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.
QUICK TAKE: Manistee River Loop, Michigan
DRIVE TIME: The Manistee River Trail is located in Michigan's Lower Peninsula, about 270 miles (5 hours) northwest of Detroit, and 300 miles (51/2 hours) northeast of Chicago.
THE WAY: From Grand Rapids, take US 131 north to Cadillac. Follow MI 55 west for 20 miles, then turn right on Warfield Road. After 5 miles, turn left on Coates Highway, and the Red Bridge Access parking lot is 2 miles ahead on the left just after the bridge. Trailheads are across the road. To reach the Marilla trailhead from MI 55, take MI 37 north to Mesick, turn left on MI 115, left on Beers Road and left at the North Country Trail sign.
TRAILS: Huron-Manistee National Forest contains 120 miles of the North Country Trail. The Manistee River Trail, together with a portion of the NCT, forms a 20-mile loop of varied hiking.
ELEVATION: Red Hill tops out at 1,105 feet, and the trail descends to about 700 feet through Flower Flats.
CAN'T MISS: The best views are along the NCT between Marilla trailhead and Red Hill. On the Manistee River Trail side you'll find an 8-foot-high waterfall 2 miles south of the suspension bridge.
CROWD CONTROL: Summer weekends are popular with anglers, canoers, mountain bikers, and hikers. This area is known for fall colors, and deer season is best avoided. Spring and fall midweek hikers will find absolute solitude.
PIT STOP: Sandy's in nearby Mesick has $1.95 breakfast specials. Stop at the IGA grocery store down the street for any last-minute supplies.
WALK SOFTLY: Rangers ask that you camp at least 200 feet from the river unless you're at a designated campsite. Stay on the trail in the delicate waterfall glade and wetland areas.
MAPS AND GUIDES: USGS Yuma and Marilla topographic maps are available for $4 apiece through the Forest Service, along with free maps of the Manistee River Trail and the NCT. Detailed guides and maps are also available through the North Country Trail Association. For both addresses, see below.
MORE INFORMATION: Huron-Manistee National Forests Headquarters & Visitor Center 1755 S. Mitchell St., Cadillac, MI 49601; (616) 775-2421; http://www.netonecom.net/~hurmannf/hmindex.htm. Or North Country Trail Association, 49 Monroe Center, Suite 200B, Grand Rapids, MI 49546; (616) 454-5506; http://people.delphi.com/wesboyd/ncnst.htm.