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Remoteness and solitude describe a trip along the 22-mile Betsie Valley Trail in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula. Starting at the old logging town of Thompsonville, the trail slopes gently downhill in the Betsie River Valley through a state forest, a natural area, and a game refuge on its way to the port of Frankfort on Lake Michigan. The western 6 miles are paved, while the rest of the trail is covered in crushed limestone (which may be soft in some spots). Snowmobiles are allowed in season between Thompsonville and Beulah.
The trail follows the corridor of a railroad line that opened operations between Cadillac and Frankfort in 1888 and became part of the Ann Arbor Railroad in 1895. The railroad struggled; a railroad car ferry across Lake Michigan from 1892 to 1982 was its most profitable business. The railroad went through a series of owners after World War II. The section that is now the Betsie Valley Trail became disused in the early 1990s and began its transformation into a trail in 1992.
Beginning in Thompsonville, you’ll head north through farmland for about a mile until you cross a renovated railroad bridge and enter a 7-mile stretch of pine and hardwood in the Pere Marquette State Forest. Along the way, you’ll see the old turbine that supplied the sole source of electricity in this area. Near Aylsworth and Zimmerman Roads, you’ll pass the ghost town of Homestead, where railroad maintenance workers lived at the turn of the 19th century.
The trail offers a gradual descent along the 5.3-mile stretch between Aylsworth Road and Beulah, where you can stop by the replica railroad depot for visitor information, restrooms, and memorabilia. Just west of Beulah, the trail meets the south shore of Crystal Lake and winds through a row of beachside cottages. Dogs are not allowed on the trail between Beulah and Mollineaux Road (about 3 miles). Trail users must stay within the 10-foot trail easement for a 2-mile stretch west of Beulah to Railroad Point Natural Area, a 200-acre refuge that offers a 1-mile stretch of preserved beach along Crystal Lake.
At Mollineaux Road, near mile 15, the trail surface becomes asphalt, and the route veers into the woods and follows the Betsie River and adjacent marshland past the Betsie River State Game Area. About 7 miles past Beulah, you cross the Betsie River into Elberta, which has cafés and visitors’ services. You can take Frankfort Avenue north for a mile to see ruins at the old railyard at the mouth of Betsie Lake. Crossing the river again on MI 22, the trail takes a 2-mile run into Frankfort along the lake and past marinas to the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Several towns, including Beulah, Elberta, and Frankfort, as well as the Crystal Mountain resort near Thompsonville, have bike rentals, and you can shuttle between towns on the Benzie Bus.
To reach the Thompsonville trailhead from US 131, take Exit 176 toward Frankfort onto MI 115/
55 in Cadillac, heading northwest. After 34.4 miles, turn right onto Thompsonville Road. Go 2 miles, and turn left onto County Road 602/Lincoln St. In 0.1 mile, turn right into the park (entrance will be before the Betsie Valley Trail and Front St.); look for parking straight ahead in about 0.1 mile. The trail’s endpoint is located 0.4 miles south along the trail.
To reach the Frankfort trailhead from US 131, take Exit 176 toward Frankfort onto MI 115/55 in Cadillac, heading northwest. Go 44.8 miles and bear right as US 31 joins MI 115. Go 2.3 miles and turn left onto MI 115/Frankfort Hwy. Go 7.3 miles, continuing onto Forest Ave., and turn left onto Fifth St. Go 0.1 mile (you’ll cross Main St. and head into the marina), and look for parking to the left or right off Waterfront Dr.
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