With over a hundred miles of the North Country Trail passing within 40 miles of Cadillac and miles of meandering pathways on Huron -Manistee National Forest lands, hikers have plenty of places to explore. There’s no shortage of one-way hikes – walks that are out-and-back tours or necessitate car spotting.
For those desiring a two-day overnight trip, there’s really only two established hiking loops in the Cadillac area – the 21 mile Fife Lake Loop Trail and the 20 mile North Country Trail /Manistee River Loop Trail.
The Manistee River/North Country Trail Loop, an approximately 20 mile circuit, includes the land between Hodenpyl Dam and Red Bridge. It certainly ranks as one of the most popular hikes in Michigan. Busy all summer and attracting hundreds during the late September/early October fall color season, finding a campsite along the route can be hard at times.
The North Country Trail (NCT) segment is the more challenging and has fewer campsites. Backpackers leaving from Red Bridge off Coates Highway might want to start by going west on the NCT. Leaving the Red Bridge parking lot, turn west and, pick up the trail following the blue diamond trail markers into the forest. The hike starts with a steep climb. At the top the trail levels off offering little more than gentle ascents and descents as the path snakes its way in easy traverses up and down the high ridges that overlook the river valley. In summer the dense forest offer shade but obscures much of the view.
After about 8 ½ miles on the NCT the trail turns east on a spur trail that merges the Manistee River Trail (MRT). The path follows a high bluff overlooking the river looping its way through the bottom land. A short time later the trail crosses the river on the Little Mac, the largest wooden suspension bridge in the Lower Peninsula. The structure was built in1996 and enabled the 11-mile section of the NCT to connect with the 9.5 mile Manistee River Trail.
At this point the path becomes the Manistee River Trail, which was completed in 1992. This section gets more use and has established and marked campsites, but no outhouses or potable water. The only source of potable water is at Red Bridge. Travelers doing the whole loop should carry some form of water treatment.
For day hikers the Manistee River Trail is the more scenic tour with frequent viewpoints from high bluffs above the river. To reach the Little Mac Bridge, it’s best to begin hiking near Seaton Creek. Most feel the best scenery is reached by leaving Red Bridge and heading east to catch the MRT off Coates Highway. In addition a to along the trail, camping is available at Seaton Creek Campground to the north and at Red Bridge.
Developed by the Grand Traverse Hiking Club (GTHC), the Fife Lake Trail was completed in 2014 and combines sections of the North Country Trail (NCT) with a pathway developed by the GTHC.
Most begin the Fife Lake Loop at the Old 131 Campground. Be sure and fill up water containers as the next opportunity for water is about 2 miles away at the 131 Roadside Park and from there it is over 8 miles to the Spring Lake National Forest Campground.
The first miles are up and down as the path drops down to boardwalks over creeks, then climbs to the top of ridges. By the time you cross under the US 131 Bridge, the path has smoothed out. From here on, the hiking will be mostly level. Creeks and springs that we encounter have wooden bridges over them. The Manistee River, though not always in sight, is close at hand. The best vista of the entire trip occurs about a mile in, when the trail reaches Ed’s Overlook. Getting lost is unlikely as blue painted markers show the way.
Turning north the trail leaves the river to follow the Fife Lake Outlet toward its source through a forest of huge white pines. About nine miles in the trail passes by Headquarters Lake, a lowland body of water that is home to trumpeter swans.
From there it is not far to the Spring Lake State Forest Campground, that was Michigan’s first State Forest Campground and was established in 1929. It makes a nice overnight stop after 10.6 miles of walking.
From the campground, it’s a half-mile to to US-131and the spur trail to Fife Lake Village, a handy detour if food or supplies are needed. The path crosses US-131 and enters a wooded area with numerous two tracks but the blue trail markers are there to lead the way.
When we reach highway M186, the NCT continues north and the Fife Lake Loop, now marked with orange blazes, goes south. It’s easy walking, a dry level path all the way. It’s 7.3 miles from the M-186 trailhead to finish the loop at the Old US-131 Campground.
The trail will pass through meadows, alongside wetlands, and next to areas that have been recently logged, but most of the walking is in the forest. Being here to see the fall color might be a peak time to see the area, but I can see this as a great venue for snowshoeing, or a pleasant shaded walk during the summer.
Trail maps are stocked at kiosks located at The Old 131 Campground and the roadside park on US-131, the Spring Lake Campground, and at the trail intersection at M186. The map boxes although stocked regularly might be empty.