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Running trails in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Ice lingers in Lake Superior, view from airplane
Ice lingers in Lake Superior, view from airplane
Nancy Hobbs

Michigan was granted statehood in 1837, and with that statehood came what is known as the Upper Peninsula, a territory which in the 1830s could have been granted to another state had it not been for a border dispute known as the Toledo War.

From Mount Ripley summit
Nancy Hobbs

Rich in minerals to include copper, which was discovered in the 1840s and heavily mined until 1995, the area is now more recognized for its expansive system of nordic ski trails, many of which are shared with snowmobilers in the winter months and hikers and bikers once the snow melts.

Runs out of the Houghton/Hancock provide flat and rolling terrain as well as ascending and descending. A climb to the top of the Mount Ripley Ski Area in Hancock offers 440 feet of vertical gain and beautiful views of the portage canal. It is a must-do in the region if a steep climb is in a trail runner’s plans, as is a tour around the nearby Maasto Hiihto Trails.

Mount Ripley has a high point of 1074 feet. The terrain is rocky in sections and the slopes are primarily grass-covered with little to no shade as the majority of trees have been removed save those at the upper sections on the ski hill and a few outcroppings on the hill itself. Some of the grass, even after being mowed, is a bit “stemmy” so the downhill requires “sure-footedness” to avoid tripping over an errant stem or root. For a safer trip down, traversing is an option especially on the steepest sections which range from 25-35%.

Heading up under the chair lift is probably the steepest pitch on the “hill.” Once at the top, there are service roads winding toward the old Quincy Mine which, though closed to mining, now offers tours. Those service roads spill onto route 41 which connects to side streets which, after a mile or so, lead to the Maasto Hiihto trail system.

This system adjoins that of Churning Rapids for a total of 14.2 miles of both single track trail and wide open pathways. The elevations range from about 600 feet to 1100 feet.

There are well-constructed wooden bridges over the stream crossings, although after a heavy rain some of the nearby grass-laden trails can get a bit marsh-like with muddy conditions ripe to suck off a loosely-tied shoe.

The trails are not marked at all of the junctions causing some consternation at intersections. In fact, newcomers to the area should study the trail map in advance of a run to be sure of their intended direction including which “route number” to follow. What starts as trail 3 changes to trail 4 and seemingly is the same trail. The route numbers are affixed to trees – though not at regular intervals – and there are also small and worn yellow signs on random trees indicating the way to the “chalet.”

There are even some pathways marked, “no entry” which abut service roads to active logging areas within the system. There is also a service road near the trail head which is posted “no entry” yet it seems to be a potential access point for some of the trails.

The single track trails are true gems in the system. The undulating and often leaf-strewn terrain within the woods provides a peaceful outing with some challenge afforded by occasional switchbacks as a trail winds down to the stream below. Keep moving to avoid the mosquitoes and be sure to watch the terrain underfoot to avoid a misstep on a recently fallen twig, rock, or partially exposed tree root.

Explore these trails with others during the upcoming 4.5-mile Horse Tail Scramble Trail Run and Fitness Walk beginning at 1:00 p.m. on July 4, at Churning Rapids Trails.

Enjoy more trail racing on the UP July 13-14 with Run The Keweenaw. This two-day festival of trail racing includes the Mt. Baldy Summit, the 12K Copper Harbor Trails Adventure, a 2K Junior Trail Run, and the 25K Keweenaw Trails Run.

For more trail racing in Michigan, and beyond, consult this link.

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