Winter is as fabulous time of year to get outside and enjoy some of your favorite trails. The snow and crisp air makes everything feel extra magical. This fabulous trail is no exception. If you’ve got the right gear, and the right attitude to undertake the cold weather and want a challenging and epic winter experience; Michigan’s Manistee River Trail/North Country Trail Loop in the lower peninsula is a most excellent choice.
Because winter excursions take a bit of extra forethought, I’ve put together some tips and notes from my latest experience to help with your trip planning and lingering questions.
Happy Winter Adventuring !
1. Avoid using a gear sled (pulk) on this trail: While a sled can be a useful tool to help pull your extra heavy gear for winter backpacking, this trail isn’t the one to bring it on. Steep drop offs on narrow trails and lots of hills make it not only dangerous but very cumbersome to pull.
2. To snowshoe or not?: As a FYI, there was significantly more snow on the NCT side of the loop vs the MRT side. I’m sure there is some science to explain this; perhaps because the MRT side is so close to the river and the NCT side is higher in the hills and the wind brings in more snow. While you may get away without snowshoes on the MRT side, there is a small chance that you would need them for the NCT side of the trail. Better to pack them in the car and scope out if they are worth bringing depending on how much snow is on the trails at the start (because you know there will be more snow in the forest as you start climbing up the NCT side).
3. Campsite Selection: I’ve learned (usually the hard way) that winter campsite selection is critical. The MRT side of the trail has some EPIC campsites with fantastic river views that are PERFECT for a hot summer night. In the winter, these exposed and open campsites will be terribly windy and cold if you want to sit out by a campfire or try to stay warm in your windblown, three season tent. Better to pick a campsite that is set back a bit from the river with some adequate tree cover. Speaking of trees, there are a lot of dead trees along the trail, make sure you look UP before you set up your tent to check that there are no dead branches overhead. I’ve put together a list of some of the official campsites on the map with their pros and cons and photos when available. Click the link below to access the document.
4. The forests are filled with life: Just because most of the hikers and bears are hibernating for the winter, doesn’t mean that you won’t have any critter visitors on the trail. In fact, I saw significantly more critters while hiking trail during the winter than any other season doing this hike. Plus, the snow makes it extra easy to identify what animals were lurking around your site at night. Coyotes, deer, rabbits, fox and mice were busy scampering about during the day and night. Remember that a bear hang isn’t just for bears (even if it is the winter); it helps keep the little critters out of your food as well. Leaving food out or storing in your tent, even if it is winter, may invite a little visitor to chew through your new expensive gear looking for a midnight snack. Mice are extra hungry in the winter.
5. Microspikes for the MRT: It’s not a bad idea to consider having some microspikes, especially for the more heavily used MRT side. The heavy foot traffic combined with the wet, boggy sections that freeze make icy footing underneath. There are a couple of sections on the MRT side with steep, narrow slopes where some extra traction was critical.
6. Fire Pits: Most of the official MRT campsites have metal fire rings installed (even if you have to dig them out of the snow a bit). Chances are they will be in the middle of a row of log seats. This will make winter fire building a lot easier for you, especially with wet wood and ground. Please don’t be the person who builds their own fire 10 feet from the installed fire pit because they like the view from that area better. Try to keep fires in the pits and do your best to leave no trace. This also means not leaving your unburned trash in the fire pit for someone else to burn, or pack out. *End rant*
7. Parking and trailheads – In the summer, it’s simple and easy to access the many trailheads. In the winter the back roads are probably not plowed, so that significantly reduces your options depending on your vehicle. Your best trailhead bet would be the Red Bridge River Access (and campground). It is a paved area (not maintained or plowed in the winter, so bring your own shovel in the car, just in case) that is directly next to a main road. It appeared to be where all of the overnight hikers were parking. You can access the start of the MRT or the NCT side of the trail from here.
8. Water sources – The Manistee river is unlikely to freeze, providing you with an open water source along the MRT side of the trail. Eddington Creek on the NCT side was also flowing with no ice when I did the trail (this will obviously be temperature dependent). Depending on how the temps have been during the winter, several of the faster moving creeks and streams may be open as well. If not, you can always boil snow.
9. Fewer people: The MRT loop is a busy trail during the fall and summer; so busy that it may be a turn off to people who are looking for quiet solitude on the trail. Thankfully, the cold winter is a deterrent to most so you are likely to enjoy a bit more peace and quiet on the trail. This is good… unless you are hiking alone and require help. Make sure you plan ahead and let someone know where you are going.
10. Better views on the NCT in winter – The NCT side of the trail is often overlooked compared with the MRT side. Without all the summer foliage blocking the views on the NCT side, you get some pretty sweet visas from the higher points and great sunrise opportunities. Consider doing the whole loop as a challenging winter adventure. You sure won’t be disappointed.
It goes without saying: winter camping is indeed another challenge added to an already challenging trail. Consider trying a few shorter, easy trails or short overnights first if you are just starting out winter backpacking. The NCT and MRT loop is 20 miles in total. Remember that winter trekking, especially by snowshoe, will slow you down considerably. For tips on winter camping, check out my tips for winter camping or winter camping for beginners blog posts. For reference: I last completed the entire MRT/ NCT loop on a chilly January long weekend in 2017