In my opinion, this is hands down the best backpacking that the Midwest has to offer. And a bonus for all you non-backpackers out there, most of these beautiful spots are accessible by a shorter hike if you don't want to be hardcore and hike 30-40 miles :)
Where: Michigan's Upper Peninsula, along the shoreline of Lake Superior
Route: The North Country Trail (NCT) follows the shoreline for 42.4 miles from Grand Marais, MI to Munising, MI. Since we only had 3 days to hike, we hiked 37.1 miles, starting at Log Slide Road (trail mile 5.3) instead of the Grand Sable Visitor Center (the official start of the trail). We ended at the Munising Falls visitor center (mile 42.4).
If you're wondering how to hike a trail like this one-way, we did it by parking our car at the visitor center and taking the hiker shuttle. It's $25 per person, and you can decide where you want to be picked up/dropped off. You do have to make sure to book ahead of time though, so they know when and where to pick you up. The beauty of this shuttle is that it allows you to adjust your trip length, depending on how many miles you want to hike.
If you are limited on time, or just doing shorter hikes, I think the best section is from Beaver Creek to Miner's Beach, with the highlights being Chapel Beach/Chapel Rock, Mosquito River Beach, and Grand Portal Point.
Maps We Used:
Michigan Trail Maps Paper Backpacking Map - Totally worth the money. Always good to carry a paper map, and this one has lots more detail than free ones. I actually was able to help out a couple day hikers that got turned around using the state park map.
Alltrails - This follows the route we took from Log Slide Rd., although the official mileage is 37.1. It's nice to be able to see exactly where you are on the map, even without wifi/mobile data. You do have to have a pro account though to download the map. Shoutout to my friend Ryan's dad who probably has no idea I'm logged into his pro account.
Camping is only allowed at designated backcountry campsites along the trail, and during peak seasons, you'll want to make sure to book your campsites well in advance, especially if your trip overlaps a weekend. There were three of us trying to book sites for Labor Day Weekend, and when we went to the reservation site in early August, the pickings were slim. We even had to pay extra to book a large group campsite for night 2 because it was the only feasible option, distance-wise. And we still ended up having to do two 15+ mile days back to back, which was pretty intense to do without training. Basically my point is: book as early as you have your group together.
I hiked this with my friends Melissa and Jen, and it was the most challenging and rewarding hike I've done yet. The views were breathtaking, and I got some experience hiking longer days to have a better of an idea of what the PCT might actually feel like (minus the elevation). We did get rained on a few times, but the temps were great - mid 70s during the day and 60s at night. I'd definitely go during this time of year again.
8.5 hours from Fort Wayne, IN
We left work a little early on a Thursday and made the drive up from Fort Wayne, IN to Munising, MI! With stops, it was about 8.5 hours, so we took turns driving.
I took the last shift, and the Munising Econo Lodge sign was a beacon of red light among the dark pines. We packed our stuff when we got to the room at 1am, then slept until the alarm went off at 6:30.
15.1 miles from Log Slide Rd. to Beaver Creek Campground
What a day. Glorious highs and deep lows. Pristine lake views, and biting stable flies. 15 flat miles that felt so very long. Self doubt. Self confidence.
With only a few hours of sleep, we got up early, ate breakfast at the hotel, picked up some last minute items, and drove to the Munising Falls Visitor Center. We parked the car, and soon we saw the shuttle pull up. Another couple rode with us, but they were headed all the way to the Grand Sable Visitor Center, the official start of the 42.5 mile trail.
We were dropped off at Log Slide Rd., then set off! There was a short walk to our first view of Lake Superior and the Log Slide.
It had been sprinkling lightly, but after 10 minutes or so, it started to rain harder and we got our rain gear on. There were also plenty of little short side trails to access the beach here. It was beautiful! The only issue was that as soon as we got down to the beach, the biting flies started to attack. We had forgotten my Picaridin repellent lotion, and DEET doesn't do a thing against biting flies.
Really the only thing we could do to combat them was to get off the beach and keep moving. After about 2 miles, we made it to the lighthouse and took refuge from the rain on the porch of the visitor center.
We got there around 10:30am, so technically they weren't open, but the sweet old couple who were volunteering there that week let us in early. They were so friendly! We took a short break to dry off, had snacks on the porch, used the porta-potty and continued on.
The rain slowed and the temps were really nice. Jen's pack was hurting her shoulders pretty bad though, and so we took some breaks to try and adjust it.
We had lunch by Twelvemile beach, and ventured on for 8 more tough miles. The trail meandered through patches of woods right alongside the shore, and a few groves further inland.
Soon, Melissa started to get blisters, and we were all hurting and sore. We took some little snack breaks to keep our energy up. Hiking 15.1 miles in a day when you're used to sitting at a desk most of the time is no joke, friends.
Finally, we made it up one particularly tough sand hill and saw the campsites!
We were so deliriously happy to have made it, we must have looked crazy. After sitting a while and resting our feet, we set up camp and made dinner
We ate by the beach watching the sunset - so glorious. After a long day, this made it all worth it.
After putting all our food in the bear-proof food lockers at our campsite, we got some rest.
15.6 miles from Beaver Creek Campground to Cliffs Group Campsite
This was my favorite day of the trip. The day was long, but the beauty was unbeatable.
I woke up around 7:30am pretty stiff but well rested and changed into my hiking clothes. Melissa and Jen had just woken up too, so I offered to filter water. The view on lake Superior was stunning, though trudging back up the dune with 6 liters of water was not so stunning. I got back to camp and we started breakfast together.
Oatmeal with freeze dried fruit and coffee for me! I also tried Cafe Bustelo instant espresso, and it's actually good enough to drink it black. Yay! Good coffee that's not as pricey as Starbucks.
We packed up the tents and all our stuff, and Jen had an intense confrontation with a chipmunk. We were nervous about having to hike 15.6 miles after the tough day yesterday, but we said a little prayer and finally hit the trail around 10am.
The views and beaches just got more and more beautiful as we went on. We also realized that since the wind was blowing from a different direction, the biting flies were gone. What a relief!
Spray Falls was pretty, and Chapel Beach was a perfect place to stop for lunch and soak our tired feet. The rock formations and cliffs took my breath away.
Our lunch break really revived morale, and we saw some of the most incredible views as we continued on. The view of Grand Portal Point from afar might be my favorite sight in the entire midwest.
As we neared Mosquito River, again we were feeling super tired. We had planned to just stop and use the toilet there, but we could tell our spirits were sinking from how sore we were. So we stopped and enjoyed the rocky beach for about 45 minutes. The cool water was so refreshing to our bodies and minds. Definitely worth the stop.
Since it was already around 5:45pm, we decided to hike the 3 miles to Miners Beach, eat dinner there during sunset, and then just night-hike the 2.5 more miles to the Cliffs Group campsite we had booked. The hike to Miner's Beach was mostly through the woods, but we saw the most beautiful sight when we emerged on the beach.
Watching the sunset while a storm rained down from afar was incredible. We cooked our dinner, soaked our feet, and washed off in the lake.
Finally, we packed up our stuff, turned on our headlamps, and started into the dark.
A drizzle started, so we pulled out the rain gear, and we sang camp songs and whatevem popped into our minds. A few included: the Moose Song, Tarzan, I Would Walk 500 Miles, The Climb, a Whole New World, and Shake it Off 😂 The trail seemed to go on forever, and it felt surreal to be out in the dark, hiking in the rain. So different than everyday life. Eventually, we hit a paved section of trail. Confused and hurting from the impact of the hard pavement on our feet, we soon realized that we had found the Miner's Castle Visitor Center - and there were flushing toilets! I had never been so excited to have indoor plumbing available. It gave us one last little morale boost before our final push.
We were so delirious but relieved when we got to camp. I couldn't believe we had made it 30.7 miles in two days... and I was freaking proud of us for pressing on. As soon as we put up our tents, we collapsed into bed.
6.4 miles from Cliffs Group Campsite to the car at the Munising Falls Visitor Center
I slept soundly, but still woke up a lot to shift around because of how sore my body was. I got up at 8:30 to go to the bathroom and stumbled up the path to the pit toilet in the midst of a beautiful fern forest. Not a bad place to relieve myself. Since I was up, I massaged my feet, journaled, did some scripture reading, and when I realized I had service, I texted my parents and posted on social media. I just let myself enjoy the slow morning. It was really nice. Finally, around 10:30am, I heard Melissa and Jen stirring in their tent, and we slowly packed our stuff up.
Because we were feeling lazy, we all just ate no-cook breakfasts of CLIF bars, apricots, and the treat of bacon jerky.
Only 6.4 miles left... it couldn't be that bad, right? Um, not exactly. The first 1.5 or so seemed to go by really fast, and we were feeling good still.
We passed a couple meandering and taking photos, then another couple in nicer clothes trying to decide if they wanted to keep going because the trail was getting so muddy. We showed them our map and that there were waterfalls ahead, but we weren't sure if they would be flowing. The guy seemed like he wanted to press on but his wife wasn't so sure. As we walked away, we heard him say something like "well if those girls can do it, I'm not turning back" or something macho like that. Lol, sure bro. We didn't see them again though.
The trail was really rough with lots of roots, stones, and little ups and downs. The mud made things interesting too. Melissa's foot was in a lot of pain. We stopped a few times to adjust packs and rest the feet a bit, shortly after the first waterfall.
We reached the sign turnoff for Sand Point - 2.7 miles until Munising Falls. We decided to just press on, desperate for pizza and rest. It seemed to continue on forever though because we were so tired! It's crazy how much morale can affect our perception of distance.
We saw some signs for ski trails, and knew we were close. Around 0.2 miles away, we saw a sign for a trail detour. Frustrated and so tired, we just plopped down in the middle of the trail and shared Jen's cosmic brownie. Melissa was so done. Jen was so slap happy, she booped herself on the nose with a weird stick.
We were so close though, and shortly, we emerged from the woods in joy! We were just a short road walk to the car! Also we found it pretty funny that the trail ended right across the road from the Munising Memorial Hospital. Appropriate.
We had made it! Instantly we were full of joy and so proud of all we had done. Melissa laid down on the sidewalk, and Jen and I sat on the curb by the car. To top it off, some guys drove by slowly with mountain bikes on their car. They rolled down the window and asked us how the trail was. We told them it was pretty muddy and rough for biking. Then they asked if we did Sand Point or Marsh something. We told them we had hiked 37 miles from near Grand Marais and they were super impressed with us. Haha it felt so good! And we realized they thought we had only hiked 2 miles! Lol, in the gross state we were in, that was such a compliment!
We packed up the car with our smelly stuff and made it to the hotel. After checking in, showering, and laying on the comfy bed for awhile, it was time for FOOOOOD!
Devoured two delicious pizzas at Pictured Rocks Pizza, got ice cream at the Flamingo, then stopped at Kroger for snacks and muscle relief cream.
Visiting Munising Falls & Miner's Castle, Drive back home
Since Labor Day marks the annual Mackinac Bridge Walk and we knew the bridge would be closed until noon, we had decided to drive back to the Munising Falls Visitor Center to see the falls (since the trail is super short, haha).
Afterwards, we also drove 10 more minutes to the Miner's Castle Visitor Center (where we had used the bathroom) so we could see the lookout point in the light of day. Definitely a cool spot, although Grand Portal Point was still my favorite!
We stopped for coffee at the Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore (so cute!) before heading back south. Also, if you've never had a pasty (pronounced like past-ee), you have to stop and get one while you're still in the UP! They're like a shepherd's pie baked in pastry and served with gravy. There are several little restaurants/cafes along the highway that have them.
This trip was truly an adventure of the best kind. It was so hard but so good. It gave me a good reality check of what long-distance hiking is actually like - the good, the bad, and the ugly. But I absolutely loved it. And I realized that mentally, I am stronger than I thought.