I hit the backpacking jackpot this summer when I discovered the Manistee River Trail Loop in the Huron-Manistee National Forest. Just under two hours north of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the nearly one million acres of forestland are teaming with wildlife, wildflowers, and every kind of mushroom and fungi imaginable. Below you’ll find 10 things to know before you go, an account of our Manistee River misadventure, and a complete designated campsite guide. I think you’ll enjoy exploring such a great backpacking location that doesn’t require driving to the Upper Peninsula!
Ten Things To Know Before You Go
- Distance: According to the Manistee River Ranger Station the full loop is 23 miles. I originally thought it was 17 miles because I got unreliable information from a different website.
- The Route: We started the Manistee River Trail Loop from the southern end at Red Bridge River Access, then crossed the suspension bridge near the Seaton Creek Campground. The official way back is the North Country Trail, but we took the Upper River Road back instead to avoid the densely wooded forest full of mosquitoes.
- The Trail is Accessible at Four Points but Two are Pay Areas: Red Bridge River Access – Free Upper River Road Trailhead – Free Seaton Creek Campground – $5/day parking fee. 14 days max. Marilla Trailhead – $5/day or $15/week parking fee. 14 days max.
- Date of our Trip: August 25-27. We experienced great hiking temperatures but it did rain once.
- Best Time to Do the Trail for Fall Color: The first two weeks in October. However, depending on rainfall the peak times can vary. Call the Manistee Ranger Station for the most up to date information.
- Best Time to Do the Trail to Avoid Bugs: When the temperatures cool the bugs will die back. Usually this occurs by the first couple weeks of September.
- There is Spotty to Mostly No Cell Reception in the Huron-Manistee National Forest: Print off a good trail map and directions to get there and back in case you can’t use your GPS. This is a good PDF that includes a map and summary information of the Manistee River Trail: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd493793.pdf
- Camping Rules: No permits are required along the Manistee River Trail Loop. Camp or make a fire at least 200 feet from the water and 100 feet off the trail. There are lots of great designated and non-designated camping spots all along the Manistee River Trail. Here is a good document that includes the Manistee Ranger Station contact information, basic rules, and a trail map. https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd493793.pdf
- What to Take: 1) Rain fly for your tent 2) Rain jacket 3) Mosquito repellent 4) Good hiking shoes 5) Fishing pole. Pike, bass, and steelhead are abundant all year round. The Manistee River is also a Fall favorite among anglers for brown and rainbow trout. In early September, the fishing starts to pick up, as the giant king salmon from Lake Michigan begin their annual spawn run up the Manistee River.
- What to Leave Behind: 1) Your radio! Cut down on the extra weight and just enjoy the calming sounds of nature. 2) Heavy tent 3) Heavy sleeping pad 4) Heavy cookware. Pack light! The trip will be much easier on your back and your feet. Click here to check out our recommended ultralight backpacking gear.
The Marvelous Manistee River
My husband Travis and I set out on a Friday afternoon and arrived at the Red Bridge River Access parking lot an hour and a half before sundown. If you decide to start from this point just note that you will have to walk back up the main road to get to the trail. Once we found the trail we were pleasantly surprised by the caliber of scenery, camp sites, and trail markers. After hiking for a mile or so we came to the first two designated camp sites. Both were gorgeous and would have been perfect places to watch the sun set over the Manistee river. However, we forged ahead, hoping to hike another 30 minutes before stopping for the night.
As we came up on our campsite I squinted through the dim light, struggling to make out what I thought was a heron. However, upon further inspection I realized that it was actually a sandhill crane and he was not alone! Unfortunately, the crane and his family of five were not as happy to see us, and took off into the sunset while trumpeting their loud dissatisfaction at having their campsite usurped. I smiled as they flew past, remembering that to the Japanese the crane represents good fortune and longevity. Japanese also refer to them as “the bird of happiness,” and I had to agree that sighting these birds made me happy! I could also agree that we fell on good fortune to sight sandhill cranes, as due to shooting and habitat loss in the 1800’s, they were once reduced to near extinction. (Sandhill Crane Photo Credit: Greg Basco)
Waking early the next morning, I took a peaceful stroll to enjoy the quiet and wild serenity of the Manistee River. A branch overlooking the river looked like a perfect perch, so I sat down scanning the shoreline for wildlife. My eye caught movement in the water, and as I focused in I saw a fat beaver! He swam across the river and reaching the opposite side, slowly waddled out of the water, arrogantly strutting up the shoreline like a shirtless body builder. I laughed at his confidence while reflecting on how grateful I was to find this wild preserved place. (Beaver Photo Credit – Kent Mason)
Returning to camp I woke my groggy husband and made a gourmet backpacker’s breakfast before packing up and continuing our trek north along the eastern side of the Manistee River. Over the next several hours we hiked through lush forests, grasslands, swamps, fern valleys, and bluffs. I couldn’t get over how many colorful mushrooms, fungi and uniquely shaped ferns grew along the trail! I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised though, because the Huron-Manistee National Forest is only 20 minutes from Mesick, MI, the mushroom capital of the country.
Departing from the lowlands we made our way up a steep hill, finally reaching the top of the bluffs. We stopped to rest and wave back at all the happy kayakers who were laughing, waving and singing their way down the river. I made a mental note that the Manistee River would make a stunning fall kayak camping trip. Every part of me wanted to sit and relax here by a fire while watching the sun go down over the river. We still had miles to go before sundown though, so I reluctantly kept hiking.
A couple miles later we stopped near campsite 2C to fill our water bottles with fresh cold creek water. Be warned! Although the water is cold and fresh the mosquitoes are thick and vicious! We filled up as fast as we could and kept bustling down the trail. Departing from the creek with hoards of vicious mosquitoes in tow, we wound deeper into the lush forest, skirting the river and crossing several creeks before reaching the last campsites and the suspension bridge near the Seaton Creek Campground.
This is where the directions to hook onto the North Country Trail get confusing…
If you decide to turn right after you cross the bridge you will climb some stairs and end up in a parking lot next to a road (Upper River Rd). Just follow the road to the left until you come to where the North Country Trail crosses the road.
If you decide to turn left after you cross the bridge keep going until you see the trail with the blue diamond marker taking off to the right. It is very overgrown and will take you back to the Upper River Road. My suggestion would be to save yourself the trouble of going through the overgrown trail and just turn right after crossing the bridge.
Once you’re on Upper River Road, and you come to the place where the North Country trail crosses the road, you may notice that the map doesn’t show the trail crossing. If you go left here, following the sign that says “North Country Trail,” it eventually puts you back on the road again. Take the North Country Trail to the right (the sign just says “Trail”) to complete the loop back to the Red Bridge River Access parking lot. We decided to take the road back to escape the dense forest full of mosquitoes. However, next time we’ll take the trail. We’ll also load up on mosquito repellant!
About a mile after our directional challenges my body was strongly objecting to any further hiking. At this point I was sure the information I got off the internet was terribly wrong. There was no way this trail was only 17 miles! I was however congratulating myself on our ultralight gear and packs. When you find out you have an extra six miles to make up it’s a relief to know you don’t have an extra 10 lbs. to haul! That being said, after hiking for nearly 11 miles with no rest or food breaks, I just wanted to find a place to camp for the night…no matter how light my pack. Usually we would have pressed on to get further away from other campers, but my whining had reached an obnoxious decibel and Travis, anxious for my sniveling to end, agreed to stop.
Although there are no designated camp sites on this section of the North Country Trail or the Upper River Road, people have created sites that work well. Ours was right on the Manistee River and next to a beautiful creek. We made a fire, set up camp, consumed some much needed grub, then bravely took a bath in the cold river while trying to ignore the huge bass that threatened to nibble our toes. Clean and full bellied, we fell into our bags, more than ready for a long night’s sleep.
Let me stop here and put a plug in for being a courteous camper. Just as our exhausted heads hit the pillow someone from the Seaton Creek Campground cranked up their radio. Even with high end earplugs I couldn’t drown out the obnoxious head-banging music and laid awake for hours before they turned off the music and we finally fell asleep. The only redeeming song in their disgusting repertoire was “Sweet Home Alabama.” Most people come out here for serenity so please be courteous if you bring a radio. Or better yet, leave it at home and enjoy nature’s symphony.
I’m not sure how long we slept before waking to the sound of gentle rainfall. We were not looking forward to packing up wet gear and hiking back in the rain, but fortunately it quiet by sunrise. The weather forecast predicted more rain though, so we hustled to pack up and get on the road. Rushing to beat the storm and outrun the swarm of gnats trailing behind us, we noticed that the road was surprisingly quiet for a weekend. We only saw three cars and two hikers for the rest of the day, but we welcomed the quietude.
Hiking down the long straight roadway got mundane at times, but we also saw some beautiful scenery and cute creatures. Milkweed grows in abundance here, attracting Monarch butterflies and colorful chubby caterpillars. There were also hundreds of small frogs! I nearly squished a tiny green one, but fortunately for him, instead of getting stepped on, he just got sand kicked in his face.
We finally reached the Red Bridge River Access parking lot after hiking again for 10 miles with no food or rest breaks. Completely worn out and starving (maybe even a tad bit grumpy), we were relieved we hadn’t stopped because it started raining right as we got to the car!
Our misadventure did include rain, mosquitoes, rude campers and six extra miles. However, it also included pristine wilderness, amazing critters, and the wild serenity of the Huron-Manistee National Forest. I smiled as we drove away, happy at our good fortune and excited to come back and hike it all over again.
Check out the illustrated campsite key below for details about each designated camp site. Happy Hiking!
Manistee River Camp Site Key
10A & 10B – Both sites are close to the main trail but have great views right along the river for watching the sunset.
8C – Although not right on the river this site is only a few hundred feet off of the main trail and has a great view of the river. The site has lots of trees, wood for a fire, and flat clear space for multiple tents. As you continue up the trail from site 8C you will cross a boardwalk and skirt an inlet of the Manistee River.
8B – Approaching site 8B it was immediately one of my favorites. Right on the river, this site is off the main trail in a grove of trees offering shade, privacy and lots of flat clear space for multiple tents. This is also a great place to stop and refill your water as the trail starts to climb away from the river and the next water source is Cedar Creek where the mosquitoes would love for you to stop and fill up.
7C & 7B – Sitting high above the river on a cliff, this site’s fire pit is close to the edge making for a great view of the river. There is a nice open area with trees and plenty of flat clear space for multiple tents. However, it doesn’t offer much privacy as it is close to the main trail and there is no river access. 7B is just down the trail from site 7C, and is very similar to 7C.
7A – My favorite site of the 7 series by far, this site is so far off the main trail that you can’t even see the campsite from the trail. It has a large open area with trees, plenty of flat clear space for multiple tents, and offers a great view of the river. Because it sits up so high on the cliff, there is no easy river access.
4C – Not visible from the main trail, this site is a great spot for privacy right on the beautiful Slagle Creek. It is heavily shaded and there is a lot of flat clear space for multiple tents. If it weren’t for the mosquitoes 4C is perfect!
4B – This site is off of the main trail but it is still very visible and doesn’t offer a lot of privacy. It is in a nice grove of trees and there is plenty of flat clear space for multiple tents. Slagle Creek is nearby but it doesn’t offer the easy creek access that 4C does.
4A – Approaching campsite 4A the trail opens up and you get a good view of the river. However, the site is close to the main trail and offers no privacy. It is nicely shaded though, and is a good site if you don’t mind foot traffic.
3B – This is one of my favorite sites. The fire pit is located right on the edge overlooking a snake turn in the river. This would make a fantastic spot to put a camp chair and watch the sun go down while relaxing by the fire. The tent area is set back off the trail in a grove of trees where there is also another fire area and logs to sit on.
3A – Site 3A is right along the trail a mile or so after 3B in an open spot that offers no privacy and little shade. There are a lot of great mushrooms and interesting fungi growing between site 3A and 3B.
2C – Set off the main trail along a beautiful cold creek, this campsite is pretty but is also heavily shaded and a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The picture I took of the site turned out blurry but these pictures are ones I took from very similar nearby areas.
2A – This site is a little bit off the main trail right on the river but does not offer much privacy. There is a lot of shade and flat clear space for multiple tents.
1C – Set off the trail, this site is right on the river but is rather small. It does have a nice place for a hammock though, and a flat space for at least one tent.
1B – This site is off the main trail in a wide open space, but there is little to no privacy.
1A – Although I didn’t see the actual site, this would be my favorite along this section. It is not visible from the trail, offering 100% privacy and is right on the river. It is the last campsite before coming to the suspension bridge.
See the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service Website for the most up-to-date information regarding backpacking the Manistee River Trail.