As the seasons change and winter arrives, many people put away their backpacking gear. But as the snow falls and the crowds disappear, a new adventure awaits. It was a cold December night, and our group met at the Upper River Road trailhead on the North Country Trail. (Parking is near the corner of North Coats Highway and Upper River Road in Brethren, MI, not far from the newly restored Red Bridge).
We were all geared up for this 2 night, 21 mile North Country trail/Manistee River trail loop backpacking trip, with many layers of insulated clothing, cold weather sleeping bags and sleeping pads, winter hats and gloves, tents or hammocks, trail maps, cell phones with extra batteries, cameras, GPS units, headlamps, first aid kits, cooking stoves, 2-3 liters of water and water filters, 2 day’s worth of snacks, 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 1 dinner, and a bucksaw to cut firewood.
14 of us from all over Michigan were on this adventure, all part of the “Northern Michigan Hiking, Backpacking and Kayaking” group. This was my 8th time doing this route, one of us is experiencing her first ever backpacking trip, while many others have backpacked all over Michigan, in other parts of the country, and all over the world.
With our backpacks full and snow under our feet, we set off for our camping spot, Red Hill Lookout, a large hill on the left side of the trail with great views, a couple of miles into the woods on the North Country trail. We backpack for an hour through the forest up a steep incline and along a ridge line while enjoying casual conversations lighted by our headlamps until we reach our camping spot. Once we reach the top of the hill, we set up our tents or hammocks, and then we gather around the fire until late in the night.
“We start out the next morning with a good breakfast, and then we get ready to set off down the trail.”
We start out the next morning with a good breakfast, and then we get ready to set off down the trail. We’ll be backpacking around 14 miles today, and with the colder weather we also need to stay warm and hydrated. (14 miles from here is near the middle of the Manistee river trail, with established campsite options and a shorter 7 mile hike out the next day.) Heading down the trail, we enjoy the solitude of the forest while we hike along ridge lines, up and down many hills, and we enjoy views of the valley below. We then stop for lunch and to filter water at Eddington Creek.
We hike over the suspension bridge that crosses the Manistee River, where kayakers pass under more often in the warmer months. After crossing the bridge, we arrive at the Manistee river trail, an 11 mile trail which follows the Manistee River, which has fewer hills compared to the previous section, offers more water sources, and also offers outstanding views near the river and on high river banks with many horseshoe bends.
I remember my time backpacking with a pulk sled to carry my backpacking gear on this part of the trail almost 2 years ago. Pulk sleds eliminate the need to carry a backpack by providing a way to transport gear in heavy snow. Insulated winter hiking boots with snowshoes are also essential for a deep snow winter backpacking trip. (If there is heavy snow, the Manistee river trail provides a shorter 11 mile route, with car spotting at Seaton Creek campground and Red Bridge required.)
“We hike over the suspension bridge that crosses the Manistee River, where kayakers pass under more often in the warmer months.”
We backpack more in the snowy forest, over footbridges crossing streams, next to the Manistee River, and on the high river banks we admire the great views which are near many established campsites. Campsites 4A, 7A, 7B and 10A were some of my favorite spots for views. After passing by several other first come, first serve established campsites with fire rings, our 14 mile day comes to an end by 5 pm, as we reach our camping spot on a high snowy bank along the river.
We set up our tents or hammocks, and then we gather around the fire for about 6 hours once the sun goes down. Staying close to the fire keeps our group together in the frigid temperatures. We enjoy each other’s company in the cold, quiet, snowy scenery and gaze upon the stars at night.
“We backpack more in the snowy forest, over footbridges crossing streams, next to the Manistee river, and on the high river banks we admire the great views which are near many established campsites”
The next morning, we have breakfast and then we head down the Manistee River trail for about 7 more miles, hiking in the beautiful forest near the river, crossing steams, and on top of the steep river banks. We reach the parking lot around 2 pm, and then we head to Cadillac for lunch and to reflect on our cold journey. We remember the beautiful trail and the solitude that winter can bring to the woods.
“Staying close to the fire keeps our group together in the frigid temperatures.”
The Manistee River Trail loop, a 21 mile trail loop along the Manistee River Trail and the North Country Trail, (23 miles if instead starting from and ending at Seaton Creek campground), is an excellent winter backpacking destination. In the winter months, with no bugs and very little people, (we only saw a few other people while hiking the entire weekend, which is a big contrast to warmer months), it’s easy to see why some people call this the best backpacking loop in all of Michigan. Please leave no trace, this trail has grown in popularity, and it’s important to practice those principles any time of the year.
Map of the route: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5373964.pdf
“We reach the parking lot around 2 pm, and then we head to Cadillac for lunch and to reflect on our cold journey”
Story by: Chris Gray
Organizer at Northern Michigan Hiking, Backpacking and Kayaking