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Hiking With Michigan’s Elk Herd

What's good for elk is good for backpackers on Michigan's High Country Pathway.

On my way to Lower Michigan’s High Country Pathway, I stopped in at a local mom-and-pop store. “Hopin’ to see some elk?” the woman behind the counter asked.

“Elk?” I repeated, amazed.

“Yup,” she confirmed. “Lots of ‘em.”

I thought she was pulling some locals-only joke on me, but sure enough, there are elk out there. Almost 1,100, in fact, the largest free-roaming herd east of the Mississippi. And it took only a few steps along the 70-mile-long High Country Pathway to understand why. This wild slice of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is ideal elk country: A region big, wild, and short on humans, it’s coursed by trout-rich creeks and covered in forest, rolling hills, boggy lowlands, and oodles of lakes. Rocky Mountain elk, introduced here in 1918 after native elk became extinct, find the environs just fine, as do backpackers.

My favorite portion of the 70-mile loop is the hurly-burly southwestern half, where the pathway cuts through the heart of the 99,000-acre Pigeon River Country Forest. South of Pine Grove Campground, the trail bounds from ridge to ridge, offering a jaw-dropping overlook above Grass Lake. Rest your legs and lungs here while you enjoy a colorful fall vista of 20 miles of maple and beech forest, white and red pine, aspen, and the wandering valley of the Pigeon River.

The descent from the Grass Lake overlook leads to a winding moraine tracing the Pigeon River for 4 miles. Fly-rod anglers should allow ample time to bushwhack down to the river’s banks and drift a nymph over the fish-filled water. From Pigeon River, the trail continues south to Round Lake, where you can pitch a tent under fragrant red pines and watch for soaring red-tailed hawks and the occasional osprey.

But what about those elk? I finally caught up to the big ungulates in the young aspen stands between Rattlesnake Hill and Town Corner Lake. Even if you never see an elk, though, just knowing they’re out here, masked by the tangled thickets, makes this a place where backpackers belong.

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