Destinations

Great Riding on the Leelanau Trail

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“The 17-mile Leelanau Trail is one of Michigan’s most scenic rail trails. You will enjoy every mile of the trail as you venture along this peninsula famous for its vineyards, cherry orchards and
amazing scenery.”… This is what the Michigan Trail magazine says about the Leelanau Trail…

Cherry orchard
An orchard seen from the trail.

Leelanau Trail

As far as length and surroundings, I agree with the above statement. However, I would not say that it is one of the most scenic trails in Michigan. Let me tell you about it, and you will, hopefully, understand my opinion…

The trail is build on the former Leelanau Scenic Railroad route, that takes you through some hills, forests, cherry orchards, meadows and forest ponds. It also take you through a lot of dispersed residential area of the peninsula. Just look at the images below showing the typical views from the trail.

The Michigan Trail magazine talks about views of Lake Leelanau, and West Traverse Bay. Not in the summer, when trees are full of leaves. Maybe in early spring or late fall. For a peninsula surrounded by the lake, the trail provides very little opportunity to see it. I understand, that it follows the route that has been there for a long time. But, it appears, like the route was created, to provide as little views of the lakes as possible.

For local cyclists going for a ride, the scenery don’t matter. However, for a distant tourist riding his/her bike it probably does. And you get a lot more magnificent scenery, when riding the wide shoulder on M-22 along the bay. The riding on the road might not be very comfortable, because the road is quite busy. It is definitely not as safe as riding on the trail. But the views are great.

While the trail has some gentle inclines, it is pretty much flat. In going out and back for over 38 miles, the elevation change that I encountered totaled to 570 feet, which is small.

The whole trail is paved, with a very smooth surface.

The Start of the Trail Confusion

The unpleasant surprises are that there is no well defined beginning, and also no trailhead at the end. Since the trail is an extension of the Traverse City TART trails, it is not easy to find where it begins. The TART website says it begins in Clinch Park in the city. However, few other sources of information show something else. Also when you look at the signs along the trail, it appears that the Leelanau Trail starts somewhere just south of Carter Rd.

IS this causing a confusion? Yes! As I began to ride, the car stopped at the intersection of mentioned above Carter Rd, and the driver asked: where does trail begin and where do you park…

So, to clear the confusion, either park at Clinch Park in TC and start riding from there, or park at the Cherry Bend Rd Trailhead (Milepost 3). If you are starting at the northern end, park at the Suttons Bay locations.

Leelanau Trail
End of the trail. Just like that!

Trail Usage

The trail is fairly busy. I rode it during the week, and ran into other cyclists every several minutes. I am sure, that many local Traverse City cyclists use it for their regular rides.

Leelanau Trail
Riders on the trail.

Scenery

As explained above, the trail is not very scenic. The trail mostly goes through woods, rolling fields, orchards, vineyards and some up north residential areas. The only two places, where you get a good view of the lake is right in the beginning, where the trail follows the Grand Traverse Bay, and towards the end – in Suttons Bay.

Leelanau Trail
Trail passing by farm fields.

Trailheads

As mentioned before, on most maps, there is really no good indication where the trail begins. The trail is connected with the TART (Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation) trail in the city, and I had hard time determining where it begins. According to Google Maps, the trail starts at Carter Rd in Traverse City. It is not correct. The trail starts much earlier, in Clinch Park, by Duncan L Clinch Marina. There is the Mile 0.

The major trailheads for the Leelanau Trail where you can park a vehicle are located at:

  • Cherry Bend Road (Milepost 3) (44.793767, -85.645704) – parking, porta-potty, no water, bike repair tools.
  • Fouch Road (just before Milepost 6) (44.826191, -85.681939) – parking only.
  • Shady Lane (being developed (July 2021)) (44.892301, -85.667780).
  • 4th Street just west of M-22 in Suttons Bay (Milepost 17) (44.970323, -85.651197) – parking only.

You can also park and pick up the trail at:

  • the DeYoung Natural Area on Cherry Bend Road (near Milepost 4) (44.809609, -85.653488) – porta-potty, no water.
  • Marina Park, Suttons Bay – parking, restrooms, water.

You can also park in many locations close to the trail in Traverse City and Suttons Bay.

At the north end of the trail, at Dumas Rd, there is no trailhead, no parking.

Leelanau Trail
More farm fields seen from the trail.

Optional Transport Back

The Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) Bike-N-Ride program allows you to ride the Leelanau Trail one-way and ride the bus back, in either direction, to your starting point. The service during the week is offered from late June to Labor Day, every-other-hour, beginning at the Hall Street Transfer Station at 5:30 a.m. and ending at 6:30 p.m. A limited weekend service is available from late May to late October.

 In Suttons Bay, the BATA stop is at the Suttons Bay Library on Front Street.

Bikes are transported for a $3 fare that is paid on the bus in cash or with a BATA FlashFare card. It’s first-come-first-serve so on the weekends during the height of the tourist season it’s wise to get to the stops early. For a complete list of stops and times, contact BATA (231-941-2324; bata.net/bikenride).

Leelanau Trail
Riding into Suttons Bay.

Trail Amenities

Just north of Bingham Rd, there is a picnic table and a porta-potty in the woods. There is another porta-potty, right by the trail, about a mile south of Suttons Bay.

There are occasional benches here and there.

The trail is well marked. There are mile markers, and occasional maps. Besides, the trail is easy to follow, except in Suttons Bay, where is routed through some back streets. The trail markers are often at the curb where parking is allowed, and therefore, often hidden behind suv’s, pickups, or RV’s.

Suttons Bay
The trails markers in Suttons Bay are often obstructed by vehicles parked next to them. Just imagine a pickup truck or an RV park next to the sign…

Off Trail Amenities

The off-trail amenities are plentiful in Traverse City and Suttons Bay. Otherwise, there is nothing.

By the way, if you plan on stopping for a meal in Suttons Bay, be prepared to deal with crowds.

Leelanau Trail
The trail sometimes crosses a busy road.

Final Thoughts

The Leelanau Trail is a great trail to go for an easy relaxed ride. However, it is not a trail to go for scenery! The trail is actually surrounded by the typical inland Leelanau Peninsula landscape – rolling woods, orchards, vineyards, farm fields, and up north residences.

The trail is paved and smooth and, for the most part, well marked and easy to follow. It is relatively busy, but not too busy, that you constantly have to deal with passing of other users, or slow down because the trail is blocked.

It is a good trail to ride on, but not one to make it a special trip.

Leelanau Trail
One of the trailheads.

My Ratings

Scenery (0-boring, 10-breathtaking): 5.0

Easy-to-Follow (0-no maps, often broken into section without clear directions, 10-well marked with maps showing current location): 6.0 (Some trailheads have maps. It is a linear trail and its easy to follow, once you are on it. In Suttons Bay, the signs are horrible. So, prepare ahead.)

Food Access (0-no food facilities at all, 10-food available every few miles): 8.0 (many choices in towns only (Traverse City, Suttons Bay))

Restrooms (0-none, 10-moderen restrooms every few miles): 6.0 (restrooms at few trailheads, and few other places. Also in parks in towns.)

Surface Quality: 10.0 (paved and really smooth trail.)

Accessibility: 8.0 (many trailheads with parking lots; very easy to access; however, no trailhead at the current end of the trail at N Dumas Rd.)

Usage (0-not used at all, 10-extremely popular): 7.0 (quite popular and busy)

Hills (0-completely flat, 10-Extremely hilly): 0.0 (quite flat)

Sun/Shade (0-no shade at all, 10-competely shaded): 2.5 (very little shade)

Leelanau Trail
Some local residents have a sense of humor. Look at the speed limit sign…

Resources

Michigan Trails Magazine – Leelanau Trail   

TART – Leelanau Trail    

Leelanau Trail

If you are interested in biking other trails in the area, here are the 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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