With two weeks off of work I took some time to head up to Marquette, MI for some mountain biking focused around the Noquemanon (NTN) Trail Network. Thanks to suggestions from my friends Nick and Marty Shue it was very easy to find my way around and I had a great time and I’m looking forward to my next trip there.
Here’s a dump of my thoughts consolidating information.
Lodging / Location
I stayed at the Ramada in downtown Marquette. Location for this was excellent, with a couple mile easy bike ride (via safety paths / non-road bike/foot specific trails) to both the North and South trail areas. These same trails extend for miles outside of town and would make for good road riding as well. I stayed in room 106, which was a single queen size bed located quite close to an outside door. This was very convenient for riding to and from the hotel. The room itself was nice, although it felt a bit damp in there and gloves/clothes took quite a while to dry.
The Hampton Inn location would also be good location-wise, but it’s quite a bit pricier than the Ramada.
Local Bike Shop
Upon arriving in town I stopped by Sports Rack, located about a block from the Ramada, to purchase an up-to-date trail map and get suggestions for riding. The folks here were extremely friendly, sold maps with all monies to benefit the NTN, and just seemed like a great shop. I didn’t need to buy anything from them, but if the need had arisen I would have gone here immediately. Definitely seemed like a great shop for summer and winter riding.
The following restaurants were recommended to me by Marty, along with my thoughts on each. I would gladly eat at any of these again next time I’m in Marquette:
- The Vierling: Little more upscale, but still casual and friendly. I had the whitefish with pasta, which was good, but the pasta was kinda lump-ish and together, which might have been caused by all the cheese. Still tasted good, though. Beer was good, even though when walking by the brewery one evening I saw an employee smoking while working in the brewing area.
- Jean Kay’s: Seems to be proper pasties, nicely located between the North Trails and downtown not far from the bike paths. Good outdoor seating and deck for keeping an unlocked bike. Very tasty, not too heavy, great after a few hours of riding.
- Donkers’ Restaurant: Candy shop / restaurant with good breakfast. Hash browns seemed a bit oily and I was disappointed that the sausage patty on one of the breakfast sandwiches seemed to just be a typical patty instead of something locally made, but it was still good. I had breakfast here twice.
- Vangos Pizza: Bar that serves excellent pizza. Ate a small (one size up from a For One) with pepperoni, mushroom, and their house made sausage. Surprisingly good crust. Easy walk from Blackrocks as well.
- Dead River Coffee: Really tasty coffee. I had a cappuccino while reading All my friends are dead.. I was there early enough in the morning that it was just myself and some employees so I felt a bit out of place (they were deeply discussing coffee roasting quality control techniques and whatnot), but not uncomfortable. This seems like a proper small coffee shop with people who really care about making good coffee.
- Blackrocks Brewery: Probably my favorite of the local breweries. Great beer, really comfy atmosphere. Lots of bikes locked up outside. Bring food from elsewhere, though. Built in an old house.
- Ore Dock Brewing Company: Another big name local brewery. Great beer as well, but didn’t feel as comfortable to me, perhaps because it’s more of a large hall-type building. Has pretzels (hot and cold) and popcorn for food, but also allows outside food.
- Third Street Bagel: Bagel / sandwich place. Ate a breakfast bagel from here which I’d first purchased intending to eat while driving, but after seeing its size I ate it sitting outside the restaurant. Also has good coffee. Both were quite tasty and made for a pretty quick breakfast.
- Togo’s: Sub/sandwich place. On recommendation of an employee I had the hot pastrami sub with mustard and horseradish. This was a good choice; ate it at Ore Dock Brewing Company.
Trail Routes and Difficulty
To start, the maps on the NTN website are not as up to date as the one which can be purchased at the local shops. Additionally, the purchasable map does not include the 1-2-3 portion of the Harlow Farms Connector Trail which is incredibly useful for accessing the south trails from the Iron Ore Heritage Trail (rail trail / non-motorized path) which runs through downtown and within a couple hundred feet of the Ramada. Signs like this lead the way. Still, this was quite easy to find when actually riding, and both of the main Marquette systems were close enough to downtown that I didn’t regret riding to the trails each day.
Once on the trails, though, the marking is outstanding. I almost never had a problem figuring out where I was on the South Trails, and only a couple parts of the North Trails (in particular in The Cedars section where the trails is very close to the Noquemanon Trail and there are a spiderweb of connectors) where I got a little confused, but I wasn’t lost — I just wasn’t sure if I was on the right trail. It was still loads of fun, though.
Anxious to get out and ride, on my first day of riding I found myself on a black diamond trail, and this is where I had my first fall. I was trying to ride up some rocks, got my wheel stuck, and just toppled over. I slid a bit, but wasn’t hurt and was more amused than anything else. This photo shows where I fell, which in retrospect (and after riding other trails there) was really quite an easy spot. I think I may have been arrogantly pushing a bit that first day.
What I learned was that the trail designations are pretty spot on to the IMBA descriptions. Black diamond is about my upper limit, and these seem to either be because of exposure (steep drop-offs) or technical challenges, or a mix of both. I can deal with both by walking, but my slight fear of heights makes it harder to deal with the exposure. On my last day of riding in Marquette I found myself on a trail called Gorge-ous which had enough exposure in spots to nearly induce a panic attack in me. It’s beautiful, but it snakes its way down the edge of a gorge up above the Carp River, and the drop-off would cause some serious problems. This photo shows one of the more exposed spots, complete with a repurposed truck mirror to allow riders to see around the corners (these are two way trails, remember).
I mostly enjoyed the blue square (intermediate) trails, as there was pretty much nothing on these I couldn’t ride comfortably. They were nice for just rolling around and seeing how beautiful the area is. When I’m up in Marquette the next time I’ll likely try out more of the black diamond stuff, but after being a bit thrown off by a technically difficult group ride on Wednesday evening I was playing it safe.
The folks at Sports Rack told me about a group ride at Al Quaal Recreation Area in Ishpeming on Wednesday nights at 6:30pm. Wanting to see some new trails I headed out for that. This ride apparently breaks into three groups (A, B, and C), and I made a mistake when I chose the A group. If/when I go back I’ll likely ride with the B group.
I’d heard that the A group was fast, and that Al Quaal was mostly XC ski trails with small amounts of single track. I’d also heard in the parking lot that the single track is about as difficult as the Blue loop at Marquette South, which sounded fine to me. I could ride hard on the wider stuff, then deal with the single track. This turned out to not be the case, the trails were some of the most technical and rocky that I’ve ever personally been on and I was in way over my head. There were numerous 8″ – 12″ rocky step-ups and climbs far beyond what I’ve ever ridden before and thus I walked quite a bit. For the part I rode there was actually very little XC ski trail, even though the climbs and downhills on it were quite fast and fun.
This held the group up a great deal, so after making my way through a bit of it I was going to head back early. Very kindly of them the group didn’t want to let me head off alone somewhere I hadn’t been before (even though I knew I could find my way back) so I kept on a bit further, before splitting off and heading back to the cars with someone who was cutting out early named Don. After this the group carried on to some other trails which apparently have considerably more exposure, including rocky ledges looking down at the tops of trees. I’m glad I didn’t carry on to this area.
(This technical loop seems to be partially labeled with pink signs indicating the Quaal Loop. It does not yet seem to be mapped.)
Later that evening I ran into two of the B group riders at Blackrocks who I had previously talked to in the lot, and that conversation confirmed that I was in over my head. It sounds like the B group would have been much more my thing… More XC ski trails, more single track but not things as hard as what the A group did. Whoops.
I just hope I didn’t squish the group’s plans too much. I definitely learned something that day, though.
In the three riding days in the Marquette area here’s where I went, as illustrated via Strava:
- Day 1: Marquette South Trails
- Day 2: Marquette North Trails and Presque Isle, Al Quaal
- Day 3: Marquette South and North Trails
After leaving Marquette I headed down to Glacial Hills in Bellaire. I’d heard of this trail for a couple years, and finally having the chance to ride it I wish I’d gone there sooner. This is incredibly flowing, quite easy (but fun) machine-built trail. I was amused that it was about the same difficulty as the Grom (Beginner / Kids) Loop in Marquette, but for almost 30 miles. It was a blast. (Strava data.)
Once I was done riding at Glacial Hills (mostly because the sun was setting) I headed to Traverse City and checked into a hotel, staying the night so I could attend an Iceman Out-and-Back ride put on by Einstein Cycles. This was a not-fast-paced-but fun ride from the shop out to Kalkaska, then back via most of the Iceman route. Due to pacing, stops to chat, and getting turned around on some of the newly cut trail segments we didn’t have time to do the full route, but it was still a good time. It was nice to spend some time in the northern Lower Peninsula riding as well; which is completely different from what’s found near home, and different still from Marquette. (Strava data.)
Photos from this trip to Marquette, including a couple along the drive and riding to and from there, can be found here.