Manistee River Loop
Huron-Manistee National Forest, Michigan
Length: 23mi (37km)
Days: 2 to 3
Difficulty: Easy (well maintained, minimum elevation change)
Gear: Standard gear + insect repellent
Completed: July 2020
In summary: Relaxing riverside hike through vibrant forests with lots of water access points. Easy trip for children or newer backpackers who want well-maintained trails and open campsites in a relatively populated area. A short loop trip that is still regarded as one of the better backpacking routes in the Midwest.
Preparation / Know Before You Go
Permits may be required. Depending upon where you decide to park, you may be required to reserve a daily parking pass / permit before leaving a car. This can be done via cash or check at the campsites near either trailhead. The area is well managed and we did see a ticketed car upon our arrival so make sure you take this into account
Campsites near the trailheads fill fast. The Huron-Manistee forest is a popular area for hikers, campers, and fishermen, so if you plan to stay a night or two in either the Seaton Creek or Red Bridge campsite, I would recommend making a reservation. On the other hand, we had no problem with the backcountry sites. They are first-come-first-serve, but are plentiful and you should have no problem finding an open one as long as you are willing to be flexible.
The fishing in the area is great. If you enjoy fishing, this is a great little trek to bring a pole on. While I had no success personally, we saw a number of more experienced fisherman coming to shore with large trout, pike, and salmon from the river. Just make sure you purchase a Michigan fishing permit and adhere to catch limits.
The trail can get crowded. Despite being 25mi from Cadillac and over 100mi from Grand Rapids, the area is popular with all types of folks looking for some outdoor recreation. You can still grab a relatively secluded campsite if you would like more privacy, but this is not the ideal hike for those looking to be alone in nature. This holds especially true during the busy season from July – September.
Facilities are only available at each trailhead. While potable water and restrooms can be conveniently found at either end of the trail (Seaton Creek & Red River Bridge), backpackers should come with containers and plan accordingly for the 10+ miles in between.
Day One: Seaton Creek Campground to Campsite 10B (13mi)
The first of two days on the Manistee River Loop began with an important decision regarding which direction we wanted to hike. For context the Manistee River Loop is comprised of two different out-and-back trails that naturally connect to form a loop. The Manistee River Trail side (east) of the loop is known to be the more beautiful of the two sides as it hugs the winding river most of the way and offers a lot of diversity in terms of terrain. The North Country Trail side (west) joins part of the 4,600 mile long NCT, and is the longer of the two sides. Opting to get the tougher portion out of the way first, we made our way down to the suspension bridge near Hodenpyl Dam, crossed, and began moving counterclockwise on the trail.
After crossing the suspension bridge, we fumbled through a small mess of side trails and parking lots, until we were sure we had connected with the North Country Trail. This involved a few frustrating wrong turns, but it is hard to get too lost and before long we had it figured out (Pro-tip: Look for blue paint stripes on trees to indicate the proper NCT trail). Officially on the NCT, we began a slow climb towards a ridgeline sufficiently above the Manistee River basin. As a native Washingtonian used to spending time in the Cascades, it was hard to say whether we were atop hills or mountains, but nonetheless it was decent elevation gain for hiking in the Midwest. From the ridge, the trail wound through lush forests where we saw plenty of birds, chipmunks, and monarch butterflies. Around noon, we came across a sizeable garter snake that had just caught a frog in the middle of the trail. Mouth full, the snake tried to make a break for it, but soon gave up on the escape and was forced to take its meal with our cameras in its face.
The steady up and down hiking continued for most of the day, and we enjoyed the relative peace and quiet. Further from the river, we would discover the NCT side of the trail to be much less crowded than across the way. Overall, we found the hiking easy and enjoyable. It being mid-July, the skies were blue and the trees bright green. The forests offered noise protection from the canoers below and the trail was well-maintained. My only complaint was that we never came to a clearing or peak that presented a full view of the valley below us. We had made our way to decent altitude and through the trees could sample a view of rolling green hills, but a full panorama never came to fruition.
By early evening we had completed our stretch on the NCT and began a steady descent towards the Red River Bridge, a pseudo-halfway point on the journey. Since we had access to facilities and good fishing there, we paused for a couple hours and enjoyed the evening heat. After dinner, some swimming, and fishing, we continued along our way to the nearest wooded campsite. The sun set quickly and the mosquitos came out in force, but before long we came across campsite 10B, a great trailside location perched on a bluff above the river. We made camp with headlamps and bug nets on, then settled in for the night.
Day Two: Campsite 10B to Seaton Creek Campground (10mi)
After a breakfast of protein pancakes we packed up and set off on our return trip to Seaton Creek. Since the Manistee River Trail hugs the river more closely than the NCT, we had a moderately shorter day ahead of us. We couldn’t have asked for better weather and were in great spirits. The trail brought us some wonderful scenery right away. Much of the walking was along a steep cliff near to the water’s edge, this offered fantastic views of the river below as well as the rolling hills across the way which had been our home the day before. Unlike the day prior, there was no shortage of panoramic views.
The diversity of terrain and environment on the Manistee River side was surprising yet much appreciated. We started in hillside forests, dropped down into a mini swamp near the river, climbed back up into thin hardwood forests atop a cliff, and even skipped through a couple of open grass fields. Again, we saw lots of small fauna and were able to enjoy a number of monarch butterflies hanging around before their migration. As expected the trail was quite populated and every couple minutes or so, we would pass friendly hikers or campers taking a on a much later start to the day. Fisherman floated down the river in boats, and so did flotillas of day drinkers on kayaks and inner tubes. Some of these groups could be a little disruptive, but it never took more than a couple of minutes for them to float on by.
While we were very happy with how our short trip was planned out and never saw a need to break the mileage down into three days, we did see some campsites along the Manistee River side of the trail that made us envious. Most notably, around mile marker 7 we passed a family occupied site that was perched along the top of a cliff about 100ft. directly above the river. The site was spacious and the unobstructed views second to none. Mile markers 3 & 4 on the other hand offered some riverside spots that would allow one to cast for trout while sitting in the tent. Given more time, I would have loved to have spent another relaxing day fishing and cooking around one of these top notch campsites.
Slated to wrap the 10 mile hike around mid-afternoon, we took our time and even stopped for a mid-day fishing break. Nothing was biting (most fishermen or women will advise you not to fish during the heat of the day), but the water was surprisingly warm and I loved casting from my butt in the middle of the river. After a quick lunch and an even quicker nap, we powered through the last couple miles of the loop and reunited with our car at the Seaton Creek campground. While not a hike worth traveling cross country for, we thoroughly enjoyed our weekend journey and would highly recommend the Manistee River Loop to anyone passing through central Michigan.