Considered one of the nation’s premier hiking routes, the 4,600-mile North Country National Scenic Trail (northcountrytrail.org) stretches through seven states with over 1,200 miles traversing Michigan’s two peninsulas. The route enters the state in Hillsdale County, along the Ohio border, and zig-zags up the Lower Peninsula, crossing the Mackinac Bridge and then meandering through the Upper Peninsula, exiting the state at the Wisconsin border northwest of Ironwood.
The idea for the trail was first born in 1971, when the bureau of Outdoor Recreation initiated a feasibility study. Ten years later, the trail was incorporated with offices operating out of a one-room schoolhouse in White Cloud under the direction of Tom Gilbert. In 2001, the trail relocated to a storefront in downtown historic Lowell, just one block from the trail itself, where it serves as an information hub for hikers traveling through Michigan.
Designated to provide the ultimate hiking and backpacking experience, portions of the trail are open to mountain and fat tire biking, specifically within the Huron-Manistee National Forest and along some stretches in the Upper Peninsula (although those sections are limited and riders are advised to be aware that the primary use for the trail is hiking). Portions are also open to cross country skiing and snowshoeing during the winter, making the trail a four-season attraction.
Hikers will also find some camping options in certain areas of the state, mostly in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula and throughout the Upper Peninsula (although there is designated rustic camping within the Yankee Springs Recreation Area near Middleville). State Game Areas also allow dispersed camping from Labor Day to Memorial Day. Within the National Forests and State Forests, camping is allowed at designated sites only.
The Lower Peninsula encompasses 500 miles of the NCT, traveling through small towns, farmlands, urban areas, state forests and game areas, and passing near the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary in Augusta and Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners.
After crossing the Straits of Mackinac and the five-mile Mackinac Bridge, the trail picks up in the Upper Peninsula running through the Hiawatha National Forest, Lake Superior State Forest, Tahquamenon Falls State Park (with two of the largest waterfalls this side of the Mississippi, as well as Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub). It also crosses the famed Two Hearted River (three times) before finally reaching Lake Superior—the world’s largest freshwater lake.
It makes sense, those who seek out the natural side of Pure Michigan—such as hiking the North Country Trail—are often those who value the culture that locally-brewed beer brings to the table.
“There’s nothing better than a good craft beer celebrating the end of a hike,” says Kenny Wawsczyk, Michigan’s Regional Trail Coordinator. “For our volunteers, it’s more than just building and maintaining the NCT, it’s about socializing after a work day or a group hike, often with some good local craft beer in hand.”
Twelve Michigan “Trail Towns” have been identified by the NCT, with nine of those communities also either home to or within fifteen miles of a craft brewery.
As the center of Calhoun County, Marshall is at the crossroads of I-94 and I-69 and was once considered as the Capital City—a Governor’s House was even built and is now one of the many homes that make up this community’s “National Historic Landmark District.” Once a stop on the Underground Railroad, Marshall now boasts two breweries: Dark Horse Brewing (founded in 1997) and the Grand River Brewery.
Some six miles of the NCT pass through the 5,200-acre Yankee Springs State Recreation Area in Middleville. Here, visitors will find nine lakes (Gun Lake being the largest); miles of mountain biking, equestrian and cross country trails; and more than 300 modern and rustic campsites. Park highlights include Devil’s Soupbowl, Graves Hill Scenic Overlook, The Pines and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) era buildings. Nearby breweries include OpenRoad Brewery in Wayland and Railtown Brewing in Dutton.
Lowell was founded as a trading post on the south bank of the Grand River in 1831. Nearby, the “ghost town” of Fallasburg stands as an historical village—complete with a one-room schoolhouse and 100-foot covered bridge (one of only a dozen such structures still standing in Michigan today). Lowell is also the national headquarters for the North Country Trail, as well as New Union Brewery.
Within a short drive, visitors will find Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery in Ada (where another historic covered bridge stands), Thornapple Brewing in Grand Rapids and Jaden James Brewery in Kentwood. The greater Grand Rapids area (Kent County) is known nationally as a “Beer City,” and for good reason. The area boasts more than 40 breweries, with more coming on the scene each year.
As Michigan’s newest “Trail Town,” Cedar Springs joined the list this year. Located just west of US-131 north of Rockford in Kent County, this community’s early claim to fame was as the producer of red flannel “drop-seater” long johns.
"We were excited to join the planning meetings as our Community worked with the North Country Trail to restore Cedar Springs' historical crossroads,” says David Ringler, owner of Cedar Springs Brewing Company. “We had once been the intersection of the Grand Trunk and GR & I railroad lines and now we intersect the North Country and White Pine Trails. As a Trail Town, we offer an inviting oasis in the ‘Heart of Cedar Springs’ as our brewery's Biergarten faces the trailhead and the new library and planned amphitheater stand ready to serve our ‘Trail Town’ guests.”
Located about 50 miles north of Grand Rapids, White Cloud is the geographical center and county seat of Newaygo County. Ottawa Indians were the area’s first settlers followed by lumber barons who were drawn to the area by the great white pine forests. The Croton-Hardy Dam is one of the region’s most noted natural attractions, where the Edge Trail system and the North Country Trail converge.
About ten miles down the road, Newaygo Brewing Company is the county’s first brewery. Founded in 2014 and opened the following year, it is housed in an historic 115-year-old building on the banks of the Muskegon River.
“The Petoskey portion of the North Country Trail offers beautiful scenery, welcoming hospitality and the chance to sample some great tasting beer,” says Diane Dakins, assistant director of the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau. “Both Beard’s Brewery and Petoskey Brewing Company offer a wide selection of unique beers, taste tempting food and views worth stopping for—a perfect combination for those hitting the trail.”
A quick skip from the Bear River part of the trail into Downtown Petoskey and you’re at the new Beard’s Brewery. An ever-changing list of brews, great food and views of Little Traverse Bay make this a perfect place to rest your feet. Further out the trail, Petoskey Brewing Company stands tall and inviting - a beacon to thirsty travelers. The outdoor seating, overlooking the North Western State Trail, is just the place to soak up the sun and suds.
Biere De Mac Brew Works is the northernmost brewery in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Located in Mackinaw City, its beers pay tribute to the tourists (or fudgies) who frequent this historic town in the Straits of Mackinac. Regarded as the “Crossroads of the Great Lakes,” Mackinaw City is also home to hiking trails that traipse through the Historic Mill Creek, Wilderness State Park and Headlands International Dark Sky Park—the only such park of its kind in the state.
Up over the five-mile Mackinac Bridge are nearly 20 breweries from coast to coast to coast, along with 8.8 million acres of forests (84 percent of the U.P.’s mass), countless waterfalls, natural and recreational sites.
“Great outdoors and great beer, [there’s] not much better for so many of our visitors that we see today,” says Tom Nemacheck, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Tourism & Recreation Association.
The North Country Trail stretches 26 miles between the mouth of the Big Two Hearted River and Grand Marais and then another 43 miles along the shoreline through the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This area is a hiker’s and camper’s dream, with noted sites like the Grand Sable Lake, Sable Falls and Au Sable Light Station, as well as beaches, lakes and woodlands.
In downtown Grand Marais, Lake Superior Brewing overlooks Michigan’s largest Great Lake and is across the street from the “roadside attraction”— the Pickle Barrel House.
One of Michigan’s earliest breweries can be found in Marquette. The Vierling Restaurant opened its Marquette Harbor Brewery in 1995. Just a short walk away is Ore Dock Brewing, as well as Blackrocks Brewery, Superior Culture, Barrel + Beam and Drifa Brewing (Michigan's First Cooperatively-Owned Craft Brewery) are just outside of the downtown area but well worth a visit. Marquette is also located along the 47-mile Iron Ore Heritage Trail—a year-round, multi-use, interpretive trail that blends nature with history.
To find other Michigan breweries near the North Country Trail, along with other trails that are spread throughout the state, visit MiBeer.com.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
North Country Trail Association
Marshall Area Economic Development Alliance
Barry County Chamber
Cedar Springs Chamber
River Country Chamber of Commerce – Newaygo County
Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau
Mackinaw Area Visitors Bureau
Upper Peninsula Tourism & Recreation Association
West Michigan Tourist Association
National Park Service
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