All aboard: 'Wheels on Rails' brings rail biking to northern Michigan
Northern Michigan has no shortage of kayaking, hiking, biking and breweries, along with lakes to swim, forests for frolicking and dunes to climb.
A new business opening in Grawn will tap into a withering local resource: the rails. It's across the street from Rico’s Cafe on U.S. 31.
“I never saw myself getting into the rail industry, but I did,” said owner, Macie Hefron.
PEDALING THE RAILS
Hefron is from mid-Michigan and just moved to the Grand Traverse area about a week ago. She studied pre-law and philosophy but now is opening a new business.
"Wheels on Rails" takes visitors down a long track ending at Beitner Road — about three miles long roundtrip.
The bikes are akin to paddle boats.
“You have the pedals in front of you and you’re kind of sitting back and relaxing while you pedal down the railroad track," she said. "It’s just like putting railroad wheels on a car, you know? If you put a railroad wheel on a car you can totally go down the track with it. Not that you should."
The track crosses West Silver Lake Road at a busy four-way stop, where staff use traffic cones, stop signs and maybe an air horn to make sure traffic stops.
But most of the ride is much more scenic.
“It’s right out in the woods, there’s spring fed creeks, we’re going under the bridge of M-37," she said. "It is so pretty.”
It's pretty easy to pedal, too. The track is fairly flat with a slight decline. It's easy to coast without peddling.
So it's smooth railing to Beitner Road, but the workout starts on the way back. Hefron will have turnstiles that will sit on the track and rotate the bikes to face the other direction.
Biking back to Grawn makes for a healthy cardiovascular experience.
“It’s quite challenging when you get to the end so we may cut it a little bit short just so people don’t get super tired before coming back,” she said.
Hefron said her business will be accessible for folks with health conditions, the elderly and parents, who can bring their little ones along.
Someday, she hopes to have a shuttle to bring people back at the end of the trail.
“This really does allow anyone and everyone to come out and try this and that’s what I’m most excited about,” she said.
A LOVE OF RAILS AND BIKES
The idea for Wheels on Rails was born while she was studying at Spring Arbor University. At the time, she worked in the rail office at the Michigan Department of Transportation.
“It was so eye opening with what was going on, how big of an industry it is, how important the rail line is," she said. "I just gained a huge passion."
Hefron is also a passionate cyclist. She did a lot of biking outside after the pandemic shutdown gyms.
One day she was browsing Facebook when she saw a rail biking business in Maryland. She took a trip out there to get some advice and learn about the business.
“And I said Michigan’s missing it. ‘Pure Michigan’ is totally missing this idea,” she said.
But it wasn’t easy getting approval from the state and Great Lakes Central Railroad. Hefron faced a lot of pushback and was denied twice downstate before she landed on this location in Grawn.
“Because Michigan’s never seen this before, (the state) had a lot of liability issues and concerns and none of the railroads really wanted me to start this thing,” she said.
It took three years, but Hefron finally got approval.
A local lawmaker helped her navigate the process to get the business approved. Now she’s about a week away from opening, with a team of six people and reservations booked through June.
“It’s been such a challenge getting up here and cleaning out the railroad tracks but I keep it in mind that it’s going to all pan out," Hefron said. "I’m new to business of course so I’m learning the trials and tribulations as I go. But I’m so excited to start getting it going officially. Just being surrounded by excited, happy people is what I want to do."
Hefron plans to stay open through fall. It doesn’t have to be a sunny day for people to ride the rails. Come rain or shine she’s open for business.
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