About this Itinerary
The 62-mile North Central State Trail (NCST) offers a multi-use rail-trail adventure into Michigan's north woods, with connections to well-established tourist towns at both ends. From the trail’s southern terminus at Gaylord, the NCST makes a slightly crooked beeline north to Lake Huron where it jogs west along the shoreline to Mackinaw City. On the way, recreationalists enjoy the northern Michigan scenery of hilly agricultural fields and verdant forests as well as the valley of the Sturgeon River and Mullet Lake. With the trail’s crushed-limestone surface and reasonable mileage between the towns and trailheads, the NCST is accessible for cyclists interested in a short day ride or a multi-day trek to the famous Mackinac Island and back.
We suggest allowing one to two days to reach Mackinaw City from Gaylord, depending on how much time you want to spend enjoying the towns and scenery along the way; give yourself an additional day to explore Mackinac Island and 3-5 days for a round-trip excursion. Keep in mind that the highest elevation point on the trail is Gaylord, so the south-north journey is flat or a gentle downhill ride and the return trip is somewhat of a slog by comparison (approximately a 750-foot gain in elevation).
Alternatively, Big Bear Adventures offers group shuttle services and Indian Trails and Jefferson Lines buses travel between Mackinaw City and Gaylord, though bicycles must be boxed and checked-in as luggage. Mountain bike rentals are available in Gaylord at Alpine Bicycles. Two domestic airports, Pellston Regional and Cherry Capital, are within 60 miles of Gaylord.
The trail begins near the Alpine-style village of Gaylord, a hamlet with shops, restaurants and architecture that emulates Swiss tradition and culture. The Alpine culture is particularly celebrated in July during the annual Alpenfest, a popular festival that fills the village’s Main Street with artists, vendors and parade-goers. If you plan on staying overnight, there are plenty of accommodation options ranging from resorts to cabins or camping at the nearby Otsego Lake State Park.
Railroads and logging were behind the development of most of Otsego County’s communities during the late 1800s and Gaylord, settled in 1874, was named after an attorney for the Jackson, Lansing & Saginaw Railroad. You can visit the Otsego County Historical Museum on Main Street to learn more about the region’s history or to access information on a historical driving or self-guided walking tour. Be sure to go to the Gaylord City Elk Park to view the impressive elk herd that is under the city’s care.
Day 1: Gaylord – Mackinaw City (62 miles)
Are you ready to ride? Stop in at Big Bear Delicatessen on Gaylord’s Main Street for a coffee, baked goods or a to-go sandwich for the journey. You might want to visit the farmers market as well on your way out of town (open Saturdays from May-Oct. and also Wednesdays from July-Oct.) to see how many fresh and local treats you can fit into your pannier (luckily the ride north isn’t uphill).
The NCST trailhead is located one mile north of downtown at the County Fairgrounds. Once on the trail, you quickly leave civilization for the peacefulness of the woods and rolling farm fields. In the 7.5 miles it takes to reach the first town of Vanderbilt you will cycle through two tunnels and cross several country roads. At Vanderbilt (named for the wealthy Vanderbilt family that once owned land nearby as well as the Michigan Central Railroad which came to this area in 1880), there is trailside parking, restroom facilities and a market. Refresh your waters supplies if needed.
From Vanderbilt to Wolverine (11 miles), the trail parallels quite close to I-75, but the feel is still remote with the buffer of woods and steep hilly landscape all along the route. You will pass through wetlands, marshes and open meadows and may be graced by displays of wildflowers or glimpses of grazing elk. While you are definitely in the heart of elk country, there is plenty of non-ungulate wildlife as well. Look for evidence of beaver and black bear and be prepared for the possibility that a porcupine or wild turkey may cross your path. Several miles before reaching Wolverine, the trail crosses I-75. Gaylord and Pigeon River Country State Forest Areas fill-in the distant horizons to the west and east and numerous bridges carry you over the Sturgeon River and its tributaries.
Wolverine is situated on the Sturgeon River and adjacent to the Hanel Nature Preserve. Two city parks, with restrooms and picnic areas, line the river banks where you may encounter anglers or canoeists. Wading and swimming is allowed but use caution as the current is somewhat swift. Look for the old Michigan Central Depot next to the trail and the Village Park. A mile north of town and right off the trail is the Thirsty Sturgeon Bar and Grille, a convenient place to enjoy pub-style food and drink while taking in beautiful views of the river.
The trail crosses the twisting river and follows it for most of the next 10 miles to Indian River. Enjoy the woodlands and the diverse bird life in the canopies around you. Indian Riveris the mid-point of the North Central State Trail (28.5 miles). If you prefer a more leisurely biking pace, you may want to end your first day of cycling here. The town’s eateries, shops and scenic Burt Lake make it an enjoyable place to stay overnight. Tourism information is available at the Chamber of Commerce located on the trail in town, though the town’s most sacred attraction is Cross in the Woods, a shrine that houses what may be the world’s largest wooden crucifix. There is camping, swimming and paddling at Burt Lake State Park, located on the edge of town and the southern tip of Burt Lake. Northwoods Lodge, owned by the folks who operate Big Bear Adventures, is just a mile north and offers themed “northwoods” rooms in a two-story log building.
Leaving Indian River, the trail soon brings you to the beautiful Mullett Lake. Both Mullett and Burt Lakes are part of the Inland Waterway, Michigan’s longest chain of rivers and lakes which eventually feeds into Lake Huron. The NCST parallels the lake’s western shoreline for 10 miles; occasionally you cycle right next to the water’s edge and at other times a narrow strand of cabins, private beaches and docks lies between you and the lake. Highway 27 is close to your left during this stretch. There are two rest stops along the way, at Topinabee (5.6 miles from Indian River) and Mullett Village (6.6 miles from Topinabee), where you will find public beaches, restrooms and other amenities. After leaving the lake, the trail takes a direct shot across farm fields to roll into Cheboygan (5.3 miles from Mullett Village).
There are restrooms and a picnic shelter at the NCST trailhead in Cheboygan (Western Ave. and Taylor St.); this is also the northern terminus for the North Eastern State Trail. Leaving the trail to head north into town (east on Taylor St. and left on Main St.) will allow you to catch your first views of giant Lake Huron. You may want to rest on the sandy beaches at Gordon Turner Park (N. Huron St.) or visit the Cheboygan Crib Light at the mouth of the Cheboygan River. A ferry boat from the city dock can take you to Bois Blanc Island for some enjoyable biking on lightly traveled roads. Most of the restaurants choices in Cheboygan are along M-27 (Main St.) or US-23. Cheboygan Brewing Co. has a tap room on Main Street which offers locally brewed lagers and ales as well as an interesting history of the company’s origins dating back to 1872 and two Prussian brothers (open Wed.-Sat.).
When you head northwest again, the trail is tree-lined with pine, maple and oak, and parallels US 23 on this 16-mile stretch into Mackinaw City. You get several glimpses of Lake Huron through the trees. Mill Creek State Park is about midway between the two towns and offers nature and historic education. Your final destination is the premier resort town of Mackinaw City, home to the five-mile, suspension-style Mackinac Bridge, historic Fort Mackinaw, as well as the ferry boats that will carry you to world-renowned Mackinac Island.
The NCST trail ends just blocks from the shores of Lake Huron. The Mackinac Bridge, arcing over the Straits of Mackinac toward Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, rightly commands the attention of any visitor and the sights and sounds of the marina will quickly lure you to the shoreline.
Campers have numerous options in the area, including Mackinaw Mill Creek Campground (three miles from town on Lake Huron). The Riviera Motel is a basic, family-friendly motel near the lake with magnificent views of the bridge and the Brigadoon and Deer Head Inn are two inviting B&Bs minutes away from the sights.
Today is your day for exploring Mackinaw City. The city saw its first European settlers in the early 1700s, though French explorers came to the area in the 17th century to establish trading partnerships with the Algonquian tribes who lived in the region. History buffs have hundreds of years to catch up on: a colorful heritage full of cultural, political and economic pathways crisscrossing on ferry boats, trains and old fishing and hunting routes. Over the years, numerous rail lines and subsidiaries provided passenger service to Mackinaw City and it was the former Michigan Central line that was rededicated as the North Central State Trail in 2008.
There are many ways to explore this city’s cultural heritage, including parks, historic sites and museums. The area’s premier attractions include Colonial Michilimackinac, Mill Creek Discovery Park, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, Fort Mackinac, The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum and the Mackinac Island State Park. Those who prefer window shopping or are ready for a good meal or a confectionary treat may want to make a beeline to the Victorian-style shopping mall at Mackinaw Crossings.
However you decide to spend your time, allow at least one day visit to Mackinac Island, entirely free of motorized vehicles and just twenty minutes away by ferry. There are several ferry companies that service the island. If you aren’t too tired of biking, you can bring your bike on the ferry for a nominal fee or rent bikes on the island. You might want to drive your own horse buggy through Mackinac Island State Park instead, or simply relax while someone else provides you with a carriage tour to the Butterfly Conservatory. There is plenty of history to explore and natural beauty to soak in, but the island is perhaps best known for its fudge. In fact, you will surely feel obligated to visit the numerous fudge shops just to make sure their product is up to snuff (or attend the annual Mackinac Island Fudge Festival and really revel in this creamy goodness). Enjoy!