Destinations

Betsie Valley Trail – One of the Most Scenic Trails in Michigan

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The Betsie Valley Trail runs through the woods in general area of Betsie River in northwest Lower Peninsula of Michigan. It stretches from Thompsonville, going through town of Beulah, and finally ending in Frankfort, by Lake Michigan. The total length of the trail is 22 miles.

Betsie Valley Trail
The trail in Bulah by Crystal Lake

Betsie Valley Trail

The trail really comprises of two distinct sections:

  • Thompsonville to Beulah – (12 miles) – gravel/dirt two-track surface, at times quite rough, running practically 100% through woods.
  • Beulah to Frankfort – (10 miles) – fine, smooth gravel, and then paved surface – running through mixed surroundings, from scenic lakeshore, to residential, to wooded.

The two sections are quite different, and in my opinion, should be named distinctly to alert potential users.

The section from Thompsonville to Beulah, as I have mentioned earlier, at times is quite rough. It is covered with the loose, relatively big size, crushed stone aggregate. The soil often contains some amount of sand. All this makes riding on it quite hard, and mostly suitable for mountain or gravel bikes. It is especially like that in Thompsonville and for few miles north of town. Luckily, the trail often improves to kind of regular dirt two-track.

Betsie Valley Trail
Beginning of the trail in Thompsonville

On the other hand, the section from Beulah to Frankfort, is ,at first 3 miles, a fine limestone surface (to Mollineaux Rd), very smooth and easy to ride on any kind of bike, and then a smooth paved surface all the way to Frankfort.

Both sections are very flat. The only noticeable incline/decline that I noticed, was going east from Beulah, and even that wasn’t anything big.

Close to Elberta, where Betsie River becomes Betsie Lake, the trail crosses over from one side of the lake to the other side over a long boardwalk, and then crosses back.

Betsie Valley Trail
Cyclists on the paved section of Betsie Valley Trail

Trail Usage

I also experienced very different usage on both sections. The Thompsonville to Beulah section gets very little usage. I rode it on Sunday and from Thompsonville to Beulah I ran into five other cyclists. On the way back, I did not see anybody. On the other and, the section from Beulah to Frankfort is quite busy, specially, the few miles west of Beulah, along Crystal Lake. I would not even attempt to come up with a number of cyclists that I encountered there.

Betsie Valley Trail
Fine gravel section of the trail at Crystal lake

The Scenery

When considering the scenery of the trail, again the two distinct sections come to my mind.

The section from Thompsonville to Beulah, going mostly through the woods. The trail is mostly straight, from time to time crossing, low-usage dirt roads. Occasionally, you pass by some orchards, vineyards. So, in general, it is pretty monotonous and boring.

The second section, starting in Beulah, provides gorgeous views of Crystal Lake, many beautiful lake homes, and private beaches along the lake. When the trail leaves the lake it gets in the woods again, but at least the trail is winding a little bit, so the ride is not so monotonous. Later, when you get to Frankfort, the trail ends at the main beach in town, right by the pier with the lighthouse. I should also mention that the trail, as a path, ends in the Frankfort Mineral Springs park, and later continues all the way to the beach and lake along a street – Waterfront Dr.

Crystal Lake
The trail passes by Crystal Lake

Betsie Valley Trail Trailheads

When it comes to trailheads, the two distinct sections are quite different. In Thompsonville, there are no signs directing you to the trail, there is no official trailhead. Before going there, I looked up where I would find the trail, and I drove there. I found a place almost by the trail, and short dirt road/parking between Thompson Ave and Lincoln St, just west of Michigan Ave (44.519932, -85.939693). I sew few cars with bike racks, and assumed that it was good place to park. The Michigan Trails magazine show a trailhead at Max Bargerstock Ballfield (which is called Webber Sports Complex on Google Map). However, I saw no signs there indicating that this was a Betsie Valley Trail  trailhead.

This is so common in Michigan – the trails signs missing on roads, the trailheads not marked, no maps, etc. The authorities, local communities expect more business brought by cycling. However, the trails are often marked in such a way, like they were expected to be ridden only by local riders familiar with them, and not needing the additional information/signage. Hopefully, it will improve in the future. This is what the official Betsie Valley Trail website says: “While there is access to the Trail at the road crossings indicated on the Trail map, there is no designated parking between Beulah and Thompsonville.” This is ok, but they could at least suggest places to park and how to find the trail. It is a half-done job!

The trailheads are (starting from Thompsonville as I rode it):

  • Thompsonville – Max Bergerstock Ballfield/Webber Sports Complex (44.520655, -85.940991) – The Michigan Trails magazine shows it as an official trailhead. The Betsie Vally Trail website says there is no official trailhead in Thompsonville. Anyway, the complex has parking. There are no restrooms or water there.
  • Beulah Trailhead (44.627943, -86.095771) – The trailhead has a parking, water access and restrooms. Since it is a former train depot, there is a shelter/pavilion with picnic tables. This place is probably the most busy trailhead. The parking might be full at times, but it should be easy to find an alternate place to park in town.
  • Mollineaux Staging Area (44.635668, -86.146314) – small parking area, no water, no restrooms.
  • River Road Staging Area (44.618535, -86.168928) – bigger parking lot, no water, vault restroom.
  • Elberta Staging Area (44.619086, -86.225186) – small parking lot, no water, no restrooms.
  • Mineral Springs Park (44.622348, -86.235233 – cooridantes are for the park, don’t know which parking lot is for bike trail) – park in Frankfort. Parking area, restrooms, water.
Betsie Valley Trail Trailhead
One of the trailheads

Betsie Valley Trail Amenities

The section from Beulah to Frankfort has benches along the trail, placed quite frequently. The section from Thompsonville to Beulah has no benches, nor any other trail amenities at all.

Additional “amenity” is the access to Crystal Lake. There is a short section, northeast from Mollineaux Rd, that is public. It’s called Mollineaux Beach on Google Maps. The area is also marked as Railroad Point Natural Area. You can jump in the water there for a cool, refreshing break (44.639726, -86.143221). I did it, and it felt great!

Frankfort beach
The beach in Frankfort

Off Trail Amenities

In Thompsonville you won’t find much. There is a bar there close to the trail – Geno’s Sports Bar and Grill. There is also a convenience store – Archer Country Store on the corner of Beecher St and Michigan Ave.

Then along the whole section to Beulah, there is nothing. In Beulah there are few restaurants and a store close to the trail. There is also a brewery – Five Shores Brewing – if somebody is looking for a cold refreshing pint of beer.

Then there is nothing, till you get to Elberta, and further to Frankfort. In Elberta there are two restaurants close to the trail, and there is one more restaurant and a store further north in town.

In Frankfort there are too many restaurants and food stores and gas stations for me to list.

If you need overnight accommodations, there are places in Beulah and Frankfort.

All three mentioned above towns have beautiful public beaches. There is a small one in Beulah and much bigger ones in Elberta and Frankfort.

Betsie Valley Trail
The gate on the trail in Thompsonville

Final Thoughts

The Betsie Valley Trail is one of the most scenic trails in Michigan. It is a great trail to go for a relaxed bike ride. Especially, if you want to combine it with some food stop, or beach stop, or a dip in the lake. Then, the western section of the trail is just perfect. The eastern one, from Thompsonville to Beulah, lacks the scenic views and amenities and it’s rough at times. But if you like solitude and natural, wooded surroundings, it might be the right choice for you.

The western section offers magnificent views of Crystal Lake, and few of Betsie River and Betsie Lake, and also at the Frankfort end – of Lake Michigan.

So, overall, the first section, going mainly through the woods, is relatively boring. The western part of the trail, from Beulah to Frankfort, is very scenic, especially by Crystal Lake, and by Elberta, when crossing the river.

Betsie Valley Trail
Approaching Bulah

My Ratings

Scenery (0-boring, 10-breathtaking): 8.0 (I rated it only 8 because of the fairly boring section from Thompsonville to Beulah)

Easy-to-Follow (0-no maps, often broken into section without clear directions, 10-well marked with maps showing current location): 9.0 (I think there are printed maps available in few places. The most trailheads have maps. It is a linear trail and its easy to follow, once you are on it.

Food Access (0-no food facilities at all, 10-food available every few miles): 5.0 (few choices along the trail in towns only)

Restrooms (0-none, 10-moderen restrooms every few miles): 3.0 (restrooms at few trailheads, which depending on where along the trail, could be several miles apart)

Surface Quality: 7.0 (the trail sections from Thompsonville to Beulah, and from Beulah to Frankfort should be rated separately. The Thompsonville to Beulah, I would rate at only 3.0, and Beulah to Frankfort at 10.0)

Accessibility: 8.0 (many trailheads with parking lots; very easy to access; however, no trailhead at the southeastern end of the trail (Thompsonville))

Usage (0-not used at all, 10-extremely popular): 7.0 (again, two sections should be rated separately. Thompsonville to Beulah – 1.0, Beulah to Frankfort – 8.0)

Hills (0-completely flat, 10-Extremely hilly): 0.0 (very small incline going east from Beulah)

Sun/Shade (0-no shade at all, 10-competely shaded): 5.0 (Thompsonville to Beulah – 7.0, Beulah to Frankfort – 3.0)

Betsie Valley Trail
The boardwalk at Betsie Lake in Elberta

Resources

Betsie Valley Trail Official Page  

Michigan Trails Magazine – Betsie Valley Trail   

Betsie Lake

If you are interested in biking trails in other Great Lakes locations, here are my posts about few:

 

 

Rich S. is a lifetime photographer and traveler based in Metro Detroit area. He has been traveling the Great Lakes area for over 30 years. Follow his blog about his trips, interesting activities and destinations in the Great Lakes region.

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