Manistee River Trail & NCT Loop
This is a perfect weekend-size, plus or minus, 20 mile Manistee River Trail & NCT loop that takes you on some of the best terrain in the Lower Peninsula. THE BEST PART -You only need one car… it’s a loop so park up high on the trail, or down in the flats and start your journey. Many people hike this throughout the year, but some of the best hiking is in the fall when peak color hits the Udell Hills in the distance.
We recommend you hike this trail loop twice, First time starting on the North Country Trail (beginning at Red Bridge), and the second time, the Manistee River Trail to begin (beginning at the Marilla Trailhead or Seaton Creek Campground). You will forget you are hiking the same trail – it changes that much between directions. Here is a comprehensive overview of this awesome trail system.
STARTING OUT – DAY 1 & NCT
If you read the recommendation above, we suggest you take your first hike on this loop, clockwise beginning at Red Bridge. Red Bridge is a great place to start, as there is a well marked parking area, campsites and potable water. You will continue east past the Upper River Trailhead and swing north onto the North Country Trail (NCT).
It doesn’t take long until you come across the first big awe-inspiring view. Just after crossing Pole Road you will find the Red Hill Lookout. This amazing peak tops out at 1,105 and provides incredible view over the Udell Hills. You will see the sign. Drop your packs at the tree and hike to the top. No need to make it harder on yourself scaling the 100’+ vertical climb to get to the top.
Rugged Terrain: From Red Hill to your potential campsite, you will have some serious terrain to navigate. The trail is well marked, but the terrain has hundreds of feet worth of elevation changes in a 2.5 mile stretch that will test your legs (hence the reason, we recommend you proceed in this direction on the first day).
Potential Campsite: is section of the NCT is well marked, but marked campsites are few. The area where you connect with the MRT section takes you down into the river basin, so you can enjoy the sound of the river during your evening stay. Please remember to respect the 200’ rule, in that no overnight campsites should be set up within 200’ of the river. If you push on a little further, you will find some primitive marked campsites.
DAY 2 & MRT
As you wake early the next morning, and get underway you will come across the suspension bridge that is the lifeline between the NCT and MRT. The bridge is the longest pedestrian foot bridge in the Lower Peninsula. It crosses the Big Manistee River just a little under a half mile from Hodenpyl Dam.
0.85 Mile Detour: If you have not seen a functioning hydroelectric dam, we recommend you take the extra time and check this out. Grab a little fuel for the road, drop your packs, and head over to Hodenpyl Dam. You will probably see paddlers making the portage on the northern side during the peak summer seasons.
Water Filling: If you are running low on fresh drinking water, trek over to the Seaton Creek Campground. It is about 3 miles worth of extra hiking (out and back).
Small Waterfalls: About three miles into the MRT hike, you will come across a small wooden foot bridge that takes you over a series of small waterfalls feeding into the Big Manistee River below. A great place for a group photo op.
Potential Campsite: This may be one of the most scenic portions of the Manistee River Trail. Perched about 200’ above the water below, you will have panoramic views and vistas of the rolling hills in the distance and be able to keep a watchful eye on the kayakers below. The designated campsites in this area do have a bit more traffic during the peak summer seasons, so you may need to continue on the trail for another half a mile until you find other suitable spots. Don’t go too much further, as the final 2 miles until you hit Red Bridge are down in the swamps and lowlands, so finding a suitable campsite can be tough (and buggy). The distance to this area is approx. 7.5 miles from your first nights campsite. It will be about 10 if you added on the water fill and Dam viewing mentioned in locations 5 and 6.
If you are looking to make this just an overnight hike, you will still have about 3 to 3.5 miles to go until you hit your parking area at Red Bridge.
If you are looking for just an overnight, you can continue on to the end. However, the terrain that exists on the east end of the river near Red Bridge is quite varied, so be sure you have enough gas to complete, as there are not many campsites when you are a couple miles out from the parking area.
DAY 3 – SMALL TREK
The third and final day of the loop is the shortest you will spend on the trail so take a little more time in the morning watching the morning light creep up and illuminate the rolling hills in the distance. As you are packing up for the final leg, you should be glad to know that it is downhill most of the day into the beginning of the backwaters of Tippy Dam.
Traversing the Marshes: Stick to the path here, especially in the Spring, after the winter thaw. It can be pretty wet the last few miles. There are many wooden walkways that will keep you dry and allow you to keep a good pace.
Ending at Red Bridge: Congratulations, you have made your way successfully around the MRT/NCT loop.
A few more tips: Summer weekends are popular with anglers, canoers, mountain bikers, and hikers. is area is known for fall colors, and deer season is best avoided. Spring and fall midweek hikers will find absolute solitude. The North Country Trail is shared between hikers and bikers, while the Manistee River Trail is designated for hikers ONLY.