The Fife Lake Loop Hike

Last Friday and Saturday, my brother and I engaged upon a heroic trek to conquer the Fife Lake Loop trail. This excursion consists of a 21.4-mile trail, half of which follows the North Country National Scenic Trail and the other half follows a state loop trail joining sections of the NCT. This weekend getaway crosses the Wexford/Grand Traverse county lines and, for the most part, falls within the Pere Marquette State Forest.

Our journey began on Friday morning. I picked up my brother at 8 a.m., then we grabbed a quick BK breakfast while we drove two hours to the Old US-131 State Forest Campground. Michigan’s state forest campgrounds are rustic affairs; basically, they’re just level-ish ground with an old picnic table and an iron fire ring, in sites widely dispersed within a heavily wooded area. They’re available first-come, first-served on a self-registration model. Each campground enjoys a pair of vault toilets and one hand-pump station for potable water. Otherwise, no power, septic, concrete, anything. Very scenic, very quiet.

We carefully “strategerized” our route. We opted to start south, tackling the FLL trail first. Other people reported that the FLL trail was the less-scenic version with “road miles,” and it’s our preference to do the hard-slogs and less-enjoyable sections first to get them out of the way. Although we agreed that compared to the NCT portion, which abuts the Big Manistee River, the FLL side was less scenic, it was still beautiful. And the “roads” are two-tracks in the forest. Apart from crossing US-131 and M-113, we never saw pavement. Just dirt.

The first day was delightful. The FLL trail is gorgeous enough on its own. For the most part, elevations were normal, although toward the end we encountered a few major steep gains. The land offered a mix of deciduous forest, some scrubland, and occasional conifer copses. We hiked 10.6 miles to the Spring Lake State Forest Campground. We took our time, so we walked from roughly 10a to 4p, breaking for a leisurely lunch and a few water-and-snack breaks. At camp, we set up our tents, refilled our water, collected leftover firewood for the fire ring, and made dinner.

When night approached, we lit a roaring fire in the ring — helpful, given that temperatures fell to 31 degrees that night, brr! — and enjoyed a few drams of Woodford Reserve while puffing Liga Privada No. 9 cigars and a snacking on a bag of trail mix. The night proved clear, so the stars sparkled triumphantly, and the mix of whiskey, cigars, and conversation made for a great evening.

Morning and evening, the first day. Now, a photographic interlude:

Fife Lake Loop (September 2020)

My brother and I did the 21.4-mile Fife Lake Loop hike (with a night at a state forest campground) over a chilly September weekend.

The second day dawned bright and crisp. We arose and made breakfast and coffee, then packed. Despite the chill, the combination of a hot breakfast, hot coffee, and breaking camp got the blood flowing in no time. I had a perfect-ish night despite the freeze whereas my brother’s tent, being smaller and without ventilation, left him a bit damp from condensation.

We struck out southbound from the campground. Much of the NCT portion of the loop follows Fife Lake Creek and then the Big Manistee River. The trail winds a bit more, but it follows the high ridge along the creek and the river, so there aren’t too many elevation changes. This part of the loop is much more scenic, however. More water, more variation in vegetation, more lushness to the trail. Plus, the sawyers proved clever, offering occasional benches to look at the river and sometimes cutting table-and-chairs “furniture” out of fallen logs. We actually ate lunch at one of those contraptions.

Our path back was, again, measured at a stately pace. We weren’t in any hurry, and we took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the scenery. By the time we arrived at the US-131 Roadside Park, though, we were about ready to be done. We spent some time at the park, recharging our Apple watches (gotta log the steps!) and refilling water, before tackling the segment between the park and the state forest campground whence we started.

That last segment proved deceptive. On the map, it’s 1.4 miles, but by GPS, it’s closer to 2 miles (which explains some of the delta between GPS and map segments not arriving at the same number). This final stretch crosses beneath US-131 along the bank of the Big Manistee, then gains some swift elevation through a series of switchbacks before plodding through the forest to dump you at the campground.

We left at 8a that morning and arrived at the car sometime around 2p, accumulating another 10.6 or so miles. Once buckled into my trusty Chevy Cruze, we headed home, stopping for a celebratory burger along the way. I arrived home around 5:30p, after dropping my brother off, and took a long, hot shower after petting the cats.

In all: The journey was delightful. It was great to see parts of the trail in northern Michigan — I don’t normally hike that far north — and the time with my brother was quite well spent. The coolness of that two-day window kept the bug-counts low (I saw maybe one fly in 48 hours?) and comfort levels high. Although the leaves hadn’t started to change, apart from occasional hints of color, the mid-September window meant that we had the trails to ourselves. On Day One, we saw a man and his dog. On Day Two, we were passed by a small group while we ate lunch. Otherwise, it was just us and the birds and the chipmunks. And despite people online whining about road noise, given that the loop encircles US-131, the traffic was muted and, for the most part, indistinguishable. 

A good capstone to the summer, methinks.

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