In recent years, Copper Harbor, Michigan, has rightfully established itself as a major mountain biking destination with a very unique and diverse set of trails in a beautiful setting. Like Moab, Downieville, and Pisgah, Copper Harbor has become a must-do pilgrimage for any well-rounded mountain biker’s bucket list. But it’s remote–about as remote as anything you’ll find in the lower 48, no matter what direction you’re coming from. For most folks, a stop may be had two to three hours closer on the almost-as-stellar (some would say even-more-stellar) South Marquette trail system adjacent to Marquette, MI.
Many who have ridden both tend to think of South Marquette as “Copper Harbor-Lite,” but in my estimation, that’s a mistake, even though IMBA has designated Copper Harbor as a silver-level ride center and Marquette as merely bronze. First of all, the South Marquette trail system actually has close to 20% more singletrack (30 miles vs. 25 1/2) than Copper Harbor. But it’s not just about mileage–the South Marquette system is equally diverse, giving the rider options for everything from easy cruisers through the woods to legitimate double diamond, high-consequence, gravity-fed freeride fests.
South Marquette “rides bigger” as well. The trails don’t spend quite as much time running parallel and doubling back on themselves as they do in Copper Harbor, so while you’re in a much less remote location, the trails end up feeling just as remote. The main parking lot is usually pretty packed, especially on a weekend, but the crowd thins out quickly as the trails spider web out in all directions. In four hours of riding on a perfect weather Saturday, I rarely encountered anyone else, other than near the trailhead.
South Marquette has a unique installment in the aptly-named “Grom Loop,” a 1.39-mile route that is both suitable for first timers, yet still bobs and weaves in an entertaining fashion through the same beautiful forest, giving new riders a similar experience to their more experienced brethren.
For those with better than absolute beginner skills, it doesn’t get any better than South Marquette, and the longer intermediate, cross country-oriented trails are where the region really shines. The Pioneer Loop provides eight miles of mostly easy blue square cruising through the lush forest.
On the other side of the road, the Mt. Marquette trail adds another four miles of pedally hammering through the woods. While most of the Mt. Marquette trail is marked black diamond on the trail map, it should pose no horrors for a reasonably-confident intermediate rider, especially when ridden counterclockwise, where the trickiest spots will be downhill and the little bit of gravity assist will be most welcome.
At its high point, the Mt. Marquette trail offers the rider a quick hike to the actual summit of Mt. Marquette, with its unobstructed view of the port city of Marquette, the surrounding hills, and the Great Lake Superior below. The next door Gorge-ous trail comes a little close to its black diamond rating, but still shouldn’t deter any confident rider. Its name is a bit of a clever pun, since it runs through what might be called a small gorge, but it’s really no more gorgeous than the rest of the system, which appeared to me to be uniformly attractive throughout.
For those with lots of suspension and/or guts, the South Marquette trails offer a number of routes against which to test their mettle. The easiest of the downhill routes is “Down Dogger,” which offers superb flow over fairly low consequence table tops and gap jumps, as well as tons of highly banked and often tight berms. The radii of the turns is very tight, but the berms are built so high that an aggressive rider can maintain speed throughout, provided he is willing to absorb some gees in the process.
If comfortable with the hits on Down Dogger, it’s then time to hit the truly legit downhill trails Freeride 1, 2, and 3, offering large, either-you-make-it-or-you-don’t, gap jumps and wooden ramp drops as tall as you are. Fortunately, the wooden features themselves as well as the landing zones all seemed to be exceptionally well maintained, minimizing distractions for the unsure rider. But do beware, some of them really are big.
Across the road from the Freeride complex is the descriptively-named Chunder Muffin double diamond trail. While there are some drops along the way here, there are optional ride-arounds, and the real challenge is provided by the trail’s namesake chunder. This is not a nicely groomed and prepped trail like the others; this is much more like a genuine wilderness experience where few, if any, concessions have been made for the bicycle. It’s worth a go if you like a more “natural” experience.
Unlike my other “Other Trails” articles, where I may actually prefer the “other trail” to it’s more famous counterpart, I won’t go so far as to say that one should eschew Copper Harbor for South Marquette. If I was going to be in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and could ride one and only one trail, I would probably stick with Copper: it is the king. However, I refuse to accept such false dilemmas and cannot foresee a circumstance where I would allow myself to be limited to just one ride. This is clearly a place where I make the time and effort to hit both. They are, in essence, two sides of the same coin, and a very shiny, valuable coin at that.
I love the tiny little town of Copper Harbor, sitting all alone out on the end of the Keweenaw Peninsula, jutting out into mighty Lake Superior, but depending on what you want to do after the ride is over, the larger city of Marquette may be more to your liking as well. Dining options in Copper Harbor are, shall we say, rather limited. Marquette, in addition to having all the usual chains, also has an excellent variety and quality of local, one-of-a-kind spots to chow down.
One more benefit to setting up camp in Marquette is that while the Copper Harbor trail system is the only game in town for singletrack there, the city of Marquette boasts other riding options in addition to the South Marquette trail System. The North Marquette trail system provides an in-town singletrack and bike path option for navigating town without driving, which is especially useful if staying in any of the hotels on the west end of town. More to my liking is the very rugged and unique Harlow Lake trail system, which is as yet largely unmarked and untamed, and includes everything from deep, dark woodland riding in the lowlands to amazing, challenging, exposed granite outcrops rising far above the great lake. Check out the video below for samples of Marquette riding at both the South Marquette and Harlow Lake trail systems: