Up until a few weeks ago, the longest bicycle journey I’d competed was about 50 miles, which isn’t all that impressive. The idea of biking with camping gear and pitching a tent after a long ride always appealed to me, but the logistics and mileage intimidated me equally.
But the opportunity finally presented itself. And every journey begins a little bit easier with a dose of liquid courage.
My 83-mile biking/camping adventure began at Founders Brewery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sure, I’ve been to my fair share of breweries before, but this one impressed me nonetheless. Founders takes up an entire block of the street across from a train station, and both the indoor and the outdoor spaces are enormous. There were tons of servers floating around, with multiple servers working patrons’ tables.
After a slight sandwich mix-up, I began feasting on my Stella Bleu, one many deli offerings. One sympathetic server even brought out a sample of porter to ease a nearby burning tongue. As typical, I ordered a beer flight to sample the local goods, including tiny pours of All Day IPA, Oatmeal Stout, Mosaic Promise, BA Sprite, and Curmudgeon. BA Sprite was my ultimate favorite – a pale ale aged in a bourbon barrel, buttery, but not overly rich.
But I didn’t linger because lots of pedaling was ahead of me.
White Pines State Park Trail
The journey began on White Pines State Park Trail, Michigan’s longest rail-trail – connecting five counties along 93.5 miles. Along this trail, you find open farmland, forests, swamps, and lots of little towns along the way.
From the city streets of Grand Rapids, I picked the trail up in Walker, where it was paved, wide, and uncrowded. The trail is a mix of ballast and blacktop, so my hybrid tires did just fine for most of it – “most” being the key word. More to come on that later.
After passing by Rockford Brewing Company, the trail becomes wooded, but fortunately not riddled with mosquitoes.
Keep an eye out for crossing turtles!
KC’s Ice Cream
With about 20 miles left to go on the first 40-mile leg of this journey, a magical place appeared between the trees. So I plopped my bike along the trail and sifted through the wildflowers to investigate.
KC’s ice cream shop is located along Main Street in Cedar Springs. They have a ton of unique flavors for cheap prices, and honestly, I probably won’t have made it any further without the generous helping I enjoyed atop a sugar cone.
With the taste of cherry cheesecake still on my tongue, I didn’t exactly anticipate what would happen next. My nicely paved path came to an abrupt halt five miles later, leaving me with a mess of sand, gravel, and rocks to bike on. I longed for my old mountain bike, while slow, durable under such conditions.
My pace slowed, my right knee began to ache, and my bitching level increased dramatically. The town of Howard City provided a temporary path relief, which ended just as quickly as it came up.
Mecosta Campground – Morley, Michigan
Before hitting the four-hour mark, I arrived at the Mecosta Campground in Morley, Michigan, a tiny town with less than 500 people. Mecosta is awesome because it only charges $10/person if you arrive on a bike. Otherwise it’s $26 for a rustic site and $34 for a hookup site.
There’s just something “hardcore” about arriving at a faraway destination on two wheels. Site #24 looked as good as any, and despite the sizable ant population, the tent remained pleasantly bug-free.
The campground had a decently-sized pool, but unfortunately no hot tub. That would have been quite lovely after 41.something miles. I took a quick dip, but was promptly joined by masses of screaming children. I abandoned my post and toweled off with a ringing in my ears.
Now here’s something you NEVER find at campgrounds…free mini golf! There were nine holes of mini golf located onsite, with free club and ball rentals. More campgrounds should really set this up!
Mecosta Campground was clean and easy to sleep in. It was unfortunate that there was only one bathroom for each gender onsite, however, the owners were in the process of building out a few more.
Mecosta’s owner recommended checking out Moe-Z-Inn for dinner. This was a solid recommendation, within walking/biking distance of the campground and with really delicious food. I got the lobster lasagna and downed every last bite. There’s a nice patio out back along the river if you don’t mind sharing the space with mosquitoes.
There isn’t a whole lot else to do in Morley, but there is gas station convenience store if you need to pick up some snacks or a cigar. Expect to see bored teenagers loitering and riding around on motorized bikes on summer evenings.
Satisfied with my brief stint in Morley, I hopped back on the trail the next morning to begin the return journey and complete this 83-mile adventure. The temperature was cooler and the sun was hiding, but rain was nowhere in sight.
As an alternative to 15-mile stretch of sand and gravel path, I opted to ride the first portion along the road for the way back. It was a two-lane road with a 55 MPH speed limit, but not too busy on a Sunday morning. That was definitely a good thing because there was essentially no shoulder, let alone a bike lane. Cars whizzed by, but were kind enough to move over the center line when passing.
The wonderfully-paved trail that I initially took for granted picked back up in Sand Lake, another tiny town along the way. From here, the pace picked up and it was smooth sailing.
Rockford Brewing Company
For one final hurrah, I stopped at the Rockford Brewing Company, about ten miles away from the initial starting point at Founders. One tip: don’t park your bike along the outside patio because you’ll probably get yelled at like I did. There are bike racks on the other side of the trail.
You can get a sampler of Rockford’s five standard beers for $7 and additional samples are $2 each. Top picks were the Rogue River Brown, which wasn’t that unique but well done, and the Ain’t Jemima, a cleverly-named maple sap beer that’s sweet, but not sweet enough to rot your teeth out. The Rockford Country Ale is also pretty good and reminded me of Two Brother’s farmhouse ale.
To refuel, I ordered a Stromboli with chips & salsa, but it appeared to have come pre-packaged from another eatery. Regardless, I was too starving to question its origin. The place has a great location along the trail, a chill vibe, and so-so service. A flyer informed me that they host live bands Thursday and Friday nights, but alas, the calendar and the stars did not align.
After the last leg of the journey, I arrived back at Founders Brewery to find Chief (my Jeep) safe and happily not towed. There are lots of other breweries in the downtown area of Grand Rapids to check out too if you’re still bent on soaking in a hot tub and willing to splurge for some well-deserved relaxation in a walking-distance hotel.
To date, this is my longest biking journey, and it showed me that I’m totally capable to doing more…after at least a week of cursing my bike and nursing my knee back to health, of course.
My mind wanders and becomes restless while I ride, but that’s good for me and I could probably use more of that kind of quiet time. The occasional ache and pain creeps up, but I’m still (relatively) young and healthy, so I need to take advantage of that while I can. And there are still lots of places to explore on two wheels.
^ In case you wondered, that’s what I look like riding a bike with camping gear. ^