A trip five years in my mind, eight months of planning, spanning six days, including 4 Jeeps, two trailers, six people, and 1390 miles across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has finally come to fruition.
Technically day 1 started with the trek from Grand Blanc, Michigan, across the Mackinaw Bridge to my families cabin in Garden Corners, Michigan, but it was pretty boring and uneventful, other than the trip across the bridge and a bit on US-2 West, where we were able to watch a gorgeous sunset. The rest of the trip was in the dark.
Day 1 started at 8:30 am, from Garden Corners, and heading back east 22 miles to Manistique, Michigan, where we gassed up and started on the Manistique/Marquette Route. This is a state trail and except for trying to drive and look at the beautiful scenery, wasn’t too difficult. It was a nice drive none the less. We followed the trail almost to the end (it turns to ATV only), and took a short 13-minute cruise out to see Miner’s Falls, which was
pretty amazing to see in person. After a climb down and back up, our legs were burning; we decided to make some lunch before getting back on the trail.
We headed west towards Marquette where we made a quick stop at a CVS so one of our members could stop to refill his heart medication. (8 months of planning?). I realized we were a bit (read: a lot) behind schedule, so we ran some higher speed roads up to the northwest of Marquette before pavement faded away and we were on dirt roads.
One “road” ended up turning into a small trail, which started getting smaller and more overgrown, before becoming barely a track and all. This ended with me trying to cross a little wet area and buried the JKU up to the axle in a swamp. Knowing we were already behind, it added to my stress level a bit. It took some good pulling to get me out.
After my recovery from the “road swamp,” we continued heading northwest to Big Eric’s Falls. From there, we took some dirt roads North to the mouth of the Huron River. We were lucky enough (we were running out of daylight), that half of the campsites there were empty and were able to park all four rigs, just a few steps off the sand. I have to say; this is probably one of the coolest campsites I have ever had. The best part…it doesn’t cost a dime! We set up camp, made some dinner, and ended the evening with a campfire on the beach, just before it started sprinkling.
The saying here in Michigan is to wait 5 minutes and the weather is guaranteed to change. I’m taking some liberties with this but it certainly proved true for Saturday. We couldn’t have asked for a better day to run trails. Sunny, high 70s, with a slight breeze in places. It wasn’t nearly hot enough to run the A/C or be uncomfortable stuck in our truck all day. Other than blasting through puddles we never put the windows up. We were mostly met with green sandy trails to run through all day.
An Early Wakeup
Tricia and I woke up about 6 am and decided to continue sleeping for a few more hours. Initially, we slept in between the doors, head at one door and feet at the other. We ended up switching positions to and went back to sleep in between the front seats and the rear seats, which ended up getting us a little more leg room. Being the second time I’ve slept in my truck this way I am convinced that a custom cut platform under the air mattress would make a tremendous difference (I’ve added it to my list of DIY projects for the rig).
Around 8 am we woke for the second time and got up. I started boiling some water for coffee and began tear down of our sleeping arrangements. After breakfast and coffee, we jumped on the main road and headed into a small town to gas up and figure out where we were going to run trails. Once the map was consulted we settled on a large loop at the northern end of the overall run. Our three rig caravan headed south towards downtown Grayling before turning back onto M-72 to head west. After about 15 minutes of driving, we turned onto the trailhead off the main road.
A Wrong Turn and Tight Spaces
Right off the bat, I noticed the main difference between Manistee and the Grayling area is the amount of sand that makes up the trails. Manistee has it but most of what I’ve been on is compacted sand trails that are easy to drive on. Driving around Manistee I never felt I was going to dig my tires in. This was not the case on these Grayling trails. The plan was to work into the loop from the south and follow it around to the east to the northernmost staging point. Once we reached that area we would decide what to do based on the time; keep going or head to Shorts.
The first stretch was mostly forest heading north towards what should have been our first turn to the east. The trails were primarily hard packed sand and flowed up, down, back, and forth. We were only an hour or so into this run and I was already convinced that the trails here were some of the best I have been on (which isn’t much, to be honest). Somewhere along the lines, we ended up on a trail running parallel to the road. We came to a spot on the map that looked like our turn, however, it turned us to the west instead of taking us to the east.
We made the turn-up and into what appeared to be a recent logging area of the forest. It was clear cut for quite some distance all around. Instead of turning back I made the decision to continue forward and see where it took us. The clear cut areas soon disappeared and we were once again back into the forested area. Some very tight forested area. Like, I couldn’t open the door without possibly banging it on something and I was guaranteed to get pinstripes through here.
Once we cleared the tight trails it was pretty easy going. None of the trails we were on the rest of the day closed in on us. I checked the map and quickly released I had made a mistake and made a wrong turn. We were on the west side of the trail instead of the east. No matter, we continued our trek north to the second staging area.
Sand, Sand, and Some More Sand
As I stated above, we hit trails that were more sand covered than what I’ve been on in the past. Surprisingly most of the time driving was spent in 4Lo to ensure we didn’t dig in anywhere. It was easy to see that the trails we were on, while large enough to accommodate vehicles, were mostly traveled by ATVs. There wasn’t anything we came across we couldn’t get through but it crossed my mind that if we had any rain things would end up being different. Luckily that didn’t happen.
We moved through the east side of the trail pretty quickly before stopping for lunch. Our stop was at a large open sand pit with a very steep side that worked into the forest line. As fun as it looked, there was no way any of us were going to attempt going into as a rollover was probably in our future if we did. Had we been on motorcycles it would have been a no brainer.
The northern top of the loop followed closely to the main road for some distance and was the only place we really encountered any heavy traffic. It was smooth and easy going so I decided to let Tricia drive for awhile. This was her first go at overland driving so I gave her some pointers and let her learn as she went. We discussed the usage of 2 and 4Lo/Hi so she understood when to use it not only on the trails but also around our city during bad weather. I grabbed my camera and thought I was going to take some more video and photos.
This is where I kicked myself. Apparently, I hadn’t cleared off my SD cards from the previous trip so all of the videos I thought I was capturing was in fact not capturing. I also didn’t take nearly as many photos this time, something I regret because we had some spectacular scenery and chances for photo opportunities. I did capture some of the best parts of the trails though because I didn’t start filming right away either. It was probably half way through the day before I set up my first action camera.
Almost Stuck, The Run South, and Shorts
During Tricia’s driving time she almost got us stuck. The one and only time anyone had trouble. We approached a steep-ish hill and I could see it was covered in sand. I had been letting her know early on when to switch over to 4Lo and stopped about halfway through her run. I wasn’t really paying attention when she started to crawl up the hill but I felt the truck start to dig in. I told her to stop, grabbed the CB to ask the cars behind us to back up, and had her back down the hill a bit. She switched over to 4Lo and very easily worked her way up the hill and around a corner.
Tricia eventually got tired of driving so we switched back and continued our loop. We worked the trail back south until we came out of the woods and got back onto a familiar road. It was the trail following along the clear cut area we started on and where we were supposed to come out initially. We followed it down until we reached the southern staging area parking lot. After a brief stretch and walk around we decided to just head to Shorts Brewing.
Great Pizza and Good Beer
After a 45 minute drive on pavement, we reached the small town of Bellaire. After having been to Founders in Grand Rapids a few weeks back I was definitely expecting something larger than what we got. The building might not be that big but the food and beer were absolutely amazing. Tricia and I split a large sausage, pepper, and onion pizza with enough leftover for a late night driving snack on the way home. We also sampled two different beers that were light, refreshing, and made the end of our day that much better.
After eating, downing our beers, and sitting around chatting for about an hour Tricia and I decided to head for home. We had a good 3-4 hours back down to Southfield and it was already going on 7:30 pm. Kyle, Alex, and Marc were going to find another campsite to stay at and hopefully catch some of the northern lights that were supposed to be visible. We said our goodbyes, got in our truck and rode the pavement all the way home. All the while discussing what other places we could go to, the gear we’d like to have, whether our little kids would enjoy this, and generating some good ideas for future Michigan Overland group outings.
It was a great overnight with great people. I’ll definitely be back to explore more trails in the Grayling area whether it’s with my family or a crew from Michigan Overland. I’ll be back.
A few weeks back in early July we had our Southwest Michigan meetup at Founders Brewing. I got to meet some new folks and some old folks who I’ve interacted with on the page for a while now. After a number of beers Kyle, Marc, and I started talking about the next meetup and how we should make a weekend of it. After a number of more beers it was decided the next meetup would happen as planned but we’d also get in some trail running and camping.
The more I thought about it this is how all of the meet ups should have been. Trust me when I say this will be remedied for next year. It worked out really well (except for the weather Friday, but more on that later) and gets in what we’re all here for: beer and the outdoors (maybe you’re not here for both but I am). The following is more wordy and light on the pictures as it was pretty dark once we all met up and found a place to camp.
Planning started the weekend before August 5th. My gear was still in a pile in the basement, cast aside from the July trip in Manistee. It was begging to be reorganized and cut down once again based on what I did and didn’t use on the last trip. Of course I didn’t get to it until Thursday the 3rd but it didn’t take long to pull out what I didn’t use and try a more minimal setup.
Of course this ended up not being a great idea because it wasn’t just me going by myself. My wife was going to be joining on me on her first outing with some of the Michigan Overland crew. Initially I pulled out some extra cooking gear that I didn’t feel was necessary and it ended up being that I could have used it. The lesson learned here was to have two different minimal setups. One that covers only me when I’m running with a crew and one that covers potentially my whole family when running with a crew or we’re by ourselves (that’s an article and project for later). I’ve also made creating the drawer system for the back of my Suburban a priority, especially after explaining the concept to Tricia and how easy it would be to grab things from there instead of hunting through bags or coolers.
On top of the late packing, gear prep, and work hours I had no time to try to put together a route. I’ve also never been up that way so had no idea what to expect. Instead I went the easy route and asked Mike about a route as he’s been up that way. He came through in a big way and provided a ~200 mile run.
The Long Drive North
The plan for this meetup was to have it at Shorts Brewing in Bellaire. I’ve had Shorts beer before here in Metro Detroit and figured it was a good enough place to hunker down for some beer and conversation. This was before I checked the map and realized it was a long drive. I was committed to it either way and the changed plans to camp out Friday and Saturday helped solidify my resolve to make the drive.
After next to no planning we finally got going on Friday afternoon. I talked with Marc and we made plans to stop in Birch Run to grab a late lunch and then keep moving north into the Grayling area. I watched the weather all week and by the time we left Metro Detroit I was convinced it was going to be better than predicted. We drove through sunny and mid 70s conditions with no need to run the A/C at all. By the time we got into Birch Run the weather had changed over to slightly chilly but not unbearable. After a quick stop at Meijer for some supplies and a pretty good lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings we were once again on the road.
We drove. And we drove. And we drove some more. It’s a bit of a hike to Grayling like I said. Along the way we had the weather change over to rainy and chillier than before. Awesome, the weather reports were actually right. Of course I didn’t really buy into to it so I didn’t pack for rain. I’m pretty sure Tricia didn’t either. After almost two hours of highway we made the final exit in the Grayling area. A quick run up business 75 and we were into the downtown area.
Good Beer and The First Run
We found a place to grab a beer called Paddle Hard Microbrewery while waiting for Kyle and Alex. It was a tiny place. An offshoot from a larger bar and restaurant the next block over. It was also the better choice because of how small it was. We didn’t fight crowds to get a seat or table, we simply walked in and plopped down on some stools at the bar. And the beer was good, really good.
We didn’t have to wait long before Kyle and Alex arrived. We struck out, grabbed some wood (I won’t call it firewood because it never took), and got the first trail. On the map it looked like a quick run north to an open clearing. It was just before 9pm when we started and right around 10 by the time we made camp.
Having been through Manistee National Forest a few times now I was expecting the same type of terrain. What I got the first night was a much rougher and sandier ride. The trail was not just a straight shot up with a few curves here and there. It was a winding, rutted, and often times right track that was extremely fun to drive. And at night, something I’ve been wanting to try out (Lesson 1: get brighter and more lights).
Sand, Lots of Sand
At some point we ended up on a very wide section used by Camp Grayling for running tracked vehicles down. I’m going to assume that meant tanks and I was very much hoping to have one pass by us. Unfortunately we ended up being on the wrong path so we turned around and made for the correct path. That was the first and last time we were on a tracked vehicles path.
The clearing on the map turned out to be a staging area so it was a bust for camp. Luckily there was another clearing nearby we headed to just off the main road. And it was road despite what it looked like on satellite, which was dirt. We pulled into a good size clearing pretty late and setup for the night. Tricia and I were going to be testing out two people in the same configuration I used during the last Manistee trip. Kyle, Alex, and Marc pitched tents for the night on some pretty soft ground I must say.
It Was Damn Cold For August
We stood around chatting for a while before deciding to try getting a fire going. It was surprisingly cold and windy so having the heat from a fire would have been nice. I say would have because it never really got going strong enough to produce any heat. The firewood, and I use that term very loosely, Marc picked up from a guy on the main drag in would not take. We fed it whatever flammable things we had: paper towels, boxes, bags (Trader Joe’s don’t light either by the way), and even some corn chips (those did burn the best). Short of siphoning some gas to get it going we tried everything we had. Don’t get me wrong, we had a fire, just not a very big one.
The rest of the night was spent talking around our pitiful fire. By about midnight Tricia and I were ready to turn in. We hopped into the middle of the Suburban on the air mattress and made ourselves as comfortable as we could for the night.