Where: North Central Michigan (Lower Peninsula), Manistee-Huron National Forest
Route: The North Country Trail (NCT) connects to the Manistee River Trail to make a 23-mile loop, perfect for a weekend trip. You could probably do this in 2 days, but I like to make it a 3-day, 2-night trip.
Maps we used:
Alltrails (heads up - the route says this at 29 miles, but it's incorrect. You also need a premium account to download the map and use it without service.)
This PDF Map from the Visit Manistee County website
My hiking buddy Ryan and I did this hike for the first time in late October 2017, and the fall colors were peaking perfectly. The trail was more heavily trafficked than I expected, but there were still plenty of nice, flat places to camp off the trail if you want more privacy. I'd recommend going in the fall like we did - the colors were breathtaking!
4 hr. drive, 4 miles hiked
My hiking buddy Ryan and I drove up from Warsaw, IN on a Friday night. We got a late start, leaving around 6:30pm. After stopping for Chick-Fil-A (the best pre-backpacking meal) and a picking up a few things we forgot at Walmart, we didn't reach the Marilla trailhead until around 11pm. Good thing we planned for some night hiking! We pulled out the headlamps and started the loop clockwise, going north on the NCT.
I had heard that this first section was mostly through the woods, so we planned to hike for a few miles before finding a spot. There was an overlook on Red Hill, but I think we missed the view since it was dark. This stretch of the NCT also didn't have access to water until about 9 miles in at Eddington Creek, so night hiking was a good way to conserve some water as well. The temps were perfect for hiking at around 55/60 degrees, even after dark.
Maybe 2 miles in, we happened upon a more established tent site that was PACKED with people. We're talking tent city here. So be aware that if you go on a nice fall weekend, it will still be well trafficked. We wanted to go a little further anyways though, and about 4.5 miles in, we decided to try to find a quiet spot to pitch our tents. A bit uphill from the trail, there looked to be a flat plateau that might work, so we headed that direction and found a nice little backcountry campsite. We set up our tents and hung our food, and it was nice to have a spot of our own.
I had decided to use Ryan's lightweight sleeping bag liner instead of the heavy sleeping bag I brought, and with the wind/ my decision to not set up my rainfly, I was pretty chilly. But I enjoyed seeing the trees away over my tent, and I swore I saw some kind of the meteor shower through the trees.
10 miles hiked
Since we didn't get to bed until after 1am, we slept in. Ryan made a little fire, and we enjoyed our oatmeal and coffee before packing up and hitting the trail again around 11am.
We continued north, and enjoyed the yellowing woods and ravines in the light of day. This section of trail was a tunnel of fall colors that wound up and down some hills - so beautiful. Since Michigan got hit with a later fall than normal, the colors were just beginning to peak. Occasionally, you could see glimpses of the rolling hills of forest through the trees to the east.
We eventually made it to Eddington Creek after maybe 5 more miles or so, and there was a group of hikers huddled around filtering water. We had rationed so well though that we each had over a liter, more than enough to get us to the next creek on the other side of the river. So we pressed on.
We got a little turned around on a side trail near a clearing with power lines, but a hunter we ran into gave us some directions. We found our way to the turnoff for the Manistee River Trail.
Now the truly beautiful section was starting. We filtered water with my Sawyer filter, and came upon some sweet views of the river soon after that. I had started to get some blisters, so we stopped so I could bandage them with leukotape. Finally, we saw the suspension bridge and crossed to the east bank of the Manistee River.
We hiked through some incredibly beautiful pine groves, framed by unreal fall colors.
After making it to the little waterfall, we started looking for camp. We hiked back to a secluded spot by the creek away from the main spots where people were staying. It was around 3:40pm, and we had gone around 10 miles... our feet were getting crazy tired. But we had some pizza roll ups for a late lunch, set up camp, and built a fire.
We rested and talked, and eventually made our Knorr pasta sides for dinner before hanging our food and getting some sleep.
Day 38-9ish miles back to the car, drive home
I woke up decently early, and sat by the stream for awhile and enjoyed the peace and quiet, just thankful to be alive.
After Ryan woke up, we filtered water and made toasted bagels with butter and brown sugar for breakfast, and then packed up our stuff. We knew there was some rain forecasted, but we were just glad that it appeared to be holding off.
We hiked through more beautiful piney woods, yellow woods, and past some gorgeous views of the river and forest hills. There were lots of great camping spots in this stretch. Nearing Red bridge, we felt the sprinkles start and put on our pack covers. Then it began to drizzle more steadily. Thankfully it was still pretty warm, in the mid 60s.
Tired, wet, and happy, we made it to the car around 3:20pm.
This was my first legit longer distance backpacking trip, and it was a huge confidence booster for me. I got to plan most of the food/itinerary, test out my gear, and enjoy the beautiful scenery. If you're looking for a good trail to start with, I'd definitely recommend it!