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Exploring Traverse City’s Backwoods on the North Country Trail

With its miles of hiking, cycling and skiing trails, this Lake Michigan resort town is already well-known among outdoor recreation enthusiasts.

But even some of Traverse City’s most enthusiastic fans don’t know that the area includes an iconic stretch of the nation’s newest (and longest) hiking pathway – the 4,600-mile North Country Trail, which runs through seven states and 12 national forests from New York to North Dakota.

“It’s some remarkably fine hiking” said outdoor writer Jim DuFresne, who has spent the last four years mapping more than 200 hiking and biking trails across Michigan. “I think people are just beginning to realize that it’s there.”

That’s not an overstatement. To date, less than a dozen people have hiked the North Country Trail from end to end, compared to the 1,800 a year who walk the more famous Appalachian Trail – even though the NCT has the advantage of being located within a day’s drive of 40 percent of the U.S. population and is closer to major cities and towns (Cincinnati, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Detroit, Albany and Fargo, to name a few) for easier access to food and lodging.

With 1,150 miles of North Country Trail, Michigan has the longest stretch of trail in the entire system. It’s also the state that has been most welcoming to mountain bikers on its section of the NCT; although some segments are closed to cyclists for ecological and user-conflict reasons, many trail sections are bike-friendly.

Created by Congress in 1980, the NCT has grown slowly over the decades — built almost entirely by volunteers. One reason for the lack of end-to-end trail hikes may be that many people don’t realize it’s been completed; 3,100 miles are along off-road trails and another 1,500 miles are “road walk” paths along the sides of rural roads.

But the 100-mile stretch of the trail that passes through the Traverse City area contains some of the region’s best forest scenery: the Sand Lakes and Brown Bridge Quiet Areas, the Muncie Lakes Pathway and miles of steep bluffs above the Manistee River, including the High Rollways. There’s even a spur trail connecting the main pathway to Traverse City’s famed Vasa Trail. And visitors are gradually getting used to seeing the NCT’s characteristic “North Star” trailhead signs and sky-blue blazes on trees.

Most people who use the Traverse City portion of the trail are like their counterparts along the rest of its length; rather than travel the entire 4,600 miles in a single season, they pick out smaller segments for adventures of a few weeks, days or even hours. One result is the appearance of semi-official “trail towns” located near the pathway, where trail users can replenish their supplies and enjoy a few civilized comforts before returning to the woods.

Ten of the 16 trail towns on the NCT are in Michigan. One is the village of Fife Lake, a resort community at the southeast corner of Grand Traverse County, about 30 minutes from Traverse City. A former lumbering settlement, Fife Lake is a perfect example of what trail promoters like to call “Red Plaid Nation” – the network of North Woods residents who built the NCT and now spend their time maintaining trails and performing random acts of kindness for weary hikers.

The village even has its own section of the trail – the 21-mile Fife Lake Loop, which includes two state forest campgrounds and a newly-made pathway above the Manistee River. Like most of the NCT, it was built by Red Plaid Nation volunteers – in this case, the 150-member Grand Traverse Hiking Club, which has official responsibility for developing, maintaining, protecting and promoting their 100-mile section. (Administration is carried out by the National Park Service.)