story and photography by Dan Soults
[Michigan Motorcycle Touring: “Tunnel of Trees” Road was originally published as a Favorite Ride in the January 2009 issue of Rider magazine]
Our favorite Michigan ride is even more fun during Indian summer because of the gorgeous fall colors. We stop at ethnic restaurants, brew pubs and historical sites. Picking a fall day, with temps above 55 degrees, we put the Tour-Pak on the Harley Road King to carry our snacks, cameras and long johns. When the morning sun hits the 100-foot-tall pines in our yard, we hit the winding road.
We head north from Fairview on M33 through 20 miles of rolling hills and colorful hardwood forests to M32. Going west for six miles puts us in Atlanta (much more quaint than the one in Georgia). This town of about 500 residents is well-known in Michigan as the Elk Capital. It’s not uncommon to see herds of the majestic beasts grazing in hay fields. Then it’s 34 miles of smooth pavement and sweeping curves through hills and farms to Gaylord. Halfway to Gaylord we often stop at Johannesburg, home of the Old Depot Restaurant, known locally for its great breakfasts, burgers and homemade pies. There’s barely a crossroad in Jo’burg, with the Old Depot as the focal point of this little village. It’s decorated in railroad memorabilia, and located on the site of—what else—an old railroad depot.
Fifteen colorful miles farther finds us in the Alpine village of Gaylord, with a downtown area that would look right at home in the Swiss Alps. If for some reason we didn’t have breakfast at the Depot, we can eat in Gaylord, where the choices include anything from fast food to a more refined sit-down meal at the Sugar Bowl. Gaylord is one of the busiest towns on our ride, and it’s home to about 3,000 people and several bike shops.
At this point, we catch Interstate 75, one of the few interstate highways designated as “scenic” with its vistas of colorful trees and sweeping valleys. Keep a sharp eye out for elk, bear and frequent deer. An hour north of Gaylord finds you at the Mackinac Bridge, one of the nation’s tallest and longest suspension bridges with a road deck that rests 200 feet above the water. The “Mighty Mac” is five miles long; its towers rise over 500 feet high, and it’s an exhilarating ride across the Straits of Mackinac. If you ride the inside lane, it’s a steel grate! Keep a steady pace, don’t fight the wiggles in your bike and try to relax. Keep your feet on the pegs, and don’t ride on the grates with knobby tires. In the outside lanes the view is better and so is the “pucker factor.” Don’t forget to steal a glance at the water below through the steel grates. Did I mention the wind?!
At the north end of the bridge is the quaint waterfront town of St. Ignace. It has a Native American casino/hotel resort, and a variety of shops and restaurants. Just north of St. Ignace is “Castle Rock” where you can stretch your legs by climbing hundreds of steps for a spectacular view of the surrounding woods and water…the best bargain of the whole trip, admission is only 50 cents!
We head back south across the Mighty Mac and pay another $2.50 to cross it again (how is it fair that a motorcycle pays the same as a car?). At exit 336 we leave I-75 behind and head for historic Cross Village, located at the west end of County Road 66 and home of the Legs Inn. The Inn boasts fantastic Polish-American cuisine, and is a great place to “whet your whistle” outside on the patio overlooking Lake Michigan. The Legs Inn was not named for the waitresses, but for the inverted cast iron legs from dozens of wood stoves which adorn the roof of the Inn. The interior is decorated with antiques, curios and artifacts.
South of the Legs Inn is Scenic Highway 119, Michigan’s designated “Tunnel of Trees” road, 20 miles of what is probably the prettiest road in the state. You’ll cruise along bluffs on the Lake Michigan shoreline and lean into approximately 200 curves within 20 miles, encountering landmarks such as Devil’s Elbow and Horseshoe Bend. Watch out for loose sand on some of the curves; the road is very narrow and doesn’t always have a shoulder. We usually go slow enough to enjoy the scenery, but fast enough to experience the road.
At the south end of the Tunnel of Trees the reward is Harbor Springs, a picturesque, historic town of stately homes on Little Traverse Bay. From here we head east on Highway 68, along the shorelines of several inland lakes, to Old Highway 27, meandering south through the forests of the Sturgeon River Valley. Finally, back in Gaylord we refresh with a brew and burger on the south end of town at the Big Buck micro-brewery, or Timothy’s Pub, a rider-friendly bar downtown.
Our favorite ride is easy to do in a day, but we often ride to small towns, scenic areas and parks that only require short detours. Our favorite ride has so many options that it’s almost a different ride every time.