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The Bill Nicholls Trail wanders for 41 miles through the Upper Peninsula’s scenic Copper Country, where visitors can spot wildlife and see remnants of the copper mining that flourished for more than 100 years. The soft-surface trail is a popular destination for motorized off-road vehicles such as all-terrain vehicles and snow-mobiles, so mountain bikers and hikers should be prepared to deal with wear and tear on the trail.
Most of the trail follows the route of the Copper Range Railroad, built between 1899 and 1901 to haul copper ore from the mines that proliferated on the peninsula from the mid-19th century until the 1960s. When the state acquired the line in 1974, it was among the first disused railroad corridors in Michigan converted to a public trail.
Beginning at the Ontonagon County Fairgrounds outside of Greenland, the first couple of miles can be challenging for trail users. A rock escarpment, steep grades, and mine tailings placed on the trail to prevent erosion will force you to watch your progress. You’ll soon pass the Adventure Mine, a copper mine (1850–1920) that’s now open for tours as part of the Keweenaw National Historical Park, a collection of heritage sites celebrating the region’s copper-mining history.
At 2 miles, the trail heads northeast and merges with the former railroad line and its level surface. Not long after crossing MI 38, you’ll cross the first of three steel bridges over the Firesteel River, which total 1,300 feet in length and clear the rivers by 85 feet, creating one of the trail’s scenic highlights.
The trail passes through a remote stretch of pine and hardwood forests as you reach Twin Lakes State Park near mile 16.4, where the trail parallels MI 26 and allows access to the park and nearby businesses. After the state park, the trail passes several small lakes, traverses scenic woodlands, and is periodically lined with wild blackberry and thimbleberry bushes.
With a tower as your beacon, you arrive at the crossroads community of Toivola, which offers a restaurant and grocery store near mile 25.2. You’ll pass old ruins of the mining era and piles of mine tailings. After crossing SR 26 into South Range at mile 34.4, you can visit the Copper Range Historical Museum and check out local offerings.
The last 4 miles into Houghton are all downhill. About 1.5 miles from the trail’s end is a scenic overlook at the Portage Lake Ship Canal, which played a big role in the copper industry by removing an obstacle for shipping. The final leg of the trail parallels the canal. About 1 mile from the end, you’ll encounter a steep slope with loose stone. The trail ends at the city’s RV park in Houghton, near the Raymond C. Kestner Waterfront Park, which provides picnic facilities, restrooms, a beach, and a playground. Here, you can also connect with the 4.5-mile Houghton Waterfront Trail, a paved pathway that links a series of small waterfront parks along an inlet of Portage Lake.
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