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Glacial Hills offers 30 miles of world-class mountain biking just outside the Village of Bellaire.

| 5 min read | by Doug Marrin | dmarrin@thesuntimesnews.com |

I’m standing with a Yeti full of expresso and cream at that confusing corner in Bellaire where one lane of traffic doesn’t stop, but all the others do. A guy on a mountain bike rides up the sidewalk, hops off the curb, crosses the road and jumps the other curb on the other side. He pops into Ruthann’s Gourmet Bakery where my wife, Tracy, and I had just gotten our coffee.

“I think that’s the dude who owns the bike shop,” I tell Tracy.

We’re up in Bellaire, MI, for the Labor Day weekend. Hearing of a mountain bike trail in the area, I’ve brought along my bike. Unwittingly, I’ve stumbled into one of the most excellent trails of northern Michigan – Glacial Hills Pathway & Natural Area.

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Patrick soon rides back to his shop, Paddles & Pedals Outdoor Adventure Gear, where I follow him and his bag of goodies inside to ask him about the trail.

“Glacial Hills sits on about 800 acres and is owned by the Village of Bellaire, Antrim County, and Forest Home Township,” owner Patrick Boyd explains. “It’s the only trail system in Michigan that has an intergovernmental Board to manage it.”

Patrick Boyd owns and operates Paddles & Pedals in Bellaire and is the local outdoor rec guru.

I’ve struck gold. Patrick is not only the outdoor rec “go to” person for Bellaire, but he has a seat on The Friends of Glacial Hills, a recreation board appointed by the landowners.

“The first trails were built by hand around nine years ago,” he says. “You can tell because the turns are a little tighter. But as momentum for the trails grew, machinery was brought in to accelerate the work.”

The designers of Glacial Hills have gotten the most out of the 800 acres. You can create rides of lengths ranging a couple of miles to more than 30 miles in the spider web network of trails. Being a newb to the system, I chose one of the marked rides, The Outer Loop, at 20 miles. In spite of the many trail crossings, the system is well-marked at each intersection. All guesswork as to where to go or how to get back is removed.

The terrain of Glacial Hills is a flow trail much like the DTE Energy Foundation Trail’s Green Loop. The climbs are much bigger up here in ski country, and the downhills are a rush of the adrenals flooding your system with epinephrine in classic fight or flight. Only this time you’re the predator. At one point, I hear Scotty shrieking above the rushing wind, “Capt’n! I’m givin’ ‘er all she’s got!

Trails are well-marked. I rode the Outer Loop marked by Saturn. Not sure I want to try the one with the snake.

Unlike the DTE Foundation Trail system, the precarious nature of a ride in Glacial Hills doesn’t come from rocky features such as the “Rock Gardens” on Big Kame or the yet-to-be-dubbed rock highlights on the Sugar Loop. It is so very easy to redline at Glacial Hills, and that’s part of the problem. What sends chills up and down your glistening spine are many drop-offs on the outside of a curve. Get carried away with your need for speed, and you will quickly eat some leaves in the world below. And judging from the scramble marks around these corners, it’s a safe bet that more than one rider failed the test. But let’s be honest, it’s the risk that makes it fun.

The most significant danger, however, is not precarious curves atop valleys. Glacial Hills trails are two-way traffic. I’m glad I caught that note before entering. I met several MTBers going in the opposite direction. We got around one another easily enough. At one point I was happily slaloming downhill between trees only to meet a rider rounding a corner suddenly. We both skidded to a long stop within inches of each other. He must have been riding the Outer Loop also. I met him again on the other side only this time he was going downhill, and I was rounding the corner. With an exchange of jovial profanity, we were off again.

There are plans to build a connector into the Village of Bellaire. The closest trailhead is currently several miles out of town.

There is a lot of deadfall in this land of big trees. Like DTE trails, it is obvious Glacial Hills is well-cared for.

“The next big plan would involve a land purchase to bring the trail right into the Village,” explains Patrick. “But first, we are working on creating a foundation to be eligible for a foundation grant to purchase the property and fund the trail. Preliminary plans have been drawn for a couple of possible routes to get the trail down to the high school or elementary school in Bellaire.”

Bringing the trail right into town is where the real strategy comes into play. MTBers create a whole new kind of dirt for local economies – pay dirt. MTBers coming into town is an economic boost for the community.

In an article titled, How Mountain Biking Is Saving Smalltown USA, Outside Magazine tells the story of how the economy of Crosby, MN, crashed after the mining companies left. Long article short: The dying town built 25 miles of mountain biking trails. Data shows that, at the time of the writing, 25,000 MTBers came to ride the trails pumping $2 million into the dying town. The same study predicts that amount growing to $21 million when the trail network expands expanded to 75 miles.

The scenery is great. My Pixel 3 doesn’t do this overlook justice.

In another part of the country hit hard by a recessive mining economy, West Virginia is looking to entice bikers and their money into visiting. The state’s governor recently signed a groundbreaking law that extends ski resort-style liability protection to private landowners. The requirement is joining a group such as the Mountaineer Trail Network Recreation Authority. The law is intended to encourage the development of a statewide trail system to benefit from the economic boom it will bring.

In Michigan, Copper Harbor at the northern tip of the U.P.’s Keweenaw Peninsula continues to develop world-class mountain attracting MTBers from all across the country. The positive impact on the economy has been significant to the point where trails are being developed in other areas to attract even more single-track aficionados.

Closer to home, the healthy economic impact mountain biking has on a community is something DTE Energy Foundation Trail Board Chairperson, Jason Jones, has been telling people for years.

There is no undergrowth or brush swiping your face. The tall trees create an open canopy.

“During the past month alone, I’ve spoken with riders from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and even Minnesota who have specifically made a trip to the DTE Trail to ride,” Jason said in a recent Suntimes News article. “All one has to do is to sit at a place like Zou Zou’s in Downtown Chelsea on a Saturday morning and count all the vehicles that go by with mountain bikes on top of their cars to see the economic impact on the community.  They come here to ride, they get done, and they eat at Jet’s or 52 BBQ.  Or, they go for a beer at Cleary’s, Zou Zou’s or Chelsea Ale House.”

“I know of people building houses in Lyndon Township because they want to be close to this trail,” he continues.  “The parking lots are overflowing on weekends, and even during some weekdays after work hours.  We want the Chelsea Chamber and businesses downtown to understand what this trail is bringing to the community, both from a quality-of-life perspective, but also from an economic perspective.  We don’t think that the message has necessarily resonated yet.”

Significant drop-offs are a lot of the thrill. The trail is often much narrower that shown here.

Trails create a destination for people. People come expecting to spend a few bucks. After closing up my coffee shop in Dexter a few years ago, I worked at an Ann Arbor bike shop for two years. The point of discussion was invariably, “Where do you ride?” I was amazed at the steady number of customers who told about driving out to Dexter, from Ann Arbor, to ride the Border-to-Border Trail from town out to Hudson Mills Metropark and back. They often included in their conversation references to the Dexter Bakery, the Dexter Pub, The Creamery, Red Brick Kitchen & Bar, and other places in downtown. They put their money where their bikes went.

“People are coming to Bellaire to ride Glacial Hills specifically,” Patrick said. “I’ve talked to people from all over the Midwest who have come here for the trails. Riders have come up from the mountain biking mecca of Brown County, Indiana, for these trails. Afterward, you’ll see them back in town having a beer at Short’s Brewing.”

Walking around the crowded little village of Bellaire on this busy Labor Day weekend, it was easy to spot a half-dozen cars with mountain bikes along the main street. A glance down some side streets and the parking lot across from Toonie’s showed another dozen or so. I never before paid attention.

The trail builders have packed 30 miles into 800 acres which means a lot of turns. If you like cornering with some speed, you’ll love this.

Glacial Hills Trails are A LOT of fun. As we say in the trade, I’ve gone “ass over handlebar” for it. Metaphorically, not literally. I’ve put in 40 miles with plans for another 20 on this mild, sunny Labor Day in northern Michigan. After which, yes, I will go into town for a tart hard cider and a pile of nachos at Short’s, one of the last places that put real cheese on their nachos.

Totally worth it.

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