By Mike Terrell
One of the great wilderness tracts in the Lower Peninsula is the
97,000-acre Pigeon River Country State Forest. Located east of I-75
and Vanderbilt, it is host to a wide variety of outdoor activities;
hiking, mountain biking, trout fishing, hunting, horseback riding,
and, in the winter, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and
While it may be a misnomer to call the state forest wilderness most
of it is accessible* the Pigeon remains a haven of peace and
wildness. It is home to the largest elk herd east of the Mississippi
River, which Ive seen while both mountain biking and cross-country
skiing. There are also lots of deer, black bear, bobcat and snowshoe
hare. You see massive beaver lodges on many of the little lakes that
dot the area. Pileated woodpeckers and eagles are often spotted.
Ive never seen one, but the DNRE has confirmed that wolves are
present in the northern Lower Peninsula. With a natural food source
like deer and elk present, the Pigeon would be a very attractive
habitat for wolves, but, to my knowledge, none have been spotted yet.
Ernest Hemingway hunted and fished all three major rivers as a
teenager the Pigeon, Sturgeon and Black rivers that flow north
through the state forest. He loved the area and wrote that it was
wild as the devil.
The forest offers a couple of opportunities for backpackers. Theres
the High Country Pathway, a 77-mile loop that passes through four
counties and the heart of the northern Lower Peninsula. Most
backpackers need at least five days, and many take a week, to complete
the circle hike.
You can camp almost anywhere along the route as long as youre 100
feet away from the trail or any body of nearby water, and there are
also designated campgrounds. Three of the campgrounds exist along the
most popular trail, the Shingle Mill Pathway, which is an 11-mile loop
with shorter segments. The first-half of the loop shares the same
trail as the High Country Pathway.
Shingle Mill is popular with both hikers, for overnight trips, and
mountain bikers, who enjoy biking along the scenic Pigeon River.
Along the way you cross the Pigeon twice, cruise along scenic
sinkhole lakes -- meaning small lakes and lily ponds -- and climb to
a panoramic overlook of Grass Lake and distant hills up to 20 miles
away. The trail is mostly hard-pack dirt with a few sandy sections
and lots of roots. Oh yeah, theres also one long section of
boardwalk over a bog-like area near the end. Walking your mountain
bike over the fairly narrow walkway is a good idea.
The trail starts in the back of the campground that you encounter
after crossing the Pigeon River Bridge on Sturgeon Valley Road out of
Vanderbilt. The bridge is about 11 miles due east of the village.
You park across the road from the campground in the designated parking
There are three small loops when you first start out that total about
a mile-and-a-half between signposts 1-4. When you come to signpost 3
you head toward signpost 5 and the 6, 10 and 11-mile trails. If you
head towards signpost 4 it leads back to the campground and starting
You quickly move away from the river, which you wont see for another
three miles. The trail climbs a wooded ridge once you leave the
river. It descends to the Pigeon River Country State Forest
headquarters at about two miles, which is an impressive large log
lodge full of information on the land, its history, and all the
recreational opportunities that it holds. The lobby displays are
At three miles the pathway drops down into another campground and
crosses the Pigeon on a forest road bridge where you can soak your
feet in a pool that campers created by partially damning the stream
with rocks. Many of the campsites are right along the rustic river.
There are toilets, picnic tables and drinking water from an artesian
The six-mile loop breaks off here, climbs a steep ridge and heads over
to rejoin the longer loop at signpost 12. Its about a
mile-and-a-half across to the post and than another mile-and-a-half
back to the Pigeon River Bridge campground and starting point.
If you choose to continue on the longer, scenic trail, you head on
over to signpost 7 where the 11-mile loop splits from the 10-mile
loop. I wouldnt recommend the extra mile for mountain bikers. If
youre hiking, its okay. It drops steeply down by the river again
and back up. It does pass a historical marker where an old lumbering
mill once stood that was called Cornwall Flats.
The 10-mile loop continues on over to Grass Lake, another walk-in
campground on a lily-padded pond, and climbs to the scenic overlook at
signpost 10. Distant hills, 20 miles away, blend into the horizon.
Its a great place to relax and enjoy the incredible view after the
At signpost 11 the High Country Pathway, which youve been sharing
since leaving the starting point, heads on north and Shingle Mill
turns back south. After a nice long downhill run by the Devils Soup
Bowl, one of two sinkhole lakes that you pass, you drop down along
beautiful Grass Lake. Stop and observe some of the large beaver
lodges found along its edge.
The Pathway continues rolling through forest and some extensive
clear-cut areas before passing Ford Lake and reaching signpost 12.
Youre just a little over a mile from the end.
Its one of the truly great mountain bike rides in the Lower
Peninsula, and not a bad hike either. Jeremiah Johnson would have
loved this place.
Wilderness is a term generally reserved to any place that requires
at least a full days hike from any road -- ed.