Bill Nicholls Trail


Bill Nicholls Trail Facts

States: Michigan
Counties: Houghton, Ontonagon
Length: 41.5 miles
Trail end points: Canal Rd. Houghton City Park (Houghton) and Depot St. (Greenland)
Trail surfaces: Ballast, Dirt, Gravel, Sand
Trail category: Rail-Trail
ID: 6016115
Trail activites: ATV, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Snowmobiling, Walking, Cross Country Skiing

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Bill Nicholls Trail Description

Both scenic and challenging, the Bill Nicholls Trail (a portion of designated Snowmobile Trail #3) covers 41.5 miles of sometimes steep, sometimes sandy and sometimes soaring terrain. The trail takes you over the west and east branches of the Firesteel River on three successive steel bridges that total nearly 1,300 feet in length, with a maximum clearance over the water of 85 feet, providing a breathtaking experience. Nearly 40 miles of the trail follows the route of the Copper Range Railroad, built between 1899 and 1901. When the state acquired the line in 1974, it was among the first inactive railroad corridors in Michigan to be converted to a public trail.

The beginning of the trail at the Ontonagon County Fairgrounds outside of Greenland is not a rail-trail at all. This 1.9-mile section of the Bill Nicholls Trail, called the "Adventure Trail" in memory of local trail advocate Peter H. Wolfe, is quite challenging in parts. A rock escarpment, steep grades and mine tailings placed on the trail to prevent erosion will force you to watch your step or walk your bicycle. Heading east, you soon pass the Adventure Mine, where copper was excavated from 1850 to the 1920s. The mine now offers tours and is part of the Keweenaw National Historical Park, a collection of heritage sites celebrating the region's rich copper mining history.

After less than 2 miles the trail heads northeast and merges with the former railroad line and its level cinder surface. There is plenty more adventure to come, and not just because the trail surface keeps changing between cinder, dirt, sand and rocks. After crossing State Route M-38, you enter the trail's most scenic section, which stretches for nearly 11 miles. Highlights include the three Firesteel River bridges, near mile 4.2. This area is remote—there are no major road crossings until you cross M-26—so plan accordingly.

The trail attracts motorized users in all seasons and is in parts heavily affected by ATV use. The most noticeable wear and tear is found near the few communities along the trail and at the Twin Lakes State Park, near mile 16.4. As you approach the state park, the trail parallels M-26. This allows easy access to the park and to nearby businesses that cater to park users. The park offers a day-use area and camping.

From the state park to the small community of Toivola, 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 Toivola, which offers a restaurant and a small grocery store near mile 25.2.

As you make the steep descent, you enter an area heavily affected by mining activities and pass old ruins and piles of mine tailings. After crossing M26 into South Range, you can visit the Copper Range Historical Museum. Read the sign over the trail that describes the many offerings at the surrounding community near mile 34.4.

The last 4 miles into Houghton are all downhill. Be careful because unexpected surface changes make for a challenging descent. About 1.5 miles from the trail's end is a scenic overlook onto the Portage Lake Ship Canal, which played a big role in the copper mining industry. The final leg of the trail parallels the canal. With about 1 mile to the finish, you'll pass another large bridge that has been removed. A stone surface leads you down to the road and back up to the trail on the other side. The slope is steep and the stone is loose, so be careful.

The trail comes to an end at the City RV Park in Houghton, near the Raymond C. Kestner Waterfront Park, where picnic facilities, restrooms, a beach and a playground will restore your energy for the return trip.

Parking and Trail Access

To access the Greenland trailhead, follow State Route M-26 to turn left on M-38. Veer left onto Plank Road then turn left on Depot Street. There is parking on the right.

To access the trailhead in Houghton, follow M-26 north to Houghton. Turn left onto Canal Drive just before the river. Parking is available at the Raymond C. Kestner Waterfront Park.

Bill Nicholls Trail Reviews

In your description of the trail's end in Houghton:

"The trail comes to an end at the City RV Park in Houghton, near the Raymond C. Kestner Waterfront Park, where picnic facilities, restrooms, a beach and a playground will restore your energy for the return trip."

While this may be true during snowmobile season, during the ORV season, the trail stops at the Houghton Canal road and you are not allowed to pass through the RV park to Kestner waterfront park. If you were to park and upload in Kestner waterfront park, you would have to take the road up to a dangerous section of M26 and turn at the Canal road and proceed down it to get to the trail head. I'm not even sure this would be allowed.

I parked on the side of the canal road near old Mill road to enter the trail.

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