Sunlight glistening off the waters of a secluded, stunningly turquoise sinkhole lake. Majestic elk gathering in a misty meadow. Miles of unspoiled wilderness viewed from scenic, breathtaking vistas. The sound of a soaring red-tailed hawk’s wings whipping through the air.
That’s just a sampling of the images and experiences found along the rugged, untamed 80-mile High Country Pathway (HCP), one of the nation’s longest loop trails, nestled between I-75 and M-33 east of Vanderbilt.
It traverses through much of the Pigeon River Country State Forest’s 109,000 acres. At 12 miles wide by 20 miles long, it’s the Lower Peninsula’s largest section of contiguous undeveloped land and a place writer Ernest Hemingway once called “wild as the devil.”
Jason Adams, who runs the Pigeon River Country State Forest Facebook page, has been coming to this land through which the Pigeon, Sturgeon, and Black rivers flow for more than three decades.
“For me, it all began as child in the late 1980s when my family starting camping at Round Lake State Forest Campground,” says Adams, who travels to the area from his Lapeer County home. “The solitude and peacefulness you can experience hiking High Country is amazing.”
Avid mountain biker and Houghton Lake resident Mark Kunitzer has been making use of the trail for 11 years. He’s also seen the HCP become Michigan’s only trail to currently hold EPIC status from the International Mountain Biking Association.
It’s one of 53 mountain bike trails in the world with that recognition because it’s at least 20 miles in length, more than 80 percent single-track, technically and physically challenging, and “beautiful to behold and worthy of celebration.”
“I’ve always appreciated that the High Country is a great natural trail to ride, as opposed to trails that are built exclusively for mountain biking and smoothed out — so that makes it an adventurous challenge,” adds Kunitzer, who has overseen extensive maintenance work on the trail during the past two years. “The very remoteness of the trail is exciting. Where else can you find so much natural terrain and pass through a number of different environments?”
Another longtime HCP enthusiast is Joe Jarecki, the former Michigan Department of Natural Resources Pigeon River Country State Forest unit manager and current Pigeon River Country Association treasurer.
“What’s nice about HCP is how it traverses examples of all of the forest community ecosystems that are found in northern Michigan, as well as some of the higher elevations in the Lower Peninsula,” he says. “Although it runs through some of the wildest country in northern lower Michigan, there are enough road crossings (and access points) that a hiker can readily plan a weekend backpacking trip or a biker can do a good day ride without having to do the entire length.”
Hikers can discover this wilderness adventure barely 30 minutes after exiting I-75 at Vanderbilt and taking Sturgeon Valley Road 10 miles east to the Pigeon Bridge State Forest Campground.
The pathway passes through rolling hardwood forests; red, Jack, and white pine thickets; open meadows, cedar swamps, and wetlands; and numerous bodies of water. One of the largest wild elk herds east of the Mississippi River is the main attraction, but bear, bobcat, coyote, beaver, otter, and other wildlife sightings are possible.
Heading north from the Pigeon Bridge along the Pigeon River, the trail soon reaches a nearly quarter-mile-long boardwalk through a bog-like setting before coming to the can’t-miss Grass Lake overlook. It’s a short distance from where the HCP intersects with the Shingle Mill Pathway, which offers a series of loops for hikers and mountain bikers between about one and 11 miles.
From here, the trail jumps from ridge to ridge, including one rim that overlooks a beaver pond, hardwood stand, and marsh at Bird Tally Creek before reaching Pine Grove State Forest Campground. The bridge heading north collapsed and is being rebuilt, so you’ll have to forge the river to head onward.
Some of the HCP’s wildest and most unspoiled areas are found in the 20.5-mile stretch from Osmun Road to Shoepac Lake, which features conifer swamps along with rolling hills. Just after Duby Lake Road, the trail comes to an intersection with short spurs to Duby and McLavey lakes. Shallow, sandy-bottomed McLavey Lake is an ideal place to cool off or set up camp.
The rest of the loop pathway is just as awesome, and there are eight state forest campgrounds along the way — all near a body of water.
“A weekend backpack trip, or a moderately-challenging day’s bike ride, would be starting at Sturgeon Valley Road and going south and east for about 20 miles to Rouse Road,” Jarecki says. “The route goes through mature red and white pine, northern hardwoods, aspen, and a conifer swamp. It has nice vistas, including Rattlesnake Hill.”
In addition to rocks, roots, and the occasional fallen tree, bikers must navigate narrow bridges and boardwalks through low-lying wetlands, but that’s what makes the HCP such a satisfying ride, according to John Roe of the Northern Michigan Mountain Bike Association.
“The High Country isn’t for racers; it’s for explorers. And the ride is a challenging adventure, which makes it perfect for a long day’s ride or backpacking,” he says. “My favorite spots are Rattlesnake Hill, because it overlooks such a huge area, and Pine Grove Campground, with its artesian well. Tomahawk Creek Flooding is a nice place for bikers to stop and cool off.”
Pigeon River Discovery Center