Reading Between the (GPS) Lines: Bikepacking Roots’ Northwoods Route

Curious about touring the Midwest? Have you ever wondered what’s so special about the largest freshwater lake (by volume) in the world? What’s up with those Yoopers? How and why would you bring a bike to an island National Park where it is illegal to ride? Check out Spencer Harding’s (kind of) review of Bikepacking Roots’ Northwoods route on the shores of Lake Superior and some musing about not following that GPS line all the time. 

My wife and I recently pedaled a large portion of the Northwoods Route published by Kurt Refsnider on Bikepacking Roots. In typical fashion, we didn’t ride the whole route (630 miles in total), and even on the sections we did ride we made numerous deviations from the course for convenience and otherwise. Since this tour was short on life-changing revelations and full of lovely and reasonable days of pedaling, I wanted to highlight reading between the lines of bike touring routes and discuss some unique logistical concerns with the Northwoods route. A route review? Kind of, but as I mentioned we didn’t ride the whole thing so consider this a two-thirds route review…

We first learned about the Northwoods route back in 2020 when we spent a month at Blix’s parent’s house in Bayfield, Wisconsin. We had hoped to do some of the initial scouting that summer, but it was high COVID times, especially for Wisconsin so we decided to stay put. After seeing how rural and remote some of the towns along the route were, I can’t imagine trying to ride the route with many businesses being closed. Fast forward to this past August with a surprise stop to see Blix’s dad for his birthday conveniently an hour from the route, we had our launching point. Blix is always jonesing for a reason to get back to the Midwest and I’ve grown rather fond of the area these past few years so the trip was an easy sell.

The route circumnavigates a large portion of the USA’s side of Lake Superior, roughly the western half of the lake. The route is split into three parts by state; Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Each section is roughly 200-220 miles in length. There are numerous single-track options designated along the route as well. We planned for this to be a pretty cushy trip for ourselves so we didn’t pack or plan for singletrack riding, though if I were to do it again, I think I would prioritize riding those sections by packing light, riding a hardtail, and enjoying the amazing trails the northern Midwest has to offer. You could probably take some zero-days and just ride trails around the towns as well; Copper Harbor really sticks out in my mind for this opportunity. You may be thinking, if you don’t go into Canada how do you get around the lake? Well, of course, you take a ferry…

A Mountain of Logistics to Make to for the Lack of Mountains

The largest logistical hurdle for this trip was the two ferry rides to and from Isle Royale NPS. The ferry companies are unaccustomed to transporting bikes as it’s not permitted to ride at all on Isle Royale as almost the entirety of the island is designated wilderness (more on that later). Most ferries assume you are either backpacking or just taking a day trip to the island. There are four separate ferries; two that go to the north shore of Minnesota and two that travel between the upper peninsula of Michigan. Their schedules don’t really line up, and they don’t seem like they coordinate at all, as they are all separate companies. This would be a bit easier except for the fact that Isle Royale NPS has a seasonal one-night stay limit at the campground (Rock Harbor) you need to stay at to make the crossing. The limit conveniently ends when the ferries no longer operate consistently. We made our ferry reservations in April for a September trip and based our whole planning around the only two dates where we could catch both ferries while only staying one evening on Isle Royale. I ran all the permutations on my calendar to see when they lined up and it was a doozy. It was a good thing we made our reservations when we did because both ferry boats sold out. It is also worth noting that the ferry rides and the extra charges for our bikes (oversized luggage) were nearly $300 a person for the trip.

Isle Royale is a gem of a park and holds a unique title in the NPS system. It is the least visited park, due to the obvious hurdles to get there, but is the most revisited park among those that do make the trip. Someone on our ferry was returning for their 12th time visiting the park. An island oasis in the massive inland sea of Lake Superior, Isle Royale is an amazing wildlife study area due to its seclusion with exciting wildlife to see such as wolves and moose. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the short time we spent on the island was stunning. Even a short walk to a cape had many unforgettable views and even a young moose sighting. I wish we could have stayed a few more nights and experienced more.

As I mentioned before, the park only allows one night of camping at Rock Harbor during the summer which is where you need to layover to make the ferry rides across the lake work. Since your bike can’t leave a rack right near the dock and the only campground in easy walking distance has a one-night stay limit you are stuck. If you wanted to bring a backpack with you on the tour you could theoretically spend a few nights exploring some of the back country camps and more of the island. The ferry schedule was already such a logistical clusterfuck I couldn’t be bothered to figure out a multisport layover on top of it all. Being able to spend a few more nights on the island would probably lessen the burn of that $300 ferry crossing, but you live and learn. I think we’ll make a dedicated backpacking return to the island someday. I hope with the influx of more bikers coming to Isle Royale that some accommodations can be made so that bikers visiting the park can have a more fulfilling visit. At this time the park and ferries are still getting accustomed to this new user group of their services, but baggage fees aside, all went smoothly.

Camping was the second toughest logistic along the Northwoods route. There is an abundance of federal and state land along the route, but that doesn’t always translate into accessible dispersed camping. Many nights on this trip we used state park campgrounds which had excellent amenities like showers or even laundry. These campgrounds cost between $20-40 a night and were another expense uncommon to my bike tours in the past. While all three states have a “no turn away” camping policy for cyclists we found that Wisconsin and Michigan must accommodate cyclists and were very helpful whereas Minnesota State Parks have the “authority” to help when campgrounds are full but in actuality told us to kick rocks. Since legal camp spots were few and sometimes far between this variable usually dictated our daily mileage. We did camp illegally a few times due to necessity such as a massive thunderstorm or simply because a roadside beach was too pretty to pass up. Bikepacking Roots obviously can’t condone this sort of activity, but there are many places to camp (especially if you like to sleep in a hammock) if you read between the waypoints.

Reading Between the Waypoints

The riding on the route was quite pleasant with a roughly equal parts mix of off-road and paved riding. There was plenty of elevation change as the route continually dipped down to the lake shore and away inland. The route made use of old mining railroads turned into multi-use paths, which in Michigan includes motorized (UTV) use as well. The grades rarely crept over 10% but there were a few steep pitches here and there—this is ain’t a tour of Kansas. I used all the gears of my Eagle cassette and was happy to do so. We diverted off the mixed-use paths a few times when the sand and side-by-side chunder got unbearable, opting instead to detour on the pavement. There were also some routing sections that seemed to prioritize being off-road over anything, which can be expected from such a seasoned route curator as Kurt Refsnider, but I don’t always need to be off-road. Occasionally I’d rather ride a bit of road for a few miles to get to camp a bit faster when we have already had a 60+ mile day. At the end of our trip, we took the scenic road near the lake shore north of Duluth instead of a zig-zag of logging roads away from the lake. It was a lovely ride and we passed the time rating lakeside homes and we found an amazing local candy shop.

I think it is an important skill as a bike tourist to be able to look at a route as a framework rather than an absolute path. It is obviously a curated path and one that much time has been spent creating, but I want to encourage people to look around. Take a detour to that lakeside park and camp as the waves gently lap against the shore. Take the shortcut on the pavement and have some ice cream at a gas station. Find the sections you want to ride and just do those parts, like how we just rode two sections of the route in Michigan and Minnesota. I’ve ridden a few of Kurt’s routes in the past and knowing what an insanely strong and capable cyclist he is means that—for me—his routes sometimes need to be taken with a grain of salt. Now the Northwoods definitely is, and was meant to be, a very accessible route, but that doesn’t mean we can’t chop it up and find our own way within the framework it provides. Some of the most lovely evenings we had were deviations from the route proper. Hell, on our first day, we ran into friends in Ironwood, Wisconsin on a slightly different ride and decided to ride with them to camp for the night. This necessitated the addition of  five miles singletrack (mostly hike-a-bike) or 20 miles of road to get back on route. We took the hike-a-bike of course, which was a shit-show, but an adventure unto itself.

To sum it all up, our time spent on the Northwoods route was simply lovely. We had the beginning of fall leaves changing, I never had to put on bug spray, the weather was mostly amazing, and I never got a flat tire. The route offers a multitude of options for riding styles and provides a great routing resource for an area that can get overlooked in the bike touring world. It weaves together some of the most beautiful stretches of shoreline around Lake Superior area and is well worth your time if you are from the Midwest or not.

You can get a printed or digital guidebook with tons of history, naturalist information, and route resources through Bikepacking Roots.