122 years after construction, the trail shows thoughtful vision
From 1892 until 1951, passengers of the Ann Arbor Railroad enjoyed transport from Toledo through the hardwood forests between Ann Arbor, Owosso, and Cadillac all the way to the Lake Michigan port towns of Frankfort and Elberta. Freight trains continued to travel the route, and rail cars were loaded onto ferries crossing over to Wisconsin, through 1985.
The trains stopped running that year. By 1994, tracks and ties were removed. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Benzie County government, and a group of benevolent friends all recognized the recreational potential of the beautiful, relatively flat corridor that runs along the forested Betsie River shore to Betsie Bay and Lake Michigan.
In 1993, the benevolent friends organized into a nonprofit called the Friends of the Betsie Valley Trail (FBVT), with its mission being to “advocate, promote, and encourage the development and successful operation of a recreational trail on the former Ann Arbor Railroad corridor in Benzie County.”
The property is owned by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and is being developed, operated, and maintained by a partnership with the MDNR and the Betsie Valley Trailway Management Council. Years of fundraising and hard work, both political and physical, have resulted in one of the hidden gems in Michigan’s biking trail system, the Betsie Valley Trail.
“This has been a wonderful addition to the Benzie County community. It has fulfilled all the goals that we had envisioned,” says Bill Olsen, chairman of the Betsie Valley Trailway Management Council.
TripAdvisor.com ranks the Betsie Valley Trail as Frankfort’s third most popular attraction. Reviews of the trail on Michigan’s Rails-to-Trails website are enthusiastic:
“My wife and I do very little biking, but the trail from Frankfort to Beulah has become a Must Do for us when we visit this scenic area.”
“…trail offers a lot of shade with a pretty much flat and level surface.”
The Betsie Valley Trail runs 22 miles from Thompsonville to Frankfort and Elberta along Betsie Bay to Lake Michigan. It passes through the village of Beulah, where it hugs the gorgeous shoreline of Crystal Lake for three miles. Aggregate limestone portions of the trail – the 13 miles closest to Thompsonville and for 3 miles along the shore of Crystal Lake – are packed firmly enough for road bike use, but hybrid and mountain bikes roll better on those portions. The approximately 6.5 miles between Mollineaux Road and Frankfort-Elberta are asphalt, accessible to wheelchairs and rollerblades (this portion of the trail is designated ‘non-motorized use only’). Snowmobiles can access the 13 miles from Thompsonville to Beulah from December 1 through March 31.
The trail partially follows the winding path of the Betsie River, which has 93 miles of linear shoreline between its origin in Green Lake, near Interlochen, and the mouth that flows into Betsie Bay and Lake Michigan. The upper Betsie River – with steelhead salmon running in the fall, along with chinook and coho in the lower river, as well as walleye and brown trout during other times of year – is a Benzie County nature enthusiast’s recreation destination. The river can be canoed from Thompsonville to Elberta, with portages needed at Thompsonville and Homestead dams and, occasionally, a few other areas during low-flow seasons.
Nuts and bolts of the trail
The trail is predominantly flat, but there is a 50-foot gradual incline over five miles between Beulah and Aylsworth Road.
There is a replicated train station in Beulah that serves as a visitor center, complete with trail guides and restrooms. There are also public restrooms at the beach area in Frankfort. The trail passes through Thompsonville, Beulah, Frankfort, and Elberta, all of which have restaurants, ice cream shops, and places to buy snacks.
Off-road parking for the trail is available at these locations: Frankfort, Elberta, River Road (near Adams Road intersection), Mollineaux Road (near M-115 intersection), and Beulah. Bicycles can be rented from businesses in: Thompsonville, Beulah, Frankfort, and Elberta.
There are no camping spaces available along the trail route. However there are campgrounds within driving distance of the trail. (Visit Frankfort-Elberta.com for more information.)
Dogs are allowed on the trail, but they must be kept on leash and any waste must be disposed of immediately. The exception to this is the two-mile length of privately owned property around Crystal Lake, where the trail is for service animals only.
The Benzie Bus has bike racks and will accommodate bikes inside the buses when the racks are full. Special stops can be arranged for people wanting to ride the trail only one direction. To arrange special stops, call 866-325-3380 at least 24 hours in advance, although sometimes last-minute requests can be accommodated.
Featured photo: Riders enjoy the Betsie Valley Trail near the M-115 intersection. Photo by Aubrey Ann Parker.