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An Adventure In A Winter Wilderness
Winter came early and suddenly in Michigan. On an early December Saturday only grass was visible and 24 hours later the ground was blanketed with seven inches of snow if not more. Don’t panic and don’t hibernate! It’s just time to put away the hiking boots and mountain bikes and pull out the skis and snowshoes.
In this issue of Trail Mix, MichiganTrailMaps.com begins its winter coverage with Jim Dufresne writing about an overnight excursion into Green Timbers, a non-motorized tract in the Pigeon River Country State Forest, just north of Gaylord. It makes for a great weekend adventure. Drive there on Friday and grab a room in Gaylord and then on Saturday morning step into snowshoes or backcountry skis to explore this unique area that becomes a true wilderness in the winter.
To arrange a room, request a snow report or for more information, contact the Gaylord Area Convention and Tourism Bureau (800-345-8621; www.gaylordmichigan.net).
A Honeymoon In Green Timbers
By Jim DuFresne
Halfway to the Honeymoon Cabin in the Green Timbers area of the Pigeon River Country State Forest, I realized I had made two mistakes. First I overshot the trail. When Pickerel Creek popped into view I recognized I was too far to the east, so I had to cut back by climbing the steep ridges that border the Sturgeon River here. That's when the second mistake became apparent; I shouldn't have left the snowshoes in the back of my car. Instead of floating up the ridge on top of snow three feet deep, I was laboring through it on backcountry skis.
Breaking trail and climbing ridges while hauling a 30-pound pack was no honeymoon.
Winter camping rarely is, especially in a place as rugged and wild as Green Timbers which was a private hunting and fishing retreat of McLouth Steel employees in the 1950s. Today, the 6,300-acre non-motorized tract is part of the Pigeon River Country State Forest, a 30-minutes drive north of Gaylord. The city and the wilderness lie in the Central Plateau, an elevated region that receives more snow and has colder temperatures than the rest of Northern Michigan. The night I spent in Green Timbers the temperature plunged to minus 20 degrees.
How cold is twenty-below-zero? It’s so cold that it’s 15 degrees warmer in Anchorage, Alaska. It's so cold that you go to bed with all your water bottles to prevent waking up to blocks of ice. Then you spend the rest of the night trying to remember what the low temperature range of your sleeping bag is. Twenty-below-zero is so cold that when it's 15 above the next day, you think it’s downright balmy.
The amazing part isn't that some people are willing to camp in this kind of weather or even that they managed to stay warm (mostly) when it's twenty below. The truly mind-boggling part is that, in a place like Green Timbers, it can be an enjoyable experience.
For those of us who hoist a backpack to get away, you can't get away any faster than in the middle of winter. On weekends there might be a few skiers and snowshoers with the vast majority scurrying out when the sun sets. In the middle of the week in the middle of the winter, you have a 6,300-acre tract to yourself.
Click on the map to the right to view a larger version or print.
The s. The main entry is the stonegate trailhead on Sturgeon Valley Road, 7 miles east of Vanderbilt or just before crossing the Sturgeon River. The trail is an old two-track and for the most part a distinctive and easy-to-follow route on either snowshoes or skis. If you select skis, use the heaviest and widest touring skis you have and poles with large plastic rings or backcountry baskets. Nothing is more tiring than constantly pulling your poles out of deep snow.
Within 2 miles the trail reaches a junction where you head east to quickly descend to a wide bridge across the Sturgeon River. On the other side, 2.3 miles from the trailhead, is Green Timbers Cabin, a one-room log structure from the days when the area was a private retreat. One wall was knocked out to turn it into a public-use shelter. Stay for lunch or stay for the night as there is no need to reserve it in advance nor is there a fee for its use.
The Green Timbers Cabin is okay, but Honeymoon is spectacular and well worth the effort to reach it.
From the back of the Green Timbers Cabin, one trail skirts Pickerel Creek and another immediately begins climbing into the nearby hills to the northeast. Look for the trail that heads into the hills and follow it. You actually break out on the backside of a ridge, in something of a narrow valley, so protected from those murderous winter winds that deer have packed the snow with dozens of bedding area.
In the valley, travel north for 0.75 and then head west to ascend a 1,050-foot ridge. There may not be a visible trail depending how recently it snowed. The ridge is also steep and climbing the quarter mile to the crest of it in a herringbone step with a full pack on is no easy task. But your salvation is on the crest. Looking all the world like a mountain-top chalet is Honeymoon Cabin.
A 1.5-mile trek from Green Timbers, this classic log shelter has a large stone fireplace on the back wall. What use to be the front of the cabin now opens up to a deck perched over the edge of the ridge. Looking down, the slope drops suddenly for more than 100 feet. On the horizon you can see the entire Sturgeon River Valley in what is one of the most stunning panoramas in the Lower Peninsula. Especially during a winter sunset.
If you plan to spend the night, bring a tarp to cover the missing wall. The opening faces west, fully exposing the ridge-top cabin to the weather. Also, bring as much water as you can and some kindling. Finding firewood in the winter is a challenge and melting snow for drinking water is tedious at best.
But if you can put up with these small inconveniences, who knows? This could be your second honeymoon. Then again at twenty-below-zero, I doubt it.
Jim DuFresne is a Clarkston-based outdoor writer and the author of more than a dozen guidebooks including Backpacking in Michigan (University of Michigan Press), Tramping in New Zealand (Lonely Planet) and 50 Hikes in Michigan (Backcountry Press). The fourth edition of DuFresne’s Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails and Water Routes was released this month by MichiganTrailMaps.com.
There are no facilities at the Green Timbers trailhead nor at the two cabins. Carry in your water, extra fuel to melt snow or a filter to use the water from Sturgeon River.
From I-75 depart at exit 290 and in the town of Vanderbilt head east on Sturgeon Valley Road. Within 7 miles from Vanderbilt, look for a stonegate entrance on the north side of the road that marks the trailhead and parking area to Green Timbers.
For additional information stop or call the Pigeon River Country State Forest Headquarters (989-983-4101), an impressive log lodge on Twin Lakes Road. Or contact the Gaylord Area Convention and Tourism Bureau (800-345-8621; www.gaylordmichigan.net).