I thought I would try and write up a trip report for a full traverse of the High Country Pathway I did back in May 2010. Obviously it’s been a while since then but it was a great trip so I figured a foggily remembered report would be better than none at all. Warning, this thing got a bit longer than I was expecting.
The High Country Pathway is a 76-mile loop located near Vanderbilt, MI in the Pigeon River Country State Forest. The terrain includes hardwood forests, meadows and swamps. There are several state forest campgrounds (and state parks) located along the trail that charge fees for camping, one of which I utilized as you’ll see later. The trail isn’t the most remote (lots of two-track crossings), but provides one of the few opportunities in the Lower Peninsula to put in some good mileage for a few consecutive days. The area is also home to one of the largest elk herds (around 900 animals) east of the Mississippi.
I started on Tuesday, May 18th at the Sturgeon Valley parking area. I’ve done shorter trips on the HCP in the past and generally start from this spot. It has excellent access to some shorter loops and campgrounds, and is also close to the ranger station. My plan was to finish on Sunday, May 23rd and then meet up with my girlfriend for some r & r in Bellaire, MI (home to Short’s Brewing Company – so good).
Obviously I tried to go as light as possible for the trip but my gear setup at the time (which hasn’t changed much) kept me over the 10 lb. UL limit. However, I still managed to leave the parking lot with a total load of about 22 lb., so I figured that wasn’t too bad. Expected temps were in the 40’s (F) for the lows and into the high 60’s (F) for the highs. I didn’t chart temps on this trip but the lows were right around there or a bit warmer and the days were significantly hotter in the mid 70’s. Overall I had really great weather on the trip – just a little rain on the last night. Here’s a breakdown of my gear.
Granite Gear Latitude 43.9
Tarptent Contrail 27
Lafuma 650 26
Thermarest Prolite 4 23.8
PepsiCan Acohol Stove Kit 1.2
Backcountry.com Ti Mug/Pot System 5.3
REI Titanium Long Spoon 0.4
Sawyer Inline Filter System (DRY) 4.9
Platypus Big Zip 3L Bladder 6
Platypus 1L Bottle 1.3
DriDucks Jacket 5.3
Tyvek Rain Pants 2.5
MH Micro Ozone Fleece Shirt 10.1
Ultimax Socks 2.3
Wigwam Gobi Liners 0.8
Light Airplane Sleep Socks 1.2
Kombi Thermal Top 6.2
Kombi Thermal Bottom 5.8
Brown Carhartt Hat 2.5
Granite Gear eVent DryBloc XS 1.5
Granite Gear eVent DryBloc XXS 1.3
Green "Food" Dry Sack 1.3
Blue "Mini" Dry Sack 0.7
First-Aid / Repair Kit 2
Hygiene Kit 1.6
DEET, Sunscreen 1.5
Blue Foam Pad 2
Insect Head Net 0.3
Bear Line/Cordage 1.4
Extra Mini-BIC Lighter 0.4
Keys Etc. 0.7
Trail Journal 0.3
Samsung Flight II Phone 3.5
Pocket Radio 3.9
TOTAL BASE WEIGHT: 12.9 lbs
TOTAL CONSUMABLES (2L H20, Food, Fuel): 8.8 lbs
TOTAL PACK WEIGHT: 21.7 lbs
WORN/CARRIED (Don’t have weights for some stuff – usually more focused on pack weight than what I wear/carry. Also realized I forgot to put my hat, sunglasses and knife in this category…oops.)
REI Sahara Pants
REI Sahara Shirt
Ultimax Socks 2.3
Wigwam Gobi Liner 0.8
Ex Officio Give-N-Go Boxer Briefs 2.7
Canon PowerShot A560 6
Black Diamond Trail Poles 18
Mizuno Wave Inspire 4 22
TOTAL: I’d guess around 4.5 lbs
My first day of hiking started at around noon (I think). My plan was to do 12 miles and dry camp along the trail a couple miles north of the Pine Grove campground. I did exactly that.
Lots of beaver activity on the stretch of trail from Grass Lake to Bird Tally Creek. On previous trips I’ve spotted beavers going about their business. No such luck, although I did spot two eagles floating around Grass Lake.
Here I am near Grass Lake super stoked to finally be doing this trip. It was a long busy winter (grad school) and I spent a lot of time daydreaming about the HCP. I’ve been wanting to do the whole loop for years.
Here’s a shot of what a lot of the trail looks like, at least in the hardwood areas. Good times.
Second crossing of the Pigeon River today. The first is right by the parking lot. This one is just before you get into Pine Grove Campground. I loaded up on water from the pump at the campground and chatted with a nice guy who was out car camping.
First night’s camp was 2 ½ miles up the trail from the campground next to a two track. Not the most scenic spot (although it doesn’t look too bad in this pic), but it worked great. I settled in and listened to my favorite public radio station (can you say luxury item?) around the fire. Mountain House for din-din.
On this trip I was testing out my new filtration system consisting of a Sawyer filter and a Katahdin charcoal filter used inline with my Platy drink hose. It ended up working okay. My only complaints are that the charcoal filter tends to slow down gravity flow significantly and sucking water through both filters while hiking was a bit laborious. I’ve since switched to a 1L Gatorade bottle for hiking, and replaced the 3L Zip Platy with a 1 oz dry bag for gravity filtering. I really like the convenience of a gravity system in camp, and it’s nice to be able to filter and drink a lot at stops along the trail and carry less. The water tasted great for the whole trip though and I never got sick.
On Day Two I hiked 18 miles to the Canada Creek Shelter. This is the only shelter directly along the HCP route. This was a tough day as I went through a lot of swamp country and the mosquitoes were absolutely nuts. On the bright side, they kept me moving quickly. Once I cleared the swamps I walked in a lot of open areas, some clear-cut, and the ticks were HORRENDOUS. They stayed that way through Friday morning. I was constantly brushing them off my clothes and stopped about once an hour to do a thorough check. This system kept any of them from getting in too deep. The ticks were by far the worst part of the trip. It was a good day overall though – all of it was on trail that I’d never hiked before, unlike the previous day.
These boardwalks were great through the swampy areas and there are plenty of them. Made life much easier during the mosquito bombardment.
Once I cleared the swamps there was some great trail going through both meadows and hardwood forests. I saw a cow elk in this area, which was exciting. Despite several trips to the area (where I’ve seen tracks and heard bugling), this was my first elk sighting on the HCP. She was on the move and I unfortunately didn’t have time to snap a photo.
Nice overlook from one of the several big hills in the area. It was much hotter than I’d expected at this point and I was looking forward to cold water from Canada Creek and some dinner.
Canada Creek Shelter is a great spot. You can access it easily by parking nearby and hiking in a short distance. It would be great for a winter overnight trip. Someone had left a deck of cards and some Gatorade powder so I was pretty much livin’ large. Although the shelter looked comfy I had to sleep in the Contrail since the ticks were still really bad. The picnic table was also a nice luxury.
After setting up camp I took a quick dip in Canada Creek to rinse off. It was cold but oh so refreshing.
The rickety bridge over Canada Creek.
Day Three was great. I woke up refreshed at the shelter and got going early as I had 20 miles to put in to make it to Clear Lake State Park. My dad was working relatively close that week and we planned to meet up at the state park for some car camping and dinner/beers… which was plenty of motivation to get moving. This segment of trail passes several small lakes and a large creek flooding so water was no problem. I even took a mid-day dip since the temps were so nice. As the day went on I realized I was making great time so I called my girlfriend to tell her I’d be finishing on Saturday instead of Sunday. This allowed us to get to Bellaire and Short’s Brewing Company a day earlier, which was mighty fine by me.
Morning hike out of the Canada Creek area. Definitely the prettiest morning of the trip.
Me stopping for a breather and a pic in front of Shoepac Lake.
No long hike in the Lower Peninsula would be complete without some two-track walking. This is in the northeast “corner” of the loop near the Sinkholes Pathway, a two-mile side trail featuring 5, you guessed it, sinkholes. It’s a cool little trail (some of the holes are over 100 feet deep) but I’d done it previously and was on a mission, so I sped on by.
There are several areas of clear-cutting throughout the HCP. Not the most aesthetically pleasing but you gotta take the good with the bad I guess. This area was thick with ticks and it was surprisingly hot again. Tough hiking.
Stopped for a quick dip to rinse/cool off here. I believe this was Tomahawk Lake. There is a state forest campground here but I haven’t checked it out.
While I was hiking near the east shore of the Tomahawk Creek Flooding I was visited by two fledgling hawks, another high point of the trip. They followed me for quite a while, flying (barely) from tree to tree to keep up.
Lunch time in the shade. After going through the clear-cut areas this was a welcome respite from the sun.
The HCP has quite a few signs like this throughout the trail providing interesting tidbits.
I made it to Clear Lake State Park around 5pm. My dad arrived shortly after that and we tested out this not-so-ultralight cooking system. He had forgotten the top grate to the grill but had randomly (and luckily) acquired some cast-iron pans at work that day. It worked out well…very well.
Best trail dinner ever. It was a bonus to be able to hang out with my dad after a few days on the trail. We drank Michigan beer and listened to tunes around the fire later than we should have. All in all it was a great time. He also brought me my food/fuel re-supply for the next day and half.
Day Four was another day of big mileage. We got off to a bit of a late start (certainly had nothing to do with the IPA’s from the night before), but my dad had decided to hike with me for a while that morning. We did about 3 miles together and then he headed back to the truck. Really nice to have him along and I think he had a good time. He tried my trekking poles for the first time and took quite a liking to them. I ended up doing 19.8 miles for the day, which was plenty. Using my Mizuno running shoes was an experiment that ended up working okay overall, but by Day Four I had some serious hot spots happening.
Dad enjoying the trail.
A nice little spot for camping just a short jaunt from the top of Rattlesnake Hill. The ticks had finally started clearing out by this time, about 8 miles from the previous night’s camp. I stopped here for some lunch.
Here’s my Granite Gear Latitude fully loaded. This pack was my first experiment with panel loaders. I think I’ll probably switch back to top loaders but this is an excellent piece of gear. It has the classic super-comfy GG belt/straps and easily handled the loads I was carrying.
View from the top of Rattlesnake Hill.
Some bear claw marks on a big ol’ beech tree. I saw quite a lot of bear sign throughout the day including more claw marks, tracks and scat. I’ve never had any problem with bears in this area – my food is always still hanging there in the morning.
By the end of the afternoon I was getting pretty tired and my feet were sore with hot spots. I had passed up a couple of good camp spots in an effort to cut down my mileage for the following morning. After several miles of unsuitable ground I found this scenic overlook with a bench and just enough room for the Contrail. I had dinner and headed to the tent early. There are some great jazz radio shows in the area on Friday nights so I spent the evening looking over my progress on the map and enjoying the music. I slept like a log that night and only woke once when it started to rain for a while.
Day Five was an easy and enjoyable 7 mile hike back to my truck. It was another nice morning although a bit soggy from the overnight rain. I hiked out in about 2.5 hours which got me to the truck just in time to rinse off in the Pigeon River and change into fresh clothes before meeting up with my girlfriend. I ran into some older gentlemen in the parking lot that were headed out for an overnight and seemed pretty surprised that I had done the whole loop. It may have had something to do with the fact that the packs they were sporting were considerably bigger than mine (couldn’t resist mentioning that… wouldn’t be a BPL trip report without it.).
View from my camp on the last morning. It was nice to lounge on the bench having coffee with this view and some Weekend Edition.
All packed up on the final morning. It was an amazing trip but I was excited to see my lady, have a shower, and eat a big meal.
Not sure, but I assumed these were from a bear, based on all the sign I had seen the day before.
A nice open meadow area near the end of my loop where I stopped for a quick snack.
All in all this was a really great trip. Michigan is a beautiful place in the spring. The ticks were certainly a bummer but manageable. I would definitely recommend doing the whole loop to anyone looking for a longish trip in the Lower Peninsula. I think a late-September loop would probably be optimal. Less bugs, maybe some early signs of color change in the leaves, and the elk rut is happening. I’ve done fall trips in the area before and they were great.
Gear-wise everything went pretty well. I definitely could’ve left the Kombi baselayer top and bottom in the truck. They didn’t get used much (if at all, can’t remember) and leaving them out would’ve saved me 12 oz. Other than that I was happy with my gear choices. Food planning also went well as I didn’t end up with much extra at the resupply or at the end of the trip. Also I probably could’ve carried less water in some stretches.
This ended up being a much longer report than I anticipated so thanks for reading – I hope you enjoyed it. I know I enjoyed writing it and reliving the experience. Feel free to drop me a line if you’re interested in the HCP and have any questions. Happy hiking.