Your Guide to All-Season Biking at Hiawatha Highlands

This impressive trail network is just waiting to be explored.

Recent investments to improve and expand the already impressive network of mountain bike trails in the Hiawatha Highlands is turning a grassroots scene into an exciting hub for some of Ontario’s finest riding just north of downtown Sault Ste. Marie. The Sault Cycling Club got things started here decades ago, developing three mountain bike trail systems with a mix of hand-built single-track with double-track connections to complement the area’s outstanding cross-country ski trails. Thanks to a huge commitment to cycling by Sault Ste. Marie city council, a rapidly expanding network of single-track means you can easily put in 50 kilometres of mountain biking at Hiawatha. Year-round cycling is also available with a good portion of the trails groomed for winter fat-biking.

A portion of the existing trails were upgraded last year with machine-made berms, rollers and banked corners for great flow and options for all levels of riders. It’s all surrounded by a stunning natural environment dominated by tall white pines and the cascading Crystal Creek. Adventurous riders will love the brand-new Farmer Lake loop, a challenging trail with a distinctly wilderness feel, including a picnic and swim spot at a backcountry lake and a unique rock canyon section. The new and improved Hiawatha Highlands trails will be on full display in the summer of 2022 with the return of Crank the Shield, a three-day, 180-km mountain bike epic based in Sault Ste. Marie.

Mountain bike parked on a boardwalk overlooking wetland
Find all manner of scenery in Hiawatha Highlands. Photo: Matthew Trudeau // @wa2wider

Summer Trail Guide

Looking for beginner-friendly mountain biking in Sault Ste. Marie? Try Hiawatha’s 10-kilometre Pinder network, which features flat terrain and fewer roots and boulders for a smoother ride that allows you to focus on your balance and bike control while enjoying the red pine and mixed woods forests. It’s a great choice for kids and beginners.

The Crystal network of trails is Hiawatha’s centrepiece. You’ll discover brand-new machine-made sections immediately after departing the parking area at the Kinsmen Centre on Landslide Road, before enjoying a sweeping descent into the valley of the namesake Crystal Creek. What were once a series of tough, narrow, turns and twisting climbs have been replaced with banked corners and smooth graded ascents, allowing you to carry more speed through the challenging parts of the trail—not to mention improving the experience for novice and intermediate riders.

The brand-new Farmer Lake trail opens in 2022 with access from the backside of the Crystal network. This rugged, handmade backcountry loop adds about an hour to your ride—longer if you pause to take in the scenery. You’ll get intimate with the rugged Algoma landscape when you pass through a secret rock canyon and arrive at a smooth rock point on the trail’s namesake lake.

Finally, the Red Pine trails add another dozen kilometres of distance, with a distinctly rugged and adventurous feel: make sure your bike’s suspension is tuned up and be ready for plenty of roots and boulders—as well as fewer people and a more grassroots feel. The Red Pine trails are best for advanced riders, though novices and intermediates can get by on more forgiving fat bikes, just be prepared to walk some of the steeper hills.

Mother and daughter ride a fat bike along a snowy forest trail in winter
Fat biking is fun for all! Photo: Cindy Pruce // @cindy.pruce

Winter Fat Biking

Thanks to a key partnership between the Hiawatha Highlands, Soo Finnish Nordic Ski Club and the Soo Cycling Club, Sault Ste. Marie is one of the few places in Ontario offering groomed trails for winter fat biking. About nine kilometres of the Crystal mountain bike trail network is groomed for winter riding, regularly packed and maintained by a narrow-gauge snowmobile to preserve an intimate single-track riding experience. The slower pace and greater stability of fat-biking makes the trails more accessible to adventurous novices, intermediates, and expert riders alike. For a more beginner-friendly experience check out the Mabel Lake trail, a level, multi-use route that’s groomed for backcountry skiing and fat-biking for about six weeks starting in early February. Mabel Lake features outstanding scenery including wetlands, frozen spruce bogs, and hardwood hills.

Looking over the handlebars of a mountain bike going along a forest boardwalk biking trail
The best view. Photo: Tanya Sylvester // @timtan92

Equipment Rentals

Gear up for your ride at Velorution, a local bike shop offering mountain bike and fat-bike rentals, as well as tune ups, sales, and expert advice with a convenient new store minutes from the Hiawatha trailhead on Fish Hatchery Road. Algoma Bicycle Company is another popular local store offering rentals and repairs on Queen Street in downtown Sault Ste. Marie.

Fees

It’s currently free to ride the Hiawatha Highlands mountain bike trails during the snow-free season, but it’s good karma to support local trail maintenance and development by purchasing an annual membership with the Sault Cycling Club. Winter fat biking requires a trail permit from the Hiawatha Highlands, available for purchase at the clubhouse building on Landslide Road. Fat biking season passes are available, and fat biking is available for free to Hiawatha Highlands cross-country ski season’s pass holders.

Family ride along a forest mountain bike trail
You’ll find a full range of trails, from beginner-friendly to expert. Photo: Colin Field

Go Guided

Red Pine Tours is your local source for custom-guided cycling adventures in the Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma area, including mountain bike and fat bike day tours in the Hiawatha Highlands. Customized packages are available to meet all of your needs.

When to Go

Long, snowy, glorious, Northern Ontario winters often delay the start of mountain bike season in Sault Ste. Marie, so don’t expect to start riding before the beginning of May. However, the trails dry out quickly and May is a great time to get out and warm up for a season of riding. Peak season is mid-July through September, after the peak mosquitoes and blackflies of June subside. Autumn is a wonderful time to ride with amazing fall colours and stark contrasts between the maple and pine forests of the Hiawatha Highlands. You can get a head start on winter fat biking if you don’t mind the mud and freeze-thaw riding of November. Fat-biking season begins in earnest around mid- to late December, with the season peaking in January and February and grooming wrapping up toward mid-March.

Two teenage boys ride mountain bikes over a rocky ridge in the forest
Go your own pace. Photo: Colin Field

What to Bring

The Hiawatha Highlands may be located within Sault Ste. Marie city limits, but these are seriously rugged and remote trails. Be prepared with a kit to patch or change a flat tire, along with other field repair essentials such as a chain tool and spare chain links. Similarly, you should pack enough water and high-energy snacks for the duration of your ride. To ward off mosquitos, particularly in June, be ready with insect repellent.

Nearby Accommodations

The Water Tower Inn is one of most popular hotels in “the Soo”—and it’s conveniently located a short drive from the trails. Meanwhile, Glenview Cabins and Campground offers a gamut of accommodation options ranging from campsites to private cabins (some with kitches) within a few kilometres of the trailhead. Check out the Adams Motel on Great Northern Road for low-key, budget-friendly accommodations. There are also plenty of Sault Ste. Marie vacation rental options available on AirBnB.

Group of cyclists stop at a boardwalk to view a waterfall
Stop for a rest at beautiful views. Photo: Colin Field

Food and Drink

Fuel up for a day of adventure at The Breakfast Pig in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. For a simple packed lunch, check out Superior Home Bakery (be sure to treat yourself to one of their famous homemade apple fritters). Refuel at one of Sault Ste. Marie’s classic Italian restaurants, such as Giovanni’s on Great Northern Road. You’ll find a huge selection of tasty, post-ride treats at Hiawatha Ice Cream, right next to the trailhead. For local beer and a great brewpub experience visit either Northern Superior or OutSpoken Brewing in downtown Sault Ste. Marie.

About Conor Mihell

Conor Mihell is an award-winning environmental and adventure travel writer based in Sault Ste. Marie. Read his work in the Globe and Mail, Explore, Cottage Life, Canoe & Kayak, ON Nature, and other magazines and newspapers. He's been a sea kayak guide on Lake Superior for close to 20 years, and has paddled from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay. 

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