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HomeAdventureMichigan Trail Adventures™Navigating Michigan's North Country Trail: A Hiker's Guide

Navigating Michigan’s North Country Trail: A Hiker’s Guide

Photos by Tamara Graham. All photos for this profile are along the NCT within Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore captured during a day hike. 

Spring is in the air. A bit too soon, but it’s in the air. I figured that March was a great time to write about one of Michigan’s most magnificent trail systems: the North Country Scenic Trail.

It surprises me how many people who are from and live in Michigan are unaware of this trail system; but four years ago, I didn’t either, even having grown up here. 

We learned a bit about the North Country Trail (NCT) in our November and December issues from Jay Senkevich, a hiker from Boston who traversed the whole 1,200-mile section of Michigan last summer. It was an outsider’s take on interacting with Michiganders throughout his experience.  You can find his article on our website. 

Myself and my son have spent a significant part of our hiking time since returning to Michigan traversing various legs of the trail, spanning from Ludington all the way up to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the UP. It’s a beautiful system, and well-maintained in every area that we’ve hiked. For that, we can thank the North Country Scenic Trail Association (NCTA). Designated as a National Scenic Trail, it does receive federal support and its headquarters are located in Lowell, Michigan; but the organization is made up of mostly volunteers through 29 chapters. They do a magnificent job of keeping up on trail maintenance. 

The NCT doesn’t receive as much recognition as the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) or the Appalachian Trail, but it’s wonderful in its own right. Designated as a National Scenic Trail in 1980, and one of only 11 in the United States, the NCT is 4,800 miles long end-to-end. 

Spanning across eight states —  reaching from Vermont to North Dakota (see map) — the NCT proudly claims its title as the longest national scenic trail in the U.S. Among its diverse stretches, the part cutting through Michigan offers hikers a raw and unfiltered experience of the state’s natural beauty. This article provides practical insights for those looking to tackle the Michigan segment of the NCT, highlighting key features and considerations for a no-nonsense exploration.

Michigan’s section of the NCT spans around 1,200 miles. Depending on which direction you’re hiking, it starts near the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula and snakes across the entirety of the U.P. to Tahquamenon Falls State park, then winds down over the Mackinac Bridge and through the western part of the Lower Peninsula. Near southern Michigan, the trail starts to cut across to the east and joins with Ohio near Waldron, Michigan.

The Upper Peninsula leg of the trail spans about 550 miles and includes some of the most rugged terrain of the trail in Michigan, along with waterfalls and the glorious Lake Superior shoreline. The Mackinac Bridge is home to a five mile stretch of the trail. During the annual Labor Day Walk, you can always find the most avid hikers crossing the bridge on foot. Many feel like it’s cheating to cross it otherwise. Memorial Day is the only day of the year anyone is allowed to cross the bridge on foot. Many hikers plan their adventure to ensure they can do just that. 

The Lower Peninsula part of the trail is another 600 miles, and hikers are met with rolling hills and wetlands, and many tiny towns and urban areas, good for a rest or refueling. Hikers should be prepared for diverse landscapes that demand adaptability in both gear and mindset throughout Michigan.

Noteworthy Sections

I’ve hiked many parts of this trail — and will one day hike the entirety of it — but the showstopper on this trail for me in Michigan is the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (because of course it is). With its towering sandstone cliffs and breathtaking views of Lake Superior, this stretch provides a visual feast for hikers. You will find several “mini” waterfalls within this stretch as well, along with the iconic Chapel Rock and Miner’s Castle. It’s absolutely one of my favorite locations in Michigan. 

If you want a taste of an entirely different terrain and ecosystem, the Manistee National Forest section of the NCT delivers. With dense hardwood forests and the scenic Manistee River, it’s a haven for those seeking solitude and natural serenity. This part of the trail is popular for backpackers, offering numerous camping spots and a chance to disconnect from it all. 

I will add this about the Manistee National Forest: With its dense and towering ancient hardwood pines, it can be a bit eerie at times. The silence is so still in that forest, and when it is broken by only the sound of rustling leaves, it feels as if it’s trying to tell you its secrets; it’s an experience where imagination and reality blurs. Perhaps that’s why it was named after the Native American word meaning “the whispering through the pines.” It truly feels like the forest is whispering. It can leave one feeling a bit uneasy when they are hiking or camping alone. You’re welcome. 

Practical Considerations

Bottom line: Hiking Michigan’s NCT is no joke. It demands preparation. Comfortable hiking boots or shoes that can handle variable terrain, ample water resources and a reliable map are essential. The weather can be unpredictable — it is Michigan, after all — so packing layers is one thing you won’t regret. Sections of the trail can be challenging, both physically and mentally, so prepare yourself. 

And let’s not forget the possibility of wildlife encounters. They come as part of the package in Michigan’s wilderness. Black bears, white-tailed deer and various bird species are common sights. You may even run into a moose in the U.P., if you’re lucky — or not so lucky. And though the Michigan DNR denies it, we do have more than a few bobcats in our forests. They have been caught on trail cams in both the Lower and Upper Peninsulas many, many times. Respect wildlife habitat and research and follow recommended safety guidelines to ensure an uneventful hiking experience.

Trail Logistics

For those wanting to tackle a shorter portion of the trail or make it a day hike, several trailheads and access points are scattered throughout Michigan. Some sections are more isolated than others, so research and prepare yourself when you simply want to do a day hike or two.  

Local Communities

As mentioned above, the NCT runs either adjacent to or through several towns and villages. These provide resupply points, opportunities for a hot meal and a chance to rest those weary feet. Traverse City and Grand Marais, among others, offer a glimpse into Michigan’s local culture and a reprieve for hikers seeking social interaction.

Regardless of whether you choose a day hike or two, or decide to take on the full 1,200 mile challenge, the NCT is unapologetic and demands respect and preparation. If you’re up to it, it’s a magnificent way to explore and embrace the untamed beauty of Michigan’s great outdoors.

Hike It. Build It. Love It. Support It.  

The mission of the North Country Trail Association is to develop, maintain, protect and promote the North Country National Scenic Trail as the premier hiking path across the northern tier of the United States through a trail-wide coalition of volunteers and partners. The NCTA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that partners with the National Park Service to unite individuals, affiliated trail groups, local chapters, corporate sponsors and others linked in support of building and maintaining the North Country Trail and telling its story. 

For more information on the NCT and the NCTA, visit the North Country Trail website.

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Tamara Graham
Tamara Graham
With an adventurous spirit and a burning desire to make the world work for all of us, Tamara encourages others to embrace self-love, compassion, empathy, understanding, and an ever important sense of humor. With over 30 years of diverse marketing experience, including a decade in publishing, she brings a fresh and innovative perspective to the industry. Her concept revolves around experiential magazines that captivate both online and in print. Tamara's visionary project, LIVE. LOVE. LOCAL. MICHIGAN™, unveils the wonders of our breathtaking home state, igniting love and admiration among Michiganders for where they live. By fostering this deep connection, she inspires a genuine appreciation and love for where we live!
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