Welcome to the fourth installment of our “Trail Town” series. Every month we will feature an article about a trail running city that you should put on your bucket list of places to visit! This month we feature the town of Houghton, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Houghton, MI – population 7,700* (2012 census)
(neighboring Hancock, MI – population 4,634 (2010 census)
*When the university is in session, another 7,000 students are added to the population.
Located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Houghton is dubbed the gateway to the Keweenaw. A college town – home to Michigan Technological University – Houghton lies adjacent to Hancock, separated by Portage Lake with Houghton to the south and Hancock to the north. A double-deck bridge, built in 1959, connects the two towns.
MTU is the snowiest university in the United States with annual snowfall totals topping 200 inches. This distinction is well deserved and as such, Houghton offers a winter playground for Nordic and Alpine skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, and snowshoers with a vast array of trails, which transition perfectly for trail running in the non-snowy months.
Runs out of the Houghton/Hancock provide flat and rolling terrain as well as ascending and descending. A climb to the top of the Mount Ripley Ski Area in Hancock offers 440 feet of vertical gain and beautiful views of the portage canal. It is a must-do in the region if a steep climb is in a trail runner’s plans, as is a tour around the nearby Maasto Hiihto Trails.
Mount Ripley has a high point of 1074 feet. The terrain is rocky in sections and the slopes are primarily grass-covered with little to no shade, as the majority of trees have been removed save those at the upper sections on the ski hill and a few outcroppings on the hill itself. Some of the grass, even after being mowed, is a bit “stemmy” so the downhill requires “sure-footedness” to avoid tripping over an errant stem or root. For a safer trip down, traversing is an option especially on the steepest sections, which range from 25-35%.
Heading up under the chair lift is probably the steepest pitch on the “hill.” Once at the top, there are service roads winding toward the old Quincy Mine, which, though closed to mining, now offers tours. Those service roads spill onto route 41, connecting to side streets, which, after a mile or so, lead to the Maasto Hiihto trail system.
This system adjoins that of Churning Rapids for a total of 14.2 miles of both single-track trail and wide open pathways. The elevations range from about 600 feet to 1100 feet. There are well-constructed wooden bridges over the stream crossings, although after a heavy rain some of the nearby grass-laden trails can get a bit marsh-like with muddy conditions ripe to suck off a loosely tied shoe.
The trails are not marked at all of the junctions causing some consternation at intersections. In fact, newcomers to the area should study the trail map in advance of a run to be sure of their intended direction including which “route number” to follow. What starts as trail 3 changes to trail 4 and seemingly is the same trail. The route numbers are affixed to trees – though not at regular intervals – and there are also small and worn yellow signs on random trees indicating the way to the “chalet.”
There are even some pathways marked, “no entry” which abut service roads to active logging areas within the system. There is also a service road near the trail head which is posted “no entry” yet it seems to be a potential access point for some of the trails.
The single-track trails are true gems in the system. The undulating and often leaf-strewn terrain within the woods provides a peaceful outing with some challenge afforded by occasional switchbacks as a trail winds down to the stream below. Keep moving to avoid the mosquitoes and be sure to watch the terrain underfoot to avoid a misstep on a recently fallen twig, rock, or partially exposed tree root.
As is evidenced above, and supported by Houghton local Arin Ronis, owner of Down Wind Sports, there are lots of options for trail running in and around Houghton. “You could easily hit a trail in Houghton in the morning, then head to Porcupine Mountain State Park in the afternoon,” says Ronis. “This makes Houghton a great launching pad for outdoor fun. There are hotels and restaurants, and lots of other activities in addition to trail running,” adds Ronis. “There is sea kayaking, and mountain biking in the spring, summer, and fall, and cross country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.”
An overview of trail opportunities in and around Houghton:
Michigan Tech Trail System – an enjoyable trail system located right on the campus.
Nara Nature Park – This 100-acre park links to the Michigan Tech Trail System and in total, offers over 50 miles of trails.
Maasto Hiihto and Churning Rapids – The Maasto Hiihto trail system connects with the Churning Rapids trails. The two systems contain about 25 kilometers of groomed trails for skiing and snowshoeing during the winter.
Mount Ripley – A 112-acre ski area in town owned and operated by Michigan Tech. Students enrolled at the University can use the ski hill for free, a benefit included with tuition. The grassy slopes offer some vertical for hill training.
There is also a 4.5-mile paved pathway along the shoreline of Portage Lake, aptly named the Water Front Trail. The Portage Lake system flows into Lake Superior on both the north and the south sides, which renders the Keeweenaw Peninsula an island.
Trails to the north of Houghton on the Keeweenaw:
Copper Harbor – With 32 miles of trails, this is a very busy mountain bike area in the spring and summer months.
Mt Baldy – Mount Baldy whose summit sits at 1,319 feet (also known as Mt Lookout), is located near the town of Eagle Harbor about 30 minutes north of Houghton. Enjoy a healthy 3.5-mile climb from the base to the summit.
Also to the north on the Upper Peninsula (fondly referred to as the U P), is Mount Bohemia. Located in Lac La Belle, the ski area is about 40 miles from Houghton and offers 12 miles of hiking trails on more than 1100 acres.
To stay up to date with trail conditions and events, visit http://keweenawtrails.com/
Parking and Transit:
Bus systems operate in Houghton and in Hancock.
According to Cheryl Fahrner, director of the Houghton Chamber of Commerce, Houghton has a variety of commerce with start-ups receiving support from local business “incubators” like those offered through the university. The health care system is a large employer in the region, and there is an industrial park by the airport. Along with locally owned and operated restaurants and businesses, there some big box retailers as well.
According to Houghton city manager Eric Waara, the overall culture is very much in tune with the younger generation. “There’s a really strong millennial vibe. It’s a fun town,” says Waara. “There’s an eclectic mix of high tech, historic, and waterfront. People are here for the adventure, the climate, and the outdoors.”
Arin Ronis, owner of Down Wind Sports agrees. “Everyone is all about the outdoors. It’s a four-season playground.”
Although snow falls early, typically between Halloween and Thanksgiving, thanks to Lake Superior, the climate is somewhat tempered in the winter months. As Waara says tongue and cheek, “Your kids can go out and play and they won’t freeze, but you may lose them in the snow.” So in the winter months, store your trail running shoes, put your bikes (except for the fat tire version) and kayaks away, and head to Down Wind Sports for a pair skis or snowshoes.
Get your caffeine fix at a local coffee shop, like the 5th & Elm Coffee House. Located just a couple doors down from Down Wind Sports, this is a go-to spot for Ronis. There is also K.C. Bonker’s Toys and Coffee, and the Cyberia Café, as well as a chain coffee purveyor, Biggby Coffee which is a recent addition.
Keweenaw Brewing Company is a microbrewery located in downtown Houghton and is owned by MTU graduate Dick Gray.
There are food choices for every palate according to Fahrner. “There are a lot of local restaurants from the unique the long-standing.” To name a few, The Ambassador Restaurant, Suomi and the Library Restaurant and Brew Pub.
Down Wind Sports – 906-482-2500 – The staff is knowledgeable about the local area trails and can direct you to other trail systems in the UP. The store sells all the accessories you need from head to toe including trail running shoes, apparel, hydration systems, energy gels, trail maps and more. Down Wind has been in business for about 30 years, with Ronis at the helm as owner since the spring of 2000.
Year Round Gear – 906-828-9191 – a premier outdoor adventure store.
Rhythm Bike and Board – downtown bike shop.
Trail Sharing and Cooperation:
“There’s a lot of grass-roots maintenance around the area. There are volunteer trail groups who adopt certain portions of local mountain bike trails,” said Ronis. “People will pick a trail, and make sure tree branches are removed from the trails, and that grass cut.”
One such group that provides local support is the – Michigan Trails and Recreation Alliance of Land and the Environment, commonly known as MI-TRALE. This is an alliance of multiple trail and outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
There are several trail running events hosted in the area. The largest is Run the Keeweenaw held annually in July.