Fife Lake Loop appeals to day hikers and backpackers
BY DAVE FOLEY
Beginning in Vermont, the North County Trail (NCT) stretches 4,600 miles to North Dakota. On its way through northern Michigan, the trail runs along the Manistee River. With its numerous river overlooks, it’s a feast for the eyes. The only downside is that for many years the only place where you could find a hiking loop in our area was below Hodenpyl Dam where the NCT links up with the Manistee River Trail to create an 18-mile circuit. This changed when the Grand Traverse Hiking Club created the 21-mile Fife Lake Loop Trail in 2014.
It’s late October and the air is crisp as the first rays of the morning sun reach us as Cyndy and I park our car at the Old 131 Campground. As we are adjusting our packs, Patty and Dave Warner arrive. As members of the Grand Traverse Hiking Club (GTHC), they oversee the maintenance of 13 miles of trail and will join us for the first 7 miles of our walk. With blue painted marks on trees to guide us, we follow the trail east along the river. These first miles are up and down as the path drops down to bridges over creeks, then climbs to the top of ridges. By the time we cross under the US 131 bridge, the path has smoothed out. From here on, the hiking will be mostly level. Creeks and springs that we encounter have wooden bridges over them. This will be the first backpacking trek I’ve made without getting my shoes wet.
From Patty and Dave, I learn that the NCT originally was on the west side of highway US 131, but through the efforts of the Grand Traverse Hiking Club, the trail was rerouted along the east side of the highway to take advantage of the scenic vistas above the Manistee River, the proximity of lakes and views of an old growth forest. By 2014, a 12.8 mile reroute was completed.
The fall colors are peaking. Recent storms have stripped away much of the foliage on the maples leaving open spaces and naked branches among the remaining clusters of red leaves. Aspen trees at the edge of clearings now are cloaked in gold and yellow. The oak and beech trees still carry their summer greens, but a few orange leaves hint at the coming change. The path, now carpeted with leaves in their fall plumage, is a mosaic of colors.
Turning north, we spend much of the afternoon following the Fife Lake outlet toward its source. When the stream is near the trail, the angler in me can’t help noting the logjams, undercut banks and fast-flowing runs that are likely trout lairs. Forty years ago, I caught brown trout here. I wonder why I haven’t returned. I resolve to be back next year.
My other hiking companions are more interested in the giant white pine trees that grow along the bank. These huge towering conifers are impressive. I try to think if I have seen a stand of pines this big anywhere else in the area – I can’t.
Around noon, the Warners leave us. In the afternoon, Cyndy and I reach Headquarters Lake, a body of water named for being the site of the original headquarters of Michigan’s Forest Service office. There is no trace of the building but we do see a pair of trumpeter swans. That evening, we camp at the Spring Lake State Forest Campground. We learn that this was Michigan’s first state forest campground and was established in 1929. We are the only ones camped here.
When we crawl out of our tent at dawn, there is no doubt that the temperature is in the 30s but coffee, hot cocoa and wearing extra layers help stave off the chill. We quickly break camp and return to the trail. Just south of the village of Fife Lake, we cross US 131 and follow the blue markings into the woods. Here we encounter two tracks and other paths, but the ever-present blue blazes erase all doubts about which way to go.
When we reach highway M186, the NCT continues north and the Fife Lake Loop, now marked with orange blazes, goes south. It’s easy walking – a dry level path all the way. In the three-and-a-half hours it takes to finish the loop, we’ll pass through meadows, alongside wetlands and next to areas that have been recently logged – but most of our walking is in the forest. Being here to see the fall color might be a peak time to see the area, but I can see this as a great venue for snowshoeing or a pleasant shaded walk during the summer.
Although we chose to do the full 21-mile loop, it would be easy to take day hikes along stretches of the trail or spot cars for point-to-point hikes. In the two days we were out, we never encountered another person on the trail. It’s nice to find solitude is just 30 miles from home.
Trail maps are stocked at kiosks located at The Old 131 Campground, the roadside park on US 131, the Spring Lake Campground and at the trail intersection at M186. Although the map boxes are stocked regularly, the might be empty. Detailed trail maps may be purchased at MichiganTrailMaps.com or at Horizon Books. For more information on the NCT, check out their website at northcountrytrail.org.