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Pigeon River Country: Sport Touring in Michigan

KB Valley Michigan

State Route 32 curves downhill heading into the KB Valley in Michigan.

Photo Credit: Kari Chamberlain

Kari Chamberlain
November 6, 2013
Filed under Featured Great Road, Features, Touring and Rallies

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Michigan riders looking for sporting back roads with minimal traffic and serious curves in the northern portion of the Lower Peninsula need only follow the elk herd.

The state of Michigan introduced seven elk to the Wolverine area in 1918, and now a free-ranging herd numbering nearly 1,000 animals roams the Pigeon River State Forest near Gaylord and Wolverine. The elk herd has definitely thrived in the 105,000-acre forest, and the same habitat that the elk prefer also supports serious sporting back roads.

Michigan Route 32

Michigan Route 32 provides plenty of rolling up-and-down action west of Atlanta.

With our group gathering on Lake Huron’s shore, the logical rider rendezvous point is Alpena’s most famous landmark, the LaFarge limestone pit just north of town off U.S. Route 23. This operation is billed as the largest cement production facility in the world and the 100-year-old pit now stretches over a mile in width and 200 feet deep.

Michigan Elk Herd

The elk herd gets plenty of advertising along State Route 32.

Leaving the pit, we head south on U.S. 23 and then turn west on Michigan Route 32 to head for elk country. Farm fields quickly turn to deep forest, and as we take the curve into the town of Atlanta, we see our first elk. No, he isn’t crossing the road; he is stuffed and mounted in a glass case in front of the post office. In addition to maps, this display case has speakers to play elk bugling sounds.

The state of Michigan should really post a warning sign as Route 32 winds out of Atlanta: “Caution: Sportbike Required Next 20 Miles!” First, the road begins to plunge up and down like a runaway rodeo bull before taking a severe arc around Lake Inez and heading uphill. The action continues to build as 90-degree banked turns and a downhill plunge on a cutbank take us down into the KB Valley. The road slashes back and forth repeatedly before we climb back out of the valley on a sweeping ascent. Just west of the town of Vienna, Route 32 throws us a double-banked right/left combination turn that spits us out onto tamer pavement.

Did we just experience the best sport miles in Michigan? Could be, as the superb pavement conditions fully matched the road gyrations.

Elk Capital of Michigan

The elk display in Atlanta, the “Elk Capital of Michigan.”

With the road action taming down temporarily, it is time for a breakfast stop. Just the thing presents itself as we enter the town of Johannesburg. The Depot restaurant has anchored the downtown for nearly a century in the old railroad station. Several years ago, a semi-truck missed the 90-degree turn in town and ended up in the Depot. The new restaurant building was built substantially farther from the road, but it didn’t affect the menu. The decision over which one of the two-dozen types of homemade pie on the white board to sample presents a pleasant challenge.

Back on Route 32, the forest thins out as we approach the “Alpine Village” of Gaylord. Gaylord is the sister city to Pontresina, Switzerland, and the city center features lots of Swiss architecture. Atlanta bills itself as the “Elk Capital of Michigan,” but Gaylord actually has a city park with 70 live elk available for viewing. After a quick look, we head north on Old U.S. Route 27. This is a Michigan-designated Historic Road and it immediately dishes up more sporting action as it follows the contours of the landscape along a winding river. The amount of two-wheel traffic meeting us and signs at every roadhouse declaring they are “biker friendly” tips us off that we aren’t the first riders to discover this gem.

State Route 68-Water

Lakes, streams and dams provide plenty of water backdrops along State Route 68.

At Wolverine, we swing onto County Road 48 and cut northwest through the Mackinaw State Forest on another snaking pathway that dishes up just as many curves as Route 32. The road is narrower and the pavement is patched in some areas, which keeps some of the exuberance in check. County Road 48 delivers us to downtown Petoskey, where we get a quick glimpse of Lake Michigan. State Route 31 north then takes us away from the lake to Alanson, where we turn right onto eastbound State Route 68. Winding around the southern shore of Burt Lake, Route 68 enters the water resort town of Indian River. Sitting between two major lakes and with three rivers running through it, Indian River earns its billing as a boating paradise.

Michigan Route 32

State Route 32 dishes up curves combined with steep elevation changes.

Farther east on Route 68, as we enter the outskirts of Onaway, we suddenly sit up and cut back throttle to gaze in amazement at a Mt. Rushmore-sized bust of President Gerald Ford sitting in the front yard of Moran Ironworks. Apparently the owner, Tom Moran, regularly creates this type of supersized art using heavy metal plate and a welder. At the Onaway flashing light, we join State Route 33 and head south back into the heart of the elk range. Deep in the Pigeon River State Forest the gas/grocery/restaurant complex at Canada Creek Ranch gives us a chance to fuel up before beginning the last stretch home. A left off State Route 33 onto County Road 624 provides another winding forest road, which dead ends at County Road F21 just north of the farm town of Hillman. We ride F21 south through the Hillman business district and up the namesake hill to intersect eastbound State Route 32.

Gaylord Michigan, german

Downtown view of the Swiss-themed village of Gaylord.

The ride ends on a positive note just west of Alpena when a following pickup decides that a pack of sportbikes running 10 mph over is much too slow and rockets by at 85 mph. The Michigan State Patrol car sitting on the shoulder over the next rise immediately engages. The trooper is just marching up to the truck as we glide by, mouthing silent thanks to the driver for being willing to run point.

All in all, a great ride on challenging roads with good scenery and a great outcome.

(This Favorite Ride was published in the November 2013 issue of Rider magazine.)

Michigan Motorcycle Ride

Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com

Alpena Cement Pit

The Huron Cement operation in Alpena is billed as the largest cement production facility in the world.

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