Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Manistee River Trail Loop

Seaton Creek Camp Connector Trail to the North Country Trail to the Connector Trail to the Manistee River Trail
Trailhead Elevation: 871 ft.
Distance: 21.16 mi.
Elevation Gain: 2159 ft.
Start Time: 7:51am
End Time: 12:59am

Trip Report:
I first heard of the Manistee River Trail when I saw a list of the Michigan Triple Crown of FKT Trails. They included the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore Trail and the MRT. I was quite frankly surprised I hadn't come across it sooner. It was clearly a classic Michigan Trail and so I wanted a chance to enjoy it. A conference up in Bellaire put me in the perfect range to give this a go.

Trailhead at Seaton Creek
The trail is situated a few miles southwest of Mesick, Michigan which is about 20 miles northwest of Cadillac. As the name implies, the trail follows the Manistee River. At its northern end the trail begins near the Hodenpyle Dam. The MRT itself is roughly 11 miles from the Seaton Creek Campground to the Red Bridge. This is all on the east side of the Manistee River. But more is to come on the west side of the River. The North Country Trail offers another 10.6 miles of great trail plus an extra 1.4 back to the Seaton Creek camp making for a fantastic 23 mile loop.

I chose to do the NCT side first as the morning was fogged in and I hoped to take in the views on the east side if and when the clouds cleared a bit late morning. I parked at the Seaton Creek campground trailhead and put my $7 in the daily use envelope. The connector from the trailhead at the campgroundf to the junction by the river and the Suspension Bridge was flat and winding with thick brush on both sides.
Suspension Bridge
For the run/hike today I wore my Osprey Rev 6 pack. I had 1.5L of water and some snacks. I also brought along my Sawyer Squeeze filter and a pair of trekking poles. I was out intending to keep it as a light run not hesitating to put in some hiking miles. My fitness was topped out in August for the Marquette 50 Ultra and I hadn't been able to do much since so I really wasn't sure where I would be at. In that light I felt like I made a great personal discovery today. I tried a system of completely ignoring the pace numbers and instead followed the heart rate numbers. The goal was to do a run/hike mix keeping the HR at or below 130. This went really well. As the miles added up I felt like I was staying quite fresh and finding that coveted "all-day pace".

The big problem I ran into today (literally) was rolling my ankle not far from the suspension bridge about 1.4 miles in. I roll ankles a lot on the trails but most of the time I catch it quick enough to not do much harm. Today's was different. I could tell quickly that this was worse. It was immediately showing discomfort but not a great searing pain. It also wasn't hampering movement so I made the fateful choice to head onward for the 23-mile loop. Oh I would pay the price for that.

The connector from the bridge to the NCT winds near the river and then bends north. When it made that hard turn north I had a brief freak-out moment. I was expecting to be following the river and this turn was seemingly out of place. I thought maybe I had ended up on the connector to the Marilla TH. A quick check of the GPS reminded me all was well. I followed north and found the easy junction to start on the actual NCT.

The NCT heading south was great trail, almost double-track at times. It was completely easy to follow the whole time and actually in better condition than the MRT. The NCT stays on a bluff most of the way above the river. The MRT stays close to the river and is having erosion issues in several spots. I was making the miles well keeping my easy HR pace. I bumped into 2 or 3 other small parties who were seemingly out backpacking along the NCT. The big challenge of this section is several large up and down climbs. Several hundred feet at a time with the climbs and descents. Perhaps it was a good thing I did these miles first today to get the bigger elevation time out of the way.

The junction to leave the NCT was clearly marked though I was still watching my GPS map to make sure I didn't miss it. The connector trail heads east off the bluff the NCT followed down to the river bed. Along the way is another connector trail heading to the Upper River Road trailhead. Eventually the trail pops out onto the highway and then to the very obvious Red Bridge River access area. This is another trailhead option for the MRT loop and there is also a bathroom and potable water. If one wished to avoid the extra 2.8 miles RT using Seaton Creek campground the loop could be shortened to 20 miles using a trailhead like Red Bridge River. I made a quick stop here to grab a snack from the pack and also pulled out my trekking poles. The trekkers were a highly coincidental add to today's plans. I had brought them to practice running with them and continue to refine my craft of using them. With the rolled ankle they turned out to be an incredible help in today's latter miles.

Red Bridge River Access
After the Red Bridge River access the trail follows the highway a little east of the bridge and eventually breaks north from the road at a fairly evident spot. This was the actually Manistee River Trail I finally set foot upon. It was fairly narrow and stayed close to the river. I quickly began encountering hikers and backpackers spread out all throughout the trail. Its popularity even on a Wednesday in October with poor weather was impressive. Perhaps its also worth noting here that this trail is actually to be preferred in a shoulder month like October. No bugs and very mild temps plus relatively dry trail conditions make for this to be a great time of year to enjoy this trail. Perhaps that explained the high number of midweek people.

The parking at the Red Bridge River Access

Unfortunately my ankle really began to act up once upon the MRT. It was tightening up and becoming more uncomfortable to run with. I began walking more frequently. I walked almost a full mile. I started doing the math of what this would mean if I walked about the last 9-10 miles and I didn't like what it meant for my arrival time. I found a good flat stretch of trail that meandered away from the river a bit and decided to try running. It got my ankle to loosen up a bit and I was able to push almost 3 miles of running making decent time again. I was just past 17 miles for the day when I decided the ankle had had enough. I settled in to hiking the rest of the miles out at whatever pace I could make. The ankle was swelling and just becoming uncomfortable.

Manistee River at the Red Bridge
At mile 18.8 on the day I encountered Sara's Falls. Its a small waterfall just off trail and a sign helps note the area. It was here a very odd mistake happened that turned out to be fortuitous. Somehow I didn't notice that the trail at the falls crossed to the other side and continued on. I never saw its continuation. Instead I took a very obvious trail without thinking of it. I didn't even notice I was heading due east away from the river. All I can think is that my mind was so distracted with my ankle that I didn't notice what was happening. Eventually I came to a gate and an odd looking intersection that seemed out of place. I checked the map and realized what I had done. I had followed an access trail for the falls out to a road and completely away from the MRT. I quickly started weighing options. I was about 0.4 miles off the MRT so it was possible to just backtrack. However my ankle was in such a condition that taking on extra miles was becoming unthinkable. The better option was to follow these forest roads north to a spot where the MRT connector trail intersected them on its path back to the campground. I would actually be able to save a whole mile off the total and get back to the trailhead quicker. I didn't want to shortcut the trail but given my ankle this turned out to be a great twist of fortune for my day.

MRT as it leaves the highway at the Red Bridge
And oh did I need it. The hiking on the roads was becoming painful with the ankle and had reduced me to a hobble. There was something about the firmness of the dirt road that made things hurt more than the slightly softer trails. I eventually hit the intersection with the MRT connector and then followed things back to the trailhead. I hopped in the car and a new realization hit me: would I even be able to drive? Any sort of movement in my right foot was pain. The ankle injury was on the tendons that control movement of the toes. I couldn't move anything. When I got my shoe off I had a very large and firm knot over the injured area. To drive I just had to keep my right foot in the vicinity of the pedals. I would even use a hand under my right thigh to help lift and move my leg since the ankle was out of commission. The worst moment was getting out of the car 50 miles down the road to fill up with gas. I barely made it.

In hindsight it would have been the right move to turn around and recognize how bad the ankle would become. But something akin to summit fever had hit me in wanting to do this loop this bad and seize this rare opportunity to be here and have a chance to see the MRT. I really wanted this day and even running on a bum ankle was worth it.

Other than the ankle and the relatively poor weather, the day was worth it. I felt great on the running portions and loved learning more about managing heart rate. The trail itself really was a delight and would love to see this again with more fall colors and a sunny day to bring out the beauty. Perhaps even a backpacking trip with the kids in a non-mosquito season would be a further delight.

I have a track and waypoints from the hike all contained in the embedded Google Map. Check it out and use at your own risk. PLEASE NOTE THAT MY TRACK DOESN'T FOLLOW THE FULL MANISTEE RIVER TRAIL. I TOOK AN UNINTENTIONAL DETOUR ON THE NORTH END FOLLOWING SOME FOREST ROADS. This difference can be noted in my shared map.

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