a Promised Land for Hikers
By Mike Terrell 6/8/09
The 18,000-acre Jordan River Valley, which is part of the Mackinaw State Forest, is one of my favorite natural areas in the Lower Peninsula, especially spring and early summer. Any season is beautiful in the valley, but in May and June colorful wildflowers and trillium carpet the forest floor and marsh marigolds sprout along the rivers banks and little grass islands.
But beware the bugs this time of year. You almost need a net over your hat to ward off the pesky little bugs that like to orbit around your head, black flies and mosquitoes included. You need at least a good bug spray. When I visited there in mid-May to do a little hiking with my labs, while, of course, looking for a few morels, I forgot the spray and spent most of my time waving my hat around my head. But the views from the high ridges were beautiful, and I did find a few woodland fungi, despite the insects.
The Jordan River was Michigans first federally-designated Wild and Scenic River, and as you hike along the Jordan River Pathway, drive along Pinney Bridge Road or view the valley from its two prominent overlooksDeadmans Hill and Landslide Overlookyou can easily see why.
ONE OF THE BEST
When you stand at Deadmans Hill overlooking the valley on its eastern end, the beauty of nature unfolds before you. The headwaters of the Jordan River, 435 feet below you, are just starting to form; the valley stretches out in front of you and endless ridges blend into the horizon. On a warm, sunny day you may spot eagles floating over the valley on thermal currents. Its one of the best views in the Lower Peninsula. The turnoff for the overlook is off U.S. 131 about 12 miles north of Mancelona.
A new DNR sign at the overlook explains the name Deadmans Hill. A young lumberjack lost his life in 1910 while attempting to drive a team of horses with a load of lumber down the steep slope into the valley. Hes been immortalized at the trailhead.
The 18-mile Jordan River Pathway, which circles around the valley, begins on the north side of the parking area for the overlook. Hike the trail and youll find a rustic campground located exactly at the halfway point, which is located along a ridgeline above Pinney Bridge at the western end of the valley. Its the most popular backpacking trail in the northern Lower Peninsula, attracting over 3,000 backpackers annually. Perfect for an overnight outing, it can be busy on weekends. Midweek you will often have it to yourself. Its rugged enough with several ridge climbsto test your mettle. And, dont forget that at the end of your hike, you climb over 400 feet out of the valley to get back to the top of Deadmans Overlook.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Most of the day is spent skirting the banks of the swift-flowing river, or climbing ridgelines to panoramic overlooks of the valley. Theres a lot of up and down, but its worth the effort. The views will make you forget the sore knees.
Along the way you will likely see fly fishers plying the Jordan, a blue-ribbon trout stream, for resident brook trout. A host of critters such as beaver, mink, otters, herons and numerous waterfowl along the river and raccoons and deer may also be seen. Hike quietly, be observant and you will be rewarded. The valley is full of wildlife.
For those who arent into backpacking, theres also a three-mile loop from Deadmans Hill that descends to the valley floor along the beginning stages of the river and back up. A microcosm of the longer trail, it provides a good hike with a long uphill climb at the end.
Tags on trees along the trail identify the many species that make up this extensive forest system. Adders Tongue, a.k.a. Yellow Trout Lilly, and Spiderwort will be blooming along the edge of the woods and thickets. Marsh marigolds grow in vivid yellow colonies along the trail and edges of the streams.
Within a mile after leaving the trailhead on top of the ridge you come to a platform built over five little feeder streams that merge into one large feeder stream. This watershed, covering over 100,000 acres, has over 30 major tributaries that form the main river.
I often think about how 19th century settlers to this land may have stood on the ridges and, looking down into this lush valley with its river system, proclaimed it the river to the promised landthe Jordan River. I dont know how it got its name; this is just speculation.
As you continue to hike along the tributary it soon feeds into the main river. In about a half-mile you reach signpost five which points the way on a spur trail that intersects the Pathway within a half-mile on its way back to the top. Continue a short distance on up the long trail and you come to a series of boardwalks that traverse a large beaver dam.
If you arent into hiking and hill-climbing theres the 12-mile Pinney Bridge dirt road that cuts through the heart of the valley, paralleling the river much of the way. Its rough but drivable for most vehicles, and there are numerous spots to pull off and walk along the edge of the beautiful, wild Jordan River.
I enjoy the valley in all seasons. Fall is also an exquisite time to visit. Its one of the better color shows in the Lower Peninsula when broad splashes of reds, yellows, and oranges dash the woodlands. Winter is deep and quiet. Its silence and beauty can be appreciated by cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Its my promised land.