Located about a half-hour north of Cadillac, the Fife Lake loop is another weekend destination that I wanted to check out. I have seen it mapped as a 21-mile loop. I messed up my GPS tracking shortly after leaving, but the 21-mile estimation seems reasonable.
Like Jordan River Loop, this is another area where a group has taken a section of the North Country Trail and put in a linking trail to make it a loop.
What: Fife Lake Loop, a 21-ish mile loop
Location: Starting at either campground (Old US 131 or Spring Lake)
Camping: The two campgrounds can be used for a fee and backcountry camping is permitted along the NCT, following NCT guidelines.
A team of hardy adventurers joined me for this foray into the unknown.
The night before our hike, the group spent the night at the US-131 State Forest Campground. There was a self-paid fee for using the campground. I believe it was $15. This State Forest Campground offers pit toilets (that were surprisingly nice), fire rings, picnic tables, a water pump, and a wading area in the Manistee River where the current did not pull you away.
In the morning, we moved the cars over to the parking area close to the walk-in sites to begin our journey. The parking area is decent here, probably able to fit a dozen cars as long as you do not mind parking each other in.
The trail follows close to the mighty Manistee River for a short time, offering some amazing views.
After crossing a few small streams, the trail turns to the North to follow the Fife Lake Trail. You will know you are on Fife Lake Trail, as the blazes go from the normal blue of the North Country Trail to this burnt umber (or orange, if you prefer) colored blaze.
The Fife Lake Trail section of this loop did not have much in the way of water sources. There was a section of about seven miles where there was not a suitable source of water to filter.
There are several road crossings, most are dirt roads in the backcountry and are just a brief interruption to the forest. The crossing of 131 by Fife Lake is a bit annoying, but luckily 131 is down to a 2 lane road at this point.
After crossing 131, there is a trail that will take you into the Town of Fife Lake. We did not take the trail to town and opted to continue on. Shortly after we came to the Spring Lake Campground. Spring Lake is another self-pay campground with pit toilets, fire rings, picnic tables, a water pump, and a swimming area on the Lake. We made use of the water pump and a picnic table at an open site for lunch. The water was amazingly cool.
There is another parking area by the trailhead at Spring Lake. It is not as large, and maybe has room for eight cars if you park each other in.
Since it was still early in the day, we decided to hike on to take advantage of backcountry camping on the North Country Trail. We hiked south to Fuller Lake and Headquarters Lake; both are very heavily covered with vegetation and lily pads. At the southern end of Headquarters Lake, we found an area that had been used for camping before with a good place to obtain water nearby. At this point, our daily mileage was probably around 13.
Eventually the trail comes back around to the Manistee River, to make for some of the best views I have seen on the NCT.
You do have to deal with 131 again, but this time the trail safely goes underneath it.
Conclusions: This trail has variety for a relatively short distance. You walk by the river, hike under a tree canopy, wind through fields and follow short sections of roads. The trail was well maintained and level, without any stones or roots to trip us up. It was also mainly flat, with only a few hills to contend with.
From a planning perspective, this trip is great. You have clear parking areas at both State Forest Campgrounds and could plan your trip to stay at both.
If planning to not backcountry camp, I would suggest starting at Spring Lake and hiking the NCT section to stay at the walk-in sites at the Old US-131 Campground.
If you want to try backcountry camping, then our example is a good model.
Overall, I like this trail a lot. As a hiker, it was relatively easy. As a planner, you have some options either with utilizing the two campgrounds or backcountry camping on the NCT section. Either way, I would recommend this trip.
Thanks for reading.