This fall, Noelle Battle from Bikepacking Roots, took on a solo bikepacking trip of the Northwoods Route through Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Traveling here from the East Coast to do this route, she shares a reflection of her trip as well some highs and lows.
Words by Noelle Battle, Executive Director of Bikepacking Roots.
Learn more about the Northwoods Route.
After a long drive out from the East Coast, I arrived in Ironwood, Michigan which would be my base for starting my journey on the Northwoods Route. It’s been over a year since I had set off on an extended bikepacking adventure like this, and the first time since early 2020 that I was taking on a 500+ mile trip solo (almost getting stuck in Cuba as the COVID-19 lockdowns started is a story for another time). I’d been so busy getting settled into my new role at Bikepacking Roots, that I hadn’t spent that much time on my bike leading up to the trip, but "hey, I’ve done this before, ~50 miles a day is no big deal" is what I kept telling myself. I got my trusty bike and gear in order and headed toward Wisconsin to start the first leg of my journey.
For those of you who might not be familiar, the Northwoods Route was envisioned by Kurt Refsnider and was first launched to the public in 2021, thanks to the work of many dedicated volunteers who participated in the Route Test Team and contributors who wrote sections of the 70-page guidebook that was developed to accompany the route. It is a 630-mile route circumnavigating the western half of Lake Superior, primarily following gravel roads, two-tracks, logging roads, rail trails and sections of pavement through thick forests and past too many picturesque lakes to keep count. A unique feature of the route is that the loop is closed by utilizing passenger ferries across Lake Superior to travel to Isle Royale National Park, connecting the Minnesota and Michigan sections of the route. I wanted to share some of my reflections from my trip to give other riders a bit of a feel for the route, and maybe inspire some others to take the same challenging adventure in the future.
I completed the trip in 14 days (12 days of riding and 2 days for the transit via Isle Royale). This worked out to be an average of just over 50 miles a day, with 4 days in each state since there are approximately 200 miles in each state segment. My trip is proof that you can survive this ride with average fitness level and minimal training, but I’ll advise that it definitely would have helped if I had ridden my bike a bit more in advance. The route is challenging. Even though it isn’t overly technical and the physical difficulty isn’t super high because it doesn’t have big mountain climbs, it will definitely challenge folks. But the good thing is that it is a really accessible route for all types of people with the right planning, understanding of your capabilities, and plotting out the time needed to make the route most enjoyable for you. I certainly wouldn’t have minded extending my trip to allow for more time for lake swimming and taking advantage of the countless other activities along the route.
For folks that are looking for more technical riding, the route has several published singletrack alternative segments where you can take a different route following some amazing trail networks such as the Duluth Traverse and the CAMBA Singletrack Network. I can’t speak from personal experience on those alternates, but the little bit of singletrack that was mixed into the main route on the CAMBA system was super fun. In addition to those alternatives, the MTB culture is really strong around here and our guidebook highlights a number of other trail systems touching the route that folks may want to spend additional time exploring. I ended up in Copper Harbor at the start of their annual Trails Fest and learned about the world-class trails being built up there which are attracting people from all over.
One of my biggest impressions from the trip was how quiet the roads were, especially in the Wisconsin and Minnesota sections. Apart from the sections getting into and out of Duluth, time spent on any busier roads was usually very short and then you were back on roads where there may not be a motor vehicle for hours. I ran into more ATVs in Michigan on the rail trail and other ATV roads, but I also rode that section on Labor Day weekend, so I am guessing traffic was higher than normal.
Another aspect I loved (and sometimes hated) about the route was the variety of surfaces. This isn’t a route that was seeking out only the smooth gravel roads in the region. I laughed to myself once in particular when riding along a perfectly smooth gravel road in the Minnesota section, being amazed by these perfectly maintained, traffic-free roads, only to make the next turn off onto a chunky, sandy ATV trail for the next 10 miles. I thought to myself, so this is what it is like to ride a Bikepacking Roots route, always something to keep it interesting!
I might have huffed and puffed and sometimes pushed my bike up the short, steep gravel climbs, but that was often followed by getting to charge through flowy sections with a big grin on my face. I think the rideability percentages for the route are accurate, but that all depends on who you are and what bike you are on. Expect some chunky gravel and sandy sections.
I was happy with my 2.25” tires and just personally chose to walk some climbs as I was nursing some knee pain (or just feeling tired!). The good news though is that most of the steep and loose gravel climbs that may be challenging to ride for some are pretty short.
Some other questions that seem to come up a lot in regard to the route are the weather and the BUGS! I am happy to report that despite being told that it was a bad year for mosquitos in that they were still around in August at all, I didn’t find them to be too bad – I have definitely experienced much worse biking in the Northeast! That being said, black flies were around, particularly in Wisconsin. They liked to buzz around me while riding if I was going particularly slow. I never found mosquitos to be that bad where I camped, but they often were really bad if I ever stopped to do anything while on a narrower trail or heavily wooded section. I understand that bugs are worse in June-July so I can’t speak to how the route would be earlier in the year.
Beyond that, I had trouble deciding what I thought the optimal time would be. I enjoyed the weather being warm enough that I could take advantage of plenty of lake dips, one of my favorite parts of bikepacking. I actually started my trip in weather that felt like early fall, but then ended the loop on a 92-degree day! The leaves were already changing a bit, but I imagine going just a little bit later into fall would be amazingly beautiful. Note that ferry schedules limit the season so you will need to plan accordingly.
As a part of my trip, I got to meet lots of great folks along the way. I stayed at some cool, bike-focused accommodation such as ROAM Adventure Basecamp in Wisconsin and Trails End Campground in Michigan. I got to chat with folks from several local trail stewardship organizations and brainstorm about how we can better connect in the future. I also met with a Ranger on Isle Royale and talked about the increase of bikepacker visitation on the island. Encouragingly, she is excited to work with us to understand bikepackers’ experience on the island and to continue the relationship going forward as the route becomes more popular, within the confines of what is feasible and in consideration of other challenges the park is facing (such as record visitation).
I’m excited to see the interest and enthusiasm folks have for the Northwoods Route and I hope that the number of people getting out there on a section or the full route continues to grow over time. As I often talk about, I am really excited to grow Bikepacking Roots’ presence around the country and I’m excited to have one of our early signature routes highlighting the extensive gravel and singletrack options of this region (which understandably is also great for winter fatbiking too). I’m grateful to have had this time to connect deeply with the region, as bikepacking allows us to do, to understand a little more about the culture, the history, and the landscape. Next up, I’m excited to be heading a few hours south to the inaugural Midwest Bikepacking Summit in Wisconsin this weekend!
To purchase a print version of the Northwoods Route Guidebook and GPX files, click here.
To purchase a PDF version of the Northwoods Route Guidebook and GPX files, click here.