I heard about the High Country Pathway several years before while attending a presentation at the Quiet Waters Symposium (now known as the Quiet Adventures Symposium).
I remember being very excited to learn about an 80+ mile loop in the lower peninsula of Michigan. However, I was also a bit sad because this was not something that I would attempt by myself. Who else would want to take a week off of work to head out into these rustic woods with me? In 2019, my friend Bob was interested in planning a trip with me and I pitched the HCP. He liked the idea and the research commenced.
We were not able to find a ton of information. The Pigeon River Country Association prints a very nice map of the area, but other than that we were only able to find two dated blog postings about the trail. Both blog writers gave the trail a mediocre review, but both reviews consistently mentioned that there were sections of the trail that had not seen trail maintenance for some time.
We read that there may be areas of not-cleared blow downs, bridges and boardwalks that could be damaged or missing and trail markers that could be worn away and difficult to see. We were still interested in attempting this trail and leaned into its proposed shortcomings, bestowing it the name of “Bob and Dave’s Epic Adventure”.
We posted the trip to the group for 2020 in all of its rustic and difficult glory, and I was surprised when we had quite a bit of interest. 2020 turned out to be a bad year due to some virus, so we moved the trip to 2021 and made updates.
The final plan was for 7 Days and 6 Nights (May 23 to May 29). We dropped cars at the south end of the loop both for emergency purposes and for a food resupply. We started at the north end by Black River Road.
Day 1 – Car drop off, Start to Shoepac Lake (10 miles)
This was a big day; everyone was excited for this Epic Adventure that had been two years in the planning! Many people came up the night before to stay at the modern campground at Clear Lake. I decided to come up the morning of, driving up from Westland at 4:30 am.
I met some of my fellow adventurers and we dropped a couple of cars with water and everyone’s resupply food at the southern end of the loop. Then it was off to the northern end where we met the rest of the crew who were waiting in eager anticipation. We quickly geared up and were off. I remember the exhilarating feeling of finally being on this trail after thinking about it for so long.
We knew that this was going to be a rugged trail, not always well marked or maintained. This first section met that expectation as we found blow downs to navigate and muddy sections to cross.
There are boardwalks in areas here to deal with this low section of the trail. Most were in good repair, but sometimes they just did not extend far enough.
One thing I found interesting about this trail was that there were areas where the forest would give way to large open fields of grass. I do not know what would cause this. Maybe past farmsteads?
The HCP is incredible in its diversity of terrain. Day 1 was mostly lowlands, but there were also fields and different types of forests. There were even some hills!
We did get wet feet this day, as a boardwalk ended early with an ankle-deep walk through a marsh.
We ended the day at Shoepac Lake. This is a rustic campground with a large quantity of sites. Shoepac Lake itself is a sinkhole that is filled with water. It is 94 feet deep with extremely steep drop offs. I took advantage of the lake to cool off and clean up and we all enjoyed a nice fire before bed.
Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, I woke up to a sound. At first, I could not tell what it was and thought it may be a motor or pump cycling over and over. As I listened, I realized that it was erratic and sounded more like loud chewing. Since we had passed many beaver signs that day, my overactive imagination pictured a beaver working to drop a tree on my crew. Eventually I had to get up and check. Armed with my headlamp on high, I crept out of my tent and towards the sound. As I got close to the outhouses the sound stopped and I looked around but did not see anything. My best guess was that it was a porcupine. In the morning I noticed that there was significant chew damage on both nearby outhouses. This was probably a favorite spot for some local porcupines.
Day 2 – Shoepac Lake to Clear Lake (13.5 Miles)
We were up early and out for another day on this trail. Again, I was struck by the diversity of this trail. We went through pine forest, lowland trees and back to a marsh area all before lunch.
Later in the day, the trail climbed to higher elevations, which allowed for some nice views of the area.
We did miss a section of the official HCP here. I took the spur trail directly to Clear Lake campground, where we were to stay for the night. The official trail made another loop, which would probably have added 1.5 to 2 miles to the day.
Clear Lake Campground is a fairly modern facility with electricity, flush toilets and showers. I imagine it can get quite busy, but we hit it on a Tuesday and it was quiet. The beach there was nice, but the lake this time of year was cold. Everyone was very excited to make use of the onsite showers.
We were met at Clear Lake by our good friend Carol, who was car camping and had some cookies to share. It was a good night, with everyone clean and the weather was nice. We enjoyed a nice fire and I tried to teach a couple of adventures to “walrus whistle”.
Day 3 – Clear Lake to backcountry camping and “Van Night”
It had been a good night for sleeping. We woke up and got ready for the day. It was Mark’s birthday and we had “van night” to look forward to.
Not far from Clear Lake, the trail goes through a developed area with playground and picnic areas. There was some confusion here between trail markings, maps and what was on the Gaia app. It took us a bit to figure this out, but eventually we were rolling again.
We hiked through some hardwood forests before taking on Rattlesnake Hill. I admit that this area and the hills around it were tough for me. The temperature was in the upper 80’s and I was feeling it. There was quite a bit of exposure during the day and the sun has never been a fan of mine.
The top of Rattlesnake Hill was beautiful with some excellent views. We stopped for lunch at the false summit, and continued on to the top. There we took in the view but did not linger long. There was a water source marked on the map a little more than a mile away and I was eager to get to it.
With the last few ounces of water in my bottle at a temperature more suitable for hot tea than a cool drink, I was spurred forward with the thought of a river nearby. My imagination fed me the image of a park-like setting complete with a wooden bridge over a clear river. I thought of myself sitting in a shaded gazebo drinking cold water and enjoying a handful of M&M’s. Of course when I got there, I found no park, merely a bridge where the road crossed the river. Oh well, the water was refreshing to wade in and was cool to drink after being filtered.
That night, we made it to the cars at the southern end of the loop. This was an enormous field. This was a dry section of the trail, so it was very convenient to have the cars here.
We had planned appropriately with cold drinks and snacks. We even had a small charcoal grill for grilling brats and the like. We celebrated Mark’s birthday in style with cupcakes, ice cream and a game of bocce ball.
Day 4 – Southern Parking to Pigeon Bridge (13 Miles)
The temperature dropped overnight and this day was cooler, which made for good hiking. We made good time through varied terrain. There were more boardwalks in need of some repairs.
When we got to the Black River, we discovered that the bridge was completely gone. Luckily the weather was nice and this river was not even knee deep. We crossed it with little problem and my shoes dried quickly afterwards.
This was a fun day with some more hills and views. We arrived at Pigeon Bridge Campground without much issue. This campground was convenient, as it was right on the trail, but I found it lacking in charm. Right off of a large road, it just did not have the correct feeling for this trip.
That night the weather turned cold. It dropped to the low 30’s or maybe even upper 20’s where we were camped in the lowlands by the river. It was a miserable night for me. Before leaving, the lowest forecast had shown 46 and I was just not prepared for this drop.
Day 5 – Pigeon Bridge to Pine Grove (12 Miles)
The morning was still cold and we were faced with a decision. A sign indicated that there was another bridge out, but we could avoid it by taking a section of the shingle mill trail. We decided to take the shingle mill, but then to take a spur trail to rejoin the HCP shortly after the bridge.
The shingle mill trail had a bunch of boardwalks, which were in good condition. The day was chilly, but comfortable while moving. Anandhi took a side trail down to see the bridge under construction. It was actively under construction and we took this as a good sign for future hikers and a possible return trip.
This was another fun day with varied terrain, a few hills and some good views. Eventually we got close to the Pigeon River by Pine Grove Campground, which was our designated stop for the night. We hit an area of raised boardwalks, one to two feet off of the ground on legs. This boardwalk was in need of some serious repairs. It was crooked and in some places very unstable.
The boardwalks dumped us directly at the Pigeon River, where we found that the bridge was gone. This river was deeper than our other crossing and with the day being colder, not everyone was excited about fording it. We made it across with minimal issues and were soon in the nearby Pine Grove campground where we quickly got a fire going.
Pine Grove is a tiny rustic campground with eight campsites. We found that six of them were taken by a group planning to stay over the Memorial Day weekend. We were there on the Thursday before the weekend, so we were not expecting to find anyone. It was a bit off-putting to step off this remote trail and find a group with a large abundance of equipment pre-gaming for the weekend. I imagine this campground is normally quiet most days.
We ate by the fire and dried off what we could with a makeshift drying rack. The evening was cold, so many of us were in bed early. It was another very cold night, which is not something that I enjoy or find restful.
Day 6 – Pine Grove to End (16 Miles)
We had a discussion about our options in the morning. We had originally planned to backcountry camp by McLeavy Lake on day 6 and hike out on day 7. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was predicting another very cold night and some of us (me included) were not excited about that. We decided that we could combine the last two days for an epic sprint out.
We had a long morning through forests and road walks before finally getting to water on a long boardwalk. It was late for lunch, so we enjoyed a long rest here.
Again the terrain was varied, which is a consistent theme for this trail. This section of the trail is muddy, had several blow downs and could use some more signage.
When we got to the spur trail for McLeavy Lake, I had difficulty even locating it. I am not sure how well I could have followed it had we decided to stay there.
The last several miles were through a pine forest where the trail signage was faint and difficult to follow. For some reason, I found myself in the zone; picking out faint trail markings and ancient signs of maintenance. It was great; I felt amazing and was flying along with my eyes darting around looking for the next clue to keep on the trail.
We started hearing cars on the road long before we arrived there. I kept thinking that the end would just be over the next hill, but it was fooling me.
Eventually we did arrive, excited and feeling accomplished.
About the trail
Terrain – It is so varied. Everyday would take us through different types of forests and fields.
Difficulty – There are several large hills (like the area around Rattlesnake), but much of it is not horribly hilly. Most of the difficulty came from things like blow downs, boardwalks in disrepair, bridges that are damaged or missing or sections of trail covered in mud or water. There is also a long stretch of trail that did not have a water source along the southern edge of the loop.
Navigation – There are several sections where this trail is not well marked. While leading, I lost the trail many times and I am normally proficient at keeping on trail. None of these trail losses were long, as I had help from the great people with me. The map from the Pigeon River Country Association is well made and I found that the trail was pretty accurately depicted in my Gaia app.
Use – We saw one other hiker on this trail. One. We did plan this trip mid-week in hopes to avoid full campgrounds (many of the campgrounds are very small) but it was odd to only encounter one other person on such a long trail.
Bugs – I saw zero mosquitoes. This was probably more due to the time we went (late May) than anything else. There were plenty of lowlands, especially on the northern part of the trail for those jerks to be around.
It was a bad year for ticks. We had many encounters with these blood suckers. I wore long pants and long sleeves with clothes I had sprayed with permethrin and still experienced two bites and many ticks on my clothes. Be prepared for these guys, ticks can carry disease and are no joke!
Planning – As I mentioned, this was two years in the planning for us with several experienced hikers. We did have a larger group, which adds to the difficulty and had to plan for a resupply. Hikers capable of more miles per day or willing to carry more food may be able to avoid the need for a resupply.
Backcountry camping is allowed along the HCP, following restrictions, but there are also several state forest campgrounds which offer water sources, pit toilets, picnic tables and fire rings. There are more campgrounds by this trail than the ones mentioned in this blog. It may be possible to do the loop only staying at state forest campgrounds, but you would probably be looking at a couple of 16 + mile days.
Likeability – We thought this trail was under-rated. Yes, it needs maintenance but that is part of the thrill of this type of backcountry backpacking experience. With varied landscapes and a variety of campgrounds, the trail and the accommodations kept us engaged. This is a nice long and challenging loop to have in the lower peninsula of Michigan.
A Big Thank You
Thank you to everyone who participated in this trip. It was a wonderfully cohesive group with everyone looking out for each other.
Thank you for sharing your pictures with me for this blog article. A big thank you to Anandhi, whose great journey through photos really helped my poor memory to complete this article.
And to the reader, as always, thanks for reading.