The High Country Pathway, some details
Let me start by saying I have not done the entire trail, far from it. I have walked many segments of this trail. And, I am very familiar with the area. For those of you looking for a full-blown review done by somebody who has hiked the entire trail, here’s a link to David Guenther’s blog about his trip there. Note that they did it in 2008, that’s three years ago, a lot can change in three years. What has prompted me to write what little I know about the trail was my last vacation in the Pigeon River Country in May of 2011, and walking several more short sections of the trail then, as well as walking several other short sections of the trail in the last few years.
As of September, 2011. The Pigeon River Country Association has had an intern working on the High Country Pathway this summer. Matt Kahn is an MSU Student intern that is being funded by the Pigeon River Country Association. Matt’s main focus has been trail maintenance. Since the DNR has no funds for this work, the assistance is greatly appreciated. How much Matt was able to accomplish, I can’t say, but I know he worked on removing fallen trees, repainting the blazes that mark the trail, and overall trail maintenance. I also don’t know which segments of the trail that he worked on. I will update as soon as can.
First, about the High Country Pathway.
The High Country Pathway (HCP) is an 80 mile loop trail located in the northeast tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula (roughly 20 miles northeast of Gaylord, Michigan). According to the Pigeon River Country Association, the HCP “is one of the Lower Peninsula’s best opportunities for a near-wilderness experience. * * * It was originally designed to provide the enthusiastic backpacker with roughly one week of high quality outdoor adventure.”
An improved and updated 2007 topographical map with campground, mileage, connecting trails, and other hiker friendly information can be ordered online from the Pigeon River Country Association ($7.50 + $1.50 postage and handling). You can also purchase the map from the Village Market in Vanderbilt, the address is 8070 Mill St, Vanderbilt, MI 49795-9357.
Directions: Take I-75 to the Vanderbilt exit. Turn east off the exit ramp and drive to the center of town. Turn east on Main Street (the only traffic light in town). Main Street becomes E. Sturgeon Valley Road. Continue approximately 10 miles. Immediately after crossing the Pigeon River, there is a parking area for HCP users on the south side of the road. The Pigeon Bridge State Forest Campground is on the north side of the road directly opposite the parking area. Potable water is available at the campground. At the north end of the campground is a large sign marking the start of the High Country Pathway and Shingle Mill Pathway. (Or, if you want to proceed in a counterclockwise direction, the trail to Round Lake is on the east side of the parking area. There is no sign identifying the trail but the well-beaten path is obvious.)
OK, so why do I, as a confirmed day-hiker, feel compelled to discuss one of the premier backpacking trails in Michigan? To save some people a lot of grief. This is no trail for a beginner, and even intermediate level backpackers could encounter many unexpected difficulties if tackling this trail not knowing any details. This is a trail that should be left to the experienced backpackers who know their way around the woods. Secondly, I would not hike this trail in the summer unless I was packing at least a gallon of industrial strength insect repellent with me.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Pigeon River Country, I spend as much time there as I can. But the question came to me when I was blogging my last vacation there, who laid the High Country Pathway out, and why does so much of it run next to or through assorted swamps, bogs, and other wetlands? Another question would be, why does no one maintain it?
I walked several miles of the trail again on my last vacation. The first part was near Dog Lake and the bog that surrounds it. I was looking for Sandhill Cranes I could hear out in the bog, and followed about a mile of the HCP around the north edge of the bog hoping to catch sight of the cranes. What I found was a trail in poor condition with many fallen trees, broken trail markers, and other signs of a lack of maintenance, not to mention several very wet detours around the fallen trees. I checked the map, and if I would have continued on, I would have been on the section of the HCP that runs near Duby and McLavey Lakes. I was in that area last fall, and the beavers have been active there, flooding some of the surrounding land. I didn’t walk that segment of the HCP, but I have to wonder what kind of shape it is in with as much beaver activity as there has been in the area.
The second segment of the HCP I walked during my last vacation was near the Sinkhole/Shoepac Lake area, where the HCP crosses County Road 634, or 634 Highway, depending on the map you are using. I had seen a pair of wood ducks in one of the wetlands there as I was driving over to the sinkhole area to walk the sinkhole trail there, which is a side loop off from the HCP. I went back to the swamp later and tried to walk the HCP around the wetlands I saw the ducks in, but I was only able to go a very short distance before I came to a boardwalk that I didn’t trust. I could see several loose and missing boards, I thought I could avoid those spots, but after just a couple of steps, I turned around as many of the boards are loose and/or rotted. To be honest, I think that segment of the HCP has been altered to use 634 Highway instead. However, going the other direction on the HCP led me past several small lakes/wetlands with a couple of wet detours around fallen trees. I also know that it would be mosquito heaven (or hell) during the summer months.
These observations from my last vacation go right along with what I have found during my many other trips to the Pigeon River Country, and walking short segments of the HCP at a time while I am there. I would not attempt the HCP without a GPS unit and a good compass and a better map. I would be prepared to detour around some sections of the trail due to water, trees blocking the trail, or some of the footbridges crossing rivers and wetlands being impassable. I would not attempt to hike the HCP unless I was experienced as both a backpacker and some one who can blaze my own trail when needed. The Pigeon River Country is as close as it gets to a true wilderness experience in lower Michigan, and one could easily get lost even when following the HCP if they missed a turn or a trail marker.
I may be only a day-hiker, but I do hundreds of miles per year, usually 4 to 6 miles a day, sometimes more. I am an experienced outdoorsman who does know his way through the woods, so I do think my opinion is worth some merit. I have completed about 20 miles of the trail, in short segments at a time. I do plan to walk the entire High Country Pathway over time, the area is just too beautiful not to take advantage of all the trails there. I even recommend the High Country Pathway to my experienced backpacking friends, and nothing I have found would change that recommendation. But, I want people to know what they are in for if they attempt the High Country Pathway, it is a true wilderness experience and people should be prepared for that, warts, bugs, and all.