An Up North Treasure: Hiking the North Country Trail


When she was twenty-two years old, Cheryl Strayed’s life was in shambles. She had lost her mother to cancer, her family splintered and her own marriage ended. At twenty-six, she made the impulsive decision to embark on an epic journey. Ill-prepared and poorly equipped, she set out on a quest to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State. She completed the more than 1000-mile journey by herself, and finished tattered but triumphant.

It was a transformative journey for Strayed. She wrote of her time on the trail, “I didn’t know where I was going until I got there.”

Most people know Strayed’s story through her bestselling book, Wild, as well as the box office hit biopic of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon. The Pacific Crest Trail, which Strayed hiked, is part of the National Trails System that was created by the federal government in 1968. The National Trails System includes other long distance hiking trails such as the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and the North Country Trail. The North Country Trail is a hiking trail of more than 4,600 miles that runs from New York to North Dakota – seven states total – and cuts through Michigan. It’s the longest of the National Scenic Trails, and Michigan has more miles than any other state.

After we moved to Northern Michigan, we pledged to never take for granted the easy access that we now have to the many amazing trail systems in our area.

It was only after moving here that we came to learn about the North Country Trail while on a trip to the Upper Peninsula last spring. Our family was on a camping trip in the U.P. in a state park just outside of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, through which the North Country Trail is carved along the shores of Lake Superior. We were blown away by the natural beauty.

Heather and I talked about how fun it would be to do a backpacking trip through the North Country Trail in Pictured Rocks some day. But with the kids being so young, “some day” was not anytime soon. In the interim, a group of friends and I spent three days backpacking and camping in Pictured Rocks last fall.

It was a great experience, and motivated me to explore more of the North Country Trail this year, particularly since a large section of it runs through the Grand Traverse region. While searching for more information about the portion of the North Country Trail that is located near Traverse City, I came across the website of the Grand Traverse Hiking Club, a local club that maintains the North Country Trail, and has established the “100 Mile Challenge” for hikers interested in exploring a beautiful stretch of Northwest Michigan trail.

Intrigued, we reached out to learn more about this organization and its important work maintaining one of this region’s most precious resources. Jill Nordin, President of the Grand Traverse Hiking Club, shared some thoughts about her organization, and what makes hiking in this area so special.

What is the Grand Traverse Hiking Club?

The Grand Traverse Hiking Club is a Chapter of the North Country Trail Association (NCTA). We maintain 100 miles of the North Country Trail in the Grand Traverse Region. Our section begins near Hodenpyl Dam west of Mesick and ends near Starvation Lake north of Kalkaska. To celebrate our 100 miles, we challenge people to hike our section – just follow the blue blazes along the Hodenpyl Dam Pond, the Manistee River and Fife Lake Creek, through the Valley of the Giants, along the North Branch of the Boardman River, passing through Muncie Lakes State Forest Pathway and Sand Lakes Quiet Area, through Kalkaska to Starvation Lake. Information about the 100 Mile Challenge, and trail brochures, are available on our website. Finishers of the 100 Mile Challenge receive a certificate and decal, and their name is added to the plaque at the Boardman River Nature Center.

What goes into maintaining the North Country Trail?

A lot of volunteers with a passion for the outdoors! We have folks who scout/map potential trails for re-routes, trail builders and maintainers, advocates and marketing. Every hiking season we have volunteers who walk the trails to check their condition to remove any trash, downed trees, and other obstacles. We also make sure the blue blazes that mark the trails are repainted for visibility and that our kiosks are filled with logbooks and information. It’s a lot of work to keep the trail in great condition for others to enjoy and that’s just our 100 miles. Imagine all the work it takes to maintain the entire North Country Trail with over 4,600 miles!

What are some of your favorite hikes in NW Michigan?

On the North Country Trail there I have a few favorite hikes: Valley of the Giants for amazing forest and white pines, Highbank Rollaways for river and distance views, and the section from north of 612 to Starvation Lake.

What are some of the upcoming Grand Traverse Hiking Club events, activities and initiatives that people should know about?

There are several ongoing programs, as well as annual events that we promote through our website and social media. A few highlights include the Hike 100 Challenge, which people can learn about here. We also offer monthly winter programs on hike related topics at 7 p.m. on the third Tuesday of every month, September through May, at the Boardman River Nature Center. Finally, National Trails Day is coming up, which is an annual celebration that takes place the first weekend of June. This year, it’s on June 3rd, 2017. Stay tuned to our website and Facebook page for more details as we finalize the location and events.

Do you have any tips for getting kids excited about hiking?

Start with small hikes, pick a nice weather day and keep it interesting. Talk about all the things surrounding you in the outdoors and make it educational. Take magnifying glasses and identification books so they can check out bugs, animal tracks and learn about the different trees. Take a lunch or snacks to have a picnic.

What would be a “perfect” day for you spent in the Traverse City area?

A perfect day would consist of a hike on the trail, some beach time and a picnic dinner with my husband taking in the beauty of nature.

As hiking has become a more frequent and important activity for our family, we’re also consuming more content and educational resources about the topic. Do you have any favorite hiking-related books or documentaries?

Falcon Guides are great for researching areas to hike and backpack. Backpacker Magazine is a great way to gather ideas, dream and add places to your live life list. The Last Season by Eric Blehm and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer are great books for inspiration.

What can people do to help? 

If you would like to get involved, we always need more help on the Board, with the Adopt-A-Trail program, and on the Trail crew, maintaining and building sections of trail. If you enjoy our outings and programs, we appreciate your support by joining our local chapter of the North Country Trail Association with a donation of $20 or more.

Thanks very much to Jill for taking the time to provide us with more information about the North Country Trail, and all of the hardworking members of the Grand Traverse Hiking Club who maintain this incredible resource for all of us in the community. You can learn more about the Grand Traverse Hiking Club here.

AdventuresJay Harrington