Cycling the Tunnel of Trees

I’ve been feeling acute cabin fever after working from home for months, and I miss my usual outlets. I didn’t know how much it was all getting me down until I got away for a week. Nothing will pull you out of a funk like some vacation time. This year I decided to accept an invitation to visit my now retired friend Ron in Mackinaw City Michigan. It was my first trip to the Great Lakes, and I was keen about getting out and seeing some of the things that had been described to me over the years. One of the most intriguing things that I have heard about was a road known as the Tunnel of Trees.

In Cross Village at the North End of the Tunnel of Trees, just before setting out on the ride..

The Tunnel of Trees refers to Michigan route M-119 between the towns of Harbor Springs in the south and Cross Village in the north. The ride itself is short, about 20 miles long in either direction, but very scenic. As the name says, it is shaded by trees and it runs along the top of a bluff with Lake Michigan to the west. It’s a single lane road, not divided by a center line, with only fog lines at the sides. Cars can pass each other in opposite directions with care, though without a center line traffic tends to keep to the middle and riders should exercise caution and ride in line rather than side by side. The reason that I’d heard about the Tunnel of Trees was that it has been a part of the local event rides, and at least 3 of my friends had ridden it. It was one of the things that I wanted on this vacation – to finally ride it. In fact, two days before we rode the tunnel, we had the chance to drive it, and we had a scenic drive and stroll through Harbor Springs in addition to driving the tunnel. While the tunnel seemed better by bicycle, knowing what was there helped my mental preparation a great deal.

The ride isn’t flat by any means. There is only one steep climb from the North. From the south that same climb has a warning to trucks at the top about a 7% grade, but riding north to south it’s a long climb that feels just a bit steeper than that. In general, the road isn’t flat but has only a couple of climbs that could be called notable and they’re on the south end toward Harbor Springs. The rest was gently rolling. As I’ve often said, that’s why your road bike has a small chainring! The road runs mostly downhill when ridden from south to north, the way the local events take it. I rode it in both directions, starting at the north end from Cross Village. The interesting thing to note is that as many times as Ron has ridden the tunnel of trees, he had not ridden it in the North to South direction before.

Late September in Northern Michigan is a beautiful season for cycling. We rode the tunnel on a Wednesday in late morning and early afternoon, and while it was hazy, it was bright enough to show the building fall colors. The temperature rose from the high 60’s into the low 70’s while we rode. Perfect conditions. When Lake Michigan came into sight the haze prevented a long view, but the lake was visible and the sight of it was part of the ride’s charm. We set out at a steady pace, riding strong and enjoying the views all around us. Seven miles from Cross Village we arrived at the general store in Good Hart. It’s a great stopping place, particularly when riding north, and it’s a great place to get water or a bite to eat. (Note – the very tame family dogs at the general store are part of the charm.) After another 4 or 5 miles we reached the climb of the day and I got into a steady climbing rhythm, finding the top of the climb bathed in sunshine. The tunnel winds along the bluff, and despite the occasional inconvenient driver, all the little curves and very short climbs and descents were accents to the character of that beautiful tree-lined road in autumn, with occasional views of the lake as a bonus. Unlike Cross Village, which is a very small community on the North End of the Tunnel, Harbor Springs is a bigger town with enormous old houses and a large Marina for weekend boaters. It is worth exploring. We turned around just before riding down into town though, and headed back north. At this point, I learned why events ride the tunnel from south to north – while just as scenic, the northward direction is more downhill, and despite enjoying the big climb on the way out, I found the return to be a little faster and easier to ride. We took a quick break at the General Store in Good Hart and had a smooth ride back to the finish. It was an outstanding ride, and I was very pleased to finally experience riding the Tunnel of Trees.

After getting back to the car in Cross Village, we gave a push start to a gentleman who was driving an old Austin Healy Sprite – while we were wearing bike shoes! People driving convertibles and other sports cars or motorcycles down the tunnel is a common sight though, and helping him out was the right thing to do. We can all do with a little good karma! Riding the Tunnel of Trees made up in some small way for the cycling times and special events that I’ve missed out on this year. Given another chance, I will certainly enjoy it again.

Outside a bicycle shop in Harbor Springs. No, that isn’t the type of bike to use when riding the Tunnel of Trees!

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