When I think about weekend backpacking in Michigan, immediately three destinations come to my mind: Manistee River Trail, North Manitou Island and Pictured Rocks.
Manistee River Trail/North Country Trail Loop
The Manistee River/North Country Trail Loop is a perfect backpacking trail for a weekend trip ( The trails are about 30 miles west of Cadillac, MI.) I would consider it to be the best destination for “backpacking in Michigan” in the Lower Peninsula. The total length of the loop comes to about 22 – 23 miles. Out of it, about 10 – 11 miles are on MRT and the rest is NCT. The MRT follows the river. And for few miles from Hodenpyl Dam Pond it goes high above the river, on a bluff. The views are spectacular. The trail is fairly easy, without any significant hills. Still, there are many up and downs, so expect to get a workout. Also, hiking poles might come handy.
Most people prefer to go from Red Bridge to Seaton Creek Campground. And there is a valid reason for it – the campground there has only few sights and they are all along the parking lot next to the road. Seaton Creek Campground is pretty and is located deep in the woods. It is a drive in, so you will see some camping people there too. Of course, you can camp pretty much anywhere along the way, as long as you follow the U.S. Forest Service guidelines. As you hike along the trails, you will notice many popular spots selected for camping.
After spending the night, either, in a campsite along the trail or at the Red Bridge, or in Seaton Creek, you can continue on North Country Trail and complete the loop. However, I prefer to turn around on MRT and follow it back to my starting point. The reason for it is that MRT offers , pretty much along the whole way, incredible views of the river, while NCT goes through the woods. The trail is far enough away from the river, that you, for most part, cannot see it. I always wondered, why the NRT was routed this way, when you have a beautiful river only quarter to half mile away.
Camping along the NCT is allowed, however, since the trail does not follow the river, there are no immediate water sources there. Of course, you could bushwhack you way through the woods to the shoreline.
There are water pumps at both, Red Bridge and Seaton Creek.
Backpacking on MRT does not require any permits, and the campsites along the trail are available on the first-come rule. There is no fee to hike or to camp along the trail, or at Red Bridge. The designated campground at Seaton Creek requires a fee.
North Manitou Island
The North Manitou island is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It is located on Lake Michigan few miles off of the northwest part of Lower Peninsula of Michigan. To get to the island, you need to take a ferry ride from Leland. The ferry service, depending on the season, operates more or less frequently. Therefore, check the schedule before going. Also, plan your trip in such a way, that if Lake Michigan gets rough and the ferry doesn’t come, you can afford to spend an additional day on the island.
The island has about 23 miles of trails. The hiking is easy, as the trails are mostly flat. Some of them follow the shoreline offering some unforgettable views of the lake.
The best part is that you can camp almost anywhere. There are many spots along the shore that will, again, offer some incredible views from the tent. Another great thing about backpacking there is the fact, that there are usually not that many people on the island at a time (even though it seems crowded, when you get of the ferry). So, soon after you start hiking, you are alone, and when you camp along the shore, you usually have few miles of beautiful sandy beach to yourself, or to share with your party.
One thing to consider is that the bugs on the island are usually in abundance from Memorial Day weekend till at least August. Therefore, I usually go there in in Spring, or early September.
The backpacking on the island requires a permit.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, located on the shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is another great backpacking destination in Michigan. I would consider it to be the best destination for “backpacking in Michigan” in the Upper Peninsula.
The long linear trail follows the lake’s shoreline, with gradually changing landscape of beaches, bluffs, and cliffs. The total length of the trail from Sable Falls to Munising Falls is over 42 miles. Therefore it is more suitable for three to four day trip. Of course, you can backpack just a section of the trail, if you only have a regular weekend to spend there. The biggest logistic issue to deal when backpacking in Pictured Rocks is the fact that the trail is linear and if you don’t want to hike out-and-back, you need to figure out how to get back where you left your car. You have two options. If your party has at least two vehicles, you can shuttle one to the end point. Another option is to relay on shuttle service offered at the park. You can find more information at the link below.
Pictured Rocks requires a permit for backcountry camping.
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You can read more about North Manitou Island backpacking here: Backpacking North Manitou Island or here: Weekend Backpacking in Michigan – North Manitou Island in the Spring .