I’m going to give you all a disclaimer here that I started writing this post and it grew into a whole different animal than expected. I’ve since decided to split it into two posts, so here is part one.
On the second day of my 25 mile hike on the North Country Trail, I experienced what I would honestly have to say was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I woke up with the sun that morning in the middle of the quiet wilderness. I rolled up my tent, ate some oatmeal from a Ziploc bag, strapped my pack on my back, and headed out for another day of moving along through the trees with nothing but the smell of fresh air moving through my nostrils.
After only about 15 minutes of hiking along the dirt trail, I started to notice the path was weaving more and more out of the trees and toward the blue sky, and before I knew it, around the next bend was the most stunning view I’ve seen in my life thus far. A huge natural rock arch jutting into the vast Lake Superior peeked into view. With it still being the early hours of the day, the mist hadn’t yet lifted from the water and I couldn’t quite make out the contours of the rocks, but I could hear the echoing of the gulls seemingly in a frenzy within the walls of the formations and I could imagine how close—yet so far away—those rocks were to me.
About the Trail
The North Country Trail stretches from North Dakota to New York and at this time is not yet finished, but will be about 4,500 miles long in total once completed. The portion of the trail that runs through the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for backcountry hikers and campers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is approximately 40 miles and runs from Munising to Grand Marais. There are backcountry campsites scattered along the trail, most without toilets, trash cans, electricity, etc. (which in my opinion is much of the appeal!). Something that is a bit unique about these camps in comparison to many other backpacking destinations is that many of the campsites do not allow fires, although a few of them have communal fire rings.
Why Did I Decide on THIS Trail?
The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore was my first ever backpacking trip. I know this may seem silly, but a big draw of this trail to be my first was the website it offered with great planning resources. There is a really helpful Backcountry Trip Planner with trail descriptions, tips, and a detailed map that can be used to plan out your exact route and mileage before even leaving home. It helps to know what to expect and to be able to research it all beforehand when you’re new to the sport, whereas with some other trails it seems to be mostly based on heresay and a “you get what you get” attitude that can be scary for newbies.
Another plus to this for the first time backpacker is that the trail is challenging, yet not overly so. It’s perfect for someone who is fit but who isn’t yet so sure of themselves on their feet with a 20 lb pack strapped to their back.
And last but not least, it’s proximity to home, for me, was a big draw. It’s about 6 hours driving from metro-Detroit to Munising, one of the hubs for backpackers planning on taking on the trail. It’s far enough to be remote, yet close enough to make a long weekend out of it and not have to take too much time off of work.
Planning and Preparation for This Hike
If you’ve never backpacked before, the first step is getting the gear (but the specifics of that can be saved for another post entirely). Make sure you have everything you’ll need and then some, especially when you’re new to backpacking—the more you go, the less you’ll have to take because you’ll get a feel for what you really need and don’t need.
If you’re planning to go on a holiday weekend such as 4th of July or Memorial Day, make your backcountry campsite reservations WELL in advance—there are only about 3 sites on average per camping area and they fill up fast. The reservations open up in January of each year, and the process for this is a bit antiquated to say the least. You’ll have to print a form from the website, fill it out (including your credit card number on the bottom, which always makes me a bit nervous writing this out and sending it off), and fax or mail it to the office. Then they will mail the response back to you; you won’t know for about a month whether or not all of your campsite requests were confirmed. Hello 21st century! Haven’t you ever heard of online forms?
Make a reservation for the shuttle. There is a shuttle in the area called Altran. You can make a reservation in advance (in fact, you have to—they don’t take last minute hop-ons), park your car in either Munising or Grand Marais, then shuttle to your desired trailhead and you hike back to your car.
Tips to Know Before You Go
You’ll need a permit. Not all backpacking areas require this but they’re very strict about it here. Permits are $15 per person and purchased at the visitor center on the day you depart for your hike. They must be attached to your backpack or tent when you’re in camp and visable at all times.
Be very comfortable with the person you’re going with. You’ll be stinky. You’ll be in the wilderness with nothing else to distract you. And if you’re sharing a tent, you’ll be in very close proximity to that person, and backpacking tents are not spacious by any means.
Water is plentiful on this trail. I haven’t hiked many other trails, but I’ve talked to a lot of experienced hikers during my two brief stints as a backpacker and been told that this is pretty unique to the Pictured Rocks. Everywhere you look there is a river, a waterfall, and of course the mighty Lake Superior. There are only a few short sections of the trail where you go a bit without a water source, but the trail guides and descriptions prepare you well for them.
What I Would Have Done Differently
I would have brought a mosquito face net. Not a doubt about it. There were areas of the trail closer to Munising where the mosquitoes were simply assaulting. Literally swarms–brown clouds of them I could see around Kevin walking in front of me. This was a low, muddy and moist area, but I never could have imagined the mosquitoes we experienced for about 2 miles there. Slapping them away from my ears and the constant buzzing sound in my ears very nearly put me into a mental hospital. We were sprinting to try to get through—and this is for multiple miles! And I thought food could motivate me to move faster…
I would have given myself more time. You will average about 3 miles per hour walking, depending on the terrain. This was not difficult—the distance we covered was not impossible for me (obviously) or even super strenuous. The problem was that I would have liked more time to saunter; more time to smell the plants and take in the views; to relax without my pack on my back and take in the experience and the scenery. I’d like to take a bit more than a full week sometime and do the whole 40 mile trail at a more leisurely pace.
The Benefits of Backpacking
For the budget traveler, backpacking is perfect. For your first hike, it’s undoubtedly an investment. I probably spent over $1500 on backpacking gear alone before and since my first trip (granted, I think I got a bit carried away from the excitement…).
But there are tons of companies who will rent out gear for much cheaper than buying it, especially if you just want to try backpacking out for the first time and aren’t sure if you’ll like it. You can get secondhand things on Craigslist and at REI Garage Sales too. Then, if it’s something you want to pursue, buy the gear a little at a time. Once you have it, your trips will be extremely cheap! That’s why I call it an investment. Because after you have everything you can go on vacation every year for next to nothing, as long as you get good quality supplies that will last.
This is a vantage point and an experience that would never be possible had I not hiked this portion of the North Country Trail—it is a way of seeing the Pictured Rocks of Michigan that in my opinion cannot be beat by any other method. The rocks from the water are one thing, but the rocks from above are another. Not only are the views spectacular, but when you’re away from civilization experiencing nature so intimately, you really start to feel like you’re a part of them—like they’re in your bones.
In my next post, I’m going to share my personal experience with the Pictured Rocks and I hope it will encourage you to go and have your own. Words truly can’t explain away everything this gorgeous area of Michigan has to offer.
Until Next Time,
CAITLYN WITHOUT A COMPASS