With fall at hand and the colors of the woods bursting forth it is time to head to some of my favorite areas of the state for camping and backpacking.
First on my list for backpacking and camping any time of year is the Pigeon River Country State Forest, just north of Gaylord. From all reports the colors are reaching their peak and it is the perfect time to head north. Whether you want to backpack, camp or just tour the area in your car, it is a wonderful place to explore.
The Pigeon River area has seven state forest campgrounds, five of which I have repeatedly camped at. You will also find the High Country Pathway, which is an 80-mile loop trail that takes in some of the most remote areas in the Lower Peninsula and provides ample opportunities for day or extended hikes. And there is the Shingle Mill Pathway which offers a great over night option for backpacking or great day hikes. Add to this is the fact that the Pigeon River is also the home to the only existing elk herd east of the Mississippi and you will see that there is plenty to do.
When it comes to the elk, you will find signs directing visitors to elk viewing areas. When heading down these roads, take care, many of them are rather rugged, so take your time when driving them. I have never had a problem, even in my every day car, but go slow.
Now to the campgrounds:
All are accessed off of Sturgeon Valley Road which runs east out of Vanderbilt. These are State Forest Campgrounds which offer a rustic experience offering pit toilets and hand pumps for water.
At 39-sites, this is the largest campground in the Pigeon River area. It offers excellent fishing on Pickerel Lake and you will find a short, 1.9-mile trail for day hikes. The sites are large and well spaced. This is the perfect campground for those who want a more open and developed experience.
I have stayed at the Pigeon Bridge campground many times, mostly as a stopping point before hitting the high country pathway. This small, 10-site campground is located on the eastern side of the Pigeon River, just past the bridge on Sturgeon Valley Road, hence its name.
In the winter, I have used this camp as a base for cross country skiing or snowshoeing along the pathways connected to it. It is very close to the road making it easy to access when snow is on the ground but there is also the consideration that cars will be driving by, which really is no big deal.
Next down the road is Round Lake State Forest Campground. This is a beautiful camp set among tall pines. According to the DNR, this campground has been “under-performing”, meaning that not many people were using it. But nearly every time I have been there, at least half of the 10 sites were occupied on any weekend. This is very simply a beautiful place. It is quiet, it is secluded and Round Lake is a great place to put a canoe in and go watch turtles sun themselves. I have stopped here backpacking along the High Country Pathway and have car camped there many times with my family.
The Pigeon River campground is quite simply the place to be if you want to be on the river. Many of the 19-sites are right on the river and those that are not are no more than a few hundred feet from it. There is a bridge that crosses the Pigeon River where a small pool forms. In the summer you will find people playing in the water and during trout season, my son caught his first trout on this river, right from our campsite.
One of the really neat things about this campground is the drinking water, which is supplied from an artisan spring. Ice cold and incredibly pure, the water flows out of a pipe that has been driven into the spring.
The only drawback is that the road down to the campground can become more than impassable in the winter. I have many times parked my car just off Sturgeon Valley Road, put on my pack and skied down to the campground when the snow is too deep to drive through.
Finally for those of us who want to backpack or hike, there is the High Country Pathway which makes a huge circular route through the Pigeon River Forest and into Montmorency County to the east. I have backpacked most of the trail in sections, with some being easy to follow and others are not so easy to follow so have a map.
A smaller loop on the pathway is the Shingle Mill Pathway which begins at the Pigeon Bridge campground and runs up to the Pigeon River campground. The total loop is 14-miles with shorter loops possible. I have backpacked this area many times and with its easy access and campgrounds along the way it offers many options for hitting the backcountry.
So plan on heading north to the Pigeon River State Forest for a look at the beauty autumn brings and then plan on heading back in winter, spring and summer for some of the best camping and backpacking in the Lower Peninsula.
The Pigeon River State Forest is located approximately 9-miles east of the small town of Vanderbilt. Take I-75 north to the Vanderbilt, exit 290, which is 8-miles north of Gaylord. Turn right and drive into town, at the first and only traffic light, make a left (east) onto Sturgeon Valley Road and drive for 9-miles. You will then be in the start of the Pigeon River Country.
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