Kal-Haven Trail to Covert Solo Bike Camping

by Justyna Frank

Michigan’s Kal-Haven Trail stretches for 34 miles between the towns of Kalamazoo and South Haven, and is an unpaved, scenic and shaded rail-to-trail. It’s relatively flat and not terribly demanding, except in the brutal summer heat, which was precisely when I happened to carve out some time available for bike camping.

My original plan was to ride the whole length of the trail starting in Kalamazoo, and travel to Covert Campground for two nights of camping before heading back, which would have made it a trip of just under 50 miles each way. The trip fell at the end of June, when daytime temps were pushing high 90’s. Since I wanted to enjoy my trip and not die of heat stroke, I decided to trim the mileage and begin my trip in Gobles, MI, which would result in a 30-mile ride to camp. On the day of the trip, I still needed to pick up some supplies, get myself and my bike to Gobles, and load up my bike once I got there, so I figured I’d be starting my ride mid-day with heat rising throughout the afternoon. I knew that the trail was shady, and I could pace myself, take plenty of water breaks, and still arrive at camp with enough daylight to set up camp.

I love riding alone. I can keep a pace that is comfortable for me only, without having to worry if I’m slowing anyone down, or leaving anyone behind. I find that conversations on the trail tire me out, and I vastly prefer to just take in the scenery, pause to take photos whenever I want to, and allow the natural rhythm of the ride to develop, while I gradually leave my daily concerns behind, and let my mind wander. The Kal-Haven trail lends itself to such tuning out, as it is perfectly as it is linear, easy to follow, and it goes through low-population areas with very little traffic on the cross streets.

About a mile and a half outside of South Haven, the trail sneaks over the narrow strip of land between the Black River and its south branch, and I paused there to climb the stairs to what seemed to be an old Boy Scout spot, hoping for a panoramic view of the two rivers coming together. Instead, I was treated to a view of the back of a long-haired man wearing nothing but a pair of swim trunks, apparently setting up camp! Startled, I coughed, and –even more startled– he leapt into the air, dropping tent stakes. After our initial alarm at each other’s unexpected appearance, we made some pleasant small talk, and I learned that this former Boy Scout camp was still somewhat popular with through bikers who preferred to eschew crowded campgrounds in favor of a more guerrilla experience.

After this brief meeting, I enjoyed my lunch, and headed into South Haven, where the signs directed me from the end of the Kal-Haven trail to Van Buren Trail over quiet town streets. Van Buren Trail is paved, and travels south from town, veering west to the Van Buren SP about three miles shy of Covert Campground. I traveled this last section over the commodious shoulder of the Blue Star Highway. Despite it being a high-speed road, I didn’t feel unsafe since the shoulder was in great shape and offered plenty of buffer, and drivers were overwhelmingly considerate.

By the time I pulled into the Covert Campground office, I was drenched and drained from the heat. I registered, got a bag of ice, downed a bottle of water, and contemplated hauling my gear up the steep staircase leading to my walk-in site in the dunes. There was no way I was going to carry the fully-loaded bike, so I made several exhausting trips carrying portions of my gear.

I won’t bore you with the details of setting up my camp, only to say that the campsite I scored is the reason that Covert features prominently on my list of favorite places to camp near Chicago. Several flights of wooden stairs lead to two walk-in sites nestled into a small valley among the wooded dunes overlooking Lake Michigan. These sites are in hot demand throughout the season, and it was my ability to camp mid-week that made it possible to secure one of those sites, with no neighbor in the adjacent site: I had the dunes to myself.

Before making any meal preparations, I made some ice tea, took my collapsible camp chair, and walked down to the beach, where I spent the remaining daylight time sitting and thinking of literally nothing, as the sun dipped completely into the lake, and only peach-orange-navy blue twilight remained. Returning to my campsite, I built a small fire, prepped my freeze-dried curry meal, and soon after crawled into my tent for a good night’s sleep.

Though I am not usually a fan of packaged camp meals, I opted to bring some on this trip for the sake of simplicity, and because I didn’t want to worry about anything perishable in the ungodly heat. At a trade show the previous year I discovered Peak Refuel freeze dried meals, which are delicious, and reconstitute quickly with the addition of hot water to the bag. Breakfast is even easier: their berry-studded granola meals contain rice-milk powder, and can be eaten dry, or reconstituted with cold water. Though each pouch is supposed to serve two, with all the biking and sweating, I wasn’t really worried about eating the full portion myself.

For cooking, I decided to bring only the Vargo Titanium Wood Stove, which is tiny, and uses only found twigs for fuel. On this trip, I tested it with Baddest Bee fire starting wicks, which made starting fire in the diminutive stove vastly easier. I prepped a small stack of leaves and thin pieces of bark for tinder, and broken twigs of various thicknesses for my “logs”. With this arrangement, I was able to cook my evening meals, as well as morning coffee, and brew tea to put on ice throughout the day.

I felt lucky to have two nights of camping sandwiching a day when I rested, hung out by the lake, napped in my hammock, and did little else. On the second morning I had coffee, another tasty granola meal, and I broke my camp. The day was a bit cooler for my return ride. I pulled into South Haven late morning and listened to some fiddlers play music on the high bluff overlooking the lake before heading into town to look for some lunch I could bring along to eat trailside. I also purchased a cookie as a friendly offering in case I ran into the guerrilla camping man again, but I did not see him.

With cooler temperatures, the return trip seemed easier, the miles rolled faster, and and I felt like I could easily have gone all the way to Kalamazoo.

If you decide to try this trip, you can start at the trailhead in Kalamazoo, or at any of the several convenient points along the trail, as I did. In addition to camping at Covert, you can choose from a variety of camping options at Van Buren SP, which is easily accessible via the Van Buren Trail. You don’t need any special equipment to do this: any bike in good repair outfitted with some panniers and basic camping equipment is all you need. Fore reference, see my complete packing list.

More info on the Kal-Haven Trail is at Friends of the Kal-Haven Trail and Michigan DNR.

For packing list, click here.

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