The top 10 rides on southwest Michigan trails

Summertime and the riding is easier on some trails than others. Second Wave's Mark Wedel takes to the bikeways for one man's opinion on the pros and cons of trails across the region. 
Biking the trailways of Southwest Michigan is the perfect way to launch your own voyage of discovery, to have a little adventure for a couple of hours or an all-day long-distance journey.

There are no motor vehicles. You'll occasionally come across walkers, joggers, skateboarders, and other bikers, but more often than not you'll be alone.

You'll get a close-up, and slowed-down, view of the entire spectrum of Michigan, from rustbelt buildings and urban scenes to farms and wilderness. You'll get such fresh views of your old town, it'll seem like you've discovered a new place.

One moment you're in suburbia, the next you're in the woods. A doe leaps across your path. You annoy a handful of cawing crows. Turkeys strut on the trail as if they own it.

You ride on in a pleasant daze, hypnotized by pedaling and scenery, turn a planned five miles into 15. Round a corner to find an ice cream stand. Take in some calories, and ride back, in no rush at all.

With the continuing growth of non-motor-vehicle, multi-use trails, it's getting to the point where one could stick with them even for everyday commuting. Bikers might think, "I can get from point A to point B without driving my car," Portage Parks and Recreation Director Kendall Klingelsmith says.

Practical, utilitarian riding might be possible with added trails, but the main motivation is the sheer joy of pedaling for miles.

Bikers will be able to roll further south on the "absolutely gorgeous" Eliason Nature Reserve trail, which should be paved early 2016, Klingelsmith says. It will extend Portage's trails to Osterhaut Avenue. Winding through thick woods, between wetlands and the busy Shaver Road, "that trail will expose a lot of people to how great we really have it.”

Portage is working toward a goal of connecting its trails to Kalamazoo's network in the north, and stretching to Vicksburg in the south. Also, the city of Kalamazoo will start work to connect segments of the Kalamazoo Valley River Trail downtown in 2016, and will continue its growth east to link with the Battle Creek Linear Park.

One could ride trails from Battle Creek to South Haven in the near future without sharing roads with cars, or burning a drop of gas.

Riders, utilitarian or purely recreational, increase the community's worth. Trails add value to homes in the area and bring businesses more customers. By bringing in positive users, trails drive out negative elements and work as "a proactive crime preventer," Klingelsmith says. But there are also unquantifiable benefits to "mind, body and soul" he adds.

With that in mind, here are regional rides we recommend.

(Editor's Note: The following rankings are arranged in accordance to the opinions of the author, who also loves biking all of the below trails. There's a trail for every style of rider, experienced and adventurous to new and casual.)

The Top Ten Southwest Michigan Trails for Biking

10. Van Buren Trail State Park, Hartford to South Haven, approximately 15 miles. One of two unpaved trails on the list, and the roughest trail in the area. Ride over miles of weeds, patches of mud, pits of sand, millions of bumps and some spine-cracking dips. It's also a grand tour of great West Michigan scenery: Blueberry farms, woods, and, if you make it all the way into South Haven, Lake Michigan.

Pros: A great test of your fat-tire bike; perfect training for Upper Peninsula trail riding.

Cons: Impossible for road bikes and inexperienced or casual riders.

9. Vicksburg Trailway, East TU Avenue to Richardson Street, approximately 2 miles. A short, straight and flat trail, but nice and woodsy.

Pros: Nice for casual riders.

Cons: Too short. You'll need to do a few round-trips to justify a visit to Vicksburg's Apple Knockers Ice Cream Parlor.

8. Shaver Road Bikeway, Portage, Centre Avenue to South Westnedge Park, approximately 2 miles. A no muss, no fuss run at the southern end of the Portage bike trails network.

Pros: Little traffic and few blind corners, so ride as fast as you'd like. The reward is at the south end, with walking trails into Portage bogs, woods and the Eliason Nature Reserve (where the trail will continue in 2016).

Cons: Shaver Road's commercial environment doesn't make for the best scenery.

7. East branch of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail, Harrison Street, Kalamazoo, to Battle Creek Street, Galesburg, approximately 9 miles. This segment of the KRVT has been growing every year. You get views of a golf course, Growler Stadium, landfills, downtown Comstock and the mighty Kalamazoo River. You'll eventually roll on curvy runs through River Villa/Jan Schau Wildflower Walk and pastoral River Oaks Park, pass cornfields and through woods.

Pros: Long, but not impossible round trip of varied scenery.

Cons: The nearly five miles of M-96 running alongside the trail isn't the best part of the scenery.

6. Millennium Trail, Celery Flats to Crossroads Mall; Northwest Portage Bikeway, Crossroads to Mcgillicuddy Lane, approximately 4 miles. A pleasant run of pure suburbia. East to west, there are parks, custard stands, stores, the mall; then wide-open green spaces between residential areas.

Pros: Bike and shop--if you need racks and bike bags to carry your goods, the new Pedal bike shop is near the trail on Romence Rd.

Cons: If you're looking for something more wild and less populated, this wouldn't be your trail.

5. KRVT west route, North Westnedge to the Kal-Haven on 10th Street, nearly 5 miles. It's a slow but steady uphill climb west out of Kalamazoo, with north-west neighborhoods and a stretch of Ravine Road giving way to woods and cow fields. Don't forget to "MOO!" at the cows when riding by.

Pros: If you're going uphill going west, you get to zoom downhill coming back. Woodsiness increases up to the Kal-Haven trailhead. When you reach the Kal-Haven, you might just keep going.

Cons: This should be in the top three trails, but for nearly a mile you'll have to ride on a bike lane on Ravine.

4. Battle Creek Linear Park, Fort Custer National Cemetery to South Bedford Road, along the Kalamazoo River and looping around Battle Creek, approximately 20 miles. This is how a city should bike-trail. Ride the whole thing for an urban adventure, or stick to the city's manicured park and historical sights along the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek rivers. Smell the roasted flakes of Cereal City, see the stately home of W. K. Kellogg, roll under the righteous gaze of Harriet Tubman looking on from the Underground Railroad Sculpture. Looping around north you'll get alternating parks and neighborhoods, woods, and party stores -- ride around waterfowl in Kolb Park, take on the beautiful hills of the Leila Arboretum.

Pros: A day's worth of adventure. It makes most of Battle Creek's highlights accessible by bike.

Cons: Some areas of trail need repairs, are rough and buckled by tree roots. And bring a map or a GPS -- branches of trail go hither and yon, and you'll probably want to know which fork to take.

3. Portage Creek Bicentennial Trail, Kilgore Road to Centre Avenue, approximately 4 miles. The perfect ride, almost. The northern half feels like a strip of enchanted woodland, that just happens to be laid out through the busiest commercial area in the county. Encounter nearly-tame deer, wild turkeys, turtles and other critters. Pass the quaint old buildings on Celery Flats, roll south to the Portage District Library or the handy Dairy Queen or Taco Bob's on Centre Avenue.

Pros: Feel like you're in a forest, but never be far from civilization (including well-maintained restrooms at the Kilgore and Garden Lane trailheads).

Cons: Perfect -- a little too perfect -- which makes it the most-popular trail on this list. Expect many walkers, joggers, rollerbladers, skateboarders and bikers on nice weekends and afternoons. Don't speed, and understand that just around that blind corner you might run into (not literally, we hope) a pack of mothers pushing strollers.

2. KRVT north route, Harrison Street to D. Ave. A beautiful and challenging ride. We'd recommend starting from the south. It's a nice warmup from urban areas into the trees along the Kalamazoo River, fairly flat and scenic. Then you'll get Round No. 1 of hills through a thick forest, north of Markin Glen Park. If those don't wear you out, keep the pace to the Kalamazoo Nature Center, along wildflower prairie land, and into Round No. 2 of steep forest hills.

Pros: Unbeatable scenery.

Cons: The hills at the north end are granny-gear steep, with widow-maker curves. You'll need to be in shape and fairly experienced to take them on. This author removed the skin from his knee, elbow and torso, bruised a rib and dented his helmet, when learning a valuable lesson in physics on these hills.

1. Kal-Haven Trail, Kalamazoo, 10th Street, to Bailey Avenue, South Haven, approximately 34 miles. This is it, your gateway drug to long-distance rail-trail riding. Through woods, fields, farms; the small towns of Kendall, Gobles, Bloomingdale, Grand Junction. Outhouses and wells dot the trail, with plenty of food stops in the towns. You could do nice short rides from any of its trailheads. But go all the way, or better yet, do a round trip, if you want to be an insufferable braggart to your friends.

Pros: After a 34 mile day, add a few more miles. Ride the bike lanes of South Haven to the lighthouse, stare at Lake Michigan and meditate on this pleasant peninsula.

Cons: Unpaved, but solid and smooth with a packed layer of crushed limestone. Difficult for skinny road tires. But, really -- buck up and deal. Put some trail tires on and ride.

Mark Wedel is a Kalamazoo freelance writer who’s put over 8,000 miles on his Electra Townie. All photos by Mark Wedel unless otherwise indicated.

More reporting from the bike trail by Mark Wedel and Issue Media Group:

What I learned from a week biking the trails of the U.P.

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