7 days/6 nights/100 miles
In all of Michigan there is only one place to really stretch your legs and get some miles under your feet, and that place is the North Country Trail. The NCT, like the much more popular Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail, is a National Scenic Trail. It runs for 4,600 miles from eastern New York to central North Dakota.
In Michigan's lower peninsula the prime parts of the trail run through Manistee National Forest for around 130 miles. Sarah and I set out to hike 100 miles of that. We decided on 100 miles not in the interest of big views or especially scenic hiking, but because we needed a good training/shake down hike for Colorado's 160 mile Collegiate Peaks loop, which we're hiking this summer.
Here is a map of our route:
1 Mile Rd. to Mena Creek - 8.05 miles, 79°F, partly cloudy
Total miles: 8.05
Our friend Ashley was kind enough to help us out with spotting our car at the end of our route. She and her husband Matt joined us for the first day/night of our hike. We met them at the Upper River Rd. trailhead and they carted us down to the 1 Mile Rd. trailhead where we set off for the first 8 miles of our hike.
This wasn't a particularly notable section of trail, but it was great to be in the woods again. The smells, the sounds and the familiar sights all felt really nice to be around.
After crossing Mena Creek we found a flat spot on top of a hill off trail and settled in for the evening. Ashley is a gear nerd like me, so we had a lot to discuss.
For dinner I had the always delicious Skurka Beans & Rice.
Mena Creek to Condon Lake - 15.8 miles, 73°F, cloudy
Total miles: 23.85
In the morning we ate our breakfast and said goodbye to Ashley and Matt. The day was mostly cloudy. The first part had us walk through a large swath of recently forested land, which was pretty depressing. We saw more ticks on this day than any other day. At Bear Creek we were forced to hang Sarah's Nalgene from our bear line in order to get to the water because the ticks were plentiful in the grass around the creek.
The hiking was flat and easy going. Some time in early afternoon the sky opened up and we had our only rain of the entire trip. For about an hour while we hiked near Nichols Lake we got pretty wet. Even had to make a wet tuna wrap for lunch. YUM!
The rain cleared up around Leaf Lake and the sun was shining on us when we hiked into Condon Lake. The lake ended up having car camping on one side and being Memorial Day weekend it was a little loud, but we had a great campsite with a view.
Condon Lake to Bowman Lake - 16.37 miles, 71°F, partly cloudy
Total miles: 40.22
On day 3 we started to make slight changes to the itinerary based on how we felt and where we thought would be ideal for camping. Since we were in a National Forest we could essentially camp anywhere as long as we were more than 100 feet from water and 1 mile away from designated camping areas.
The day was mostly flat. The first half wound through nondescript forest after which we stopped for a quick lunch.
The afternoon brought us through Sterling Marsh, which wasn't as buggy as it sounds and was awesome to walk through. There are around 13 well built board walks throughout.
As we hiked north toward Pere Marquette river we decided that instead of camping near an area I labeled "Better Creek" on the map we'd press on for another few miles and camp at Bowman Lake. The trail became hillier in the area around the lake and when we arrived we were surprised to find we were the only people there. It was a seriously beautiful lake, but be aware of the water there. We noticed a lot of dead fish floating on the shores. Yuck.
Bowman Lake to Pere Marquette River - 5.04 miles, 66°F, cloudy
Total miles: 45.26
After doing some logistical planning the night of day 3 we decided it would be best to hike a short distance to prevent us from having crappy camp locations for the rest of the trip.
Knowing we had such a short day allowed us to sleep in, lallygag around camp, and eat a slow breakfast. It felt nice.
The hike out of Bowman Lake offered some meandering hills, a short road walk, and some large pine stands.
At Upper Branch River Access we were greeted by a "NO OVERNIGHT CAMPING" sign, which caused a momentary panic until we realized there was a two track leading off toward the canoe camping area.
We found a large site with good access to Pere Marquette. Since it was early afternoon we were able to wash our clothing, bodies and hair. We also enjoyed a slow lunch and some afternoon coffee.
The may flies were out in force, but who cares? They don't bite. They just land on you like a bunch of dummies.
For the first and only time on this trip we made a fire, which was a fun distraction. It felt nice to get some dry heat on us too.
Pere Marquette River to Big Sable River - 15.33 miles, 67°F, mostly sunny
Total miles: 60.59
Day 5 started out with a 2ish mile road walk, which wasn't a bad way to start off. Most of it was along a dirt road that followed some train tracks.
As a whole this day was a bit of a downer. Both Sarah and I felt a bit off. There wasn't much conversation and the trail was pancake flat through, for lack of a better word, boring forest. They can't all be winners.
When we got to Big Sable river we had about a 1 mile stretch of trail to find a suitable campsite. After watering up we found a decent spot in a pine stand.
Big Sable River to Udell Hills - 18.33 miles, 70°F, sunny
Total miles: 78.92
We woke up early on day 6 so that we could pack up camp quickly and get to hiking. We had a road walk that included a stop at a breakfast spot called Blossom's.
If day 5 was a low point for the trip in terms of our moods and how we felt about this trail then day 6 was the high point. We both decided that it was our favorite part of the entire trip and not just because of the great breakfast we had.
After the trail brought us north of Freesoil Creek we entered an area of relict sand dunes. The hiking through his area was so different than anywhere else we had seen so far.
After the relict sand dunes we hiked through a huge grassy area with a lot of stunted trees. Sarah said it reminded of subalpine hiking in Colorado. The area was seriously huge and the scale of it was hard to get in photos.
Eventually we spotted the Udell Hills in the distance. It isn't normal in Michigan to be able to see where you're hiking to since there is such little elevation change, so this was a pretty exciting moment!
We hiked a brief road walk and arrived at Little Manistee river where we just passed by since we knew we'd be getting water for the night at the Udell Hills trailhead pump.
But then we realized when we got to Udell Hills that the pump was at the other end of the hills, not the end we were entering. So, we hiked the 1/4 mile back to Little Manistee to water up. This ended up being a good thing, since the extra mileage ended up putting us over the required 100 miles in order to receive an NCT 100 miles patch.
After a couple mile hike into the hills Sarah located a nice ridge for us to camp on and we settled in for the night. I mentioned this in my Return To Red River Gorge post - Sarah is awesome at locating ideal camping on maps.
Udell Hills to Upper River Rd. Trailhead - 21.5 miles, 75°F, sunny
Total miles: 100.42
After waking up early a couple mornings on this trip we decided we really enjoyed it. There is something really great about hiking while the sun is still low in the sky and the air is cool. It is also a great way to get some more miles into your day.
When we woke up we weren't sure whether or not we'd finish the trip today or camp another night. The day before left our feet feeling tired, but when we started hiking we felt awesome. We quickly decided today was the day to push through and finish.
After a stop at the Udell Hills water pump we hiked on past Pine Creek and noticed the route we were following was not the same as the map. The blazes were putting us on a road walk.
The trail marking on this trip had been incredible so far, so we had no reason not to trust it. They routed us to 3 miles of dirt road walking, which was ok. We passed an NCT trail maintainer cabin. The maintainer was out, but there was a guest book for people camping there. The first entry was from 2001!
After a section of trail high above the Manistee River we dropped down to High Bridge and crossed over. From here we could see Udell Hills where we camped the night before!
After some lunch we descended back down toward the Manistee, crossed over a beaver dam and hiked quickly through the waist high grasses in Leitch Bayou.
The last 5 miles of the trip surprised us a bit and threw in more hills than we'd seen the whole week. We had also seen a pretty average number of mosquitos and annoying insects, but this section had a ton of annoying gnats that enjoyed kamikaze diving into your eyes and nose.
At 4:30 pm we emerged from the forest onto Coates Highway and hiked the 1/4 mile down the road to the trailhead to complete our trip.
The NCT isn't the AT, the PCT or the CDT. It won't give you those massive views or extreme terrain. But here in Michigan it is our trail. It allows us to go not much further than our backyard to stretch our legs and get some good miles on our feet. Backpackers here take pride in the fact that the NCT runs through our state. It was VERY well maintained and well marked. In fact I've never seen less trash on a trail.
If you live in or near Michigan and want an excuse to hike for miles upon miles then the NCT is the place to do it and I think every backpacker in Michigan should make it a point to hike as many sections of it as they can. Especially the miles in Manistee National Forest.