Residents of the Midwest, particularly those in Michigan know Marquette as a college town up north. It’s a bit of a play on words, in that it’s also in the UP (upper peninsula). Say UP out loud, and you’ll get yoop at first, which is short for yooper, the term of endearment for UP residents.
I had to read all of this before heading up north and I was clearly out of touch with the culture in northern Michigan. What I knew was that there were some killer trails up there and really, that’s about it. I was on my way to check out the Crusher gravel race, and found a few extra days to experience the singletrack.
It’s obviously a different time to travel this year. I followed all travel precautions in place and wore a mask during transit and anywhere in public in Marquette, which is pretty much par for the course anywhere in the US right now.
I had a great time experiencing the backcountry gravel roads via the Crusher course on our first day in the state, but it’s singletrack that really gets my blood flowing. The route started at the Forestville trailhead and I got to see a little bit of the MTB trails around Harlow Lake at the beginning of my day.
The next day though, Hannah and I picked up a couple of mountain bikes from West End Ski and Trail in one town over from Marquette, Ishpeming. All bike shops in the area had shut down rental opportunities except for West End. Ishpeming is about 20 minutes west of Marquette. It’s a smaller town with a massive network of raw and rooty singletrack known as the RAMBA (Range Area Mountain Bike Association) trails.
We started where a lot of people will when they travel up north, at the Noquemanon Trail Network, referred to as the South trails by most folks in the area.
The South trails are the most well-known in the area for good reason. The network has around 45 miles of trail and is located less than three miles south of downtown Marquette with a great trailhead right off of S McClellan road, making it accessible within a few minutes if you’re staying in town. There is a ton of parking available at the trailhead, a covered picnic area, a pump track, a bike repair stand, and portable restrooms.
The design and layout of the South trails feels like a bike park or trail network in BC. Most of the trails on this side are bike-only, downhill-only trails. They’re shorter, but they are easy to lap and knock out a bunch of loops. The South trails are exceptionally well-built and fun, with a diverse network suitable to beginners and experts.
On the west side of S McClellan road lie most of the jump and flow trails in the network. Climbing to the top is easy by spinning up Marquette Mountain road, a service road that takes riders up to access two different trails; Pipe Dreams and Easy Street. We tried out Pipe Dreams first, since it looked like it would drop us back down into a bunch of other trails, but not without some more climbing first. We ended up under a thick green canopy, climbing an old and wide steel pipe. It’s about a half-mile long and climbing the steep pipe makes for a fun challenge before it connects with Off-Grade, a great descending challenge.
Off-Grade rides just how it sounds. The trail is rated a black diamond and has a natural feel with plenty of roots and rocks and a lot of it is cut off-camber, so make sure you have your side knobs sharp on that day. Peeking through the woods along Off-Grade are large wooden jump features on Bertha, Rooster, and Doug’s Back 9, all double black trails. We heard good things from the folks at West End about Down Dogger though, so we plugged along until we intersected with the jump trail.
Down Dogger is a winding jump trail about a mile in length. From the tippy-top, there are some fun features like a pipe off to the lefthand side that can be jumped on or off for a little wall ride followed by well-built berms all the way down and tabletop jumps. At the bridge, where it intersects with Off-Grade, is the tail end of the Dogger. Even though it’s rated as a black trail, all the jumps are rollable and air isn’t mandatory.
The next day we left the rental car parked at the Holiday Inn and pedaled to the South trails via singletrack that starts right behind the hotel. The Harlow Farms Connector starts right off of the Heritage Trail bike path behind the Holiday Inn and will take you all the way to the South trails in the best way possible. Riding through Maples and Beeches and ultra-green foliage, even this connector trail is fun to ride. We followed it to the Greywalls trail and then to Smiley, a fast stretch of trail where you can hit 20mph easily and boost through the forest off of the rollers. Keep riding, and this will connect you to the west side of the South trails again.
Across S McClellan Ave to the east side, the trails have a more natural feel to them. Old Yellow and Gorge-ous are entertaining with loamy, damp singletrack, jumps, and natural kickers. Gurly, Chunder Muffin, and No-Dab are all technical double black options. Follow Old Yellow to Forget Me Not and to Seppi and they will deposit you near the beach of Lake Superior.
The Noquemanon Trail Network (NTN) manages seven networks total, including the Forestville Trails and campground and the Marquette North trails up near Harlow Lake. Some of these are cross-country ski trails in the winter. The NTN has been around since 2001 and works with dozens of land owners to accomplish land access for non-motorized use around the UP. They are funded like most trail advocacy organizations: through memberships, donations, contracts, and fundraising efforts.
The RAMBA Trails and the growing scene in Ishpeming
“You’re going to check out the RAMBA trails, right?” asked Spencer Prusi, owner of West End Ski and Trail when I was chatting with him ahead of the trip. I put it on the itinerary.
On our final full day in Michigan, Hannah and I headed to Ishpeming to take on the RAMBA (Range Area Mountain Bike Association) trails. The day before, rain had opened up and soaked the trails. The dirt seemed to manage it well, but I was good with waiting for things dry up, since I had heard about the notorious roots on the RAMBA trails. And, rooty they were.
We avoided our granny gears, for fear of slipping out like an eel down a waterslide. Starting at the trailhead, RAMBA has a picnic area and pumptrack, with small loops for toddlers. RAMBA is also where you’ll want to stop if you want to stack on miles for a day in the area. The trails bounce on both sides of the county road, or East Division street, and form a big 70-mile+ network all over the town.
We started on the Pickle Jar DH trail and like a couple of curious cats, headed into Upper Sissy Pants — a very technical double black-rated trail, that would be more than tough on a dry day. We walked down a few slippery drops, wishing we had brought a rope. We quickly steered back onto Cheese Grater, an intermediate trail and part of the Epic Trail loop, a great 12-mile route in the system.
Don’t let the words natural and rooty or technical fool you though. The RAMBA trails feel like mountain bike trails, just with a different flavor.
“The originality of the trails is developed in a few different ways,” says Tyler Gauthier, RAMBA President. “The most unique [aspect], especially in this day of flow and machine built, is our trails are hand built.” RAMBA uses pick axes, string trimmers, and chain saws to cut trail. Each trail is built to challenge us as riders. “Our intention is to use the natural terrain as an obstacle.”
The RAMBA trails date back about 25 years and were founded by Carrol Jackson, Danny Hill, and Glen Lerlie. Jackson has passed away, but Hill and Lerlie are still active riders. Gauthier recently took over as president for Hill.
Although the RAMBA trails are known for an unpolished feel and a contrast from the smooth flow trails in Marquette, the system recently added a new machine-built trail this spring. What could have taken 100+ shovel-hours benching trail with numerous builders, only took two people somewhere around 40 hours. The new Last Drop trail is a quarter-mile long.
While a lot of visitors stick to the more well-known trails in Marquette, RAMBA trails are getting more popular. Gauthier says they will continue to build and maintain hand-built trails, enhance the ease of use with signage, trailheads, and maps, but also balance the style with more machine-built trails to stay relevant with younger riders.
To make it easier for mountain bikers to support their mission, RAMBA built support kiosks with a QR code around the trails. Scan it with a phone, and riders can easily donate to the organization.
Finally a bike shop in Ishpeming: Riders support a shop, the shop supports the riders
Before West End Ski and Trail opened a year-and-a-half ago, if someone had a mechanical on the RAMBA trails, they had to drive 25 minutes to Marquette to pick up a part. Spencer Prusi opened the shop in June of 2019 and it looks like he’s there to stay.
“The dynamic in this area is a little different,” he says. “People in the Marquette area don’t always come this way to shop. For us on the west end of the county it’s a lot harder. We have to go into Marquette to get a lot of stuff. For those of us who love biking, and we have this amount of trail and it’s unsupported by a shop — it’s an hour out of your day to go get some Stan’s or a tube.”
Now, the shop is less than a ten-minute drive from the RAMBA trailhead. Not only do they have tubes or sealant for riders in need, but they put on regular group rides for both adults and kids. In the fall, they’ll switch to a weekly no-drop gravel ride.
Before Prusi owned West End, he worked in management at a Subaru dealership in Marquette. He took a big pay cut and dug his heels in and so far it’s paid off.
“They say nine out of ten bike shops fail in the first year. For us to not only be a new startup but to beat all the new odds and grow with Scott [and] Rocky [brands], and do well enough to bring in Pivot.”
The coronavirus bike boom has treated him well too, like other shops. In April, bike shops in Michigan were classified as non-essential businesses until the last week. Still, between April and May, Prusi sold 92 bikes; 42 in April and 50 in May. Soon after he hired his first employee, Jess, to help him keep his head above water since he had been doing almost everything by himself.
“Realistically if this was done five years ago, it may not have worked as well,” he says. The RAMBA trails were there, but the Marji Gesick, a cross-country race on the trails has brought a ton of people into the area who weren’t aware of them. Prusi has an AirBNB connected to the shop, and he recalls a story about someone who came to stay in it to train for the Marji.
The customer was setting up his bike to ride for the day and saw a crack in the frame so he rented a bike from West End. A few hours later, he called Prusi to tell him he wanted to buy the bike.
West End also recently sold two bikes to the local police department; a Rocky Mountain eMTB and hardtail, as well as gloves, shoes, helmets, and tools to go with them.
“Without the community, or the founding members of RAMBA, or the current members of RAMBA, we wouldn’t be successful,” says Prusi. And, while that’s true, Prusi has also provided great service in the right place at the right time. Whether it’s because of the coronavirus bike demand or one-off purchases like cracked frames or bike sales to the police department, he’s also fit in easily with the community and it seems like the relationship is reciprocal.