blind turns, so watch for oncoming riders.
At around mile 17.7, the trailway enters the Railroad Point Natural Area, a 200 acre land protection area maintained by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (the same group that maintains the Betsie Dunes Nature Preserve). It’s a quiet, beautifully natural stretch of the trail that follows around a point along the water for another mile or so with great views over the lake.
Cross Mollineaux Road at mile 19.1 and the path is paved the rest of the way to Frankfort.
Follow the path another 0.2 miles to Frankfort Highway (M-115) and cross with care. This is a major thoroughfare in the region and vehicles move fast. Once over, you’ll feel the embrace of the Betsie River Valley. From here all the way to Elberta there will be filtered views of the Betsie River along a railway ridge that also looks down into fecund marsh areas. And, it’s a tunnel of trees for good stretches along the way. It’s another world all together. At mile 21.0 the pathway crosses River Road. There is a public parking area to the left.
At about mile 22.6 is the Betsie River Camp Site on the south side of the trail that looks out over the Betsie River State Game Refuge that you’ve been bordering for the last few miles. At mile 23.7 the trail crosses a large well-crafted wooden bridge that looks out over the refuge area and up the valley. Give yourself time here to watch and absorb the marshland and the wildlife as it interacts with its natural environment. There are few places where it’s so easy to experience this up close. Look (and listen) for the American Bittern, Mallard, Ruffled Grouse, and Wood Duck, among many other bird species. The river actually got its name, not from a girl named Betsie, but as an English variant of the French words, Bec Scies, or sawbill ducks. Sawbill duck is a common term for mergansers, because of the serrated edges of their long bills. (And you thought we’d mainly focus on bike brands on this site, didn’t you?)
Now, onward to Elberta, straight in front of you. It’s named for the local Elberta peach. It’s on the south side of the Betsie River as it empties into Lake Michigan, across the water from Frankfort. There are a few eateries here, or in Frankfort only a short way ahead.
Detour 3 – For a unique view across the harbor into Frankfort, cross M-22 and take an out and back detour up Frankfort Avenue along the south side of Betsie Lake. Frankfort Ave morphs into Furnace Avenue, to Elberta Waterfront Park. It’s a nice place to watch the boats come and go and scan the Frankfort skyline across the water and the large hill rising up behind the town.
Once across M-22 proceed north on the Betsie Valley Trail as it leads back over the river and into the heart of Frankfort. It parallels M-22 until the road no longer follows the shoreline. The path does, splitting off at mile 24.7 toward town. At this point, be aware of traffic entering and leaving the many driveways along the way. The onus is on you to watch for them, as signified by the many stop signs for the cyclists along the pathway.
Soon, you’re dockside once more, passing through the parking lot near the water where you began (25.4). Downtown Frankfort is a nice place to grab a bite, take a post-ride stroll, and eventually drift down toward the water at the far west end to the large public beach with views of the zjetty and the lighthouse at the end of it. The jetty itself is another interesting place to stroll. The view of the historic houses along the water is interesting, as are the dramatic views north and south along the Lake Michigan shoreline with the dunes rising dramatically up from the water’s edge.