Mid-Mitten Cycling Hilly Rides

Climbing in Kzoo

6th Street hill
6th Street approaching the infamous hill

It doesn’t take much searching through southwest Michigan cycling forums to discover that 6th Street in Kalamazoo Township offers the biggest hill for road cyclists in the vicinity. Even 20 miles east, at the Custer Cyclery in Augusta, this is the hill they recommend for roadies who want some climbing. And at 200 feet in 0.8 mile, with grades of as much as 9 percent, it is a big climb. But there’s a lot more to the area than one big hill, notably the exceptionally scenic Kal Haven Trail State Park. I got so distracted with the bike path that I nearly forgot about the road climbing.

Pale Touch-Me-Not
Pale Touch-Me-Not along the Kal Haven Trail

Like the Falling Waters Trail, the Kal Haven Trail is a completed segment of the planned Great Lake to Lake Trail. Stretching 33 miles between South Haven and Kalamazoo, its eastern portion offers two possible starting points for riders headed to the 6th Street hill. 10th Street North is the official trailhead for Kal Haven Trail State Park. It’s paved and has facilities, but it’s all downhill from here to 6th St., offering little opportunity for a warm-up. I didn’t want to hit the big hill cold, so I decided to start at the gravel parking lot where the trail crosses 6th St., in the crossroads village of Alamo. This lot has no facilities, but there is a pit toilet just a short distance down the Kal Haven Trail to the southeast.

Heading southeast on the trail, I was impressed by the crushed limestone surface. This being my first experience with such a path, I had expected something like sand or gravel. Instead, I was surprised to find the surface hard-packed and smooth. My skinny road bike tires (23 mm on the front, 28 on the back) had no trouble rolling along. It seemed just a bit harder to pedal than on asphalt, and even easier than on some of the crumbling roads I’ve encountered lately.

Kal Haven forest
The Kal Haven Trail passes through a beautiful restored forest between F and G Aves.

The trail parallels Hart Dr. through farmland and forest for a mile and a half. The path is level for the first half mile, then begins climbing gently. The grade gets a bit steeper (but never more than 2 percent) after turning south to leave Hart Dr. behind. Crossing F Ave., the trail enters a denser stand of forest which is also a wildflower restoration area. Signs along the way point out different varieties of shrubs and flowers. The views across the open forest are excellent as the trail traverses a hillside on the roadbed of the old Kalamazoo and South Haven rail line.

I had planned on doing just a couple of miles of warm-up, but the trail was so pleasant that I went all the way to G Ave., having gained 150 feet in 3.25 miles. Turning around, I headed back downhill, careful not to exceed the trail’s 15 mph speed limit. This just seemed prudent — even though the trail surface was firm, I didn’t want to risk hitting an unexpected soft spot doing 20 mph.

Wet Meadow
Wet meadow along 8th St.

Reaching 8th St. North, I decided to explore this hill before hitting the big one on 6th St. Heading south, the road is flat as it traverses a meadow, then gradually becomes steeper as it meets the forest. The hill is only 150 feet high, but there’s a stretch toward the end that MapMyRide shows as 14 percent. I could believe it, as I had to stand up on the pedals to get up the thing.

A word of caution: if you’re not comfortable riding up a narrow road on a blind hill, you might want to head straight back to 6th St. on the bike path. 8th seems to be a thoroughfare, as it and 6th are two of the only north-south roads in the area. I made the mistake of riding to the right, but the lane is just barely wide enough to share. A car came up behind and passed close on the blind hill, just before a truck came over the hill the other way. Vehicular cyclists would say to get in the middle of the lane here to prevent such close passes. But if you’re not comfortable with that, this road is probably better avoided.

I found another reason to avoid 8th St. as I turned right on F Ave.: the latter street is dirt and gravel in this stretch. Still, the surface was decent for the half mile between here and 7th, where I turned right for a fast descent to Owen Dr. Then I turned left to head to 6th St. and the big hill of the day. I could have just turned left onto 6th, but Owen meets that street part way up the climb. I’m obsessed with getting every last foot of ascent, so I headed north on 6th for half a mile to a convenient driveway to turn around. (If you opted to head straight back to 6th on the bike path, you’ll arrive at this point from the north.)

Looking up the hill on 6th St. Note the "not-a-bike-lane" on the shoulder.
Looking up the hill on 6th St. Note the “not-a-bike-lane” on the shoulder.

6th St. is wide and recently paved, with a good shoulder. The trade-off for that is the high-speed traffic you’ll encounter on this through street. It certainly wasn’t heavy by late morning of a summer weekday, but I kept my eye on my rear-view mirror as I made the ascent. I stayed just to the left of the white stripe, or “fog line,” for most of the climb, and moved over onto the shoulder as vehicles approached from behind. This allowed me to avoid obstacles on the shoulder (a dead raccoon, several branches, and drainage grates) while giving room for vehicles to pass when necessary.*

Beyond Owen Dr., the road kicks up steeply for a short stretch of 9 percent. If this seems grueling, don’t lose heart — the road may appear to have an even gradient, but it’s actually broken into four sections. Your legs and your lungs will notice the changes, even if your eyes don’t. After this first steep pitch, the climb relaxes for a bit, then there’s another steep pitch (about a tenth of a mile) before a gentler climb up and over the summit. If you can recover on the gentler stretches then you’ll survive to the top.

Over the summit, the road rolls a short distance to F Ave. For the most intense workout, you could turn around here and do repeats of the hill you just climbed. But I opted for variety and a climb with less traffic by turning right onto F. The road is paved, after a fashion, at this point, rolling for another quarter mile before descending by stair steps to an oblique intersection with Owen Dr. Take care on this descent as the asphalt is far from smooth.

F Ave.
F Ave. descending toward Owen Dr.

Turning around just beyond Owen, I headed back up F Ave. It’s a 170-foot climb altogether, but it takes a mile and a half to do it, with several flat and even downhill spots that allowed me to catch my breath. If 6th St. offers a test of endurance and power up a steep climb, F Ave., will test your recovery, as long as you hit the steep stretches hard. The road passes through another sylvan forest and the traffic seemed quite light on the weekday when I rode here. That’s important, because you’ll likely be in the middle of the lane at points to avoid the numerous potholes and rough patches of pavement.

Back at 6th St., I turned left to return the way I came, passing a “steep hill ahead” sign (a rarity in mid-Michigan). With its smooth pavement and steep grade, this is a great road for descending (I hit 42 mph), but a word of EXTREME CAUTION: you’ll definitely want to stay in the lane and off of the “shoulder-that’s-not-a-bike-lane”* as you descend. Hitting one of those drainage grates at high speed could cause a serious accident. The grates also may be difficult to spot in the dense shadows cast by the forest on either side of the road.

Steep hill ahead sign
A seldom-seen sign in mid-Michigan

Returning to the flats on 6th St., you can turn around and do as many repeats of the 6th-to-F-to-Owen route as you’d like, getting about 400 feet of climbing in each 4.5-mile lap. I did one more lap and I figure my total gain for the day at 1,100 feet (whereas MapMyRide put it at over 1,400 feet).

Kal Haven Trail
The Kal Haven Trail west of 6th St.

To cool down, I returned to the intersection where 6th St. meets the Kal Haven Trail, then headed west on the path. This section was perhaps not as pretty as the section to the southeast, but it felt good to spin easily along the path, waving to the cyclists and joggers I passed. (It’s interesting that I saw at least 10 cyclists on the 12 miles of the path I traversed, a couple of them that looked like dedicated roadies, but none on the road portion of my ride. Yet the 6th St. hill has been ridden 764 times by 151 Strava users, so it seems like a popular route for such a rural spot.)

As with my first stretch on the trail, I ended up going farther than I intended, turning around at a bridge beyond 2nd St. I returned to my car pleased with the workout and determined to explore more of the Kal Haven Trail.


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*Perhaps this is a good time to mention the difference between a road shoulder and a bike lane. The white line by itself doesn’t make a bike lane, it merely marks the edge of the road. It’s great to have more width paved so that bicycles and cars can more easily share the road, but it’s important to remember that cyclists aren’t required to ride beyond the road’s edge. There are often obstacles, some of them built into the shoulder, like the drainage grates on the 6th St. hill. Sometimes a paved shoulder will suddenly turn to gravel, as is the case on the Kensington Rd. hill near Brighton. This is why it’s often a good idea to stay in the road and only move beyond the fog line when cars approach from behind.

There are exceptions, of course. Major highways like M-61 west of Highland (the subject of a future blog post) have wide, consistently paved shoulders, and with traffic going over 60 mph, it makes sense to stay in them. But these are still not bike lanes.

Pittsburgh bike lane
A bike lane in Pittsburgh with a no parking sign and a buffer zone.

To count as a bike lane, not only must there be a painted line or even a physical barrier, the lane itself must be at least five feet wide (or four feet measuring from the edge of the gutter, although engineers often get away with counting the gutter as part of the lane). In addition, there should be regular signs displaying the “no parking” symbol and indicating that the lane is an official bike lane. Other guidelines that are more honored in the breach than the observance include regular street sweeping and snow removal.


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2 replies on “Climbing in Kzoo”

Thanks for sharing your photos, info and thoughts re: 6th street hill. I chose to jog it today on a drizzling, windy day to see if the 5% Mackinaw bridge run in October might be too much for me and hoped the windy cooler conditions would clue my clothing choices. Your sunny photos and biking commentary reminded me of using the hill for Dalmac training nearly 30 years ago–good memories!

Glad you enjoyed the post, Anita. Also glad to discover that this hill is used for things like DALMAC training. That’s the idea behind my series on hilly rides in mid-Michigan.

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