The Northwoods Route is a 630(ish) mile long bikepacking route that loosely follows the western shores of Lake Superior through Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. It is made into a loop by connecting the Minnesota and Michigan sections via the Isle Royale ferries that leave from Grand Portage and Copper Harbor, respectively.
The route was published roughly a year ago by Bikepacking Roots—a 501c(3) non-profit dedicated to “supporting and advancing bikepacking, growing a diverse bikepacking community, advocating for the conservation of the landscapes and public lands through which we ride, and creating professional routes.” Their website is a wealth of information for everything bikepacking, and I did most of my planning ahead of time using their digital guidebook and downloadable GPS files.
My original plan was to take two and a half weeks off from work to ride the route solo, but that changed almost immediately once my sister Patty and her fiancé Mark caught wind of what was going down. My wife Bailey didn’t want to miss out either, so after working through logistics we came up with a new plan that worked for everyone.
Patty, Mark and I started the trip in Duluth on August 7, pedaling the Minnesota section and part of Michigan. Then, in Houghton, MI we met up with my wife who caught a ride out with my parents. From there, the four of us finished up the Michigan portion of the route before parting ways at the Wisconsin-Michigan border. Patty and Mark had to make it back to the Twin Cities for a wedding, so Bailey and I wrapped up the Wisconsin section of the Northwoods Route just the two of us.
The majority of the Northwoods Route takes place on gravel roads, but there are sections of pavement, ATV trail, and single-track sprinkled throughout to keep things interesting. The route planners did a fantastic job balancing terrain along the way—whenever a gravel railroad grade started to feel a little too endless, the route would spit us out on a section of pavement, lifting our spirits before sending us back into the woods along an exciting rutted-out ATV trail.
I chose to ride the route on my Surly Karate Monkey which, despite its rigid steel fork, is more of a hardtail-trail bike than proper gravel bike, but the trip could’ve been done on skinnier tires without much issue. Some of the sandier roads in Michigan and Wisconsin would have been brutal on a gravel bike, but my 2.2-inch Terravail Sparrwoods were overkill whenever the roads turned to asphalt. The route passes right through some of the best mountain biking in the Midwest in places like Duluth; Cable, WI; and Copper Harbor, MI, so bringing a bike with some suspension would have made for some awesome “rest days” in those areas.
Despite travelling huge distances compared to backpacking and paddling, bikepacking is an exercise in minimalism. This was my first foray into the world of bikepacking, and I was taken aback by how little I was able to bring. I am used to canoe camping with huge portage packs that make it possible to bring just about anything that I’m willing to lug across a portage, but with bikepacking I really had to limit myself to the essentials. Strapping gear to bikes is hard, believe it or not.
All told, the trip was an absolute adventure and I would recommend it to anyone. We only ran out of water once, and never had to pack more than two days’ worth of food between resupplies. There is plenty of camping along the way, whether that be proper campgrounds or dispersed camping on public lands, and we really didn’t have to book much ahead of time besides the ferry.
Minnesota: 220 miles
The Minnesota section of the trip was an absolute grind in the best way possible.
All told about 220 miles of the route passes along the Minnesota North Shore, but balancing work schedules with the limited Isle Royale Ferry availability meant that Patty, Mark and I only had three days to knock out this first third of the route. Our trip started out my front door in Duluth on August 7, and we needed to be ready to board the ferry in Grand Portage at 6:45 a.m. on August 10.
Patty and Mark made it up from the Twin Cities to Duluth around 8 a.m. that first morning, but it wasn’t until noon that we were finally loaded and ready to roll. What was supposed to be a morning of pedaling quickly turned into a morning of last-minute scrambling.
Both Patty and Mark work as mountain bike guides during the summer months out in Moab, UT, and so their bikes looked clean and professional despite the two weeks’ worth of camping gear attached to their frames. My “system” on the other hand was a bit of a mess—dry bags strapped to the bike by a few too many voile straps and a frame bag with a broken zipper. Everything held just fine though, and that first day we made it 56 miles to Gooseberry.
The next day was the longest of the trip, and by the time we pulled into camp at the Cascade River Rustic Campground we had pedaled 95 miles. The day had started fast along the Gitchi Gami paved bike trail between Gooseberry and Silver Bay, but once we headed inland and entered Superior National Forest the route turned to gravel and rocky double-track and never looked back.
That night the moon was bright and wolves were howling as if in celebration. I slept in my hammock beneath an old northern white cedar and dreamed of the days ahead.
The next morning our muscles were all feeling it, but after a quick breakfast of overnight oats we were on our bikes again pedaling through a misty boreal forest before sunrise.
The route between the Gunflint Trail and Grand Portage carves its way through dense forest along a series of loose, hilly double-track roads that were brutal to pedal in the heat. The going was slow and at times the deer flies were unbearable, but we made it to Grand Portage smiling and all in agreement that days like this were what life was all about.
Michigan: 230 miles
After two ferry rides across a glasslike Lake Superior and a couple of short hikes on Isle Royale, Patty, Mark and I were eager to get back on our bikes again when the Queen IV unloaded us onto the dock at Copper Harbor on the evening of August 12.
The following morning, we pedaled sandy backcountry roads that snaked there way along the length of the Keweenaw for 80 miles before making it to Houghton, where we met up with my wife and my parents who had booked an Air BnB for a few nights.
The next day, the six of us drove back up to Copper Harbor to rent full suspension mountain bikes and do some play-biking on some of the best trails in the Midwest. Then, we took a second day off from biking to rest and explore the area around Houghton, the highlight of which was a tour of the Quincy Copper Mine.
From there, Bailey, Patty, Mark and I said goodbye to my parents in Houghton and spent three days biking the remaining 200ish miles to the Wisconsin-Michigan border. Along the way we explored an old copper smelter at the “ghost” town of Freda, detoured to a private beach near Ontonagon, MI to camp with one of Patty and Mark’s friends from out West, and spent an afternoon hiking the Porcupine Mountains before making camp beneath some of the largest hemlocks I have ever seen.
Together, the four of us struggled up hills and laughed over morning bowls of instant coffee. We played Euchre, picked wild blackberries, and ate too much peanut butter and cheese, appreciating each other’s company as we let the world pass by one pedal stroke at a time.
Wisconsin: 190 miles
The Wisconsin section of the Northwoods Route was, surprisingly, the most remote of the whole trip. It’s where Bailey and I had to say goodbye to Patty and Mark, where we ran out of water, and where we had our longest, slowest, most beautiful days of biking.
After nothing but blue skies and mild temperatures all trip, the four of us pedaled the final 40 miles of the Michigan section—from our campsite in the “porkies” to Ironwood—in a torrential downpour. By the time we rolled into town, we were all soaked to the bone and shivering.
We found a great little café in downtown Ironwood that served warm drinks and fat sandwiches, and spent a few hours warming up before saying our goodbyes and heading our separate ways. From there, Bailey and I made it another 30 miles down endless gravel roads to a little spot of public land in the middle of the woods where we set up camp for the night.
That evening’s sunset was swollen and purple with thunderheads, but Bailey and I slept well in our tent beneath the trees.
The next day was one of the hardest of the trip. Roughly 80 miles of uninterrupted gravel roads, culminating in a brutal 15 miles of single- and double-track that almost kept us from making it to our campsite in the town of Cable.
We made it though, and after a dinner of homemade ice cream and pie from Tilly’s Pies (don’t judge us) and a good night’s sleep, we were ready to go again in the morning. Sixty miles later and we were celebrating the end of a great adventure with beer and pizza at our family’s cabin in Lake Nebagamon.
On the last day of the trip, Bailey took the car and drove home from Lake Nebagamon with all of our gear, leaving me to pedal the final miles alone on an unloaded bike.
I followed a mix of gravel and paved roads for 50 miles from Lake Nebagamon to Chambers Grove Park, then ended the adventure by taking the Duluth Traverse to my home in Duluth. There is something special about starting and ending a trip like this from the front door of your home, something beautiful about the circle that it creates and the way it ties a place together.
My intention with this trip was to find adventure in my own backyard, to better understand the place I call home. Two weeks spent pedaling the Northwoods Route was everything I hoped it would be—an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.