What is it about islands that make them seem to have the power to melt all of our life’s troubles away? The island doesn’t have to be big or far away, just offer a buffer from the rest of the world. Located about 45 km and a bridge southeast of Sault Ste. Marie, St. Joseph Island is no exception to the power of the island vibe. Add to this a sunny patio and a cold beverage, and it’s hard to stay focused on our objective, which is to experience the island from the seats of our bikes.
Over time, St. Joseph Island has developed a reputation as one of the top cycling destinations in Northern Ontario. Ask Siri, Alexa, or any local cycling enthusiast, or inquire the old-fashioned way via a keyboard and Google, and you will find a ride around St. Joseph Island on top of all to-do lists. Why, you ask? Let’s find out.
Eventually we have to leave the patio and move next door to our home for the next couple of days at the Hilton Beach Inn Island Bar & Grill. Settled in, we set out to explore our temporary neighbourhood. A popular weekend destination with people from Sault Ste. Marie and Michigan, on this Monday afternoon things are on the quiet side. Hilton Beach, with a full-time population of 200, is the smaller of the two main communities on the island.
The area dates back to 1850, and some of the buildings are well over 100 years old. We visit the general store, which is still operational, and the Hilton Jail, which is not so much. In fact, the barely 20’x20’ structure can uncomfortably sleep two, but never has hosted an inmate.
Time to ride; the island’s most popular route is to follow Highway 548, which circumnavigates the island. We chose to ride it in the counterclockwise direction for no reason in particular, other than our best chance for breakfast was in that direction. With a stunning sunrise behind us and a perfect day ahead, the anticipation is high as we set a blistering pace. It doesn’t take long to understand the charms of cycling St. Joseph Island: virtually no traffic makes for a very relaxed ride.
A few kilometres into the ride, the Black Bear Café and Eatery serves up an amazing breakfast that will have us fuelled up for the day. A new business, the Black Bear is already a favourite with locals and visitors, awesome coffee, baked goods, food, and a gift shop—a must stop. Next on the route is Richards Landing, a picturesque village and the larger of the two communities on the island. Here you will find unique shops and eateries as well as the newly built bike repair station, a testament to the area’s commitment and appreciation of the cycling visitor.
Once you depart Richards Landing, it is welcome to the country: farmland views, glimpses of the North Channel, forest-lined roads, and no services for the next 50 or so kilometres. The route offers a steady supply of uphill challenges and downhill rewards to keep things interesting. The few cars that we did see offered plenty of space as they passed. At one point one enthusiastic driver offers a few cheers of sport on a particularly challenging uphill.
Seventy-one km on the odometer, and we are hooked on cycling St. Joseph Island. Back in Hilton Beach, looking at a plate full of shrimp tacos courtesy of Natalie at the Hilton Beach Inn Island Bar and Grill and a fine pint of Northern Ontario’s Brewing creation, our conversation turns to next time.
No matter what kind of cyclist you fancy yourself, St. Joseph Island has something for you. If you prefer to challenge your heart beat limits, there are weekly rides and annual races and events, plenty of opportunities to take on your friends in person or on STRAVA.
If you fancy yourself more of a cycling explorer, then may I suggest visiting Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site, where you can explore the remnants of a British fort and take in a very interesting indoor exhibit showcasing life from the past. There are also onsite nature trails you can explore by bike if you chose. The St.
Joseph Island Museum is a collection of historic buildings and artifacts courtesy of ancestors of the Island's early settlers. Adcocks Woodland Gardens is an inviting setting of ponds, flowers, birds and pathways. The gardens are open from spring till fall. This being an island, a beach is never far away; the best one according to all asked is simply called Beech Beach.
There is definitely something about islands that makes them seem to have the power to put your soul at rest, and St. Joseph Island is no exception. Exploring the island by bike will leave you wanting more, so do yourself a favour—come for a ride but stay a while.
Notes From The Road
- Book ahead, particularly if you pan to visit on the weekend; after all, this is an island and everything is limited.
- Beyond Hilton Beach and Richards Landing you will be on your own, so be sure to have all you need: food, water, tools.
- If you are more cruiser than racer type, bigger volume tires make things more comfortable.