The Hart-Montague Bicycle Trail was Michigan’s first linear State Park. It is a 22-mile rail trail located in west Michigan, between the named towns. There is a three-mile extension at the southern end which allows users to continue across the White River to Whitehall, for a total of 25 miles.
The trail is laid on a former branch of the Grand Rapids and Lakeshore RR Company. The Chicago and West Michigan RR, and finally C&O Rail took ownership, but the line was abandoned in 1982.
Now the route is converted to a multi-use pathway. It is paved with asphalt and is fully accessible from trailheads at Hart, Shelby, New Era, Rothbury, Montague and Whitehall. One can get on at Mears, by parking in town, a couple of blocks from the access point.
As a former rail bed, this is a really flat trail. Some online descriptions call the northern portion hilly, but I don’t see it. There are only a couple of small rises or dips at road crossings that have been altered from the original rail bed. Anyone should be able to ride this trail. It goes through a series of small towns, and makes many rural road crossings. As such, I think the longest stretch without a stop sign is 6 miles. If you want a trail to practice for bicycle racing this probably isn’t it, you’ll just get nicely cruising, and will need to stop for a crossing. It is, however, a great trail for family outings, or casual rides.
The trail is handicap accessible from all the trailheads. It’s open for walking, biking, roller blading, wheelchairs, cross-country skiing, etc. Oddly enough, if there are more than four inches of snow, snowmobiles are allowed. I find this strange, because it would be a nice place for novice skiing, but not if you have to duke it out with motorized sleds.
All of the small towns have cafes and other small town services. Probably the most fun place for a snack is the Country Dairy shop, right on the trail, near mile 11. This is perfect, as it’s about halfway. Country Dairy is known in west Michigan for producing rBST-free milk and ice cream. You can take a break and sample one of their 21 flavors, which include Hoofprints, Udder Nutsense, Chocolate Cherry Moo, and more obvious choices, such as Peaches and Cream.
Along the way, there are some benches and picnic tables. Most of the trailheads also have these amenities, and either bathrooms or porta-potties. Water and full restrooms are not always available in winter. In fact, the restrooms were already locked in October, this year.
Stretches of the trail are in the full sun, which can be unpleasant in summer. But there are also great lengths through groves of trees, including some that overhang the trail creating a tunnel. Overall, the ride gives a nice rural experience. In some places the trail is close to a highway, and in others it wanders between fields and orchards.
Several of the villages have improved the landscape near the trail by painting murals on industrial buildings. Remember, that the railroad tracks went through less picturesque portions of town on purpose- to transfer freight.
At the southern end, through Montague and Whitehall, are a number of public gardens, and various sculptures which are part of an Art Walk. One can spend a pleasant afternoon just enjoying these, in addition to the bike ride.
There is no fee to use the trail. For more detailed information, see Hart-Montague Rail Trail.