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North Country Trail Section Hike – Hwy 131 to Mesick, MI – Dec 2015

pink sky sunrise in winter over manistee river in michigan

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  • Location – Pere Marquette State Forest, MI
  • Trail – North Country Trail Section – Hwy 131 in Fife Lake to Mesick
  • Fees and Permits: none
  • Length Of Time Hiked – 2 days, 1 night
  • Miles Hiked – 25+
  • Trail Type – Point-to-point
  • Starting Point – Roadside park along Hwy 131 in Fife Lake (closed in winter for parking!)
  • Ending Point – 12/15 Rd Trailhead in Mesick
  • Route Difficulty – 3
  • Fires Allowed – Yes
  • Solitude – 7 (For Michigan)


Below is my caltopo map I created before the hike.


I’ve hiked the High Country Pathway, Manistee River Loop, Nordhouse Dunes and the Jordan River Valley, which I consider to be the top hiking destinations in the lower peninsula. However, I have not hiked any segments of the North Country Trail yet, other than the west bank of the Manistee River where the NCT, along with the Manistee River trail, helps form the extremely popular Manistee River Loop. I found a segment of the NCT that sparked my interest, running from Hwy 131 south of Fife Lake to Mesick, and and chose that for a weekend getaway. There really isn’t much info in NCT section hiking in the lower peninsula. I only managed to dig up a couple trip reports with very limited pictures.

This hike ended up being 25-27 miles. I forgot my GPS so I don’t know the exact mileage. The North Country Trail is extremely well marked throughout and follows the Manistee River the whole way through this section, making it hard to get lost.

The challenge with this hike is logistics. It’s a point-to-point and requires a shuttle from one end to the other. Fortunately I was able to secure a ride from my car to my starting point at Hwy 131 to make this hike happen.

Saturday December 19th, 2015

I woke up around 5am today and made the 1 hour drive over to the town of Mesick with my shuttle ride following behind. After dropping my car off near the 12/15 Rd Trailhead on the north side of the Manistee River just east of M-37, we headed towards my starting point, where the Manistee River meets Hwy 131. First, we passed through the small town of Manton to stop for breakfast. Gotta get that last hot meal in before setting out into the cold!

After breakfast we continued north on Hwy 131 until we crossed the Manistee River. On the east side of the road just north of the river is a roadside park where you can pick up the NCT. However, the roadside park is closed for the winter. My ride dropped me off in front of the gate and I was on my own from here.

I walked through the parking lot towards the river and quickly picked up the trail. Heading south/west, the trail immediately runs underneath Hwy 131. It was in the teens today and windy, with some flurries in the air. After a short while of walking I was warmed up and ready to cover some miles.

manistee river michigan near hwy 131 fife lake in winter

Manistee River at Hwy 131 in Fife Lake where I started

manistee river mi near hwy 131 along nct

The purpose of this hike was not only to get away and see this previously unexplored section of the Manistee River, but also to get a bunch of miles on my legs before my upcoming hike in Big Bend National Park in January 2016. I sprained my ankle in October and have been trying to slowly rehab it. After a few weeks of shorter walks, now is the time to do a more serious test and make sure I can handle a week in the desert.

river bends of mansitee river in michigan during winter

The river has many, many bends like this along the trail

north country trail view in pere marquette state forest michigan

Not far after leaving Hwy 131 behind, I came across a campground, aptly named Old Us-131 State Forest Campground. Here, there was one car parked and some foot prints in the snow.

Redneck Crapper

After passing the campground, I came across a railroad bridge crossing the river. Just past this bridge, there was a nice campsite with a nice overlook above the river. A little further down the trail was the first sign along the trail.

at the banks of the manistee river in winter

railroad bridge over manistee river

railroad tracks in forest in michigan during winter

sign along the north country trail

Sign near railroad bridge

Flurries continued to fall much of the morning and early afternoon. Not enough to really accumulate, but enough to set that winter mood. The trail has been very well marked and groomed making navigation easy, even with some snow to contend with.

manistee river viewed from north country trail

manistee river bend photo in winter

hiking along the manistee river with snow on ground

The trail passes right alongside the edge of some private property for a while before dumping you out at a road. From here, it’s time to walk to road for a while.

trees in michigan winter planted in rows

After leaving the road and back on a trail, it passes behind a house higher up the hill. after getting out of sight of this home, I don’t believe there’s any more buildings homes to pass along the rest of the hike. Good views of the river from here. The next section is a little hilly with some ups and downs.

a sign along the north country trail near baxter, mi

Sign marking the end of the road walk and the beginning of the NCT trail again

bend in the manistee river near baxter michigan

Near Baxter, back along the river again

hairpin bend in manistee river with snow on ground

Next I arrived at the Highbanks Rollway overlook. Here, there’s a wooden platform extending over the edges of the bluffs for a great view of the Manistee River and the the surrounding area. There was a sign up here that said it’s 200ft above the river, a massive view for the lower peninsula of Michigan. You could actually see a ways in the distance from here.

view from highbanks rollway

View from Highbanks Rollway

After leaving the Highbanks Rollway, the trail continued to follow the edges of the bluffs and good views ensued. I was ready to find a campsite, but was looking to be a little farther away from this area. I went around another bend in the river and felt like that was far enough, and started actively searching for a place to hang my hammock.

a sign along the north country trail near highbanks rollway

Sign near Highbanks Rollway

near highbanks rollway view of manistee river

West of Highbanks Rollway

When I found a place to camp, first thing I did was get a fire going. It was cold just sitting around and and I wanted the warm of the fire to warm my hands as I set up camp.

winter camping in michigan hammock hanging with campfire burning

After getting the fire going, I got the hammock up and decided to leave the tarp off and chance it. There was no mention of snow tonight so I figured it was a chance worth taking. Not messing with that tarp saved a lot of time.

warbonnet ridgerunner hammock setup with no tarp in winter


For dinner, I had sausage (cooked it at home and ground it up pretty good) and shredded cheddar cheese in some flatbread. It was wrapped in some aluminium foil, so all I had to do is throw it n the fire for a bit to warm it up. When it was soft to the touch, it’s done. And DAMN, was this thing good. I’m going to make more of these in the future when the temperature allows.

Before jumping in bed I put my boots in a garbage bag so that I could sleep with them under my top quilt. Frozen boots are NOT fun, lesson learned from my previous winter hike in January 2015.

Sunday December 20th, 2015

It was a cold night, in the teens. However, I was fairly warm all night with what I had. And the best part is, my boots were really warm when I put them on this morning.

After getting out of the hammock I headed down to the river overlook a few hundred yards away to watch a beautiful sunrise. Lots of reds and oranges, very colorful compared to the bright white that dominates most of the landscape.

pink sky sunrise in winter over manistee river in michigan

Sunrise over the Manistee River

After watching the sunrise, eating breakfast and packing up I got a move on. It was overcast now and waiting for the warm up. In fact, it was supposed to warm up to around 40 today. I wanted to cover some ground before things softened up and became slippery and muddy. For now everything was good underfoot.

winter december 2015 picture of manistee river

The trial continues to look and feel like it did yesterday. Some high banks with good views above the river and some lowlands here, passing through old logging fields that have been replanted or maybe alongside the river itself.

manistee river north country trail section

winter hiking along manistee river nct section

Occasionally near the river, there would be an access road leading to it. In some spots it looks like people just car camp there. I only saw one spot with some trash and it was minimal. I wondered if the fishing was any good from any of these spots by the river. Between Hodenpyl Dam and Red Bridge, roughly 15 miles southwest of here where I’ve hiked several time before, I never had any luck from the shore.

Manistee River December 2015

It was definitely warming up now. The clouds appeared to be thinning and although still overcast, more sun was bleeding through. Yesterday when I was hiking, it was much colder, and so having my base layer pants on underneath my hiking pants kept me at a pretty good temperature. Today though, I was sweating. A lot. I should have just stopped and removed them, but I kept pushing on. My decision ultimately ended up resulting in a good bit of chaffing, which always sucks.

view of bluff along manistee river

curve in manistee river

I knew I had to be getting close to my car at this point. The ground was getting getting soft now and the snow was melting. Eventually, I walked through a small dirt parking lot area alongside a road, with a sign at the trailhead. Cool, there’s my car. It was early afternoon now, and I was ready to get these boots off! 25+ miles in less than 36 hours, not bad. Hopefully I’m ready for Big Bend National Park next month.

trailhead at 12 15 rd for north country trail

Sign at the 12/15 Rd trailhead

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