July 4 and 5, 2014
I shouted with joy when the new Fife Lake backpacking loop (click for map) was announced earlier this summer. There is always room for more trail miles in Michigan, and this new 21 mile loop would be enjoyed by serious backpackers for generations to come. Members of the Traverse City North Country Trail Chapter created this loop by creating a completely new section of the North Country Trail that runs nearly parallel to an older section of trail. The two trails intersect near the village of Fife Lake and again about 10 miles south.
Loop hiking is preferred by many hikers, especially those who drive from a distance, because there is no need to bring a shuttle vehicle.
Carol and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to try this new trail on the 4th of July. We left our home near Flint early in the morning and arrived at the trailhead at 9:30 AM, We chose the southern trailhead, which is inside of the old US-131 State Forrest Campground (turn left from US-131 onto County Line Road and make a sharp turn left onto Old US 131. The park entrance is 2 miles on the right side of the road). We entered the park and drove past a typical holiday collection of fifth-wheels, travel-trailers, and massive tents. The traihead overnight parking are located at the rear of the park.
DAY 1 – 13 Miles
Under bright sunshine and clear skies, we headed west out of the park on the Old North Country Trail (NCT) and followed the Manistee River for a few moments, catching a brief glimpse of this awesome river before heading north, At approximately mile two, there are three campsites hidden along an unnamed stream. These campsites are perfectly located for any hiker who started at the northern end of the trail and wanted a campsite at about the half-way point of this overnight hike.
The path was well-marked and easy on the feet. Comprised of mostly 2-track trails, this section is easy and relaxing. We followed a laser-straight pathway, lined by abundant ferns, evergreen, oak, and maple trees. This part of Michigan is generally quite hilly, but for some odd quirk in geography, this trail was very flat. We enjoyed ample shade until we walked into a 2-mile stretch of land that had been clear cut. The path took us north and west, past a marsh and up one modest climb before finally reaching state highway M-186.
We passed Mirror Lake at mile 10 and turned south towards Spring Lake. At this point we were on the new section of NCT, which was much more interesting than the old section we had just completed.
The trail took us up and down some sandy hills and at mile 11 we reached a muddy creek and no bridge. A sign directed us to “follow the pink ribbons” to a railroad bridge, where we could cross the creek easily and enter the Spring Lake campground.
Backpackers who need water or emergency assistance would certainly find help at the Spring Lake campground. Spring Lake is a smallish body of water, and the campground was typically noisy and crowded. A man on a dirt bike went flying past us, and we looked at amazement at the “campers” who were running a generator (for their X-Box?).
We quickly escaped the campground and headed out on a series of two-track trails and began to look for a quiet place to camp. At mile 13 we walked between Fuller Lake and Headquarters Lake, where a camper with a pickup truck and 5th-wheel was just getting settled in. A single-track trail followed the western shore of Headquarters Lake, and we were surprised to find that the lake was quite shallow and full of lilly pads. It was doubtful that we’d do any swimming on this hot afternoon!
We reached the southern end of the lake and were happy to find an open space that was perfect for camping. A small dam was roaring just a few yards away and we had easy access to fresh water. Unfortunately, the campsite was on the corner of two very popular two-track trails, and we watched quads, motorcycles, and 4-wheelers drive by well into the evening.
We were able to enjoy a mostly-quiet (and surprisingly mosquito-free) evening near a small campfire, but since it was the 4th of July, the motor-sports crowd treated us to an impressive fireworks display that lasted well into the night.
DAY 2 – 8 Miles
After a quick breakfast, Carol and I broke camp and hiked south on the new section of NCT. It bears repeating that the trail here is much more interesting than the old section. The builders wisely chose a route that follows the west side of the beautiful little Fife Lake Creek. While there is little elevation gain or loss, we did enjoy meandering through the multiple fern-lined twists and turns that the trail offered.
We walked at a good 2 to 3 mile-per-hour pace, crossing many old two-tracks. The trail here is very well marked.
After crossing County Line Road, the trail took us on a section of paved road and wide-open two-track before re-entering the state forest and again following the Fife Lake Creek. At mile 5 the trail reaches the high-banks of the Manistee River, where we enjoyed a break sitting on a new bench at a beautiful overlook.
The path eventually took us back to the US-131 highway. We walked through a very nice roadside park and under the highway, where we were treated to a cool view of the highway bridge and the Manistee River. The last two miles of the hike were the most interesting, as we enjoyed climbing up and down the steeper terrain and through a small cedar swamp before re-entering the campground where our car was parked.
Overall this hike would be rated easy. Anyone who is looking for a good first-time overnight hike should consider this loop. I would suggest beginning this hike from the north. There is a trailhead at M-186 and Forest Road. The hiker could hike south on the old trail and camp at one of the three backcountry sites (about a 8 or 9 mile hike). If the sites are in use, there is walk-in camping at the State Forest Campground. Continue the hike on the new trail on day 2 and return to your vehicle.