The Northern Michigan woods in the winter is beautiful. The typical thick summer undergrowth is all but gone; providing long views of the sun’s contrasted shadows of pine forest on crisp, white snow. At night the howls of coyotes seem to carry on forever, echoing through the cold air. Winter exploring and camping in the Huron-Manistee National Forest has always been memorable for me. Be it an exercise in enduring natures winter fury, or as it was this weekend, taking in its grandeur.
Our small group decided to leave Kalamazoo behind for a quick overnighter in Northern Michigan last weekend; a chance to explore some forest roads, take Instagram photos, and enjoy amazing beers by the fire.
JcrOffroad sales aficionado Corey was riding solo in his 04’ TJ, rolling on 38” tires with upgrade axles and armor all around and was perhaps overequipped for any obstacles we would find on public forest roads, but that’s the point of do-all rigs; built for whatever and wherever the trail may take you.
I was accompanied in the Victory 4×4 3rd gen Taco by my good friend and cycling buddy J’son. He manages a local bike shop (shout out to Pedal Bicycles!), loves the outdoors, and is always up for anything loosely related to adventure.
We rolled from Kalamazoo and hit the highway at 8 am on Saturday. Stopping once on the 160 miles drive for fuel and another time because J’son forgot to bring a camping chair. Corey and I contemplated letting him find a nice log to sit on because we are assholes, but once he threatened not to share the beer he brought, we felt the best course of action was to stop for a chair.
Chair purchased, fuel tanks and coffee mugs filled, we hopped onto some double track just west of Cadillac. Our first destination was the Caberfae Scenic Overlook, a place I’ve seen on the map but never took the time to explore.
There are certainly paved roads to get there but armed with Backcountry Navigator and the excellent OpenAndroMaps we navigated as many snow-covered forest roads as we could on the way.
I think now is a good time to interject that many of the roads in Michigan, including in the Huron-Manistee National Forest, are officially designated snowmobile routes between Dec 1 and March 31 and many of these routes are groomed. This designation doesn’t give the snowmobiles exclusive access to those roads or ORV routes, but it’s considered bad form to tear up the groomed trail. If you are going to this area during those times, I would advise you to download .gpx files of the snowmobile routes in the areas you’d like to visit and do your best to avoid those routes if there is enough snow on the ground for the sleds to play on them. Sometimes these routes will share more well-traveled roads that are unavoidable to drive on but use your head. Grooming these routes costs a ton of money, and while public land is public for everyone, let’s all try to share the resources.
We made it to the overlook to find its current status is much like many of the overlooks in lower Michigan, the trees have grown taller than the viewing structure. So in this instance, you can kind of make out Caberfae ski area behind the treetops and nothing else.
But the light was nice, so I snapped this shot of the Taco at the end of the walking path on the way back to the parking area.
Because the rest of this trip is a secret recon for something else, I won’t be giving away any more location names or route numbers in my trip report, so I don’t spoil a surprise. Please don’t let this deter you from exploring on your own, however, as that’s part of the fun of this area. I’ve been playing around for years here, and I find something new almost every trip. If you are reading this after say February of 2019 feel free to comment with questions on locations. Onward.
Our next stop was a new road for me even though I passed the entrance dozens of times. Some friends recommended we check it out, and wow was it worth it. High cliffs above a valley below provided some great photos and hidden along the road we found the first location we were looking for on our mission.
That double track eventually opened into a gravel road, then finally back to the pavement. We took surface roads further west to a set of roads I found while browsing a US forest service map, but they seemed to be absent on other online maps. These roads ended up forming a loop around marshland with some shorter numbered designated dead-end routes as offshoots.
It’s on one of these routes that we found our first obstacle of the day, a hub deep mud hole with some ice on top. Not knowing what was on the bottom I proceeded slowly in 4 low with the front and rear axles locked, breaking the ice as I went along. Breaking it all up took a few careful runs at it, but once the ice was out of the way, we both easily made it. This short road lead to another dead end, so we got a chance to drive through the hole in the other direction.
Our next goal was to find a route from the exit of that loop to a small town 10 miles away using as few paved roads as possible. I had no pre-made plans for this section of the route, so using various maps on Backcountry Navigator we started exploring legal county roads and forest routes and finally found a road that would be the highlight of our day. The entrance to this road was surrounded by private property and driveways, so merely finding it while not trespassing was an adventure. The route started like any other two-track in northern Michigan with many little offshoots, roads to private property, old roads that are now closed; but then it made a dramatic turn when our first actual flooded crossing was upon us.
Just as before, I put the truck in 4 low, locked the front and rear lockers and proceeded slowly to break up the ice on top of the crossing. Unfortunately, once this happened, I was faced with bumper-deep water and a lot more ice to break up to get across. It took quite a few tries of forward momentum to get through this crossing, and I was glad to have our skids underneath the truck protecting the important bits from large chunks of ice. Corey made it through in one shot, his 38” tires throwing ice and muddy water in all directions.
After that crossing, we didn’t get much of a break before the next obstacle, another iced over mud hole that was longer than the other two, with the potential to be much deeper; so of course, I sent Corey in first. This turned out to be a good plan because it WAS deeper than the other two crossings, but he broke the ice up easily, making the obstacle nice and smooth for us in the Taco. We even had a proper bow wake going.
After that crossing, the road provided no more real challenges, and we found our way to the town we were looking for with minimal pavement travel. We also found a pretty good hamburger at a local bar for a late lunch, but I was too busy eating to take a photo of it.
From town, we needed to travel around 10 miles south to our campsite for the night; we did so using as many unimproved roads as possible. This turned a 15 min paved road trip into an hour long one, and we arrived at camp at the perfect time to watch the sunset as we set up camp for the night.
We all chose a different sleeping arrangement for this trip. J’son setup his 2-person North Face backpacking tent with a small air mattress; Corey hung a hammock, under quilt, and rainfly; and I set up my FreeSpirit rooftop tent. We were all using 0-degree sleeping bags as that night the temp threatened to dip into the lower 20s. With the work of getting camp setup finished, we set about the more important work of bullshitting around the fire while drinking beer.
At some point, we warmed up some mini pecan pies I picked up in town. I used my mini torch to caramelize the tops. If that’s not overlanding, I don’t know what is. They were delicious.
That night around the fire we heard a couple of coyotes in the distance, and they seemed to be getting closer each time they howled. We ended up going to bed at about 11 pm. Allegedly at 3 am the coyotes decided to get a closer look at camp and started causing a commotion. I say allegedly because I slept through what the other two described as the “blood-curdling screams of something murdered next to our fire.” Both of them were too afraid to get a visual on our attackers.
I’m slightly worried that my natural defense mechanisms decided that I should continue my peaceful sleep instead of waking up and peeking outside. But to be fair, sleep is pretty great, I was definitely the most work to get to and eat out of the three of us, and maybe those two drank too many beers, and the coyotes were actually on the other side of the lake… Regardless, with no one eaten, we all slept great for the rest of the night.
The next morning we woke up at the crack of 8:30 and I was excited to use the 1979 Coleman 425 stove I nabbed off eBay to make some coffee. I had issues with IsoPro fuel last winter below 20 degrees, and I think white gas is the solution. The stove worked great. It also looks great on Instagram. #winning
The rest of the morning we rehydrated some breakfast, drank more coffee, and finally packed up camp.
On the way out of camp, we ran a few more uneventful forest roads in the direction of the highway and ultimately made our way back to Kalamazoo. (Full disclosure, we stopped at a brewery first.) Our trip was a complete success in that we found some new interesting roads, navigated some fun obstacles without having to get out to pull winch cable, and we weren’t eaten by rabid coyotes.
We hope these photos inspire you to explore the hidden gems closer to your own home. It doesn’t have to be a week-long expedition to be a great time, as sometimes a single weekend exploring the woods is enough to recharge one’s batteries.
Until next time!