Short hikes for long drives

Long drives are a drag, but sometimes a fact of life when living in a remote place like the Keweenaw Peninsula. The desire to get to a destination or return home from it in an expedient manner often precludes making stops of much duration. But there are several places around the U.P. where it is possible to break up the tedium of driving with a short hike in the woods, starting from trailheads right alongside the highway.

I took advantage of some of these driving back from the Lower Peninsula Wednesday. This was after traveling to some east- and west-coast cities, and getting among the trees from time to time on the way back to the Keweenaw helped remind me of the benefits of living so far from civilization. At a bare minimum, these short hikes gave me a chance to stretch my legs during the long drive north of the Mackinaw Bridge.

There’s a trail down to the Lake Michigan shore on either side of the Cut River Bridge, just east of Epoufette on U.S. 2. The deck steel cantilever bridge stretches across a deep gorge with the Cut River running at the bottom of it. On the east side of the gorge, 261 steps carry a hiker down to the river, 147 feet below the road. At the base of the stairs, a trail off to the left goes to the mouth of the river and the Lake Michigan shoreline.

A trail in the other direction follows the river upstream for about half a mile. There are moss-covered rocks to the left, a tree- and fern-covered hillside to the right, and the bridge’s turquoise-painted steel framework arching overhead. With sandstone accents on its abutments, and the aforementioned turquoise framework, the bridge is an aesthetically pleasing thing in itself, and the elevation change down to the river makes for a brisk, short hike.

Along M-77 north of Germfask, on the eastern edge of the Seney Wildlife Refuge, there is a rest area with a picnic shelter in the shape of two wigwams. This fronts a pair of large, man-made “show ponds” where waterfowl congregate at different times of the year. Nature trails encircle both of these ponds. All three elements – the picnic area, the show ponds, and the trails surrounding them were projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s.

Canyon Falls, with its trailhead at the U.S. 41 rest stop south of Alberta, is along the same route to and from the Lower Peninsula, but I usually stop there when traveling to northeastern Wisconsin. The falls are dramatic, and the forest, land, and geology express significant variation even on a short hike in from the highway. Canyon Falls is a North Country Trail trailhead, so much longer hikes are possible from this starting point.

Another NCT trailhead, about five miles north of Bruce Crossing on M-45, offers a somewhat longer and more rigorous hike back to O-Kun-De-Kun Falls on the Baltimore River for travelers heading toward Minnesota. Trail improvements are underway to make wet parts of the trail easier to hike, and the excellent views of the waterfall from a footbridge just downstream make it well worth the 1.5-mile hike.

And really, any trip into the woods is a worthwhile reason to get out of the car for a while.