Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors
Backpacking in Michigan
The Best Michigan Backpacking Adventures
The state of Michigan is home to miles of beautiful trails for backpacking trips, mountain biking and backcountry camping. Many of the best trails come within range to both rustic and developed state campgrounds. If you are taking a longer trip, you can also find a great variety of hiking environments. The deep woods of the North Country Trail in the Lower Peninsula are quite different from the lakeshore trails of the Upper Peninsula. The sandy trails of Sleeping Bear Dunes offer their own unique experience. You can also discover the joy of wild solitude on a hike over Isle Royale.
There are several trails that are within a few hours of Chicago and Detroit, making for a pleasant getaway for city dwellers. If you have never explored the many paths of Michigan, consider the state for your next hiking or camping trip. The Peninsula State is the perfect backdrop to an outdoor vacation. Here is some information about some of the best hikes in the state.
The North Country Trail
The North Country is part of a 4600-mile hiking path that stretches from eastern New York to central North Dakota. Of that distance, about 1150 miles crosses the two peninsulas of Michigan. If you followed the entire path in Michigan, you would walk across the entire Lower Peninsula and most of the Upper. Along the way you would walk through deep pine forests, pass by several small towns, cross the Mackinac Bridge and walk along the shore of Lake Superior. Although it is only four miles long, the hike from Marquette to Little Presque Isle is considered one of the best stretches, with gorgeous views of the rocky shores of Lake Superior.
Because the NCT covers such a long distance, you will want to do some careful planning for your trip. Most of the trail is easy hiking, especially in the Lower Peninsula. The lakeshore trails are not difficult in terms of elevation, but sand on the trail can require some extra effort. There are a number of options for camping. Much of the trail is open to backcountry camping. However, many of the state campgrounds require fees and reservations. Other rustic camping sites are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Pictured Rocks is one of the most beautiful sights in the state of Michigan. Thousands of years of wind and water have carved the local sandstone into dramatic formations. Many people enjoy exploring them by boat, but a different view comes when hiking along the shore. A popular hike is the Lakeshore Trail which goes for about 40 miles from Grand Marais to Munising. The Chapel Loop is another excellent hike that takes in many of the important sites of Pictured Rocks including Mosquito Falls, Chapel Rock and the Pictured Rocks cliffs. There are several other day trip trails in the park that vary from one to five miles.
A permit is not required for hiking, but a backcountry camping permit is required for using the sites in the national park and along the Lakeshore Trail. There is usually a steady breeze which keeps the insect population down, but on some parts of the trails, stable flies can be particularly aggressive. Be sure to pack long pants and socks in case you need them as these pests tend to attack exposed lower legs and ankles.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
Located in the Upper Peninsula on the southern shore of Lake Superior, the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is the largest state park in Michigan at 60000 acres. Within that area you will find rivers, streams, waterfalls and miles of old-growth forest.
The park boasts 90 miles of hiking and biking trails. Although changes in elevation make for some spots of moderate difficulty, most of these trails are easy hiking. For views of some of the most stunning scenery, the four-mile Escarpment Trail makes for an excellent day trip. You will walk over Cloud Peak and Cuyahoga Peak ending with views of the Lake of the Clouds. The Big Carp River Trail is about 10-miles and will take you near Shining Cloud Falls, the highest waterfall in the park.
For a real wilderness adventure, the 20-mile Porcupine Mountain Wilderness Loop takes you through much of the park’s territory. There are several rustic camping sites along the way. Contact the park office to obtain a backcountry parking permit.
Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park is the least-visited national park in the lower 48 states. The park can only be reached by boat or seaplane. Other than a few electric vehicles near the visitor’s center at the Rock Harbor entry point, Isle Royale is vehicle-free. Once you step beyond Rock Harbor, you have access to over 160 miles of easy to moderate hiking trails. In the right season, wild berries line parts of the trails. There is a decent population of moose as well as a pack of wolves that made it to the island when the water between Isle Royale and Canada froze in particularly cold winters. The island trails cross the full length and width of the island, allowing you to make loops of different sizes. The Greenstone Ridge Trail covers the length of the island and is 43 miles from Windigo in the west to Rock Harbor in the east.
If your start at the Windigo entry point, the Minong Ridge Traverse will take you 30-miles along the northern coast of the island. It is then a 10-mile hike on the Indian Portage trail to reach Rock Harbor. A national park ferry can take you from Rock Harbor back to Windigo.
Hiawatha National Forest
The boundaries of the Hiawatha National Forest touch on three of the five great lakes. Located near Munising, It has hundreds of miles of hiking trails that go through deep forest and near ponds and lakes. For an overnight trip, the 20-mile loop around the coast of Grand Island is well worth a weekend. There are numerous campsites around the island, though most require reservations. Cobble Cove, Flat Rock and Muskrat Point campsite are drop-in sites.
Sault Ste. Marie State Forest
In the Sault Ste. Marie area, the Algonquin Pathway in an easy nine-mile trail system for hiking and biking. Two miles are kept lit through the winter for cross-country skiing. There are no permits required.
Jordan River Pathway
The Jordan River Pathway is a 19-mile trail loop in the central part of the northern Lower Peninsula. It has a moderate difficulty rating due to a 2000-ft change in elevation over the course of the hike. The length of this path makes it ideal for a backpacking weekend. The Pinney Bridge State Forest Campground is about half-way through the loop. It has 15 walk-in tent sites only accessible to hikers.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
The main dune trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes is a challenging walk that is easily accomplished in a day. This location will remind you of the unique nature of the Michigan landscape. Walking the dunes to Lake Michigan begins with a challenging dune climb and then up to four hours of walking across the sand. The distance to the lake can be deceptive. You will want to bring extra water for your walk as no services are available along the way. There is plenty of camping for a fee at the initial dune climb.
For a less taxing walk, the Pyramid Point Trail is a three-mile walk that takes you to one of the best views of the lakeshore. Because it is a little distance from the main dune area, Pyramid Point is often less crowded.
In addition to the dune area, the National Lakeshore includes North and South Manitou Islands. Both are accessed by ferry from Leland. North Manitou is about 12-miles away and South Manitou about 16. Both allow camping and backpacking by reservation.
For many years, North Manitou Island was privately owned, and no visitation was allowed. As part of the Sleeping Dunes National Lakeshore, backpacking is now allowed by permit to prevent overuse. There are several fine trails on North Manitou Island. Many of them involve the challenge of walking on loose sand such as the 9-mile Dunes Loop Trail. The 14-mile Northern Loop takes you around the circumference of the island where you will see signs of the former residents who farmed this land. There are several backcountry campsites along the way. The biting insect population can be high in the summer months.
Huron-Manistee National Forests
The Huron-Manistee National Forests are a large area of woodlands in the western Lower Peninsula centered on the town of Baldwin. The area is home to 128 miles of the North Country Trail. This area of the state can be particularly buggy in the summer months, so pack accordingly.
The Manistee River Trail begins at Seaton Creek Campground in Mesick and runs for ten miles along the Manistee. This trail can be used for an out and back day hike of variable distance. Other hikers arrange for pickup at the end of the trail. However, many hikers enjoy taking two or three days to do the 23-mile Manistee River Loop after crossing the river at Red Bridge. The River Trail is heavily used. The return trip on the loop has less traffic though it is still quite popular. Permits for camping are not required along this loop. In busy seasons, backpackers may need to double up on campsites.
Port Crescent State Park
Port Crescent State Park can be found in Austin, on the shores of Lake Huron at the tip of the thumb of the Lower Peninsula mitten. It is centered on the remains of the ghost town that was Port Crescent. There are paid camp sites and seven miles of easy hiking trails. This day-hiking area is within close reach of Flint and Detroit. If you come to Port Crescent, be sure to stay into the night. This is one of Michigan’s dark sky preserves with limited light pollution. There are several platforms for spectacular stargazing.
Brighton Recreation Area
Brighton Recreation Area is in the eastern Lower Peninsula about 20 miles north of Ann Arbor. It has several paid camping areas. It also boasts several easy to moderate hiking and biking trails. The Bishop Lake Trail is a pleasant one-mile walk along the lakeshore. The Penosha Trail is about five miles. It starts near Bishop Lake and takes hikers through woods, meadows and near ponds.
Final Thoughts on Backpacking in Michigan
As you can tell, there's much to do and see in this Penninsula State on the Great Lakes. If you've overlooked this hidden gem or have always known about it but never made the time to go, now's your chance to plan a nice weekend getaway or that relaxing, off-the-grid family vacation you've always dreamed of.
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