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A Perfect Weekend in the Woods
It’s been an incredible fall, especially if you are a trail user. For 11 days in mid-October there were blue skies and peak colors in northern Michigan. Below is a piece for MichiganTrailMaps.com by Jim DuFresne for that final hike up north; a wonderful two-day backpacking trip in Wilderness State Park.
In November DuFresne will begin his winter schedule of presentations and programs. On Nov. 15 he will present Wondrous Wilderness: Tramping In New Zealand at 7 p.m.at the Boardman River Nature Center (www.northcountrytrail.org/gtr), located 1.5 miles south of Traverse City at 1450 Cass Road. On Nov. 17 DuFresne will be at the Flat River Public Library (616-754-6359; www.flatriverlibrary.org) in Greenville presenting The Island and The Lady: Exploring Isle Royale National Park on Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. DuFresne will also be giving his New Zealand show at Howell Carnegie District Library Public (517-546-0720; www.howelllibrary.org) at 7 p.m. on Nov. 29 and on Nov. 30 he will be at the Saline District Library (734-429-5450; saline.lib.mi.us) presenting Michigan’s Top Ten Backpacking Treks at 7 p.m.
In the Heart of a Wilderness
The largest piece of contiguous, undeveloped land in the Lower Peninsulais Wilderness State Park, a 10,500-acre tract that includes Sturgeon Bay, 26 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, and a rugged interior ranging from mature hardwood forests and vast wetlands to a high pointcalled Mt.Nebo. Winding across this vast park is a 38-mile network of trails with 11.4 miles designated as part of the North Country Trail, the national trail that extends from North Dakota to New York.
Despite all the acreage and miles of trail, Wilderness didn’t become a haven for backpackers until 2008. That’s when the staff unveiled a pair of walk-in campsites located in two of the most remote corners of the park.
One of them is perched at the end of a point on the north shore of O’Neal Lake, a scenic campsite seemingly miles from anywhere that is well worth shouldering a backpack into. During the day here, there’s an abundance of waterfowl resting and feeding near the shoreline here. In the evening you can cast for bluegills and bass. At night you can sit at the fire ring and watch the moon shimmer off the smooth surface of the lake.
The most natural loop and a perfect weekend outing for backpackers is the 13-mile trek described below that begins and ends at the Nebo Trailhead along Wilderness Park Drive. The first day would be a 3.6-mile walk to the campsite, with the second day a 9.6-mile trek back to trailhead. There are other ways to shorten the trek, including renting the classic Nebo Cabin for a round trip of only 4 miles from the trailhead, but overall you’ll find the terrain level, the hiking easy and the second day not excessively long.
A water filter is necessary for this trip as there is no source of safe drinking water at the walk-in campsites. Inspect repellent is also needed for any outing that occurs from late May through August. The numerous wetlands and small ponds are literally bug factories during the summer. October is by far the best month to hike this.
O'Neal Lake Trail Guide
Click on the map to the right to view a larger version or print.
The trailhead for the Nebo Trail is well posted along Wilderness Park Drive. At post No. 7 in the parking area is a display map and a gate across the trail. Nebo Trail, like many trails in Wilderness State Park, is a two-track built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s to access projects in other sections of the park. Within a quarter mile is the first of two junctions to the Hemlock Trail. This 0.6-mile spur leads to a steady but short ascent to the top of 720-foot Mt. Nebo. The “peak” is marked by a set of large stone blocks, the remains of a fire tower that the CCC built and used until 1949. If enough leaves have fallen, you can catch a glimpse of the Straits of Mackinac.
Nebo Trail continues in the rolling woods and at Mile 1.8 passes Nebo Cabin. This snug, little structure was also built by the CCC on a pine-covered knoll overlooking the trail. Outside are a vault toilet and drinking water, inside six bunks, a table and a wood-burning stove. The log cabin, a wonderful place to spend an evening or two, should be reserved in advance (800-447-2757; www.midnrreservations.com). Less than a half mile further south is a three-side shelter, another CCC project.
A gate is located just beyond the shelter followed by posts No. 15 and No. 16 at Mile 2.4, the south end of the Nebo Trail. Post No. 16 marks the beginning of the O’Neal Lake Trail which is more of a foot path than a two-track. Within a mile through the rolling terrain you spot O’Neal Lake through the trees. At Mile 3.6 is the posted spur to the walk-in campsite.
It’s a 200-yard walk to this delightful spot at the end of the point. From the middle of the site are views of both the main body of O’Neal Lake and the quiet back bay that is dotted with lily pads and frequented by waterfowl. The simple amenities include a fire ring with two crude benches, a backcountry toilet and a bear pole to hang your food. There is no source of drinking water so boil or filter what you consume from the lake.
From the campsite spur O’Neal Lake Trail continues west skirting a vast wetland on one side and low ridges on the other. It is marked by orange blazes indicating its use as a snowmobile route in the winter. Most of the trail is dry but there can be wet areas in the spring and early summer.
You can’t see the lake until Mile 4.5 when you pop out at an open sandy area and can spot post No. 18 on the far site. The post marks the dam that created O’Neal Lake, a reservoir that was created for the benefit of waterfowl. A foot bridge leads across the small dam to a parking area, a launch site for hand-carried boats and a forest road that heads west. Follow the forest road and in 0.3 miles it will swings sharply to the south and becomes Ellis Road. At this curve O’Neal Lake Trail, still marked as a snowmobile route, continues west along an old two-track.
Within a half mile the trail veers north (right) off the two-track at a junction posted with a snowmobile sign. O’Neal Lake Trail ends at post No. 19, a major T-junction reached just after Mile 8. The loop continues by heading east on Old South Boundary Trail, passing some interesting wetlands. In less than a mile it crosses Big Sucker Creek on a cement bridge. Take time to study the creek - often brook trout are darting back and forth.
Post No. 20 is reached at Mile 9.1 and marks where the Swamp Line Trail heads north back toward civilization, i.e. the heated restrooms and water faucets of the park’s Pines Campground. Just before the campground entrance, is post No. 1, a major trailhead in the park. From this point there are several ways to return to the Nebo Trailhead including following Big Stone Creek, the park road and Wilkenhs Trail.
The most scenic route, however, is Red Pine Trail picked up at post No. 3 after skirting the north end of Goose Pond. Red Pine is an interpretive trail that treads the crest of a forested dune and passes some stumps that are remnants of logging operations from the late 1800s. Within 1.2 miles the trail brings you back to Nebo Trail, just a half mile south of where you left your vehicle.
Wilderness State Park’s two walk-in campsites are $12 a night and its six rustic cabins, including Nebo, are $60 a night. The park also has 250 modern campsites in two campgrounds, Pines and Lakeshore, that are $16 to $27 per night. Cabins and campsites can be reserved online (www.midnrreservations.com) or by phone (800-447-2757). The park’s backcountry campsites are reserved through the park office.
Wilderness State Park is 8 miles west of Mackinaw City and is reached by following County Road 81 and continuing west on Wilderness Park Drive after crossing Carp Lake River. The Nebo Trailhead is 1.5 miles east of the park office on Wilderness Park Drive.
Contact Wilderness State Park (231-436-5381) for information on trail conditions or to reserve the walk-in campsites. For lodging or other travel information contact the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau (231-348-2755, 800-845-2828; www.petoskeyarea.com).