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.
DRIVE TIME: The High Country Pathway is 260 miles (about 4 = hours) north of Detroit.
THE WAY: Take I-75 north to Wolverine (exit 301). Drive east on Afton Road for 1 mile. Here, Afton becomes Webb Road. Continue to Osmun Road and turn left. Proceed north for 2.5 miles to Duby Lake Road and then east 0.5 mile to Dog Lake. Park, and hop on the High Country Pathway where it skirts the north shore. Several access points farther south allow trips of various lengths.
TRAILS: For a 30-mile, point-to-point hike, begin at Dog Lake and end at Town Corner Lake
ELEVATION: Though you'll encounter a few stop-and-gaze-awhile vistas, this trail is mostly about sylvan solitude. Elevations range from 800 to 1,300 feet.
CAN'T MISS: The vista over the legendary Black River Valley, if you like the High Country Scenic Overlook above Grass Lake--continue half a mile beyond Town Corner Lake.
CROWD CONTROL: You should have the High Country Pathway to yourself most of the year. The state campgrounds along the trail get crowded in summer, but backcountry camping is allowed with a free permit from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR); see Contact below.
GUIDES: The Field Guide to the High Country Pathway is available from The Pigeon River Country Association (P.O. Box 122, Gaylord, MI 49735; $4.75) or you can call the DNR (see Contact below). It takes nine USGS 7.5-minute quad maps ($4 each) to cover the entire trail: Onaway, Tower, Afton, Lake Geneva, Silver Lake, Hardwood Lake, Atlanta, Hetherton, and Saunders Creek; call 888-ASK-USGS or visit http://mapping.usgs.gov/esic/to_order.html.
WALK SOFTLY: Stay on the trails even when the going gets wet. Trailblazing around bogs damages the environment, and may not keep your feet dry, anyway. Give the elk a buffer zone: Stay back at least 75 feet.
CONTACT: Gaylord Department of Natural Resources; (517) 732-3541; www.dnr.state.mi.us.