Michigan bike paths are really coming into their own these days. What were once scruffy, unused rights-of-way are becoming very pleasant places to bike and walk. Whatever feedback loop is happening between users and builders is working. Their popularity is an amazing thing to see. Go to any bike path that was installed in the past ten years or so and it will show you how much people use and enjoy them.
Any bike path is a good bike path, but some work better than others. The newer ones seem to take many recent design improvements to heart. This often comes down to accentuating the unique and interesting qualities along the way, but just as important are the roadway crossings. The smoother (and fewer, where possible), and more perpendicular to the crossing road, the better. Some of the early designs in pathways didn’t quite get this right. The barrier-free paving changes were a major step forward in accessibility, but some of the early attempts still created rough transitions from the path into the crossing. The North Western, currently paved from Petoskey to Alanson, does a great job of creating nice, smooth crossings.
It passes by Round Lake with overlooks, under shady tree cover through the Little Traverse Conservancy’s Fochtman Nature Preserve, into the community of Conway, past the Oden Fish Hatchery, through the small community of Oden itself, then along a large marsh area on a wooden boardwalk before arriving in Alanson.
The Fish Hatchery is well worth the detour. It has an informative and visually stunning train display, an interpretive center, and a path that leads back to the spawning ponds where you’ll find plenty of fish to ogle.
Nearing Alanson, the trail takes a jog onto local streets and climbs a short hill. There is an adjacent commercial area along US31 with Subway, a convenience store/gas station, a bakery, and there’s a small park on the east side of US31, among other things.
The last time I rode it, I brought along my own snacks and I ate them on a small grass patch above the gas station / convenience store looking across at the Dutch Oven Bakery, Café and Deli. People in Yelp seem to like the Dutch Oven and the Alanson Depot Restaurant. I was yearning for a nice baked good, but I chewed on my energy bar instead. I won’t make the same mistake again.
For many years this was a railway line. No surprise, eh?
“The [North Western] trail runs along the former Grand Rapids and Indiana line of Pennsylvania Railroad (once known as “The Fishing Line”) that opened in 1882 and continued in some areas until 1992.” (Top of Michigan Trails Council) It brought settlers into the area, increased the lumbering trade, and also brought an influx of tourists.
What’s more, Alanson gets its name from that same railroad, with two variations.
Story 1: Named for Alanson Howard, grandson of W.O. Hugart, GR&I President. (The Steamer Topinabee…, by Mark Hill)
Story 2: Named for Alanson Cook, who was an official of the GR&I Railroad. (Michigan Place Names, by Walter Romig)
I’m veering toward the first story, but you go ahead and choose your preference.
Before the railway line, the lakes, rivers and streams were the main mode of passage through the area. The “Inland Route” of waterways was used to avoid the more treacherous Lake Michigan passage around Mackinaw. This route included: Round Lake, Iduna Creek, Crooked Lake, Crooked River, Burt Lake, Indian River, Mullet Lake, and the Cheboygan River, which emptied into Lake Huron. Beginning at Crooked Lake, it was even navigated by a steamer called the Topinabee (see image). No small feat.
Native Americans and early fur traders used it as a safe passage as well. Early native settlements along its shores go back 3000 years. They portaged off of Little Traverse Bay at the current site of the Petoskey State Park, into Round Lake, and continued from there. By the late 19th century it became a major destination. “It became one of the busiest inland waterways in the country. At one point, up to thirty two boats a day were traveling the route with tours lasting 2-3 hours up to an overnight stay at various hotels.” (The Steamer Topinabee and the Inland Water Route of Northern Michigan, by Mark Hill)
But then came progress in the form of the railway. With it, the Inland Route’s popularity declined. We won’t even talk about the advent of the automobile and its impacts.
For more information on this bike path and to keep apprised of its future expansion, go to the Trails Council Website.
Go here for a further explanation of the Inland Waterway.