The Manistee River Trail: Tips for the First Time Backpacker

What I refer to as the “Manistee River Trail” 3-4 day loop is actually half the Manistee River Trail and half the North Country Trail. I look back on that trip as somewhat of a whirlwind, like I do most backpacking trips. You’d think I’d learn to slow the pace a bit but every time I end up wondering why in the hell I put myself through this… then feeling extreme fulfillment after completing it nonetheless.


The trail is gorgeous and scenic and not too difficult in terms of terrain, which is why I think it’s great for the first time hiker. There isn’t any vicious wildlife that’s going to thwart you at night or cause you to have to use bear poles or boxes so you can rest easy. Yet you’re not missing out on nature’s beauty and for many from the metro-Detroit area, it’s not too far away.


As you can see from the image above, the trails are laid out with the NCT on one side of the river and the MRT on the other and a suspension bridge was built connecting the two, making it and easy weekend or long weekend trip.


I do have a few tips I’m actually extremely adamant to share with the first time hiker to this area (and I wish I’d had this article when I went!):

Hike the North Country Trail Side First

Why? Because it’s more difficult, and I have a tendency to prefer to get the difficult stuff out of the way early when I’m still feeling spry and optimistic as opposed to saving it until the end. The terrain is a bit more difficult and strenuous and pretty much the entire North Country Trail side is extremely elevated. What that means is that it is not within reach of the beautiful flowing river for easy water access. From the top of the bluff the river seems so close, yet so far away.


There aren’t any rivers on this side except one or two which are extremely close to the suspension bridge side, so you could go quite a long way without seeing water. In fact, because we hiked the Manistee River Trail side first, after crossing the river and going onto the NCT side (we had cameled up and carried as much as we could with us), we walked nearly 11 miles without seeing a water source – 17 all together that day! Which leads me to my next tip…

Pay Attention to Your Map and Fact Check it to Make Sure it’s Current

And this one if more of a general backpacking tip than a MRT-specific one, but extremely important nonetheless. I know it may seem like a given, but somehow from the comfort of my home when I ordered my map and received an e-mail stating that “since this map was printed the Sheep Ranch Rd Creek has dried up” didn’t seem as important as it did after walking for 15 miles and dying of thirst…


Regardless of if your map provider is as thoughtful as Jim DuFresne is and decides to notify you of these changes, with the ever-changing geography of hiking trails, it’s always best to try to talk to someone who has been there recently and get their take on things before embarking into the unknown.

You Can Bring Your Pup!

Because the landscape isn’t as difficult as some of the other trails we’ve conquered (although I wouldn’t say it was a walk in the park either), we thought this would be a great opportunity to see if our bloodhound Maggie Mae was a good hiking buddy. She did great and was a celebrity on the trail. There were a few other dogs and it’s nice knowing you can bring your furry friend with you for the weekend if you want to. She also got to cuddle up with us in the tent and was a great sport about all the walking. The wonderful bonding time you get with your dog during a backpacking trip will be saved for another post entirely…



Extremely Easy Access to the River… For Half of the Time

Made an impromptu dip in the river feel adventurous and freeing. We also got to test out Maggie Mae’s swimming skills for the first time. She loved it and we got to cool off. The water was clean and all throughout the first days hike we had access to the river for drinking water and for cooling off. It makes for an extremely relaxing trip. I may even dare to suggest skipping the NCT side and hiking there AND back on the MRT side… Shame on me because part of me feels an extreme aversion to seeing the same trail twice but if we were to go back that’s probably what we’d do since we can already say we’ve seen the NCT side.


You Can Camp Anywhere

Not needing permits or campsite reservations is always a liberating experience. It makes you feel like you’re really out in the wilderness, especially if you go when it’s not a really busy weekend. Don’t go to far off the beaten path though… You may see something you really didn’t want to see like we did when we stumbled upon the tent pitched in a secluded area without its rainfly attached…

Really though, camping alongside the river and fall asleep to the sound of it, then waking up and washing your face in the misty morning air is a surreal experience and one of the most vivid ones I remember from the trip. No boundaries means some of the most rewarding interactions with nature can be had.


Parking is Cash Only

And somewhat confusing… We parked at Seaton Creek Campground (like most hikers do) and there is no one there telling you where you can park or what to do. There is just a little bulletin board with some envelopes and a mailbox. You put your money in the envelope and put it in the mailbox to pay for your parking, and you get no change–so make sure you bring smaller bills like $5s and $10s!

It is an advantage that there is parking and the hike is a loop. So no worrying about taking a shuttle or hitchhiking!

Overall this hike is totally worthwhile and great for anyone who lives in the Midwest or who is in the area. We definitely want to take Maggie on some more hikes and love hiking in Michigan (we could be a bit partial…). I hope these tips will serve you well on your Lower Peninsula adventure. We gotta prove to those Yoopers that our trails are great too!

Dreaming About Being in Nature,