April 17, 2024

Not Your Average Trails

Looking for more than a walk in the woods? Try these four NoMi trails.
By Ren Brabenec | April 8, 2023

The sunlight in your eyes may seem sharp after months of gray, but it’s a welcome reminder that we did it; we survived another Michigan winter. Now you want to get outside, but you want to kick the season off with something unique and special. Rather than the typical hike, you want something more engaging, a place where you can turn off the podcast and immerse yourself in an activity.

Here’s where you’ll find us this spring.

Sleeping Bear Birding Trail

M-22 from Manistee to Traverse City

Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Birding Trail (SBBT) is more than a simple birding trail—it’s a 123-mile span of M-22 that winds through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The stretch of road takes adventurers along forests, orchards, vineyards, wetlands, and beaches, affording visitors numerous pullovers, beach access points, scenic overlooks, and wooded walking paths. The result? A day’s drive along the SBBT provides birding enthusiasts access to numerous habitats and a diverse panoply of bird species living in those habitats.

“I always knew we had the resources to add birding to the area’s tourism brand,” says Dave Barrons, chairman and co-founder of Michigan’s first birding trail. “But the surprise was just how much access to diverse, public land there is along M-22… This is not just a single trail where you get out and hike around looking for birds. It’s a travel route, a way of connecting several birding sites in a way that allows you to include them in your itinerary and enjoy some incredible scenery.”

According to Barrons, the fields, forests, and beaches along the SBBT are home to 321 bird species.

There are 34 birding hotspots scattered along the 123-mile route, with the trail’s website set to publish trail maps later this year. Folks interested in exploring the SBBT this spring should look out for red-winged blackbirds, sandhill cranes, Canada geese, warblers, sandpipers, and puddle ducks.

Learn more at sleepingbearbirdingtrail.org.

Pigeon River Country State Forest Equestrian Trails

Vanderbilt

The region of Otsego County that Ernest Hemingway once called “wild as the devil, the greatest I’ve ever been in,” was preserved as Pigeon River Country State Forest (PRCSF) in 1919. It is 12 miles wide, 20 miles long, and contains 105,049 acres. It’s also one of the best places in northern Michigan to explore trails from horseback.

Located 20 miles north of Gaylord, the forest is often described as an outdoor playground. “The Pigeon River Country State Forest is unique in its own right, being the largest contiguous tract of state forest land in the Lower Peninsula,” says Paige Perry, Michigan Department of Natural Resources Parks and Recreation trail specialist. “It is home to Michigan’s free range elk herd, [and] there are eight rustic campgrounds in the PRCSF, two of which [Elk Hill and Johnsons Crossing] are designed and intended for campers with horses.”

In addition to equestrian trails, the PRCSF features old two-tracks, winding forested trails, lakes, trout streams, and small rustic facilities tucked away on river bends and isolated lakes.

What is so enticing about the PRCSF is that it’s wilder than other state-managed nature preserves. Per the DNR, “If you’re planning a trip to the Pigeon, keep in mind that it’s managed differently than other state forests. To retain that ‘wild character’ that provides an opportunity for a remote, undeveloped, backcountry experience, it isn’t peppered with a lot of infrastructure and signs. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to explore—you just have to be ready for an adventure. Also be aware that cell phone coverage is patchy.”

Though remote, the PRCSF offers dozens of trail routes. “There is ample opportunity for loop riding within the PRCSF, and the trails/roads and state forest land outside of the PRCSF offer hundreds of miles of opportunities for equestrian enthusiasts,” says Perry.

If you’re looking to explore the PRCSF from horseback, visit pigeonriverdiscoverycenter.org/horseback-riding.

Chain of Lakes Water Trail

Antrim County

The Chain of Lakes Water Trail is located in Antrim County and connects a water trail of 12 lakes and rivers spanning 100+ miles. For those experiencing the water trail for the first time, their immediate takeaway is its uniqueness.

“Paddle Antrim is proud to host Northern Michigan’s only state-designated water trail,” says Deana Jerdee, executive director of the nonprofit Paddle Antrim. “The Chain of Lakes Water Trail is extremely special, providing quality access for people to see wildlife and explore natural areas and quaint lakeside communities. The water trail is unique in that it is a flatwater system, providing more flexible paddling opportunities. Because of the diversity in the lakes, it also provides opportunities for paddlers of all different skill levels.”

A dam in Bellaire separates the trail into upper and lower chain segments. The Upper Chain is made up of mainly smaller lakes, providing quality beginner and intermediate routes. That’s also where you’ll find Ellsworth, Central Lake, and Bellaire, if you want to stop for lunch or explore town. (Or even stay overnight before continuing your paddle the next day.)

Most folks paddle from point A to point B rather than making a round trip. “Because it is a flatwater system, it lends itself for people to go in one direction, circumnavigate a specific lake, or go out/back from the same location,” Jerdee explains.

As for the second segment of the water trail, Jerdee says it’s better suited to experienced paddlers.

“The Lower Chain goes from Bellaire to Elk Rapids and includes larger lakes like Elk Lake and Torch Lake. This lends itself to more intermediate and advanced routes while still incorporating two of our great trail town communities.”

In our conversation with Jerdee, she highlights how seasonal water levels and temperatures will make the trail look and feel different depending on what time of year people experience it. She also recommends St. Clair Six Mile Natural Area, Grass River Natural Area, and Skegemog Wildlife Area as bucket-list items for their natural beauty.

Lately, a focus for Paddle Antrim has been on making the Chain of Lakes Water Trail accessible to all.

“We have one universally accessible launch in Milton Township on the north end of Elk Lake,” says Jerdee. “We are excited to share that we, in partnership with the Village of Elk Rapids, recently reached our fundraising goal and are working on adding a second universal launch in downtown Elk Rapids. This will create our first [fully] accessible segment of the water trail as well, as they are approximately five miles apart.”

Find signage information, digital maps, trail data, and helpful advice for paddlers of all skill levels at chainoflakeswatertrail.org.

Hickory Hills Disc Golf Course

Traverse City

Frolf fans, this one’s for you. Hickory Hills Disc Golf Course is a 23-hole course offering multiple layouts of varying difficulty. The course features major elevation changes, a mixture of open and wooded fairways, and great views of Traverse City.

“Disc golf offers a unique social experience in several ways,” says Greg Argyle, disc golf enthusiast with Aloft Disc Golf, a club based in Traverse City. “Courses are typically located in parks and wooded areas, providing players with an opportunity to enjoy the scenery and fresh air while playing. Disc golf is a sport that can be played by people of all ages and abilities, too. It doesn’t require a lot of physical strength or endurance, so it’s accessible to people who may not be able to play other sports.”

One aspect of an afternoon spent at Hickory Hills is the camaraderie one feels while disc golfing. “Our sport has a strong sense of community, with local clubs and organizations hosting leagues and tournaments that bring players together,” says Argyle. “That makes disc golf a social experience, encouraging players to connect with each other and enjoy the outdoors.”

Depending on your location, Hickory Hills may be a bit of a commute, so Argyle and his friends helped build several courses across northern Michigan.

“We have a growing number of courses that our organization has helped design and install, from beginner level to championship caliber,” says Argyle. “For beginners, we recommend Almira Township Park in Lake Ann and Kingsley Civic Center South. Intermediate players will be challenged at the White Layout at Hickory Hills, the Bear’s Den [Kingsley], and Myles Kimmerly Park [Maple City]. For those seeking a higher level of difficulty, we recommend the Blue Layout at Hickory Hills and Green Lake DiscGolfPark [Interlochen].”

Folks interested in disc golf at Hickory Hills can find more information at traversecitymi.gov/government/city-departments/hickory-hills/disc-golf.html.

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