Michigan Motorcycle Rides: Mackinac & Lake Michigan

story and photography by Cliff Yankovich
[Michigan Motorcycle Rides: Mackinac & Lake Michigan originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Rider]

My wife and I needed a short break from our day-to-day life operating a retail store. Julie had the bright idea of staying for a couple of days at the Legs Inn on Lake Michigan in Cross Village (the name comes from the painted stove legs up on the roof, really).

Knowing of the fantastic road which leads there from the south, I readily agreed and made reservations. Michigan may not have the Tail of the Dragon, but we do have state road M-119, and I challenge you to find 20 miles of more beautiful riding anywhere. It runs from Harbor Springs to Cross Village and is simply the prettiest motorcycle road I have found in my home state.

Since her back surgery, Julie is only good for an hour or so at a time on the back of my 2004 BMW Rockster, so we agreed that she would drive up to Cross Village in her car. We left Saturday morning gray and early and picked up the 119 north of Petoskey. We made good time and were only teased with light rain a couple of times. The sun was peeking out by the time we got to Petoskey and were treated to our first spectacular glimpse of Lake Michigan from a hilltop there. We negotiated our way through traffic and I took the lead as we got to the fun part.

I call M-119 “Rubberneck Highway” because there is so much to take in. The road is named the “Tunnel of Trees” because it weaves through some fantastic forest. M-119 does present some unique challenges to the rider. It is not as wide as a normal two-lane road, some of the corners can be sandy, and you share the road with motorized vehicles and bicyclists. Some of the trees are just inches off the road bed and with the exception of a few scenic pullouts there is really no shoulder to the road.

Tunnel of Trees along M-119 in Michigan
Twisty sections like this on M-119 explain why it is called the “Tunnel of Trees.”

Traffic was light as we pulled out of Harbor Springs for the 20-mile rollercoaster ride to our cabin. I got on the throttle of the Rockster and arrived at Legs Inn with a dose of perma-grin. The Legs Inn is a wonder tobehold; built of stone and timber and decorated with handmade driftwood furniture and wood carvings. The interior is like some kind of psychedelic hunting lodge and outside is a magnificent garden with a stunning view of the Big Lake. It was built by Polish immigrant Stanley Smolak when he came to the village in 1921.

The specialty of the house is a mixture of Polish cuisine and fresh fish. For lunch Julie had white borscht and I made short work of kalumpki (stuffed cabbage). Later on that evening I chose the pork loin and Julie tackled the goulash. We capped it off by splitting a szarlotka, a traditional Polish dessert made of a multiberry and apple crumb cake topped with vanilla ice cream. It was fantastic. We took in a beautiful sunset from the garden and sipped the last of our Belgian ale before walking back to the cabin. There was a gentle rain that night, but by morning the skies were clear.

Lake Huron beach in Michigan
This sandy beach is on Lake Huron just a few feet from M-134 between Hessel and Detour Village.

After a quick stop for some delicious pastry at the Mackinaw City Bakery, we crossed the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula. Crossing the Mighty Mac is like a carnival ride for me—I will happily pay the $3 toll for the thrill of riding almost 200 feet in the air over the Straights of Mackinac while some huge freighter lumbers by under the bridge where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron. Such a view is not everyone’s cup of tea—the good news is that the Bridge Authority will take your car or motorcycle over for you.

Originally we were going to shoot up 75 from Saint Ignace to Sault Ste. Marie to watch boats go through the famous Soo Locks, but I changed plans on the fly after about five miles of dead straight (read: BORING!) riding. We took the exit for State Road 134 and headed out to Detour Village. The views of Lake Huron were wonderful and there are lots of places to pull over and walk the beach or just soak in the view.

We were very hungry by the time we made it to Detour Village. A lady who was peeling potatoes in her driveway sent us a couple of blocks down to the Mainsail Inn. I had a great burger on rye with Swiss and Julie

Sunset from the Legs Inn in Cross Village, Michigan.
Sunset seen from the patio of the Legs Inn in Cross Village.

enjoyed a sandwich made of whitefish that just came out of the water.

On the way back to 75 we stopped in a couple of places to walk the beach and take in the beauty of Northern Michigan. The return trip over the Bridge was a bit more challenging than the morning cross due to the wind velocity. I really noticed how it was blasting when I passed a semi and it blocked the wind for a few seconds.

From downtown Mackinaw City we went west on Central Avenue back under the bridge and headed toward the Wilderness State Park. Nice sweepers and twisties on a regulation-sized two-lane road with shoulders made for some great fun. We turned around and got on County Road 81, which took us back to Cross Village. The route we took back is unclear no matter which online map I consult—I just kept going west until I could go south again. What a hoot—while the road had some lumps and bumps, it was full of great curves interspersed with scenery combined of woods, dunes and Lake Michigan.

Rockster Motorcycle on Lake Michigan
My Rockster copping some rays on Lake Michigan.

Our route home Monday was a much more scenic one than we had taken in our haste to get up north. We made one last trip on 119 and then took U.S. Route 31 south, which follows the shoreline pretty closely all the way to Traverse City. Traverse City has long been known for cherries and the area is fast becoming equally famous for great wineries, several of which are out on the Old Mission Peninsula that juts some 18 miles into Grand Traverse Bay.

After visiting the end of the peninsula, we went back to town. From there we took the long way home by shooting across 72 to Empire so that we could take advantage of M22, another great Michigan road. There were some really wonderful, twisty bits of motorized fun as we took this all the way south until it joined 31 again.

By the time we reached Scottville, home of a world-renowned Clown Band, Michigan decided she had given us enough perfect weather and the skies opened up (dang—I thought I packed my waterproof gloves.) I pulled

The Old Mission Lighthouse in Michigan
The Old Mission Lighthouse is halfway between the equator and the North Pole along the 45th parallel at the north end of M-37.

over and put on the top part of my rainsuit as the temperature dropped into the low 50s. I thought maybe if we went inland by heading east on 10 over to 37 and then south to home we might avoid some of the rain. Ha! The last 100-plus miles were in a steady rain that got pretty heavy at times. By the time I hit the garage, I was ready for a warm shower.

All in all it was a great ride, 836 miles from start to finish, 80 of which were on the 119. I rode it four times—twice solo and twice with Julie on the back. If you want fantastic coastal riding, the thrill of the Mighty Mac, and the opportunity to see and enjoy some of the largest freshwater bodies on the planet, then come on up to Michigan sometime and cover some of my route—you will love it.

[Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Rider magazine]
Nature Conservancy on Lake Huron
The Nature Conservancy protects and preserves 890 acres butting up to Dudley Bay on Lake Huron alongside M-134.


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