Northern Michigan's natural splendor is on display during a trip along the 22-mile Betsie Valley Trail. Stretching north and west from Thompsonville to Frankfort, the crushed limestone and asphalt trail travels through Pere Marquette State Forest and along the waters of Crystal Lake, the Betsie River and Betsie Lake. Some parts of the limestone section are quite soft, and road bikers should follow signs indicating an alternate route for the section between Beulah and Mollineaux Road.
Between Frankfort and Beulah the trail is open for non-motorized use, and the 6 miles between Frankfort and Mollineaux Road is asphaltgood for inline skating. Between Beulah and Thompsonville (13 miles) the compacted aggregate trail is open to snowmobiles between December and March.
Thompsonville's Crystal Mountain Resort Area, which offers lodging, dining and bike rentals, serves as the starting point for this journey. (If you start from the trail's southern end, there is parking at the ball field just north of Lindy Road.) In the 13-mile section from Thompsonville to Beulah, you will travel the former Ann Arbor Railroad corridor through forest and fields; 6 miles of this portion passes through the naturally beautiful Pere Marquette State Forest. Also along the way are several historical remnants, including the old turbine from the dam that was once the sole source of electricity in this area, and the ghost town of Homestead, where railroad maintenance workers lived in boarding houses at the turn of the 19th century.
While the limestone surface may be soft in spots, the trail offers a nice, gradual descent along the 5.3-mile stretch between Aylsworth Road and Beulah. Once you arrive in Beulah, stop by the old rail depot for visitor information, bathrooms and memorabilia (there is ample parking if you choose to start or end your journey here). Shops, bicycle and kayak rentals, a public beach and a playground are also located here.
Just west of Beulah the trail meets the south shore of Crystal Lake. Here, the trail winds through a row of beachside cottages, and the lake, lives up to its name, with hues of deep sapphire and turquoise shimmering in the sunlight. Be sure to abide by signs warning trail users that dogs are not allowed within this segment. Trail users must stay within the 10-foot trail easement and adhere to a speed limit of 10 miles per hour for the short segment to Railroad Point Natural Area. This beautiful 67-acre Railroad Point Natural Area offers a 1-mile stretch of preserved beach along Crystal Lake. The waves lap up against shady stands of birch, aspen, pine and maple. Take a swim, enjoy a picnic and, above all, take time to enjoy this slice of lakeside splendor.
At Molineaux Road, near mile 15, the trail surface becomes asphalt, and the route veers into the woods and soon begins following the Betsie River. At an overlook jutting out above the river peer down for a bird's-eye view of the fish jumping in the waters below. More wildlife viewing awaits in the village of Elberta.
The Audubon Society built a wooden viewing platform overlooking the marsh and wetlands at the mouth of the Betsie River, and lucky visitors will spot herons and all sorts of migrating waterfowl and marsh birds, including ducks, geese, snipes and rails. Cross State Highway M-115, and in seconds you will reach another observation deck overlooking Betsie Lake, which is the access waterway to Lake Michigan. From here, the trail travels along the shore to the public marina, which offers a safe haven for Great Lakes boaters.
The small town of Frankfort, at trail's end, serves up culinary delights and overnight lodging if you're ready for a meal and a bed. There is also a bike-rental shop in Frankfort, if you plan to start your journey from here.
Parking and Trail Access
To reach the Thompsonville trailhead, take State Route M-115 to Thompsonville then follow Thompsonville Road north to Beecher Road. The parking area is on left side of Thompsonville Road.
To reach the Frankfort trailhead, take M-115 to 9th St. in Frankfort and turn left to access the trailhead.