Gravel Roads Make Great Bike Trails
As we proved in our weekend trip from Butternut WI to Ironwood and the Upper Peninsula.
It was my hunting partner Casey Masterson who gave me the idea for a recent weekend ride to the Iron Range. A few deer seasons ago, we were sitting around the wood stove in our hunting shack on Masterson Fire Lane, when he said “Ya know, when I was a kid I ripped around all these gravel roads on my motorcycle. You can ride from here to the UP without ever touching pavement.” Despite a long day freezing in the stand and too much whiskey, that comment stuck with me. The more time I spent in the Northwoods, I kept a mental record of nice fire lanes, forest roads and ATV trails I wanted to try riding some day.
I was also looking for an excuse to test ride the sweet new Milwaukee Bicycle Company Gravy 27.5 Plus bike. I am a huge fan of the 27.5 Plus size as the extra rubber grips like crazy but the frame geometry is still pretty normal. At 5′ 10″ tall, I find 29er Plus bikes feel to big for me. So I called up Vince and Drew over at Ben’s Cycle and Fitness and grabbed a fresh build for my buddy Casey to model on the ride. Even with the meaty tires and a suspension fork, this iron horse tipped the scales at 27 lbs, not bad for a 19 inch steel hard tail. Built to order, Ben’s can also add all the crazy braze-ons you might want to your frame. Bottle opener?
I finally pulled out the state bike map (which shows most gravel roads) and with the help of satellite imagery from RideWithGPS.com, came up with a route to Ironwood, just over the border in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The combination of sparse population and relatively few lakes (fewer vacation homes that lead to paved roads) equates to miles of rolling gravel fire lanes, ATV trails and logging skidder tracks. My hope was to ride up one day to visit the Stormy Kromer factory and Cold Iron, the new brewery in Ironwood. We would stay overnight, and then ride back the next day with a couple stops at waterfalls along the way back to Casey’s family home and our deer shack in Peeksville (just north of Butternut).
The route above is not exactly what Casey and I pedaled, because I eliminated some of the bushwhacking on overgrown skidder tracks through swamps that I included on my draft route. Sticking to the more established “roads,” you should be able to bypass bear stands and piles of bear bait we passed too.
Casey needed to pick up some lumber he had cut on his family land anyway, so we planned to a trip for the end of August to combine a gravel pilgrimage to Stormy Kromer in Ironwood with hauling some board feet back to Milwaukee. Casey was a bit nervous about some of the two-track I included on my route, but agreed to give it a go. Everything was going according to plan until his Uncle Buck showed up at Steve’s Corner Bar in Butternut just as we were about to leave Friday night. What with the Nesco full of hot chili and a bottle of good rye back at his dad’s place where we were staying that night, it all led to a later than planned roll out Saturday morning. Ah, the best laid plans in the Northwoods…
The weather could not have been better for our ride when we finally started pedaling that morning. Some coffee, eggs and bacon courtesy of Casey’s dad served up with sunny skies, temperatures in the 40s and a light tail wind gave us a perfect send off. We made good time, despite my annoying tendency to stop and take photographs. Whenever I looked down at the route on ridewithgps on my phone, we seemed to be making 18-20 mph. Not bad for a couple slightly-hung-over, average Joes on gravel.
Many of the gravel roads we were on do not have signs, so unless you have a good map and accurate cue sheets, it would be pretty easy to take a wrong turn. The GPS in your phone will work even without cell service, though. As long as you download the maps on RideWithGPS or whatever other app you like, you can naviage with ease.
I keep my phone charged while I ride with a dynamo hub. That allows me to leave the screen on all day. While the waterproof state bike maps are great and show most of the gravel roads, they don’t show all the ATV trails. And GPS saves you the trouble of pulling out the map to fold it to a new area as you ride. Go ahead, Luddites, tell me I’m missing out on a true wilderness experience using satellite navigation, but don’t try to call me when you get lost!
The forecast called for a greater chance of rain on our trip back Sunday, so I wanted to do more photos and stop at the waterfall on the way up. That way I would have plenty of good photos even if we had wet weather on the way home. Besides the waterfall, my favorite stop on the way up was at Kids Camp. Kids Camp is a kind of famous hunting camp founded in 1939. It got its name when one of the founders walked in to find a mess of sleeping bags and clothes strewn across the floor and hollered at his sloppy hunting partners: “What is this, some sort of kids camp?”
The owners are great stewards of the land, and even installed a cool arrow and a kiosk with a map at the intersection of the two gravel roads by their camp. We had a nice chat with one of the remaining two (of five) active owners. He was in the process of selling a share to his son-in-law when we chatted with him. A new generation at Kids Camp!
After Kids Camp, there was nothing but perfect, nearly car-free Northwoods gravel roads. We saw a few bear hunters and a few ATVs, but essentially had the roads and forest to ourselves. While it is a treat to ride in real wilderness away from email and cell phone service, having a GPS with maps downloaded certainly makes navigation easier.
The stop at Spring Camp Falls was well worth the effort. Casey was test riding a cool new Milwaukee Bicycle Company 27.5 Plus Gravy, so we wanted to try to get some photos of him riding by the falls. We pedaled down Falls Road (two track) which is just off the nice gravel of Island Lake Road to the narrow trail down to the falls.
The water was too high for us to cross easily, so we just pedaled around on the rocks next to the falls along the eastern bank of the west fork of the Montreal River. You can also access the western bank of the river for a downstream view of the falls from W. Branch Road.
The rest of the way up to Ironwood was a continuation of the great gravel riding we had from the start. We didn’t hit pavement until a few miles outside of Hurley, WI. Hurley is still a pretty rough-and-tumble old mining town. Known more for ATV/Snowmobile rallies and the strip clubs on “World Famous Silver Street” than for silent sports, we rolled across the border into the UP without stopping.
As I mentioned, we were too late to get to Stormy Kromer factory, but Cold Iron Brewing was open when we got to Ironwood. Bonus: they were serving up grilled bratwurst with homemade coleslaw and mushroom spaetzle! I know, we were supposed to get pasties in the UP. Honestly, though, I think they are kind of bland unless you add lots of salt, pepper and “gravy” which traditional Yoopers frown upon.
While we enjoyed a few good beers, a local rolled up on a Raleigh hybrid and sat down to chat with us. To say the conversation was interesting would be an understatement. It started innocuously with “where are you from?” When we responded we had ridden up from Butternut, but were from Milwaukee, the guy asked “Milwaukee huh? What do you think of black people? Were you slave owners?”
Oh boy, here we go, right? But turns out he was just pulling our legs, albeit in a very uncomfortable way. He then told us he was a retired high school chemistry teacher who tested drugs for a living. We learned that Michigan has legal growers and medical marijuana. Our Ironwood Ambassador also informed us that he expects Michigan to approve recreational use on the ballot in November.
Anyway, the conversation kept going down the rabbit hole after that opener, until we excused ourselves to go book a hotel room. Hotels are kind of expensive in Ironwood, and they can be booked up even on an off weekend. If you are a planner, I suggest you reserve a room before you go. Casey and I ended up paying about $100 for a double at the America’s Best Value. It was clean and included basic breakfast, but that is about all I can say to recommend it.
For dinner we headed over to the Olde Suffolk Ale House for a king cut of prime rib and an Old Fashioned. Both the meal and the beverage exceeded expectations. The restaurant is also known for their Italian food, which also looked really good. We will be visiting again on our return visit.
After dinner we headed back to Cold Iron for some live music. It was pretty good, but we faded after an hour or so and headed back to the hotel.
Our ride back involved a bit of bushwhacking on an overgrown snowmobile trail. I like to toss in a few adventures on my rides, but between the unexpected swamp and piles of bear bait, we decided to turn back. The alternate route was a fine gravel road, and we were not wearing bear bells anyway.
The next morning on the way back, we intended on visiting the Gile Falls off HWY 77 south of Hurley. Neither Casey nor I had ever been there, but the online instructions said to park behind the Montreal Fire Department and hike in on a trail. We hiked back along the river a ways and found an ATV trail, but no falls. That leave something else to do on our next trip back.
I think one car passed us all day on the ride home through the beautiful, rolling hills. We ended up doing a little more than 2,400 ft of climbing during the 41 miles home. Nothing to brag about, but good enough to keep you honest when you have a 15mph – 20mph head wind.
All together, it was a great trip. The next time I go, I promise to get up earlier so we can make it to Stormy Kromer before they close.