Writer | Candi Conat
Photos | flickr.com

Take a Hike on the North Country Trail

Since the late ‘60s, Michigan trail lovers have hiked portions of the nearly 1,200 miles of wildly beautiful trails that meander through Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas as part of the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT). Geared for people with all skill levels, novice hikers can pick up small portions for a quick day hike and more experienced hikers can make plans to camp out along multiday journeys.  

The NCT, which stretches across eight states, falls within the ranks of several other nationally recognized trails such as the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, all part of the National Trails System Act (NTSA).

Signed into law in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the NTSA made it possible for Congress to designate the North Country Trail as a National Scenic Trail in 1980. To date, there are only 11 appointed National Scenic Trails in the United States. The NCT holds the distinction of being the longest at 4,800 miles, spanning eight states: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont. 

The trail’s designation as a National Scenic Trail means it receives support and protection at a federal level but just as important, the trail is supported and promoted through the North Country Trail Association (NCTA). Michigan hosts the NCTA headquarters located in Lowell. Kate Lemon is the marketing and communications coordinator for the NCTA, which serves as a hub for outdoor-loving volunteers. With 29 chapters, the entire 4,800 miles of trail are maintained completely by those volunteers who enable the NCTA to fulfill their mission to build, maintain, protect and promote the trail. “Their value and dedication to the NCT are unmatched and invaluable,” Lemon says.  

One of the most unique traits of the NCT is that it is available to people at any level of experience — novice to intermediate to experienced — everyone can enjoy this special treasure. From paved walking paths to trekking through farmland, forests, river valleys, hills and mountains, there are many points of entry that take hikers near or through official “Trail Towns” like Lowell, Battle Creek, Fife Lake, Grand Marais and Marquette, as well as more remote areas where you feel like you are the only person on the planet. 

When Kalkaska resident and avid hiker James Burge was looking to move to Northern Michigan, he wanted to be in a place with stellar hiking trails, open spaces, rivers and forests. Having hiked the Manistee River Loop near Baldwin years prior, he learned a lot about the trail and knew it passed through Kalkaska. Over the years, he has hiked nearly all of the Northwestern lower segments of the trail from the Fife Lake area, through Grand Traverse County, Kalkaska and north through the Jordan River Valley, often with his faithful furry companions. “The stunning vistas overlooking the river are breathtaking,” Burge says, adding that you can’t go wrong with any section of the trail that runs along the Manistee River.

In 2016, the NCTA launched the Hike 100 Challenge as way to motivate people to get outside and experience the joys of nature. Anyone can join online and it is completely free. Participants log miles beginning in January and if they reach 100 miles within a single calendar year, they receive a special patch and certificate of completion. You don’t have to prove your miles and it can be done one mile at a time, all at once or anywhere in between. You can hike the same two miles near your home 50 times over or travel around exploring the trail in Michigan and other states in the trail system. Walk, run, snowshoe or cross-country ski, it all counts. 

Each year brings a new special patch and many people have made it a goal to continue the challenge year after year to build their patch collection. Other individual NCTA chapters have also initiated their own challenges to motivate the public to get outside. 

Michigan resident Deb Guthrie discovered the NCT by accident from a social media post. She began investigating and was surprised to learn the longest national scenic trail in the country ran right through her backyard. She wanted to begin exploring the trail but had no hiking experience. With more research, she found a NCT women’s group online and joined.

“I knew I wanted to start at the Ohio-Michigan border and make my way up through the lower peninsula. My goal was 100 miles when I learned about the 100 Mile Challenge,” Deb says. “Then it became the Three County Challenge when I heard about that. Later I decided I wanted to finish the year at the NCTA headquarters so I ended up hiking 172.5 miles my first year.” For Deb, it became a way to clear her mind and soothe her heart and soul while dealing with loss and grief. She says her experience along the trail helped her find peace and solitude. 

If you are ready to get out and experience the NCT, start by searching out groups online — there are many Facebook groups devoted to the NCT that welcome new members, whether they are experienced or novice hikers. Search for North Country Trail hiking and chapter groups and join several as hikers love to share their experiences.

Your next step should be to visit NorthCountryTrail.org, which is one of the best resources to plan a trip on the trail. There, you will find free downloadable and printable maps. The maps are also available via the Avenza app, and coming soon to the FarOut App. You should also consider joining the Hike 100 Challenge and set a goal to get your first patch in 2023. Happy hiking!