When it comes to trails, Michigan boasts more than 5,000 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails and more than 3,000 miles of water trails. These 15 are among the best for providing inspiring exploration.

By Tina Lassen

Iron Ore Heritage Trail

Distance: 47 miles
Trailheads: Republic, Ishpeming, Negaunee, Marquette, Chocolay Township
Features: Hiking, Biking, Equestrian, Moderate, Dog-Friendly


Iron Ore Heritage Trail; photo by Aaron Peterson

As much an open-air museum as a bike trail, the route weaves through pine forests dotted with artwork, interpretive signs and relics of the Marquette region's rich iron mining history. Three worthy museums along the route are the Michigan Iron Industry Museum, Marquette Regional History Center and Cliffs Shaft Mine Museum, in a century-old mine shaft headframe rising 96 feet out of the forest. Cyclists find that hybrids ease navigating the asphalt trail's sections of crushed limestone/granite and scaling steep hills. Plus, it would be a shame not to sample Marquette's singletrack, some of the best mountain biking in the state.

Iron Belle Trail

Distance: 1,273 miles
Trailheads: Detroit, Ironwood, many others
Features: Hiking, Moderate, Dog-Friendly

The name suggests the breadth of this hiking trail's reach-from the Iron Range of the western UP to Detroit's Belle Island at the opposite corner of the state. In between, it hits multiple geographical highlights: the old-growth majesty of the Porcupine Mountains, countless waterfalls, the dunes and cliffs along the Lake Superior shore, the river country and the rolling Irish Hills. You'll cross everything from the largest wooden suspension bridge in the state to the Mighty Mac (walk across on Labor Day or catch a ride with the Mackinac Bridge Authority transport or a ferry). A separate 774-mile Iron Belle biking trail follows US-2 in the UP and an eastern route in the Lower Peninsula.

Copper Harbor

Distance: 15 miles
Trailhead: Copper Harbor
Features: Biking, Difficult

Near the tip of the UP's Keweenaw Peninsula, derailleurs click and colorful bike jerseys flash through the pines as mountain bikers climb banked curves, berms and wood plank bridges. This network of well-crafted singletrack makes Copper Harbor a marquee destination for avid mountain bikers. It earned coveted status as a Silver-Level Ride Center from the International Mountain Bike Association. Casual cyclists spin along logging roads past copper mining ghost towns and to secluded Lake Superior beaches. Keweenaw Adventure Company in Copper Harbor has bike rentals, shuttles and trail information.

North Central State Trail

Distance: 62 miles
Trailheads: Gaylord, Vanderbilt, Wolverine, Indian River, Topinabee, Cheboygan, Mackinaw City
Features: Hiking, Biking, Easy, Equestrian, Dog-Friendly

Like a sampler platter of Michigan's north country, this crushed-limestone trail skirts farm, field, rivers, an inland lake, a Great Lake and woodlands. Few roads intersect the 11-mile stretch between Vanderbilt and Wolverine, near where the state's largest elk herd roams. The mammals-weighing up to 900 pounds-get especially active in autumn when males clash antlers and bugle for attention. Hikers might want to toss a rod in their packs if continuing north. For more than 15 miles, the trail parallels the Sturgeon River-a Blue Ribbon trout stream-and then the shore of sparkling Mullett Lake, with bass, trout and pike.

Western Upper Peninsula Water Trail

Distance: 319 miles
Trailheads: Ontonagon, Houghton, Copper Harbor, Baraga, many others
Features: Paddle, Moderate, Difficult


Western Upper Peninsula Water Trail; photo by Bob Stefko

Not that it needs enhancing, but the wild beauty of Lake Superior seems even wilder from the cockpit of a kayak. Maybe that's because paddlers get access to otherwise-unseen wave-washed cliffs, rocky coves and waterfalls tumbling down from pine-covered cliffs. And they get plenty of chances to savor the perspective as they outline the Keweenaw Peninsula, from the Michigan-Wisconsin border to the Baraga-Marquette county line in the Huron Mountains.

Michigan Riding and Hiking Trail

Distance: 237 miles
Trailheads: Empire, Grayling, Oscoda, many others
Features: Hiking, Equestrian, Moderate, Dog-Friendly

Living up to its name, this dirt trail bisects the state, going from Empire near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan to Oscoda on Lake Huron. Although hikers appreciate the numerous lakes and mixed hardwood and conifer forests along the trail, the target audience is equestrians. Campground placement allows horseback riders to stage self-supported, cross-state adventures.

Betsie Valley Trail

Distance: 22 miles
Trailheads: Frankfort, Elberta, Beulah, Thompsonville
Features: Hiking, Biking, Moderate, Dog-Friendly (with exceptions)

Freight cars once crossed Lake Michigan by ferry to connect with this former railroad line that begins near the shore in Frankfort. The train engineers no doubt savored the views now enjoyed by hikers and cyclists. The converted rail-trail winds through wetlands alive with waterfowl, along the shore of Crystal Lake and into the woodsy solitude of pine and hardwood forest fiery with autumn color.

Escarpment Trail

Distance: 4.3 miles
Trailhead: Lake of the Clouds parking area
Features: Hiking, Moderate


Escarpment Trail; photo by Per Breiehagen

Only a soaring hawk gets a better view than a hiker with sturdy boots on this rocky, rooty trail skimming a cliff line above Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Up here, hikers can truly grasp the immensity of Michigan's largest state park, where 35,000 acres of old-growth forest and mountains seem to roll on forever. Some 500 feet below, Lake of the Clouds sparkles amid that carpet of green. It's the stuff of a zillion postcards and Instagram posts. Even in a park with more than 90 miles of trails, the Escarpment Trail belongs on every hiker's itinerary.

George Mason River Retreat

Distance: 6 miles
Trailhead: Roscommon
Features: Paddle, Easy

Few rivers carry the cachet of the Au Sable, a tea-color trout stream riffling through central Michigan east to Lake Huron. Henry Ford, Ernest Hemingway and a host of other luminaries have fished and floated this National Wild and Scenic River. A century later, the Au Sable's South Branch seems little changed where it rolls through a pristine forest of cedar and pine at the 4,500-acre George Mason Wilderness Retreat near Roscommon.

Pere Marquette Rail Trail

Distance: 30 miles
Trailheads: Midland, Averill, Sanford, Coleman, Loomis, Clare
Features: Hiking, Biking, Easy, Dog-Friendly


Pere Marquette Rail Trail; photo by Bob Stefko

Cyclists hum over wooden bridges and through handsome stone underpasses as they spin along this smooth, level asphalt path following a former railroad corridor between Midland and Clare. Recognized as one of 25 rails-to-trails Conservancy Hall of Fame trails in the nation, the largely rural route skips over several creeks and rivers like the Tittabawassee. It provides plenty of stops along the way, including the popular trailside restaurant Alex's Railside in Sanford. A new extension continues the trail west from Clare to Reed City, although with an asphalt surface and fewer trailside services.

Kal-Haven Trail

Distance: 33 miles
Trailheads: South Haven, Kalamazoo
Features: Hiking, Biking, Easy, Dog-Friendly, Equestrian (in some areas)

Breathe in deeply to appreciate the pleasures on this route past blueberry patches and peach orchards between Kalamazoo and South Haven. Following a former railroad line, the predominantly flat, crushed-gravel path skims seven bridges, including a covered wooden trestle over the Black River that's a favorite photo op. Small towns like Gobles welcome cyclists with ice cream, apple cider and other refreshments.

Backroads Bikeways

Distance: 450 miles
Trailheads: Three Oaks
Features: Hiking, Biking, Moderate

Beloved for their Lake Michigan shoreline and its views of golden dunes, the southwest Michigan communities of Harbor Country also offer paved roads ideal for cycling the bucolic countryside. Twenty inland routes ranging from 5 to 60 miles spin over gently rolling hills and past orchards and vineyards. All routes start at Dewey Cannon Trading Company, with plenty of parking and a changing area for riders.

Flint River Trail

Distance: 17 miles
Trailheads: McLaren Health Center, Bluebell Beach
Features: Hiking, Biking, Easy, Dog-Friendly

Leaving the urban landscape of Flint behind, the aptly named Flint River Trail follows its namesake from a few miles west of the University of Michigan-Flint past Bluebell Beach. Ramble through established neighborhoods and city parks, with glimpses of waterfowl along the banks. At the northern end, stop for selfies at picturesque C.S. Mott Dam, where the river cascades over Stepping Stone Falls.

Little Traverse Wheelway

Distance: 26 miles
Trailheads: Charlevoix, Petoskey, Harbor Springs
Features: Hiking, Biking, Easy, Dog-Friendly


Little Traverse Wheelway; photo by Tony Demin

Tracing the shore of Little Traverse Bay, this paved path leads to all sorts of hidden gems you might otherwise not discover. In Petoskey, a waterfall tumbles in Bay Front Park and the town's oldest building, the 1859 St. Francis Solanus Indian Mission Church, stands behind a white picket fence. All along the way, pocket parks with cobbled beaches invite hunting for Petoskey stones. And whether at an overlook or on the water's edge, savor the ever-changing brilliant blue Lake Michigan.

Blueways of St. Clair

Distance: 100+ miles
Trailheads: Port Huron, St. Clair
Features: Paddle, Easy, Moderate

This collection of 16 water routes out of St. Clair County delivers routes for a range of tastes: from those who want to spy water birds in a serene wetland to those who want to watch freighters navigate an international waterway. Out of the St. Clair Marina, the Pine River Paddle heads 4 miles up river to Turtle Beach. The Sny Loop leads through the cattail marshes and reedy islands of the St. Clair River Delta. Paddlers comfortable with currents and freighters take on the 4-mile Russell Island Loop.

Recreation Passport: For year-round access to all state parks and forests, campgrounds, and pathways operated by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, purchase a Recreation Passport ($11 resident, $31 nonresident, $9 nonresident daily pass).

Read about more great places to visit on the Pure Michigan blog at michigan.org/blog.

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