Manistee National Forest
Distance: ~65 miles roundtrip
Highlights: Birch Grove Loop and NCTA schoolhouse, White River, Rattlesnake Creek, scenic prairies, Bigelow Creek, Coolbough Natural Area, Croton Dam and Muskegon River
Of all the national scenic trails, I have currently hiked the most miles on the North Country Trail, a 4600 mile trail from North Dakota to New York (soon Vermont). Whether it be beautiful segments in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (Border Route Trail, Kekekabic Trail), along Lake Superior's beautiful shoreline (Superior Hiking Trail, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore), or in Michigan's Lower Peninsula (Manistee River, Jordan River Pathway), the NCT has provided exceptional backpacking opportunities.
This is the southern section of the NCT in the Manistee National Forest. From the southern point, the NCT hits mainly the roads through southern Michigan and Ohio. In some ways, this felt similar to the end of a thru-hike, at least the end of a beautiful section of nearly continuous trail from the Mackinaw Bridge to Croton Dam.
I began near the northern part of this section at the M-20 trailhead. I decided to begin the hike heading north to where I turned around the previous weekend at the junction for the Birch Grove Loop.
In a short distance I came to a scenic bridge over Cole Creek.
With days beginning to shorten and after a two hour drive, I rushed to get some miles in before dark. At times I even began to run. I passed a day-hiker heading back to the trailhead.
At 3 Mile Road I could just catch a glimpse of the sun in the distance.
I decided to look for a place to camp and ended up in the pine plantation seen in the photo below.
The moon was quite bright.
It was a great campsite and I enjoyed the view as the stars began to come out.
I found an interesting spider web near my tent.
I awoke early as I have done on recent hikes to get a few miles in before sunrise given the shorter hours of daylight. I came to the junction for the NCTA schoolhouse but continued north on the NCT.
It was still dark as I crossed Mena Creek.
There were some nice views in the early morning.
The fall colors starting to be visible.
The Birch Grove Loop is marked with white blazes.
I continued on the eastern side of Loda Lake and then left the Birch Grove Trail to join the Wildflower Trail.
There was an excellent boardwalk.
There was also a cultural trail on my way back to the Birch Grove Trail including historic building foundations.
Then I road walked along 5 mile road to the NCTA schoolhouse opting to skip the portion of the Birch Grove Trail to Diamond Lake due to time constraints.
I stopped for a short break at the NCTA schoolhouse. There wasn't anyone else around but I read the sign on the side of the building. I also got some water.
The NCTA schoolhouse
I continued on the roadwalk back to the NCT.
There was a green pond with some ducks.
Some nice fall colors.
Then some logging activity.
Soon I was back on the NCT heading south.
There was a great view of a small pond.
Then some mushrooms beside the trail.
I met a couple backpackers who were heading north for the weekend.
I crossed Cole Creek on what appeared to be the former section of trail this time after I noticed what looked like a trail going down to it. I imagine the current crossing is much more suitable for bikers as this section is open for them.
Back at the M-20 Trailhead.
I took a break for some food in a nice meadow.
Soon I came to the Rattlesnake Creek Crossing.
There was an excellent extended section of boardwalk.
Then I came to a nice bridge over a wet area.
Next was the White River.
The bridge across it was quite significant.
After passing the White Cloud junction and then hiking beside a corn field, I came out to Echo Drive. I was surprised to see others at the end of the trail with a table set up with a big water jug. It looked like they were setting up for a race, but I only waved as they were on the phone. There were cones set up in the road.
After a quick road walk, I headed back into the forest.
There was an interesting tree that had somehow reconnected itself.
This was a great section of continuous trail.
I took a short detour over to the Roadside Park on M-37 to get some water from the pump.
Back on the trail I continued across 40th St.
Then I cross M-37 and some railroad tracks.
I could just barely see Twinwood Lake through the trees. I planned to get a closer look on the way back.
Then there was a dirt road walk beside the train tracks.
Back on the NCT there were some large trees.
Then I came to the Bigelow Creek Crossing.
Then I hiked through a pine forest.
It was getting into the evening so there were some great views.
There were some expansive prairies.
I decided to stop a little before sunset and enjoy the view!
It was a great place to camp with nice clouds in the sky.
The moon shown brightly.
The next morning I again awoke early as I continued my on my way to Croton Dam.
It didn't take long and I was on the bluffs above the Muskegon River.
Looking down on the Muskegon River
I came out to the boat launch and then crossed the road to the parking lot on the other side.
Then I descended down for a view of Croton Dam. There were quite a few people out fishing in the early morning.
I climbed up to the top of the dam for a view of Croton Dam Pond.
View from top of Croton Dam
Then I went on the bridge over the Muskegon River for another view of Croton Dam.
Looking down on the boat launch
I took a break under the bridge for a snack and to get some water.
Then I began my journey back to the M-20 trailhead.
I decided to take an alternate route back on 56th Street.
I passed some cows that got really excited to see me. They paralleled me on the road and even began sprinting and mooing loudly. I was happy they didn't enter the road.
I passed a nature sanctuary with a nice view.
Then I entered the Coolbough Natural Area.
I looped around the south end.
Then turned north and made my way to a small pond.
I took a break on a bench and enjoyed the view.
Then there was a scenic section near Cold Creek.
I almost went the wrong way but realized quickly and turned west.
Throughout the natural area the trails are marked with red Vibam soles.
Soon I was back on the NCT and crossing Bigelow Creek.
This time instead of the dirt road walk, I walked on the road beside the railroad tracks or even the railroad tracks themselves.
Then I took a short spur trail to Twinwood Lake.
There was a National Forest Campground but no pump for water.
At M-37 I turned north and decided to roadwalk to the roadside park.
I passed several stores and was even tempted to buy something from a gas station.
I stopped at the same picnic table at the park as the day before, then got some water from the pump.
Then it was back to a great section of NCT.
The section all the way to Centerline Road is excellent with few road crossing and a remote feel.
I passed a day-hiker who was heading south.
I was getting tired by the time I reached the trail register near Centerline Road.
After the short roadwalk, I was soon back at the White River.
Then the White Cloud Junction and only 3 miles from the M-20 trailhead.
Then back to one of my favorite sections on the boardwalk near Rattlesnake Creek.
There were some flowers at the Baseline Road crossing.
Then a large bee's nest.
Then some pleasant meadow hiking to the trailhead to complete the hike.
Overall, this was another great hike on the NCT. It will probably be some of the farthest south on the NCT in Michigan that I backpack, but I believe there are several nice sections that may still work for an overnight hike.