It took awhile, but I made it north to check out the hip new trails at Glacial Hills in Bellaire. Customer after customer has filed into the shop and, through conversation, either identified as haven ridden Glacial, or wondering if I have. The word on the street was that the trail system was a web of sorts, linking together two seasons of riding and trail building by the Grand Traverse Land Conservancy.
The excuse to get up there was for a bicycle race, but Tailwinds Racing did a great job designing the course and including the best loops. We entered the trail after 1.5 mile paved climb coming out of Bellaire, spilling left into the woods and immediately onto some of the more demanding sections. At the height of summer, the sand was piling up in some of the exposed areas, but in the trees the soil held up extremely well, even with a lot of traffic from folks pre-riding the course over the past week or so. There's a beautiful canopy overheard, with only a few spots where the trail hits open ground. There might not be more an eight feet of straight trail in the entire loop, and that's being generous. This is not a course for the masher, or for the roadie. You need to know how to ride a bike here if you're trying to go fast, but if you just want to go, it's safe and fun for anybody.
I took a 'cross bike and, after obliging the field by leading out on the paved climb, hit the woods nearly last. First corner; overshot. Second corner; washed out front wheel. Third corner; everyone is out of sight. Settling in, it was was already time to just ride hard and enjoy the next 22 miles of great trails.
My favorite part of the lap was the steady, gentle climb. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the whole system is how little climbing you do. It's deceptive; a ridge run here, a little curl over the lip of a hill there, and suddenly, you're hitting 900 feet of ascension in eleven miles. The Moby Dick segment is the only part where you are acutely aware that you're going up, but even then, it isn't brutal or agonizing or slow.
You're going to be rolling pretty fast on nearly every trail, and with so many intersections, it's easy to get turned around. Einstein Racing's Dave Walston came up with the obvious solution; turn right. Always take the right and you'll stay on the outer loop, which is what most of the race course stuck to. If you've got a lot of time, just keep riding out there. At some point, you'll hit all over the approximately 20 miles of trail.
To compare, Glacial Hills is pretty similar to Cannonsburg Ski Area near Grand Rapids, but without the ski hill looming over your shoulder every time you complete a lap. It's a fun, technical treat for mountain bikers, and having Moka and Short's Brewing just down the hill in Bellaire makes it a great day-trip up for a lot of challenging but enjoyable riding.
You can use this GPX file to follow the route from race day.