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The Anatomy of a Solid Backpacking Trip

The Anatomy of a Solid Backpacking Trip: The Manistee River Loop Edition

Are you tired of driving hours to a campground, only to realize you’ve forgotten something? Did you forget to reserve a campsite (or are you like me and don’t plan ahead, or you don’t want to commit to a spot without seeing it first)? Do you want to know what to look out for when hiking a trail for the first time? Do you want something to get stoked about? If you answered yes to any of these questions, this is the article for you.

Overlook of the Manistee National Forest.

The Basics:

The Manistee River Loop is a 23-mile round trail. It follows the east shore of the Manistee River for 8.8 and connects with the North Country Trail. It features several bridges that provide access to the river, bluffs with views of the surrounding landscape, and many campsites. Since it is a loop, there are several trailhead options available: 

  1. Red Bridge Trailhead (Red Bridge River Access, N Coates Hwy, Harrietta, MI 49638). You can park here at no cost. There is an available outhouse, drinking water, and multiple picnic tables.
  2. Seaton Creek Campgrounds (Seaton Creek Campground, Mesick, MI 49668). There is an overnight parking fee. There is an available outhouse, drinking water, and multiple picnic tables. Your car would be further away from main roads, thus offering more protection. This campground is about a quarter-mile from the Manistee River Loop but has a well-worn access trail. 
  3. Marilla Trailhead (Marilla Trailhead, Mesick, MI 49668). There is an overnight parking fee. The Marilla Trailhead is a crude parking lot that sits on the North Country Trail, so the only available enmity is a couple of picnic tables. 

I would park at the Red Bridge Trailhead. The road bordering the parking lot is not traveled heavily, plus people generally don’t vandalize cars while taking a camping trip. In the winter, the roads leading to the Red Bridge are treacherous (for example, I popped a tire on one of those roads), so caution is strongly advised. 

Map of the Loop.


Half of the loop is part of the North Country Trail, a 4,700-mile trail that stretches across eight states, from North Dakota to Vermont. A committee established the multi-state trail in 1980. Fortunately for Michigan, the trail travels from the Upper Peninsula to Ohio, cutting right through the state. A large part of the trail (about 600 miles) is in Michigan because the NCTA (North Country Trail Association) keeps its headquarters in Lowell. 

The Manistee River Loop was completed in 1992. Originally an 11-mile out-and-back hike, it connected with the North Country Trail to create an expansive 23-mile loop that spanned over the rolling hills of Pure Michigan.


Claire Benedict (’18) with a cup of tea.

What to look out for:

  1. “Little Mac” suspension bridge: a 245-foot bridge that connects the Manistee River Trail to the North Country Trail. There is easy access to swimming from this bridge (be aware of the currents before swimming).
  2. Marker 3 waterfall: 10-foot waterfall accented by a small bridge. Most impressive in the Spring (after snowmelt), but also is stunning when frozen.
  3. Bluff Campsites: These campsites sit on the edge of gorgeous bluffs (would not recommend if afraid of heights). When camping on top of cliffs, it is difficult to get water. You either have to carry up water or scramble down the cliffside (don’t do that when alone). 
  4. It is easy to get lost near the Hodenpyl Dam Pond, so make sure to either check your map constantly or watch for trail markers. 

Pros and cons of each season:

Pros Cons
  • Tepid temperatures
  • Green leaves and new blooms
  • Uncrowded campsites
  • Increased Rainfall
  • Low night temperatures
  • Too cold to swim
  • Warm temperatures
  • Dry weather
  • Flexible schedule
  • Warm enough to swim
  • Sunburns
  • Hot temperatures 
  • Crowed Campsites (busiest time of year)
  • Mosquitos
  • Beautiful foliage
  • Tepid temperatures
  • Good fishing (if that’s your thing)
  • Unpredictable weather
  • Low night temperatures
  • Crowded campsites
  • Too cold to swim
  • Uncrowded campsites
  • Beautiful scenery
  • Predictable weather
  • Cold temperatures
  • Too cold to swim
  • Potentially dangerous night temperatures

General Tips:

Early morning tent breakfast.

For a one-night backpacking trip on the Manistee River Loop, traveling thirteen miles the first day and ten miles the second day is a solid way to pace yourself. The drive to the Red Bridge Trailhead is a little under two hours from Ada, MI, so leaving around seven or eight in the morning leaves you with plenty of time for hiking. The predominant factor to consider is when the sun sets. In summer, timing is more flexible because there is more daylight. In winter (unless you want to hike with flashlights), there’s less space to rest. Since it’s a loop, either direction will leave you at a campsite, though you should always calculate the mileage from your location to the site you want to reach before beginning your hike. 

When setting up and breaking down camp, make sure to pick up any trash. In general, the rule is “leave it better than you found it.” 

The campsites are primitive, which means that they have little more than a fire ring for campfires. When making a fire, only take branches from the ground. Live limbs won’t work anyway- so no use killing a tree. Additionally, bring food that only requires boiled water if you aren’t proficient at camp cooking, such as Ramen or REI Camp Dinners (the vegetarian ones are delicious). 

Overall, don’t fall off a cliff, don’t drown, and don’t start a forest fire. 

Packing List:

  • Tent (or hammock)
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Matches
  • Jetboil (optional but preferred)
  • Food 
  • First Aid Kit
  • Sleeping Pad
  • Bug Net (if hammocking)
  • Book/Journal 
  • Pen
  • Flashlight
  • Bug Spray / Sunscreen
  • Toiletries
  • Portable Charger
  • Pepper Spray / Bear Spray
  • Charging Chord 
  • Clothes
  • Backpack
  • Hiking Boots
  • Swimsuit (if weather permits)

For a more comprehensive list of supplies, see REI’s BACKPACKING CHECKLIST.


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