I’ll admit it, I had never even heard of the North Country Trail until about 10 years ago and was introduced to it by bikers instead of hikers. The trail runs through my entire home state of Michigan and was approved by Congress in 1980. It spans 4,600 miles through seven states, from New York to North Dakota. It’s funny, I grew up hearing about the Appalachian Trail, its epic through hikers and reading about it in Bill Bryson’s novel, A Walk in the Woods. Not that I am enlisting a competition but the NCT has a long way to go, to live up the AT’s lore. The AT covers 2,170 miles from Georgia to Maine and of course winds through the Appalachian Mountain range. Thousands have hiked its entirety and many more are planning to as I type. In contrast, most people have never even heard of the NCT, including people like me in the very states, where the trail exists. After some quick research, it appears that just 11 people have completed the entire NCT hike. Another interesting detail, the NCT is not all a traditional hiking trail and some of it parallels roads or two-tracks. But, possibly the biggest difference is the NCT lacks a magnificent mountain range on its stat sheet. Even so, after some digging I realized that the NCT is impressive in its own right and its sights, ecosystems, rivers, great lakes, forests and meadows are very worthy of planning a trek. Just in Michigan, the NCT passes through the Manistee National Forest and also Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A mere ½ hour drive from my condo, I can access the NCT trailhead for some much needed time with nature. Pristine wilderness can be much closer than we all think, especially if you are a Michigander.
Lucky for me, my trail-riding friends discovered that the NCT is open in sections to biking and the MMBA (Michigan Mountain Biking Association) lists information about it on its website. The irony of it all, is that allowing biking on the NCT has been controversial, primarily because of erosion and other issues that go along with sharing. But, so far bikers and hikers (and runners too) have found a way to share this resource in certain areas, at least in Michigan. In fact, one of my favorite sections that I bike often is near Hesperia off Highway 10, northeast of Fremont, Michigan. We gather a group, bike north on a fun, hard-packed trail that rolls up and down perfect slopes, in what I like to call a pedal festival. The slight uphills give you enough of a challenge and the ensuing down hills are thrilling, as you rocket past hardwoods with just inches to spare outside your handlebars. The only problem—it sure is hard to take in the beautiful scenery from the seat of a bike that requires all your attention be paid to the trail and the tree that brushed your shoulder or helmet. My tip—pedal and enjoy the ride but be sure to dismount often enough to admire the views along the way. Being a hiker as well, I can understand the NCT purist who would rather see the scenery from their own two feet. You’ll see wild berry bushes that line the trail, hidden wetlands and marshes with deer grazing and a great number of birds and other wildlife that you will be privileged to see on a day hike or a bike. And, I’ve realized that I have barely scratched the surface of the NCT in western and northern Michigan. In all honesty, a through-hike or even tackling the Michigan section would be tough, merely to find the time. Yet, I am encouraged that I have discovered the “sibling” or at least the “first cousin” to the famous Appalachian Trail. And, it is right in my own backyard and is just waiting for me to continue to explore it on foot or on my bike.
Maybe, you’ve never heard of the NCT either? Well, go see for yourself. For more information on the North Country Trail and local trails and access points you can visit: http://northcountrytrail.org/