About this Itinerary
Blanketed by forests, flowing with rivers and lapped by the expansive eastern shore of Lake Michigan, the Betsie River region in northwest Michigan is an attractive outdoor playground featuring miles of trails. The Betsie Valley Trail offers just one of many ways to experience the territory, where you’ll also find friendly people, picturesque villages and plenty of attractions to keep you occupied. Along the former corridor of the Ann Arbor Railroad, once called “the Annie,” your trail adventure takes in forest and field punctuated with occasional wetlands that are home to migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. Historical lighthouses, local museums, boating opportunities and a visit to nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore round out your explorations.
Fly to Traverse City and drive 40 miles to the Stonewall Inn in Frankfort. The B&B is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is just a few blocks from Lake Michigan and the trailhead. The inn displays relics from the Civil War, and guests have raved about the delectable breakfasts.
Rent bikes from Crystal Lake Adventure Sports. Their main shop is in nearby Beulah, but they have a bike rental kiosk in Frankfort next to the American Legion on Main Street by 2nd Street (open daily 9–5, Memorial Day to Labor Day; weekends through the fall colors).
You can ride the trail round trip in one leisurely day (22 miles each way), but if you prefer a one-way trip, the Benzie Bus will pick you up or drop you off, including bikes, at any road–trail crossroad (Monday through Friday only) for a nominal fee (reduced fare for age 55+). Reservations 24 hours in advanced are strongly recommended; you must give at least four hours’ notice.
After a home-cooked breakfast at your B&B, pick up your bike at the kiosk, which you can walk to (0.3 miles) from the inn. Head south on 4th Street four blocks, then turn right (west) on Main Street and go two blocks.
Begin your ride by heading east on Waterfront Street (the next one south from the bike kiosk) 0.3 mile to the trailhead at the waterfront park. The waterfront in this case is Betsie Lake, a small inlet of Lake Michigan fed by the Betsie River. This section between Frankfort and Beulah is the most popular, and little wonder: your ride takes you along the Betsie River, through wetlands and along the shores of Crystal Lake.
Between Frankfort and Mollineaux Road the trail surface is asphalt (6.5 miles). You’ll find a few viewing platforms overlooking the river and the marshes that the river feeds. Pull over to look for wading birds and waterfowl, including herons, ducks, geese, snipes and rails—the avian kind, not the train kind.
The trail follows the route of the former Ann Arbor Railroad, which carried freight and passengers from Toledo, Ohio, through Ann Arbor, Owosso, Cadillac, Thompsonville and Beulah to Frankfort and Elberta. From 1892 to 1968, freight cars crossed Lake Michigan on ferries to Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
After crossing Mollineaux Road, the trail turns to crushed gravel and skirts the shores of the aptly named Crystal Lake. Note: Dogs are not allowed from here to Beulah; it’s part of the Railroad Point Natural Area, protecting a mix of wildlife habitat and a 1-mile length of beach. Come back another day to hike the 1.5-mile trail through the preserve on the bluff above the lake. The views are worth stopping for.
Next up is Beulah; stop by the trailhead visitor center, housed in a replica of the old rail station at the Five Corners intersection; you’ll know it when you see it. On the return trip, head to Beulah’s public beach for a refreshing dip in the lake at the public beach. Browse the shops and enjoy an ice cream. We recommend lunch at the Cold Creek Inn. You can’t visit a Great Lakes community without ordering a fish dish, and the Inn’s perch and whitefish are widely acclaimed.
There are 13 more miles to go from Beulah to Thompsonville, a beautiful ride through more remote upland hardwood and pine forest, part of it in Pére Marquette State Forest. The autumn colors are vibrant along this stretch, and in spring, the wildflowers are unforgettable. When you reach Landis Road, scan the wetlands for more birds, which migrate through here during spring and fall. At Wolf Road, look for an old turbine that once produced the area’s first electricity with help from the Betsie River.
Just north of Thompsonville the trail crosses the Betsie River on a restored railroad trestle, first built more than 100 years ago. In less than a mile, you arrive in Thompsonville. The trail officially ends at Michigan Avenue (Thompsonville Highway), just a block or so south of the main drag. Either ride back or wait for the Benzie Bus.
This evening, choose from a handful of restaurants in Frankfort and Elberta, including The Fusion, which dishes up pan-Asian fare and has a long list of sakes to sample. Although you can order fish any day of the week at just about any restaurant, if you’re in the area on a Friday night, don’t miss the quintessential Midwestern fish fry. It’s a great way to meet the natives, taste local brews and sometimes hear live music. Ask your hosts at the Stonewall Inn for recommendations.
Extend your stay to explore this striking part of Michigan. In addition to bikes, Crystal Lake Adventure Sports rents kayaks and other water sport equipment. You can also charter a fishing excursion at Power Trip by the lake on 2nd Street in Frankfort. Art lovers, readers and foodies will appreciate the Elizabeth Lane Oliver Center for the Arts, promoting visual, performing, culinary and literary arts. The center’s home is the beautifully renovated U.S. Coast Guard Station at the mouth of the Betsie Bay.
Crystal Mountain Resort ski area in Thompsonville is a year-round playground; summer activities include an Alpine slide, outdoor swimming pool, mountain bike trails and much more. Hike through their Michigan Legacy Art Park, a 30-acre wooded preserve scattered with unique sculptures.
Five miles north of Frankfort, tour Point Betsie Lighthouse, an attractive building dating to 1857 and still serving mariners. Just south of Beulah in Benzonia, visit the Benzie Area Historical Museum (Saturdays only), housed in a lovely Congregational church dating to 1887 and on the Michigan State Register of Historic Sites.
A must-see about 30 miles north of Frankfort in Glen Arbor is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Here you’ll find miles of sand beach, high bluffs, forests, lakes, and unique flora and fauna. See an island lighthouse and take in coastal villages and picturesque farmsteads, while learning about the area’s maritime, agricultural and recreational history.
Visit the Friends of the Betsie Valley Trail online to find out about various events taking place along the trail, including birding by bike. While you’re in the area, check out the Leelanau Trail in Traverse City.