The Lake Michigan Ferry Tour
A self supported 5 day bike tour around the lower half of Lake Michigan.
Table of Contents
Around the Lake by Bike
As summer approaches towns around Lake Michigan come out of hibernation and transform into beach towns. Rather than having to fight traffic on I-94 you can stay close to the lake and see everything by bike. It’s an ideal way to see the lower half of Lake Michigan and get in great shape for the summer cycling season.
I wanted to do a self supported bike tour and spent a lot of time with the OSM Cycle Map, satellite imagery, and street view. The route below is what I settled on and biked over 5 days in late May. It’s an ambitious trip that requires some training, so be prepared to break out the cold weather gear and put in the training miles in March and April. I’d suggest starting around 50 miles a week and gradually ramping up to 115 miles a week by early May. It’s the right amount mileage to make sure you’re in shape to handle 300 miles over 5 days without injury. The reward is a scenic route with plentiful lake views, state parks, rolling farmland, and a mix of pavement and gravel.
For lodging I opted for hotels, as it made logistics easier and allowed me to prioritize a hot shower and a comfortable bed after a long day of riding. With some modification it should be possible to camp in state parks every night if you don’t mind carrying a tent and want to do the trip on smaller budget.
The RWGPS route has local bike shops marked in case you need repairs, as well as local grocery stores for stocking up on snacks. I also marked restaurants and bakeries I felt made for well timed stops throughout the day. Surprisingly having lots of on-the-bike snacks didn’t end up being as high priority as I expected due to the plentiful bakeries and cafes along the way.
The whole tour should be possible on just about any bike, though I would recommend no smaller than 28mm wheels due to some of the gravel trails. A touring bike or gravel bike is ideal. If you stay in hotels you shouldn’t need more than a few small bags on your bike to carry clothes and bike gear (somewhere between 15-20 liters of capacity).
For timing I would recommend picking a window of time somewhere in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day. Towns will be less crowded and hotels will be significantly cheaper.
Day 1: Chicago, IL to Chesterton, IN
62 miles, mostly flat paved bike trails
The route starts on a very familiar route to most Chicago cyclists: the Lakefront Trail. A network of low traffic streets and trails get you to Hammond, IN and onto the Erie Lackawanna Trail. I highly recommend stopping at Fuzzyline Brewing for lunch around mile 35. It’s right off the trail, has bike parking, and great menu.
Around mile 40 you’ll transfer to the Oak Savannah Trail, which I found to be the highlight of the day. You wrap up the day on the Prairie Duneland Trail, which ends on the outskirts of Chesterton. Have a celebratory beer at the Chesterton Brewing Company and then roll the final few miles to your hotel.
Day 2: Chesterton, IN to St. Joseph, MI
55 miles, some hills, mix of path and wide shoulders
The ride to St. Joe is incredibly scenic and there are plenty of good stops along the way. To start the ride you head into the Indiana Dunes and take two elevated pedestrian bridges to the Calumet Trail.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the Calumet Trail. The first mile was a pretty normal gravel trail. I thought maybe the warnings online of standing water were overblown. After I passed the South Shore Line train station I wouldn’t call what I encountered puddles. They were full edge to edge ponds covering the trail. I forded a few on bike, and upon looking ahead saw nothing but endless water with brief archipelagoes of gravel to stand on. At the power substation I bailed and hiked over to US-12, taking a moment to change into dry socks. My recommendation is to avoid this section completely. US-12 has a decent shoulder and I encountered very little traffic.
The unplanned detour allowed me to depart US-12 after a few miles and see Beverly Shores. Highly recommended. The historic houses and lake views make for a very enjoyable ride.
After passing the rather imposing nuclear cooling tower and Michigan City, take your time enjoying 6 miles of picturesque lake views. New Buffalo provides an opportunity for 2nd breakfast, as does the Swedish bakery along the Red Arrow Highway Linear Path. The Haymarket Brewpub in Bridgman is right off the route, and is an great place to get lunch.
The final 10 miles provides a fairly easy ride into St. Joseph. Check out Silver Beach Pizza to carb load for the next day. I’d recommend going easy on any evening festivities and getting a good night’s sleep to prepare for a long day ahead.
Day 3: St. Joseph, MI to Grand Haven, MI
80 miles, rolling hills, it’s a long day
Hydrate well and keep shoving easy calories into your body to have a successful ride today. The hardest part of the day is the first half due to the lack of passthrough towns to stop in. I’d highly recommend stopping every 10 miles regardless of if you think you need it. This is the first day where the ride transitions from mostly flat to larger rolling hills. You’ll be spending most of the day on the Blue Star Highway, which fortunately has paved shoulders to ride on that are wide and clear of debris. While traffic can be fast, drivers were courteous and gave plenty of room when passing.
The first 25 miles to South Haven are tough. There’s a fair amount of elevation, and the best thing to do is just grind out the miles. Stop at the Golden Brown Bakery in South Haven for food. They have a bakery counter and a full service restaurant. Everything is good there.
The next 20 miles to Saugatuck require a similar level of mental toughness, but your reward is a nice long downhill into town. There are plenty of good options to stop for lunch.
At this point you can relax and treat the rest of the day as a series of three 10 mile rides, none of which are near as difficult as the 50 miles you’ve already done. Stop in Holland and Port Sheldon to rest and refuel. The stretch from Holland to Grand Haven is along a nicely paved bike path, though the road still has a wide shoulder if you’d like to go faster and avoid other bikes and pedestrians.
Grand Haven has many good options for restaurants and breweries. Take advantage of them since the following day is shorter and far easier.
Day 4, Part 1: Grand Haven, MI to Muskegon, MI
16 miles, fast and flat
The morning ride is fast and easy, with a mix of dedicated paths and wide paved shoulders on low traffic roads. You’ll have state parks on your left most of the ride, which makes for a quiet ride with scenic nature views. Don’t be surprised if you see quite a few wild turkeys crossing the road.
The Lake Express Ferry starts boarding at 9:30am. Starting the route around 7:30am gives plenty of time to get up to Muskegon and get a big breakfast at the Lakeside Cafe. When boarding they put riders on first to allow time to secure bikes against the side wall of the car deck with tie downs. The racheting tie downs can be a little tricky, but I found the staff to be friendly and willing to provide help as needed. I would recommend using extra clothing from your bag to provide padding between the tie down straps and your bike to protect the frame.
After your bike is secure make sure to grab any gear you need, since you won’t have access to your bike until docking in Milwaukee. I’d recommend changing out of bike shoes at a bare minimum. The sun deck gets windy once the ferry leaves the harbor and gets up to speed, so I’d recommend heading up there and enjoying the view early on in the trip. While expensive, the ferry ride is a lot of fun, and the cabin seating area is very nice.
Day 4, Part 2: Milwaukee, WI to Racine, WI
30 miles, some hills and challenging gravel
After exiting the ferry it’s less than a quarter mile to the Oak Leaf Trail. You’ll be on the trail for the first half of the route, and it contains almost all the hills on the way to Racine. The trail itself is a mix of lake views and wooded park, with most of the pavement in good shape. There are many options for lunch in the first 5 miles that require no more than a half mile detour off the trail and back.
At mile 13 you’ll switch over to gravel trails, the first of which has loose gravel. I was fine on 38mm tires, and just had to spin in a lower gear to remain stable. The other gravel trails at mile 18 and mile 22 are hard pack crushed gravel and an easy ride. The final 5 miles of the day are mostly downhill and provide a nice lake view as you work your way into the Racine harbor.
If you stay downtown you’ll have plenty of options for dinner, including the Reefpoint Brew House if you’d like a view of the water from their 2nd floor patio.
Day 5: Racine, WI to Chicago, IL
60 miles, mostly flat, a mix of pavement and gravel
Start your morning at Main St. Bakery before getting going. It opens early and has a great selection of sweet and savory baked goods, as well as coffee and expresso. The owner was cheerful and eager to hear about the day’s ride to Chicago.
The first portion of the route follows the Root River Pathway to get out of Racine, and at mile 3 switches over to nicely paved county bike trails. It’s another 15 miles to the Illinois state line. The ride is fast and enjoyable, with minimal elevation. There’s a brief section of road between mile 11 to mile 14, but the whole way there is either a well marked bike line or wide shoulder.
Crossing into Illinois the trail switches to the hard pack gravel of the McClory Trail. At the street crossing around 27th there’s an opportunity to detour east to Sheridan Rd for second breakfast in Zion. There’s not many other options between Zion and Lake Bluff, so I’d recommend it. The trail changes to pavement upon reaching North Chicago and the Great Lakes Naval Base.
It’s a quick ride through the north shore to Highland Park, which is a good opportunity for more food. After that it’s a very straight forward ride along the Green Bay Trail and into Evanston and Chicago. If you’re familiar with the area feel free to diverge from the route and take your favorite routes through the city. You’ve completed the tour!
Gear List and Planning Tips
- spare tube
- co2 cartridge and inflator
- 4oz bottle of chain lube
- ziplock bags
- rubber gloves and shop towel
- 8mm / 10mm wrench (especially if you have fenders)
- first aid kit
- compact bike pump
- zip ties
On the Bike
- bike shorts (x2)
- jersey (x2)
- socks (x2)
- cycling cap (x2)
- rain jacket
- chamois cream
- water bottles (x2)
- snacks and electrolyte tablets
Off the Bike
- charger and cables for phone, bike computer, and bike lights
- 4L dry bag for damp and/or smelly clothes
- 4oz bottle of laundry detergent
- shoes / sandals
- A month before your trip do a test pack and ride, preferably an overnight trip weather permitting. It will allow you to easily identify any bad assumptions you’ve made about how to pack.
- About 2 weeks before your trip have your local bike shop do a full safety check of your bike, and have them perform any recommended maintenance. It will dramatically improve your chances of having no mechanical issues on the ride itself.
- Make sure your sun screen and chamois cream is easily accessible. Reapply both after lunch every day. You will be significantly happier at the end of day 3. Don’t forget to use chapstick with an SPF rating as well (I learned this the hard way).
- Wash your bike clothes after you’ve unpacked for the day. Filling up the sink in your room and adding some detergent for a 15 min soak works well. Pick a detergent that is meant for athletic gear. While it’s wonderful to not have stinky bike clothes, it’s really important to eliminate any bacteria to prevent painful saddle sores.
- If you stay in hotels, ensure you get rooms with a balcony if possible. It makes drying out bike clothes far easier after you wash them. Take advantage of the hangers in the closet and hang clothes in front of open windows. Nothing ever dries out in hotel bathrooms, there’s just not enough airflow.
- If you do have still damp clothes in the morning make sure you have a way to bungie them to your rack and/or bags. This became a very reliable way to make sure I had clean dry socks every day.
- Even though there are plentiful bike shops along the way, consider packing some small replacement parts. For me this was a spare set of disc brake pads and an 11 speed quick link for my chain.
- Stop often and at regular intervals. There is plenty to see along the daily routes, and you’ll miss a lot of you just power through to the end of the ride. The portion of the lakeshore you’ll see in Michigan is worth enjoying at a leisurely pace.