Updated Fall 2016: I have updated this post to reflect the current updates to the trail with an updated map. With the heavy traffic on the trail over the last few years, it appears that there have been significantly efforts made to reduce the impact of campers and hikers on the trail. Several more designated campsites have been added (with fire rings), and some areas are now marked no camping, especially those close to water sources and trails. Trail signs and maps have been erected and the blazing on the trees has greatly improved.
I have lived in Michigan for over six years, and have only just begun my exploration of this amazing state. Surrounded by four of the five great lakes, Michigan is an outdoor lovers dream. There are so many great hiking trails throughout the state, including the North Country Trail (NCT) which runs through both the lower and upper peninsula, encompassing so much of the natural beauty of the great lakes region. I recently did hike on a very short section of the North Country Trail while hiking the Manistee River Trail (MRT) Loop. This short weekend adventure turned out to be one of my most favorite local hikes yet. Who knew that such a great opportunity was hiding in my back yard ! !
Trail – Manistee River Trail/North Country Trail Loop
Where – Huron-Manistee National Forest. Near Mesick, MI
Difficulty – Moderate for very hilly, uneven terrain
Open – All year round
Distance – Approx. 23 Miles
Awesomeness factors – Manistee river, towering hardwood forests, great views, wildlife, streams and a waterfall, the lil’ mac suspension bridge.
This trail can be done easily in two days, giving you enough time to stop and enjoy the views and river along the way. We made the drive from Detroit on Friday evening after work, and spent the night at Seaton Creek Campground for simplicity sake with our late arrival. The campsites here are big, surrounded by tall pines and very secluded. The trailhead leading to the MRT is in the campground picnic area parking lot making it a great starting point.
Be aware that the driveway to Seaton Creek Campground is now gated and closed early October. The parking area normally used for the Seaton Creek Trailhead is not available after that time. You would have to walk an additional half mile give or take to get from the gate to the trailhead.
The trail can also be accessed easily from the Red Bridge Access Site (this parking area is open year round, but may not be plowed in the winter). Seaton Creek campground has drinking water (during open season May – Sept only), vault toilets, fire rings and picnic tables. Sites are about $16/night. If you plan on leaving your car in the parking lot here, you must pay the vehicle day-use fee $5/vehicle/day. I recommend having exact change for the self-registration station. I did see cars ticketed for not paying fees here.
H@H Tip: If you are able to get away earlier on Friday, I would recommend hiking into some of the first backcountry campsites from the Seaton trailhead (1a/b/c) these sites are close to the river and a nice spot to set up camp. Obviously it is ideal to camp in an established site, but as long as you follow regulations for backcountry camping, you can make anywhere your camp for the night on this trail.
Best Trail Access Points: – Seaton Creek Campground – easy access, awesome secluded campsites, water (May-Sept) & vault toilets, required fee. – Red Bridge River Access – easy access, campsites close to road, water (May-Sept) and vault toilets, no fee. – Slagle Creek Rd. – Short walk to great campsites (#8, #9), small parking area, no fee, rougher access road.
On Saturday, we departed about 9 am from Seaton Creek Campground on a crisp but sunny morning in mid-October. Unfortunately we missed peak leaf color by about a week and a half, but there was still a hint of color left on the trees and unobstructed views along the trail. Locate the trailhead and sign to Red Bridge by the parking lot and follow the trail downhill until you reach a T intersection. Turn left and follow trail above the creek. You will see blue diamonds marking the way. Pass over O’Rourke Rd about half a mile from trailhead and walk through a lovely stand of tall trees that make the forest seem almost erie and magical.
You will pass over One Mile Rd and soon come upon the Lil’ Mac suspension bridge that connects the MRT to the NCT.
We opted to enjoy the day on the MRT side. Continuing south at the bridge along the MRT, you follow the river for the majority of the day. The terrain is relatively flat and the views of the river on this section are beautiful. Designated campsites along the route are now marked and numbered.
Pass by campsites (1c and 2A are great) near the series of waterfalls. The geology of this area make this a unique spot. The clay soil has created interesting streams and small waterfalls. There are plenty of small creeks in this area to find camp near a babbling brooke. Campsite 3A and 3B are huge winners; great views, fire pits and a private area a bit removed from the trail, enough for several tents if needed.
The river looks different at every turn, and the bluffs give you some great vantage points for awesome photos. A new wooden bridge has been erected over Slagle Creek. I didn’t like the location of the 5 and 6 campsites just past forest road 7137. From here the trail starts to get significantly more hilly in the 2nd half of the MRT. Campsites 7B and 10A have great views down to the river, but make water access a bit difficult.
The trail emerges along Coates Hwy, a paved road. Head west along the side of the road until you cross the bridge and reach Red Bridge boat access on the left. There are campsites, vault toilets and drinking water here. The toilets were open, but the water source was shut off because we were hiking during the off-season. The campsites at Red Bridge were very close to the road. We decided we wanted to find a more secluded campsite. Before we hit the trail we filtered water from the river. Make sure you get enough water at this stop for the night and next morning because water is not available again until mid-way through the next day on the NCT.
We rested our feet and fueled up on snacks. It was about 3:30 when we left Red Bridge. We crossed the road, found the sign for the NCT and followed the trail along the road until it curved into the woods. We passed over Upper River Road and parking area. Now we were officially on the NCT ! The trail markers on the NCT are blue rectangular blazes not diamonds like the MRT.
We were on a mission to find “Red Hill Overlook” to pitch our tent for the night. Red Hill spur trail was supposed to lead to good views and a great place to make camp, about 2.5 miles from Red Bridge. This spur trail is marked with a wooden red sign on a tree pointing to a short trail uphill. Red Hill was already occupied, so we continued on for another 20 mins or so. It was starting to get dark, so we took a quick trip off trail and climbed a small hill to make camp for the night. We enjoyed a lovely sunset and sunrise from our campsite on the little hill.
Our hike the next day was mostly wooded with the occasional vista. This section of the NCT doesn’t offer views of the Manistee river, but it does offer great views of the rolling hills in the distance, especially beautiful in the fall.
The next few miles have several ups and downs and a couple of forest road crossings. Eddington Creek crept up on us quickly. The creek has a small foot bridge. From here, the trail emerges into an open area. The trail gets a bit confusing at the intersection of the Beers Rd trail spur. Continue walking straight, not up the small sandy hill (like we did). After re-directing ourselves on the right path, we spotted signs for the MRT trail spur, and soon passed Upper River Rd. There are two campsites just off the trail, not far from the main road. We took a brief stop to cool off and have lunch down by the river. It isn’t much farther from here along the trail before you reach the Lil’ Mac bridge again. From the footbridge, it’s clear sailing, backtracking from the bridge to the car at Seaton Creek Campsite.
What season should you hike the MRT Loop ? I have hiked the trail in all seasons and I can say that hands down, I prefer late fall; just post peak fall colors. There are too many people and bugs during the summer for my liking. The colors of the trees during the fall cannot be beat and the cooler temps at night make for great camping weather. This trail would also be great to do by snowshoe in the winter.
What is your favorite season on the Manistee River Trail ?
MISC H@H TIPS