The plan, basically, was to drive east and see what happened. Plenty could go wrong as we ventured into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan without a detailed itinerary, but we had heard glowing reports of world-class mountain bike trails near Marquette, and for our family of mountain bikers, that was enough. Even if the trails didn’t pan out, we would still be near Lake Superior.
For the past 10 summers we’ve spent at least one August weekend and often longer on the south shore of the Great Lake. The sand beaches and cold-water swimming draw us predictably northward during the hottest weeks of summer. This year, with two sons eager to ride their bikes, and a curiosity of what might lie beyond our usual summer getaway of Bayfield, Wis., we headed toward Marquette, Mich., in early August.
What we knew of the Upper Peninsula before we went there was a handful of anecdotes. They call themselves Yoopers (U.P.-ers, get it?), and eat pasties, a meat-and-potatoes kind of thing. There was downhill skiing on some Midwest-sized mountains and a whole lot of empty space. Beyond that, the U.P. might as well have been shaped like a question mark.
About an hour from Marquette, we checked Airbnb and found a friendly-looking basement for rent in a house near Northern Michigan University, smack dab in the middle of town. It was a lucky find: It was the same weekend as the city’s Ore to Shore mountain bike race, a biggie that draws racers from across the Midwest, and rooms were booked everywhere. It turned out that our host had listed her basement for rent online just a day before we arrived. It was a fortuitous beginning. Even more fortunate, her house was a few blocks from the Ore to Shore start and finish lines, and we soon realized that we could register the boys to race later that day.
At the race start, we cheered from the curb as our sons flew past in a pack of bikes heading into the woods. They emerged after 4 miles of quick riding, sweaty and tired as they crossed the finish line. Older son said it was fun and asked if we could come back next year. Younger son sucked on a post-race orange as he told me about the gear he’d spotted on other boys’ bikes, a tinge of envy in his voice. We had mountain-bike fever, thanks to Marquette, and spent our time there soaking in the bike scene.
We had our best family meal at Border Grill (three area locations; bordergrill.net) feasting on tasty burritos — this is a college town, after all. We followed it up with an ice cream cone at the local favorite Frosty Treats (1-906-225-1241). We also heard good things about the breakfast at Sweet Water Café (1-906-226-7009; sweetwatercafe.org) and Dead River Coffee (1-906-226-2112; deadrivercoffee.com), though we didn’t make it to either.
After the last of the Ore to Shore racers crossed the finish line, quite a few of them ended up at Blackrocks Brewery (1-906-273-1333; blackrocks brewery.com). We spotted it when we noticed a bike store’s worth of two-wheelers parked outside. We sat inside and watched mountain-bike movies projected onto a wall of the brewery. Most of the short clips showed mountain bikers doing wild stunts.
Sleeping it off
We got lucky with our Airbnb find, but with a little planning we could have stayed in one of several brand-name hotels in town. There’s even a historic option, the Landmark Inn (1-906-228-2580; thelandmarkinn.com).
The morning after the race, already convinced of Marquette’s status as a mountain-bike hub, we stumbled across a bike show. Apparently this is what bikers do on their downtime on Sunday mornings. Lined up for half a block in front of Lakeshore Bike (1-906-228-7547) were bikes like the Schwinn Typhoon and Sears Spaceliner — cruiser bikes from the ’50s and ’60s. A few single-speed mountain bikes were mixed in along with the most patriotic-looking tandem bike I’d ever seen, decked out in red, white and blue.
We rented a bike from Quick Stop Bike Shop (1-906-225-1577; quickstop bike.com) when my wife decided to try out a more serious MTB than the one she brought. Full suspension demo bikes are $60 a day; path bikes rent for $25 a day.
We spent a good long time checking out the deals on used gear at Revolutions in Masonic Square Mall (1-906-235-0412; revolutionsyouth.org). A nonprofit with a mission to train local youths in bike repair, the shop hosts classes, sells used and new gear and has a friendly vibe.
And yet more riding
The finale to our Marquette stay was a longish family ride on the South Trails network just outside of town. These trails are rated like downhill ski runs, with green-circle, blue-square and black-diamond designations. Most of the trails were deserted. A black-diamond run down the side of a hill tested our group’s riding ability. The recovery was a winding path up a narrow valley that crisscrossed back and forth over a stream. The trails were challenging, but riding them a second time I found a rhythm — something riders call “flow” — as my bike rolled through banked turns. I rode as many as I could before I pointed the bike back toward town, my legs burning but my spirits soaring high.
Drive time to Marquette from the Twin Cities is 6 ½ hours.