A Tourist in My Hometown: Riding Singletrack in West Michigan

“You can never go home again.” Martin O Blank’s defining line from the film Grosse Pointe Blank has stuck with me since I first heard it in the late ‘90s. It stuck with me because I thought, until recently, that it was bullshit. I moved away from Grand Rapids, MI for work and school in Colorado in 2004 but would go back to visit at least every year. And nothing seemed to change. My friends and the city itself seemed perfectly preserved in time. It always felt like home. But after a big move to Arizona and a pandemic, nearly five years passed without a visit. Then, after that time away, when my family and I road tripped Michigan this past July, I realized that Blank might have actually been onto something. My friends and the city had changed. In exciting ways to be sure, but things were markedly different and the area felt less homey for the first time in my life.

One of the most noticeable changes for me was the increase of trail development and overall expansion of the cycling scene that’s taken place over the past ten or so years. The Grand Rapids and greater West Michigan area I grew up in was a struggling furniture manufacturing town full of bible colleges and midwestern comfort food like boiled hotdogs and pazckis. The abundant bistros and craft breweries the city has become known for over the past decade, or so, were largely non-existent in those days. And, markedly different from the cranes seen currently jutting from the city’s downtown landscape pulling up new highrises, the Amway plaza tower stood as the only glass tower among the city’s historic skyline of predominantly vacant red brick factories and warehouses.

And the cycling scene, particularly for trail riding, was nothing like it is today. Back in the 90s and early 2000s – for me and my friends, at least – non-winter recreation mostly took place near water rather than in the woods. I always had mountain bikes and sought out much of the available singletrack, but fishing and kayaking took precedence largely due to the lack of trail access in the area. Land owners/managers did not seem to prioritize purpose-built trail development back then, which made riding options fairly limited. Seeing Cannonsburg’s parking lot full of folks enjoying post-ride beverages was unheard of. But we made do with what was there, however; enjoying every minute slipping around on wet roots at Robinette’s Orchard trail network, riding the big loop at Cannonsburg State Game Area, and at Yankee Springs State Park south of the city on the rare occasion we could get a ride down there. I’d even pedal up the grassy slopes at Cannonsburg Ski Area, just to turn around at the top for a quick few hundred food decent.

As the city has grown, so too have the trail systems surrounding it and access to quality singletrack seems to be increasing exponentially. No doubt this is due to activities of organizations like WMMBA (West Michigan Mountain Biking Alliance) who are responsible for designing and maintaining a majority of the trail systems around Grand Rapids. For years my friends waxed on and on about new trail systems being developed and how fun they are, but I just hadn’t had a chance to get there with a bike or even time to ride. This summer was a little different and my wife, Andrea, and I traveled with our bikes and made riding a priority. Fresh off a three day drive from Phoenix, Andrea and I met my old friend Jon Holmes at Cannonsburg for a tour of the ski area trail system, with a link-up of the big loop at the adjacent State Game Area.

As head honcho of Bill and Paul’s Sporthaus, Jon has been a fixture in the West Michigan outdoor community for a looong time. I worked for Jon at the shop in the early 2000s and he taught me a lot about finding hidden recreational treasures in Michigan – from backcountry skiing on lakeshore dunes or sea kayaking on abundant inland lakes – and that it was not imperative to head “out west” in search of adventure (even though I did eventually). When we met up at Cannonsburg, he was training for the upcoming Ore to Shore adventure race and needed to cram in some fast miles. His fast pace gave our stiff road-tripped legs a startling awakening on the relatively steep and rolling singletrack that now wraps around the ski hills.

Something for Everyone at Cannonsburg

Located about 15 miles northeast of the city of Grand Rapids, on land once populated by the Chippewa and Ottawa, Cannonsburg ski area takes advantage of some regionally unique rolling topography to squeak out a few hundred feet of vertical drop, which is pretty decent for the midwest. It’s a great place to learn to ski or snowboard and for evening race leagues on groomed icy slopes. I spent many winter evenings skiing at Cannonsburg as a grom and then on my highschool ski team. I still remember the smell of damp wooden floors of the hearthside room layered with hints of old fryer oil from the adjacent kitchen. Not much of that seems to have changed, but the exterior infrastructure – including a zipline and expanded trail system – has received some exciting attention.

The eleven miles of trail on ski area property flank both the eastern and western sides of the ski hill along varied terrain for a great mix of pumpy and flowy double and singletrack. There’s even a terrain park with considerable features and jump lines. Cut through an extremely dense forest, the trails tend to be cramped with vegetation and gave me and my 800mm wide Oddmone handlebars a taste of summertime slalom. Thankfully the trails are directional, alternating between clockwise and counter each day, which provides some reprieve from potential head-on encounters with other trail users.

If you get lost or scared out there, just look for the nearest forest troll to help.

Over in the adjacent State Game Area, the Egypt Valley Loop added about another seven miles to our day. Older and more established, the EVL provides a slightly more open setting and rides quite a bit faster than the ski area trails. But it’s not directional, so we were sure to be aware of hikers around blind corners. We happened to be there during blackberry season and they were everywhere – Andrea filled a water bottle full of them. The Canonsburg area trails were so fun and accessible (and free!) that Andrea and I went back multiple times to ride during our stay.

Flow zone at Luton Park

I carved out another morning to meet a good friend, Nate Williams, for a ride at Luton Park, which is located just a few miles north of Canonsburg. Nate is a former pro racer with two young kids at home and I could tell he wasn’t used to riding at “photopace,” but he graciously humored me in my desire to photograph aspects of the trail at a human-scale.

Luton trails are fairly new and have been purpose-built by Kent County and the WMMBA primarily for mountain biking. The beautiful and lush forest setting also makes it a great place for running, hiking, snowshoeing, birding, etc.

The park’s winding trails cram nearly 10 miles of singletrack into a relatively tight space. The trails are not directional, but are well marked and labeled to indicate difficulty levels and individual loops. We linked all of the color-coded loops together and had an absolute blast. Mostly everything there was buffed out – without many notable technical features except for some tight switchback corners – making it an inviting option for any experience level. Nate and I talked about how fun a dropbar bike with knobby tires would be out there.

Coming from the desert chunk of Arizona, the fast and flowy trails were a treat for me. For good measure, though, Nate was sure to let me know while we were riding: “if you want more tech and difficulty on trails like this in Michigan, just go faster.”

Nate offered up some advice on other trails to check out, if I had the time during my visit, of course. Unfortunately, with other riding I had planned and family obligations, one week in GR was just barely enough time to scratch the surface (errr, dirt) of what’s now available. A couple of trails on the list that I didn’t have a chance to ride are the Merrell Trails (in the same area as Cannonsburg and Luton), Glacial Hills up north near Bellaire, and the completed portion of Dragon Trail that’s being built in Newaygo around Hardy Lake. Dragon Trail, in particular, looks incredible – ultimately reaching over 40 miles once completed with open lakefront vistas, park features, and other varied terrain – and I will definitely make it there on my next trip.

Up North at Arcadia Dunes Trail

And that is where I expected the cycling part of my vacation to conclude after touristing for a week in my former hometown and making trail riding a priority. But, fortunately, it didn’t end there. Following our stay in Grand Rapids, we ventured north to a cottage in Benzie County near the Lake Michigan harbor town of Frankfort.

Typically, a week on the lake for my family would include just that – time on the lake living simply, disconnecting from technology, and trying not to travel far. This time, though, we had bikes and happened to be staying just a few miles from Arcadia Dunes, which is ten miles of ripping singletrack. Built thoughtfully along the contours of the packed sandy hillsides inland from Lake Michigan off the famed M-22 highway, the trail has similar characteristics to those we rode down south, but with more elevation and sustained descents. Each of the ten miles is marked in a clockwise direction, but the trail can be ridden either way. The trail was so fun that either Andrea or I ended up riding there each morning of our stay.

Early in the week I met a local named Jack at the trailhead who was picking up kids from Camp Arcadia in his flame-adorned Ford pickup. We talked for a while about the local cycling scene and the various group rides that meet there during summer months. He recommended riding the trail in both directions to see which I prefer because, while each direction is undoubtedly fun, most everyone prefers one over the other. I took him up on it and ultimately preferred riding counter-clockwise.

I gained about 900ft of elevation each time I rode the trail, which isn’t too shabby for ten miles in lower Michigan. Comparatively, ten miles at Luton Park netted barely over 500ft of vert. The dense forest canopy of beech, maple, hemlock, birch, and pine varieties create micro-environments on the forest floor that I couldn’t help but stop and observe. In shaded corners the sandy trail surface was damp and tacky. Haze from distant wildfires gave available light a diffused orange hue. Open stretches of wildflowers and blackberry patches flanked the trail, in addition to a few farm road crossings yielding glimpses out over picturesque orchards and fields of corn. Getting to enjoy riding Arcadia Dunes trail provided a memorable bookend to what was already a surprisingly enamoring time riding singletrack in western Michigan.

Even though Grand Rapids doesn’t really feel like home to me anymore, it will always be a great place to visit. I’m happy to see singletrack and development of sustainable trail systems become a priority in the area – it will definitely help entice me to visit more often. If it isn’t already, I can see Grand Rapids and greater west Michigan becoming a full-on mountain biking destination; a beacon in the midwest summoning riders to experience the area’s alluring interior landscapes.

I also want to note that there are so many other aspects to the cycling scene in Grand Rapids that would be impossible to cover in one week. Gravel road riding is world-class, summer and winter riding events abound, and the city is full of great bike shops (like Freewheeler where I used to take my bikes as a kid!) that I just didn’t have time to visit. Hopefully I’ll get back next summer and add to this travelogue. Or, better yet, maybe a local will pick up where I left off and send in some amazing reportage on the area.

Learn more about Cannonsburg here and other Kent County trails here