Moonbeams bathe the river valley in a soft, milky glow while barred owls trade midnight messages from the treetops. Just outside the tent, a campfire dwindles to coals. The smoky aroma spells C-A-M-P-O-U-T. For backpackers, nothing beats hiking by day and drifting off to sleep beneath the stars. And one special Michigan trail has become known for just that.
The Manistee River Trail Loop — 23 miles including hiking the 1.4-mile access spur in and out — is the most popular trail in the Huron-Manistee National Forest, according to national forest officials. The looped route was created by linking the Manistee River Trail on the east bank with the North Country Trail on the west bank, allowing hikers to return to their vehicles without having to backtrack.
“The Manistee River Trail loop is a magnificent backpacking experience, and for good reason: It’s an accessible, scenic hike that most people can complete in 2-3 days. And because the path is circular, every step is a new adventure,” offers noted hiking author Jim DuFresne.
The North Country National Scenic Trail is the longest hiking trail in America. It spans seven states and 4,600 miles. In Michigan, 1,150 miles of its path snake across the upper and lower peninsulas. While experienced backpackers describe the Manistee River Trail Loop as moderate to challenging, the trek is well worth the effort.
Situated away from the river, the 8.5-mile North Country Trail section boasts steep inclines and declines. The added legwork, however, rewards backpackers with panoramic views. An amazing hike in any season, it’s tough to beat in April or October for pure aesthetics and photographic opportunities.
Across the river and paralleling the North Country Trail, the 11-mile Manistee River Trail closely follows the winding Manistee. Less arduous than the North Country Trail section, this trek is a nature lover’s dream. Hikers often see eagles and owls, otters and beavers, and even bears or coyotes. Primitive campsites overlooking the river allow easy access for swimming, and anglers can ply the waters for healthy populations of smallmouth bass, pike, walleye, and brown or rainbow trout.
Although I’ve backpacked this loop more than 25 times, each outing is an adventure. One night a pack of coyotes surrounded our campsite and serenaded me and my daughter for hours. On another trip, we weathered the granddaddy of storms.
A favorite family tradition along this stretch is our version of a “Lower Peninsula Low-Country Boil.” The cobble-bottomed Manistee River is home to sizable crayfish. Following an afternoon of underwater foraging, we toss the crayfish, some Old Bay seasoning, redskin potatoes, corn on the cob, and onions into a pot of boiling river water. Complicated? Not a bit, but unforgettable nonetheless.
Finding Your Way
Maps of the Manistee River Trail Loop are available from these online sites:
A free, downloadable Huron Manistee National Forest map is available at bit.ly/HMNFtrailmap
“Classic Trails of Michigan – Manistee River Trail & North Country Trail” can be purchased for $4.95 at michigantrailmaps.com