3 days/2 nights/20 miles
There is something so satisfying about hiking alone in the woods. With only the crunch, crunch, crunch of your boots on the path your attention is allowed to focus on seeing, smelling, hearing, and touching everything around you without distraction or interruption. I don't recommend tasting everything around you. Leave that sense out of hiking unless you know what you're doing.
This trip was initially planned with Sarah in mind, but a new job and schedule it didn't work for her. I'd be going solo on this one and that was exciting. I left Detroit around 4:30 am on a crisp September morning and headed Northwest to Manistee National Forest.
I would be hiking this loop clockwise starting at the Red Bridge River Access Site, crossing over the Manistee River near the Hodenpyl Dam and finishing up back at Red Bridge. Here is a handy map showing the trail. I added a 1 and 2 with arrows to show where I camped each night.
The loop doesn't actually start off on the NCT or the Manistee River Trail. To get to the NCT from Red Bridge you first have to hike the Upper River Trail. Once you're about a mile in the trail shoots up onto a ridge. It is a nice preview of the rest of your day. This portion of the NCT is buried deep in the forest and rarely offers a vista of the hills and country in the distance. It also includes some fairly difficult climbs especially around Sweets Ravine. They're manageable but definitely got my heart rate up and my quads burning.
One of the first things I noticed on the first few miles of the NCT was the abundance of mushrooms and fungus I had never seen before. It was fun looking for all the different kinds growing along the trail.
About half way into my day a little rain started coming down. At first it wasn't an issue because most of it seemed be getting caught up in the dense canopy. By the time I had descended into Sweets Ravine the drops were large and heavy enough to get through to the forest floor and I had to throw on my pack's rain cover and my rain gear. This was unfortunate timing because I had to make the climb out of the ravine while wearing not-so-breathable rain gear.
After the rain stopped and I was out of the ravine it was time for lunch. I had decided that I wanted to actually cook something for my lunches, so I packed in some chicken ramen noodles. When I was purchasing my freeze dried dinners for the trip from Packit Gourmet I noticed that they had something called "Ramen Rescue", which is essentially a mix of veggies plus a little packet of sriracha sauce to spice it up. Even though it is more expensive than the ramen noodles themselves I thought it was worth it. It turned plain old ramen into something that felt more like a meal and the sriracha added a much-needed kick!
The rest of the hike was relatively easy and the rain held off. Because of some online research I knew where I wanted to stop for camp. I knew that where the NCT veered West (left) along Eddington Creek you could instead go right and there would be a couple of campsites with access to the creek for water. What I did not know until I spotted it through the trees was how beautiful the campsite would be.
What I found was a pine stand with a cushy floor and access to a babbling. spring fed creek with ice-cold water. If there is a perfect campsite in the world this might be it.
On the menu for dinner was Packit Gourmet's Big Easy Gumbo. The hilarious thing about the 2 dinners I chose for this trip is that I inadvertently chose ones that contained pretty much the only 2 foods in the world I don't like. This one happened to contain okra, which I normally think is a vile, slimy, tasteless thing. In this case I didn't even notice it was there and dinner was great! I followed it up with some hot chocolate before tucking myself in for a tight 13 hours of sleep at 7:00 pm.
At around midnight I was awoken by the pitter-patter of rain on my tent. The pitter-patter turned into a steady, heavy drumming of rain that didn't stop until 7:00 am. When I emerged from the tent at 8:00 I was greeted by blue skies and sunshine.
I was in no rush to leave this campsite. After lounging around, filling up on water supplies, and having some oatmeal and coffee for breakfast I broke camp and was on the trail by 10:40 am. A quick jaunt up Eddington Creek, over a bridge, and along some wide, well-traveled paths brought me to the Little Mac Bridge. This is a wooden suspension bridge that was designed to look like the Mackinac Bridge that connects Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas. It was built in 1998 and is the reason this backpacking loop is possible!
Part of the reason I was so excited about this trip was the diversity each day offers. The NCT portion is tucked so far into the woods on a ridge that views are seldom available. The MRT portion is the complete opposite. It hugs the Manistee River and ends up taking longer to hike because you're constantly stopping to look at the vistas and the river. The MRT is also different in terms of difficulty. It is mostly flat and easy hiking, which was a nice change from the NCT.
Another thing to note about the MRT is that is it much busier than the NCT. It seems to be used a lot for day hiking, which it lends itself well to. If you're thinking about hiking this then don't expect to be alone very much. I was hiking it on a Saturday and there seemed to be a lot of people snatching up the good campsites pretty early in the afternoon. After passing up a site at Slagle Creek I quickly made my way to Cedar Creek and found a small spot next to the creek to set up camp for the night around 4:00 pm. It was a cozy spot that didn't provide much in the way of logs for sitting, but the sound of the creek rushing by and the smell of the cedars in the ravine was great.
After a bit of exploring the ravine I was ready for dinner. On night 2 I'd be enjoying some Packit Gourmet Texas State Fair Chili prepared from my tent. The ingredient in this that I normally do not like? Fritos. They're added after the chili is cooked, but in order to eat it "Texas State Fair Style" you need to add them, so I did and it was delicious. I cannot express how good this was for a freeze dried meal. I would gladly pay for this meal in a restaurant. I'm kind of amazed that something freeze dried and packaged for backpacking tasted like this. I will definitely be ordering more from Packit Gourmet for upcoming trips! Dinner was once again followed by some delicious Swiss Miss hot chocolate.
It was another early night for me and I was sound asleep by 7:30 pm. Sleep was interrupted a few times throughout the night because the temperature dropped to 45F. I was able to keep warm using my Under Armour Coldwear top and tights, but I definitely had to cinch the top of my sleeping bag and stay cocooned in.
The cold woke me up at 6:00 am and wouldn't let me go back to sleep. So, I laid in my warm sleeping bag until 7:30 waiting for the sun to come up a bit more. After retrieving my food sack I crawled back into my sleeping bag and cooked up some oatmeal and coffee while enjoying the cool, morning air. Packing up camp went quickly and I was saying goodbye to campsite 2 at 9:00.
The last 3 or so miles to the car were mostly easy going with some nice river views along the way. I snapped this photo of the largest mushroom I've ever seen. It was about the size of a basketball!
Toward the South end of the MRT the trail makes some slightly technical ascents and descents, crosses a couple creeks, and goes through a marsh before dumping you out onto the road about 1/8th of a mile from the River Access site.
All in all the North Country Trail - Manistee River Trail Loop is a fantastic way to spend a weekend. It is easy to get to, provides a lot of different experiences, and has plenty of well-kept campsites. Definitely enjoyable for novice and experienced backpackers alike. It can be done in 2 days/1 night if you're feeling ambitious and don't stop for photos and sight seeing a lot or you can be like me and lollygag your way through it. This is a trail that'd I'd love to visit again when foliage isn't as dense and views from the NCT are better, so I'll be back!