High Country Pathway
The High Country Pathway (HCP), 80 miles long, offers one of the Lower Peninsula’s best near-wilderness experiences. It passes through habitats ranging from rolling hardwood forests and meadows to low-lying wetlands. It was designed to provide the backpacker with roughly one week of outdoor adventure. Here is a description and highlights for each section:
Sturgeon Valley Rd. to Osmun Rd. (17½ miles): Heading north from the trailhead parking lot (9’N 28’W) on Sturgeon Valley Rd., you enter the Pigeon Bridge CG on the east side of the Pigeon River. Here the HCP joins the Shingle Mill Pathway for the next 6.7 miles; with scenic overlooks.
Pigeon River Country HQ: (10’N 28’W) The log structure built by the CCC in 1934-35 burned in 1985. Michigan Civilian Conservation Corps youths helped rebuild it with red pine logs from within half a mile of the site. This PRC headquarters building was dedicated in 1991. The nearby former residence of the PRC manager sat vacant for a decade until the Pigeon River Country Association began outfitting it in 2015 as a discovery center. Buildings at this site at one time housed a state fish research station, work crews, and Michigan’s first conservation school.
Pigeon River CG: (10’N 26’W) A good place to overnight. It is on the south bank of the Pigeon River, about three miles from the trailhead on Sturgeon Valley Rd. The pathway follows the campground road and crosses the Pigeon River on the east end of the campground. Near the Devil’s Soup Bowl Lake, the HCP splits from the Shingle Mill Pathway and goes north to Pine Grove CG. Along the way, the edge of a ridge overlooks a marsh, beaver pond, and hardwood stand at Bird Tally Cr.
Pine Grove CG: (15’N 27’W) Surrounded by white, red and jack pines, this is one of the PRC’s most secluded campgrounds. Located on the north bank of the Pigeon River, this is an excellent spot for camping, hiking, fishing, or relaxing. Can you identify the pines? Some hints: red pine has reddish flaky bark, a tall straight trunk, and long needles in clusters of two; jack pine has black flaky bark and shorter needles in clusters of two; white pine, the “State Tree,” has ridged, gray-black bark with light feathery needles growing in clusters of five. North of the campground, surface sediments are glacial outwash sand and gravel and post-glacial alluvium and coarse-textured glacial till, about 200-400 feet thick.
Northern Hardwood Management: (17’N 26’W) Just north of Webb Rd., the HCP passes through a hardwood forest selectively cut in 2004 to provide proper spacing for growth and reproduction of the remaining trees. Harvesting every 15 to 20 years encourages rapid growth and partially mimics natural processes. The results are a variety of shade-tolerant species of different sizes and ages, providing a forest structurally and compositionally diverse. Northern hardwood stands contain beech trees with claw marks on the silver-barked trunks from bears climbing to eat beechnuts in Autumn.
Osmun Rd. to Shoepac Lk CG (20½ miles): (18’N 25’W) Here the HCP passes through some of the most remote and wild areas of the PRC. Numerous lowland conifer swamps are interspersed with rolling terrain containing pine, aspen, and some hardwood stands.
McLavey Lake:(17’N 21’W) A ½ mile spur north on the HCP leads to McLavey Lake, surrounded by white birch trees blending into cedar-balsam swamps. Good access to the shallow, sandy-bottomed lake makes this is an inviting place to camp.
Duby Lake: The ¼ mile spur pathway out to Duby Lake traverses the only high ground to this dying lake. The lake’s boggy shoreline is surrounded by dead snags, tag alder, and blueberry thickets that blend into the surrounding cedar-balsam swamps. There are good camping sites in this area. At night, the area comes alive with the sounds of nature. Farther on is a trail shelter just west of Canada Cr.
Shoepac Lake CG to Clear Lake/Jackson Lake Pathway (13¾ miles): Terrain in this section is mostly dry with rolling hills and a few steep climbs.
Shoepac Lake: (14’N 10’W) The lake is a sinkhole, about 95 feet deep, in an area of sinkholes. A dry sinkhole, only a few hundred feet east of Shoepac Lake, is about 140 feet deep, or about 45 feet below the bottom of Shoepac Lake – a very unusual situation. Clay present at Shoepac keeps water in the lake, while the dry sinkholes are in mostly sandy soils that allow water to drain away. For more about these unusual formations, see Sinkholes Pathway entry below.
Tomahawk Cr Flooding: (13’N 10’W) This flooding, created to increase the quality of fish and wildlife habitat, provides a peaceful setting for viewing nesting loons and osprey. Bald eagles nest nearby. Water levels in the flooding fluctuate seasonally, more so than in nearby lakes. This often exposes wide sandy shorelines during the drier summer months, which are used by wading birds and migrating shorebirds. A variety of woodpeckers and tree swallows gather on the dead snags at the flooding. Habitat management for elk and deer and other forest wildlife on state forest lands in the area has created different forest age classes and many grassy openings. This diversity attracts a wider variety of breeding songbird species.
The flooding lies within the Clear Lk Kirtland’s warbler management area. Jack pine stands in it are managed for the endangered Kirtland’s warbler and the dozens of other wildlife species that benefit from this special ecosystem. Virtually the entire world population, now about 2,000 pairs of Kirtland’s warblers, nest in twelve counties in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula, six counties in the Upper Peninsula, and since 2007 also in Wisconsin and Ontario. Openings of 100+ acres are created to provide young jack pine needed for Kirtland’s warbler nesting. A wide diversity of songbirds are found in the different-aged jack pine and oak areas resulting from this management, and in turn, offer excellent wildlife viewing.
Clear Lk/Jackson Lk Pathway to Camp 30 Rd. (14 miles): (7’N 10’W) This section starts out flat to gently rolling, becoming hilly by the time you reach Rattlesnake Hill. Forest types range from jack pine barrens to northern hardwoods, interspersed with open meadows. See the Clear Lake/Jackson Lake Pathway entry below.
Rattlesnake Hill: (4’N 16’W) Rattlesnake Hill is a kame moraine formed from debris trapped in a crevasse during the Wisconsin glaciation and then deposited by glacial melting. The strenuous 200’ climb to the top of Rattlesnake Hill rewards you with a tremendous panoramic view. At 1,230’ above sea level, this is the highest point on the HCP.
Camp 30 Rd. to Sturgeon Valley Rd. (14½ miles): (5’N 19’W) Much of this section traverses high rolling hills covered with northern hardwood, oak, pine, and aspen stands, and has a few scenic overlooks.
Tubbs Cr: (4’N 22’W) An excellent example of the many wetlands throughout the region. Acre for acre, wetlands produce more wildlife and plants than any other Michigan habitat type. Conifer swamps are especially rich and provide habitat for amphibians, songbirds, reptiles, and mammals seeking food and dense cover. Trees near Tubbs Cr include white cedar, balsam fir, and black spruce. The pathway enters the wetland from pine forest leading into lowland deciduous forest. It exits into stands of aspen and jack pine.
Aspen Clear Cut: Just south of the footbridge crossing the Black River near Chandler Dam Rd (7’N 24’W), this aspen stand was clearcut in 2004. Aspen, sometimes called “popple,” regenerates best after it is clearcut by sending up thousands of shoots from the root system. The shoots are food for many animals and are a favorite of elk. Young stands of aspen provide favorable habitat for many species such as oven birds, woodcock, ruffed grouse, snowshoe hare, deer, and elk.
All these pathways can be found on our waterproof map (order here) except for the new Towerman’s Watch. We provide the latitude and longitude in minutes, leaving out the 45°N and 84°W, since they are the same across the area.