By Bob Lovik, photos by Mark Lindsay
I really enjoy the first two months of winter. The dropping temperatures are refreshing. There’s the anticipation of the holidays and the over-indulgences that come with them. And I love the snow. The first, fat flakes of pretty white snow. What’s not to love?
But our recent spat of spring-like weather, though painfully short, has reminded me that I’m over winter. It has outstayed its welcome and we are smack dab in the middle of the long, claustrophobic and cold doldrums when winter is just greedily clinging to its existence like some awful drunk who won’t leave your party. When the temperature recently hit 50 º and the sun came, and stayed, out, winter officially ended for me. My daydreams are now filled with trilliums, birdsong and shouldering a pack and hitting the trail. This is the time of year when guidebooks are bought and the kitchen table becomes an ops center, strewn with maps detailing the promise of upcoming adventures.
With these thoughts in mind, I headed over to Horizon Books in downtown Traverse City to talk hiking with two of Michigan’s experts. John Heiam, president of the Grand Traverse Hiking Club (GTHC), and Dick Naperala, field trails coordinator with the GTHC. They both generously took time to talk to me about some great spring hikes, the North Country Trail and ways to get involved with the outdoors in the Grand Traverse Region. The GTHC helps to oversee a 100-mile stretch of the North Country Trail, a 4,600-mile trail that stretches from New York to North Dakota and runs through some of America’s most beautiful country.
John Heiam: Let’s start with sections of the North Country Trail and close to Traverse City. One of my favorites is the north branch of the Boardman River. Starting at the N. Broomhead Road Trailhead, the southern trail takes you down right next to a trout stream and next to cedar trees that deer have browsed to about seven feet high. The trail then climbs and you get views down into the river valley. It’s absolutely gorgeous and right in our backyard. Take the trail north to Sand Lakes Quiet Area to see the brilliant blue pit lakes. You can easily spend two hours, if not more, hiking here.
Another great place to hike in the Traverse City area is a place called the Valley of the Giants. This is a very steep-sided valley that has never been logged and is a patch of old growth forest. It was so steep nobody bothered to log it and it is very wet so it never burned in the wild fires that swept through Michigan in the late 1800′s and 1900′s. You’ll find white and red pines and huge oak trees right next to a creek. The trailhead for this hike is either the Mayfield Road Trail Access or near Scheck’s Place Campground.
Dick Neperala: The Highbanks Rollway is one of the best places to hike in the state of Michigan. It is on the North Country Trail and can be accessed at Harvey Bridge over the Manistee River. Once you gain elevation, you can see for miles.
The Hodenpyl Dam and Pond area are some of the most popular places in Michigan to hike especially for backpackers. There is a 20 mile loop around Hodenpyl Pond that is perfect for a weekend trip. From the Hodenpyl Dam Parking area you can walk along the lake to the Northern Exposure Campground. And the trail that is right along the river is easy. It is flat and great for kids.
John and Dick shared some more of their knowledge for great outdoor spots in our area this spring.
Wildflowers: If you are looking for wildflowers, and those aforementioned trilliums, mid-April and May are generally the best times to hit the trail. And head to North and South Manitou Island for the most diverse and unique wildflowers in our region. Ferries depart to the island from the town of Leland on the Leelanau Peninsula. South Manitou is more scenic with a lighthouse, shipwrecks and dunes while North Manitou provides better opportunities for backpacking and multi-day trips.
Most overlooked hike: The Dune Climb and walk to Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. John says that the hike is deceptively difficult and once you climb the main dune, you’ll have a few more smaller ones to get up and down before you finish. He also says the wildflowers; lilies in particular, are spectacular here in the spring.
Why early spring is a great time to hike: No bugs! Both John and Dick say that this time of year is among their favorites for hitting the trail. And, the forests of the Sleeping Bear Dunes are carpeted with trilliums this time of year.
About the GTHC and the North Country Trail: The GTHC is a chapter of the North Country Trail. The club maintains a 100-mile stretch of trail, 35 to 40 of which run along the Manistee River, from south of Mesick to north of Kalkaska. People come from all over Michigan to hike one of the most beautiful sections of the NCT. John calls the 60- mile section from Red Bridge to Kalkaska the prettiest trail in Lower Michigan. In addition to planned day hikes, the club also has ongoing work sessions on the trail including maintenance, bridge building and rerouting.
Visit northcountrytrail.org/gtr/ for information on volunteering, local outfitters, membership, trail maps and contact details. The club is currently fundraising by selling â€œclean seatsâ€ through the club or at Backcountry North in Traverse City for $6 /$5 for club members. The seats are a paper-like material that you can put on the ground, wet grass, mud, anything to keep you dry when you need a rest in the outdoors. The seats are made from tough material that won’t rip or deteriorate, definitely a great addition for your pack on day and multi-day hikes!