Distance: 11 miles or 23-mile loop
Hiking Time: 2-3 days
Highest Elevation Gain: 297 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to challenging
From Hodenpyl Dam Pond the Manistee River winds south through Manistee County natural and free for 13 miles before a road crosses it. Unmolested by bridges, cottages and dams, this wild stretch of Michigan’s third-longest river appeals not only to paddlers and anglers looking for trophy trout but also to hikers. On the east side of the river lies the Manistee River Trail, on the west side a portion of the North Country Trail (NCT). Together those trails can be combined into a 23-mile loop that has become one of the most popular backpacking treks in the Lower Peninsula.
This adventure is relatively new. The 11-mile Manistee River Trail was completed in 1992 and the crucial link between the two trails — a 245 feet suspension bridge that spans the Manistee River just below Hodenpyl Dam — wasn’t built until four years later. The foot bridge, the largest wooden suspension bridge in the Lower Peninsula, serves as the cornerstone for a scenic route through a variety of terrain that features numerous viewing points.
The bridge also unites two completely different trails. The 8.5-mile segment of the North Country Trail (NCT) is an up-and-down climb across the rugged ridges that dominate the west side of the river. Several times, particularly in early spring and late fall, hikers are treated to sweeping views that include a large slice of the valley to the east. The Manistee River Trail is a level and easy hike that skirts the river bluff providing backpackers numerous opportunities to gaze down at the Manistee flowing through horseshoe bends.
The loop is usually walked in two to three days. As an overnight adventure most backpackers begin at Seaton Creek National Forest Campground, cover 11 miles the first day and often spend the night at the dispersed campsites at the Red Bridge Access Site, where there is drinking water and vault toilets. The second day would be a 12-mile return to Seaton Creek that includes backtracking the 1.4-mile spur from the campground.
Also scattered along the Manistee River Trail are seven backcountry campsites with a fire ring and a view of the river below. Two of them are located near a waterfall. These are scenic places to spend a night and allow backpackers to break the trek into three shorter days. An ideal weekend outing is to hike the 3.2 miles from Seaton Creek to the waterfall campsites on Friday, continue 10.3 miles to camp at Red Hill along the NCT on Saturday and finish the loop with a 9.5-mile walk on Sunday.
Primitive camping is permitted along both trails as long as tents are 200 feet from the trail or any source of water. Along the NCT, many set up camp at Eddington Creek or by the streams that converge at Sheep Ranch Road in order to have a source of water. Red Hill is also a popular place to camp but water needs to be carried in as there is no nearby source.
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