Houghton County Rail Trail System
The Houghton County Rail Trai lsystem is comprised of two trails systems linked together, beginning near Greenland and ending in Calumet.
The Bill Nicholls Trail wanders for 41 miles through the Upper Peninsula’s scenic Copper Country, where visitors can spot wildlife and see remnants of the copper mining that flourished for more than 100 years. The soft-surface trail is a popular destination for motorized off-road vehicles such as all-terrain vehicles and snow-mobiles, so mountain bikers and hikers should be prepared to deal with wear and tear on the trail.
Most of the trail follows the route of the Copper Range Railroad, built between 1899 and 1901 to haul copper ore from the mines that proliferated on the peninsula from the mid-19th century until the 1960s. When the state acquired the line in 1974, it was among the first disused railroad corridors in Michigan converted to a public trail.
Beginning at the Ontonagon County Fairgrounds outside of Greenland, the first couple of miles can be challenging for trail users. A rock escarpment, steep grades, and mine tailings placed on the trail to prevent erosion will force you to watch your progress. You’ll soon pass the Adventure Mine, a copper mine (1850–1920) that’s now open for tours as part of the Keweenaw National Historical Park, a collection of heritage sites celebrating the region’s copper-mining history.
At 2 miles, the trail heads northeast and merges with the former railroad line and its level surface. Not long after crossing MI 38, you’ll cross the first of three steel bridges over the Firesteel River, which total 1,300 feet in length and clear the rivers by 85 feet, creating one of the trail’s scenic highlights.
The trail passes through a remote stretch of pine and hardwood forests as you reach Twin Lakes State Park near mile 16.4, where the trail parallels MI 26 and allows access to the park and nearby businesses. After the state park, the trail passes several small lakes, traverses scenic woodlands, and is periodically lined with wild blackberry and thimbleberry bushes.
With a tower as your beacon, you arrive at the crossroads community of Toivola, which offers a restaurant and grocery store near mile 25.2. You’ll pass old ruins of the mining era and piles of mine tailings. After crossing SR 26 into South Range at mile 34.4, you can visit the Copper Range Historical Museum and check out local offerings.
The last 4 miles into Houghton are all downhill. About 1.5 miles from the trail’s end is a scenic overlook at the Portage Lake Ship Canal, which played a big role in the copper industry by removing an obstacle for shipping. The final leg of the trail parallels the canal. About 1 mile from the end, you’ll encounter a steep slope with loose stone. The trail ends at the city’s RV park in Houghton, near the Raymond C. Kestner Waterfront Park, which provides picnic facilities, restrooms, a beach, and a playground. Here, you can also connect with the 4.5-mile Houghton Waterfront Trail, a paved pathway that links a series of small waterfront parks along an inlet of Portage Lake.
Take a trip through the heart of "Copper Country" on the Hancock/Calumet Trail. When more than three-quarters of the nation's copper came from this region of the Keweenaw Peninsula, Mineral Range Railroad cars hauled hard-rock copper along this route. Today the rolling corridor is home to 13.4 miles of trail that also goes by the names "Jack Stevens Calumet-Hancock Rail Trail" and "Snowmobile Trail #17."
The Portage Lift Bridge, the heaviest and widest double-decked vertical lift bridge in the world, serves as the backdrop for the southern end of the trail, but it is more convenient to park and start your journey from just west of the bridge at Hancock's Porvoo Park. Faced with starting a climb cold from the park, you might want to warm up your legs by heading first over to the lift bridge to visit Turtle Garden and Labyrinth Park. Check out the sights, then hit the trail.
The first few miles within the city of Hancock from Porvoo Park are paved—a rarity for Upper Peninsula rail-trails—and steep. As you huff and puff up the incline you can appreciate the energy required to move trains up this hill. Coasting downhill on your return will soon put a smile on your face, and so will this: the trail levels off near mile 4.
After leaving the asphalt surface in Hancock, the trail alternates between crushed stone and dirt, and you sail past numerous ponds, wetlands, fishing spots, piles of mine tailings and other relics of the copper-mining era.
As you approach the Calumet area the trail skirts the Swedetown Recreation Area and Swedetown Trails. Formerly just for cross-country skiers, these trails now welcome mountain bikers too. Closer to downtown Calumet an old railroad bridge frames the boarded up Mineral Range depot. This idle bridge now stands as a gateway to Calumet for trail users as they pass beneath it. The depot is a logical ending point for the trail.
Calumet is the headquarters for the Keweenaw National Historical Park that preserves and celebrates the mining history of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. If you're interested in learning about this area when copper was king, pick up a brochure and take a walking tour of the historical downtown. Summer visitors have greater opportunities for enjoyment, when the seasonally operated heritage center and the Coppertown Mining Museum are open.
Note: Not all sections of each trail are approved for every activity listed for the trail as a whole. Please click on individual trail sections to see approved activities for that section.
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