Pere Marquette Rail-Trail Itinerary

Michigan

At a Glance

Name: Pere Marquette Rail-Trail
Length: 30 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Clare, Isabella, Midland
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Michigan

About this Itinerary

The Pere Marquette Trail follows the original route of the Flint & Pere Marquette railroad, which was later merged with two others to form the Pere Marquette Railroad in 1900. Reincorporated at various times as both the PM Railway and the PM Railroad, what is now a delightful trail courses through small towns, among intermittent forest, along rivers, over restored trestles and through a countryside of scattered farms. The path, 14 feet wide in places and all paved, draws recreationists from all over. It’s also well marked with maps and signs to attractions, eats and shops. Much of the western segment is more remote, offering a long, peaceful excursion through the Badger State’s lake-studded midsection.

Fly to MBS International Airport in Freeland, MI, and drive 45 miles to the Days Inn in Clare. The town is roughly midway along the trail, which makes it ideal for a two- to three-day ride in segments. You can rent bikes at Ray’s Bicycle Shop (1.5 miles straight down McEwan St.). The bike shop is one block west of Clare’s trailhead at the library.

Officially, the 30-mile section between Midland and Clare is known as the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail, while the section west of Clare is known as the Pere Marquette State Trail. We recommend two days of riding east from Clare then west from Clare. If you like, you can add a third day to ride the gravel, and more remote, portion between Reed City and Baldwin. You could even tack on a fourth day to explore other nearby trails and attractions.

Day 1

Begin with breakfast at the Mulberry Café in the Herrick House (corner of Main and Pine Street), one block from the library trailhead. Homemade pastries and generous breakfast dishes are just what you need for today’s ride.

Though it’s not along the current route of the rail trail, the depot in Clare is near 4th Street west of McEwan and the water tower, where it sits waiting to be restored. Before you hit the trail, ride by the Queen Anne style depot, which was built by the Ann Arbor and Pere Marquette railroad companies in 1895. The building sports a rare turret. Fundraising efforts are underway to move the historical landmark and renovate it as a rail trail hub with welcome center and railroad museum.

The segment between Clare and Midland (30 miles one way) is the trail’s most popular, and before day’s end, you’ll know why. Just after going under US 127, you enter a landscape of farmsteads, wetlands and woodlands, which fill the gaps between towns along the route. There are plenty of sights to take in, so plan on a long day.

In about 10 miles you arrive in Coleman, a trail friendly town with quaint shops and several places to stop for a drink or snack. Yesterdays Depot restaurant in Coleman is right next to the trailhead on 3rd Street. The original depot was built in the 1870s and burned down in 1902; it was rebuilt that same year. Passenger service stopped in 1949, while freight ground to a halt in 1963. Today the “retired” couple who runs the place dish up home-cooked American fare and a variety of scrumptious pies.

Continue southeast toward Sanford, crossing three restored railroad trestles. At the wide spot called North Bradley, you’ll pass the Buttonville Inn, a B&B option we also recommend. Not far beyond that, you cross the first of the trestles, and in a short distance on the left (north) is the Pine Haven Recreation Area, with hiking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing trails. It’s not accessible directly from the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail (the Big Salt River impedes access), but you can reach the recreation area with about 3 miles of on-road riding. In the future, a bridge might be built over the river for a more direct link.

A view of the trail

Just beyond 9 Mile Road is Arbutus Bog, a nature preserve with its own little interpretive trail and viewing platform. Hop off your bike and take a stroll through here to learn about the bog habitat. Continuing on the main trail, a short distance just beyond 8 Mile Road, is Veterans Memorial Park on the right. Take off on a side trail here to see red and white pines that are nearly 200 years old.

Back on the Pere Marquette you cross the second trestle in Sanford. Stop at the next trailhead, and just across the road is the Sanford Centennial Museum. Tour the authentically restored and furnished buildings, including an old depot with freight cars, on the banks of the Tittabawassee River. Their collections include vintage tools from the region’s logging days, political memorabilia, toys, household goods and more (weekends only, Memorial Day–Labor Day).

From the museum, continue north on Smith Street 0.3 mile and turn right (east) on Irish Street. Just a few hundred yards down is Sanford Lake Park, which has disc golf, picnic tables, a playground, boat launch and a nice sand beach.

Back on the main trail at Sanford your third trestle crosses the Tittabawassee. If you’re ready for lunch, Lanny’s Restaurant is just one block north of the trail at the corner of Saginaw Road and Cedar Street. Tasty and traditional American fare (read: comfort food) keeps the locals coming back. If it’s a Monday or Wednesday, opt for Alex’s Railside Restaurant for an all-you-can-eat fish special. It’s just a short distance farther along and right on the trail.

If you haven’t worked up an appetite at Sanford, another dining option as you near Midland is Elvira’s Mexican Restaurante (their chips and salsa are a local favorite). Not far beyond that you can grab a refreshing stout or award-winning pale ale at the Midland Brewing Company.

Next, the Averill Preserve is on your right. During Michigan’s logging heyday in the 1880s, this area was used to store felled timber—a log bank. Now you can enjoy a little more than a mile of hiking trails and a scenic overlook at the Tittabawassee River, which was used to transport logs to downstream sawmills.

As you near Midland, the trail passes parks, light industrial areas and suburban backyards. After you pass the ball fields, you’ll see an access path to Heritage Park (open Thurs–Sat only), which includes three places to visit: 1) the Herbert D. Doan Midland County History Center, with special exhibits and permanent displays of local and American history; 2) the Herbert H. Dow Historical Museum, for a look at the history of chemicals and pharmaceuticals developed by Dow Chemical, Midland’s largest business; and 3) the Bradley Home, built in 1874 in the Victorian Gothic style. Peek into the life of an early Midland family, including a blacksmith’s shop and a nice collection of horse-drawn carriages and sleighs.

From the History Center it’s about 1.5 miles to trail’s end at the Farmers Market. From May to October (Wed. and Sat., 7 am – noon) market stalls overflow with locally grown and produced fruits, vegetables, baked goods and more.

A view of the trail

From here, extend your explorations by visiting a few nearby attractions. The Dow Gardens is a lovely place for a stroll, and the Alden B. Dow Museum of Science and Art houses fascinating exhibitions, including a hands-on Hall of Ideas especially designed for toddlers and children but appealing to all ages.

A third and highly recommended option is to continue your ride another 4 miles to the Chippewa Nature Center, southwest of town. The trail is paved through woodland and open spaces, passing ball fields and parks. You’ll find a fantastic visitor center and several walking trails through field and forest, along the river bank and around ponds and wetlands.

If you opt out of the nature center extension, at least take a few minutes to ride to the center of The Tridge, the Pere Marquette Trail’s most iconic landmark. The three-way bridge (get it?) spans the intersection of the Chippewa and Tittabawassee rivers, connecting area parks with the downtown.

Tonight, tuck into a home-cooked supper at the Whitehouse Restaurant (613 N McEwan St.) in Clare. Serving three meals a day, this tiny venue specializes in traditional American fare, but there isn’t much seating at the popular “dive.” They deal with the problem by being open 24 hours. Wait times for food can be long, and they don’t accept plastic, but many locals and passers-through love the quirky charm.

Day 2

For something different this morning, head over to Cops & Doughnuts, a self-proclaimed “historic Clare City Bakery since 1896” and owned by real officers of Clare’s police force. The décor, along with T-shirts and other paraphernalia for sale, reflects the wittier side of our protectors in blue. Try an éclair topped with frosting and real strips of bacon or some fresh-baked salt-rising bread, which goes nicely with a cuppa joe. They also serve lunch; “Misdemeanor Weiner” or “Electric Chair Fries” anyone? They open at 4 am, if you want to get an early start.

From Clare to Reed City your ride is 37 miles one way. Begin at the Moose Lodge just west of town off Luddington Drive (MI-115). You can either drive there with your bikes (ask Ray’s to shuttle you for a fee) or ride on-road the 2.2 miles from Ray’s. The trail through Clare has not yet been developed, so those wanting to link the entire trail will have a little more than 2 miles road riding between the trailheads at the library and the Moose Lodge. Ray’s might also pick you up in Reed City if you don’t want to ride 74 miles today. Discuss it with them in advance since it could be expensive, that is, if anyone is available for the shuttle.

The journey from Clare west courses through woodlands, farmland and lakes large and small. The tiny community of Lake is a haven for boaters and those who love to fish. Big Al’s Place serves locally caught perch (just off the trail at the corner of Mystic Lake Rd. and Gibson Ave./Terry St.). Also here is an old tower, called a coal dock, a legacy of steam-powered railroads.

When you cross the Muskegon River, enter Evart, which originated as a logging camp. Timber was floated down the river to the town, sorted and sawn at one of several mills that once stood here. A restored depot is now a welcome center for trail users and also the town hall. You’ll find a seasonal farmers market here on Saturday mornings. At the depot, as them to point you toward the Iron Skillet Café for a cup of coffee and a pastry (two blocks north of the trail at Pine and 7th St.). Nearby Riverside Park is a nice place for a picnic.

From Evart to Reed City the journey is about 13.5 miles, and there’s little shade and little water (except in Hersey), so fill your bottles in Evart if it’s a hot day. As you leave Evart, you’ll skirt the municipal airport, then just beyond the Hoover Road crossing, stop to take in the view of the Muskegon River at the scenic overlook.

If you’d like to stop in Hersey, the Roller Mills Store is worth the 0.3-mile jaunt straight down Main Street south (left) from the trail. The store has daily sandwich specials, large cookies and brownies, and ice cream. After you cross the Hersey River on Main, the store is on the left.

Back on the main trail, continue west to Reed City, crossing the sinuous Hersey River twice again before arriving in town. Soon, countryside gives way to light industrial areas, and you’ll reach the intersection with the White Pine State Park Trail just east of Old US Highway 131/Chestnut Street. The depot at the trail intersection is a replica of the old railroad depot that once stood in downtown. Inside you’ll find information on local attractions and places to eat. In case you haven’t had your naughty food fix yet, check out Wright’s Bake Shop for their prized fried cinnamon roll. Go on, you’ve earned it! They also bake fantastic artisan breads.

For supper tonight in Clare, head to Ruckles Pier (405 N McEwan), another locals’ hangout, serving burgers, pizza, sandwiches and ribs. Their beer is probably the lowest price you’ll find anywhere in town. It definitely caters to a more lively crowd; televisions and a juke box boost the noise level.

This part of Michigan is also Amish country. If you’d like more information about where to find Amish goods, drop by the Colonville Store, 3.5 miles northeast of the Days Inn in Clare (7047 E Colonville Rd.).

Day 3

You can spend a third day exploring the most remote section of trail between Reed City and Baldwin (about 17.7 miles one way). The surface is gravel, and there are few amenities between the two towns. “Remote,” is a relative term, since much of this segment parallels US 10 but with enough sections removed from the highway to enjoy some peace and quiet. Also, there are no shops or restrooms in this section, so plan accordingly.

Short, wooded areas break up the mostly farm landscape, with interspersed wetlands and streams. Keep alert for deer, wild turkeys and foxes. When you reach the tiny burg of Chase, you enter the Baldwin River valley. You’ll find more civilization around Idlewild Lake then a short stretch of wetlands and woodlands as you approach Baldwin. You’ll find a few restaurants and lots of antiques shops here, but the region is mostly an outdoor recreationist’s heaven.

If you’re looking for a bite to eat, Barski comes highly rated, and for that reason, your wait time might be a long one. The shabby exterior belies the quality of the food. The chef comes from San Chez in Grand Rapids, a popular tapas bar. At Barski choose from a nice selection of appetizers, sandwiches and burgers, steak and fish, pasta or Mexican fare. Getting there requires 2.2 miles of on-road riding straight north on MI 37/US 10 from the trailhead in Baldwin.

In the other direction, 2.8 miles of on-road riding on MI 37/US 10, just across the Pere Marquette River, will bring you to Shrine of the Pines, a must-see for woodworking enthusiasts and those who appreciate the craft. On display in an old hunting lodge are the incredible woodworkings of Raymond Overholzer: a table made from a 700-lb. stump, with more than 60 inlays in its top; a rocking chair of tree roots; and a beautiful fireplace made of 70 tons of native stone, to name just a few items.

Day 4

Extend your trip with a 13-mile trail excursion from Reed City to Big Rapids. Just a stone’s throw from the replica depot on N. Chestnut Street in downtown Reed City, you can hop on the White Pine Trail State Park and head south. After 6 miles, you’ll reach Paris, where the trail runs through Paris Park, featuring camp-in cabins, a canoe launch and picnic areas along the banks of the Muskegon River. In another 4 miles, you’ll cross the river on a 319-foot bridge as you approach the community of Big Rapids. In less than a half mile from the bridge, you can connect to the Big Rapids Riverwalk, which provides a scenic journey into town where you can grab a bite or explore the city. Stay overnight to enjoy the river the next day with paddlesports, tubing or fishing.

For history buffs, we've listed below a few other options for extending your exploration of the area. Delve deeper into Michigan’s railroading history at these sites of interest near the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail:

Attractions and Amenities

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