While Michigan’s lower peninsula isn’t a famous backpacking destination like the High Sierra, Rockies, or other mountainous locations, there are several nice and moderately challenging trails to explore. The terrain in the region that lies between Ohio, Indiana, and the Straits of Mackinac varies from low, wet woodlands and farmland in the south, flat farmland in the middle, and hilly wooded river valleys and sand dunes in the north. Our favorite hikes include long walks in quiet forests that have plenty of elevation change, even though there are no mountains.
North Country Trail/Manistee River Loop
There are several sections of the North Country Trail (NCT) open in Michigan, but this is only one of two that we know of that is worthy backpacking loop. By combing the NCT with the Manistee River Trail, the backpacker can create a nice 2 or 3 day trip that includes plenty of climbing, gorgeous views of the Manistee River, and plenty of free camping.
Park at the Red Bridge trailhead on Coates Highway in Manistee County and head west out of the parking lot on the Manistee River Trail. The hike involves some serious up-and-down hill sections right away – there really isn’t time for a warm up on this trail! After 2 miles, the trail intersects with the NCT. Turn right (north) and follow the NCT for the next 8 miles. You will climb accumulate over 2,800 feet of climbing elevation on this section as you cross the high bluffs on the west side of the Manistee River. You won’t see the river, and there is no water available on this section until the 8 mile mark where you will cross Eddington Creek (a hidden campsite lies just a few hundred yards away in the Pine forest). Proceed for another mile and veer right at the intersection (left takes you to the Marilla Trailhead). The trail gradually descends and reveals a huge curving section of the magnificent Manistee River for the first time at the 10 mile mark. Be sure to consult your map here, as there are some side trails that may mislead first-timers.
After a brief walk on a dirt road, head back onto the trail and enjoy a flat walk under majestic pines. Emerging next to the river, begin walking along the banks until you cross the Little Mac Suspension Bridge (built by Consumers Energy Company). The first campsite is on the left, but for privacy head right, as there are many semi-secluded campsites right on the Manistee River. Some have fire rings and easy water access, others are on the high banks. We have never had trouble finding an available campsite, but during busy summer months this could be a challenge.
On Day Two you will hike along the river for nearly the entire 8 to 10 miles. While there is less elevation gain here, it is a twisty and fun trail. Often you will be hundreds of feet above the river, and in the distance are the high bluffs you hiked the day before. The trail returns to Coates Highway.
The best time to hike this trail is in the spring or autumn. There have been no reports of bear activity on the trail, but black bears do roam the region.