Roads in the Keweenaw

March 1, 2011
road | touring

With hundreds and hundreds of miles of paved road in the Keweenaw, there's no shortage of places to ride. Depending on how much time you have available, the ability of your butt to soak up bumps and the quality of your tires, you might find some roads and routes better than others.

Generally speaking, the roads in the Keweenaw (Houghton and Keweenaw counties) are in outstanding condition. Primary roads (state and federal highways) tend to have the best pavement and widest shoulders. In fact, with the exception of the northernmost 11 miles of US-41, all state and federal highways in the area have a wide shoulder. In the interest of driver safety, however, these roads, as elsewhere, tend to be wide, straight and boring. Exceptions here again include the final 11 miles of US-41, which are among the most scenic miles of pavement in the country, and M-26 between Copper Harbor and Eagle River, which wind like a ribbon along the Lake Superior shoreline, though the latter does include a paved shoulder. Note that there are a small number of county roads that offer paved shoulders, most notably Canal Road and Liminga Road in Houghton county.

Secondary roads, on the other hand, take a beating from the long Keweenaw winters (and, it seems, even longer springs) and logging trucks. Some are in better shape than others. The road condition map provides a rough overview of the tarmac in the region. We may have a higher tolerance to crappy pavement than most, but even the very worst roads in the Keweenaw are tolerable, even more so with a pair of 25mm tires and a steel frame. That said, 23mm tires and an aluminum frame with carbon fork (and ass of steel) can handle the few stretches of bad road that there are without problem. There is no piece of road in the Keweenaw that we would avoid solely on account of pavement condition (but we'll update road conditions as pothole season arrives).

With the long winters, the roads collect mountains of road grit and salt by the time the spring thaws roll around. Spring rains and the road commissions do a fine job of cleaning the byways and highways of sand once the snow clears, but until then keep your eyes peeled for sharp pieces of road salt and other road hazards that may have collected over the winter, particularly on the shoulders.

With a combined population of 11,000, the cities of Houghton and Hancock account for nearly one third of Houghton county residents. Home to Michigan Tech, Finlandia University and Portage Heath Systems, most employment opportunities in the Keweenaw are located in these two towns. It follows that traffic is heaviest in and between these cities, though US-41 between Houghton/Hancock and Calumet/Laurium (12 miles north of Houghton), Chassell (7 miles east of Houghton), South Range (5 miles south of Houghton) and Lake Linden (11 miles northeast of Houghton) are busy as well, particularly during peak travel hours. Even though the state and federal highways between these towns have been provided with paved shoulders, we tend to take secondary roads whenever possible.

Bike Paths

There are a limited number of paved bike paths in the area, primarily along the waterfront in Houghton. Not only is this a scenic option, it also keeps you off of the main highway. Downtown Houghton can be easily accessed from the trail. The path is multi-use, so watch for other trail users. A non-paved trail continues from the eastern end of the Houghton waterfront trail to the town of Chassell. As it crosses countless driveways and backyards, this section of the path is better suited to leisurely rides on bikes with wider tires than a skinny-tire road bike.

Portage Lake Lift Bridge
A couple of words about the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, which separates Houghton and Hancock: The bridge can be moved to two positions for road traffic: up and down. To accommodate sailboats and larger vessels, the center section can be raised 100 feet. During the summer months, the bridge is generally in the upper position to allow it to be raised for passing boats and ships more quickly. The center section that serves as a road surface when the bridge is up is a steel grate which can be slippery when wet (think man-sized cheese grater). In addition, inter-meshing expansion plates are fitted at each end of the center section. Though we have yet to personally experience or witness any cyclists encounter problems on the bridge while in the upper position, it is always a somewhat unnerving experience. If you're on a loaded bike, not completely confident with your bike-handling skills or just want to play it safe, walk your bike on the sidewalk. Note that, once on the bridge, you're committed to riding over it. The guard rails are difficult to step over, particularly in cycling cleats. When in the down position, you must still navigate your wheels over the expansion plates. Simply pulling up on the bars and warded off mishaps for us thus far. The center section is solid concrete when in the down position and is generally easy to navigate. Again, if uncertain, opt for the sidewalk.

Keweenaw County
With only 2000 year-round residents, Keweenaw County has the lowest population of any Michigan county. That of, course, explains why traffic drops off considerably as soon as you hit the Keweenaw county line in Ahmeek. Some of the favorite stretches for roadies see so little traffic, you might wonder if cars have been banished from the universe. Wishful thinking. Tourist traffic does pick up during the summer and fall color season, but remains at a sane level. Even so, the roads are twistier and curvier than most places. Accidents can (and do) happen anywhere, so stay on your toes.

The Weather
If you don't like the weather, ride another 10 miles. Surrounded on all three sides by the world's largest freshwater lake (by area), wind and temperature don't behave as one would expect. The lake is almost always cold and, during the seasons a sane person would consider riding the roads, the lake is almost always colder than the air. With an on-shore wind, temperatures can easily drop 20F over just a mile or two as you approach the lake. Arm warmers and vest stuffed in a jersey pocket can go a long way in making a ride more comfortable.

Cold as the big lake is, it does a fine job at regulating the temperature year-round. While the rest of the Midwest may melt away for days or weeks of heat warnings and triple-digit temps, the Keweenaw sees 90F just a handful of days each year. Although the roads are generally void of bikers in the winter, the temps in the Keweenaw seldomly stay below the 0F mark for more than a day or two over the course of a winter. At least as long as Lake Superior stays open. If it freezes, all bets are off.