The morning rains drifted away. On this spring day, it left behind the soft fragrance of blossoms and the sweet smell that follows a northern Michigan rain shower. The clouds gave way to sunshine and a gentle breeze. It was necessary to close your eyes and let other senses take over. I listened to the sound of the birds who embarked on a frantic frenzy while flying between tree limbs. In the distance, you could hear the faint sound of traffic that rushed along US-31 near Grawn.
This was the scene as I embarked on one of the first Wheels on Rails tours near Traverse City. A work colleague and I settled into our tandem bike which felt a little awkward at first. Others climbed aboard quad bikes that were fit for families and kids. We would pedal these bikes along a closed-down railroad track for about three miles, taking nearly an hour. The tour would take us through a pine-filled forest, with nearby streams and an assortment of trees and vegetation ready to burst with early spring colors.
Our little caravan was greeted with joyful honking from nearby car horns as if those travelers wanted to share the rail with us. And why not? In reality, the train tracks around northern Michigan have a long history to share. These are the trails that brought some of the first tourists to Traverse City. These tracks hauled the lumber that built, and then rebuilt, the majestic cities of Chicago, Detroit, and Grand Rapids. These rail lines, which were built long before anyone considered constructing ribbons of roads to the region, were the lifeblood of every remote town in the up-north wilderness.
Today some of these lines are abandoned. Others may see a rare train hauling a small load a couple of times a month. Still, other lines are being studied to see if it’s feasible to upgrade the rail lines and bring high-speed trains from Ann Arbor. The line we are on is one of the abandoned tracks. There is no fear of coming face-to-face with an active train. It’s being used by Wheels on Rails through special licensing with the state. It’s a new way to experience a northern Michigan trail.
Expect the Wheels on Rails tour to start off easy, with a slight grade that mostly goes downhill. But leave some gas in your tank and your legs for the return trip. Certainly not grueling, but you are also going back uphill. Riders don’t need to be in top-notch shape. The gradual grade makes it ideal for most body types and fitness levels. Make sure you take some water and sunscreen with you, especially if you embark on the tour in the midst of summer.
These are not the first rail bikes in the country, but they appear to be the first in the Midwest. Similar rides can be found in California, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and New York. While you may not have heard about rail bikes, they were first built in the 1800s, back in the heyday of train travel.
Whether you have a fascination with trains, are looking for a family-friendly activity while in northern Michigan, or just seeking a different activity – Wheels on Rails is a new alternative to explore. Just one more way to treasure every moment in the Traverse City region.