What a difference a bridge makes. It used to be you couldn’t hike the North Country Trail (NCT) through Huron-Manistee National Forest without a two-car shuttle or back-tracking. Then a suspension footbridge opened in 1996, connecting the newly completed Manistee River Trail across the river to the NCT. The result is a weekend-size, 20-mile loop that offers some of the best views and most varied hiking in the Lower Peninsula. And you can leave the extra car at home.
Each of these trails has a unique character. Long views and rugged hiking typify the NCT as it climbs hill after hill through tall pines and hardwoods that tower over the Manistee River, culminating in the view of nothing but trees, hills, and river from atop Red Hill-a rare lower peninsula high spot that doesn’t come with a ski resort. On the east side of the river, the Manistee River Trail rolls across smaller hills and flats, where waterfalls, streams, wetland boardwalks, and high, cut-away riverbanks characterize the land. It’s impressive not for the views, but for the variety. The diamond blazes keep hikers on track and footbridges keep boots dry.
There’s ample parking at all trailheads. However, the road to Seaton Creek Campground trailhead may be impassable, especially in winter. If you park at the Marilla trailhead instead, you’ll have a long, steep uphill climb to finish your hike. If you hike south on the NCT segment be sure to watch for the Manistee River Trail spur that heads southeast down to the river. It’s heralded with a confusing wooden sign reading “North Country Trail.” Pass it and you’ll hike an extra 2 miles, but considering the pleasant surroundings, worse things could happen.