If you’re thinking of kayaking the Upper Manistee, I have two words for you: Do it. I guarantee it will be one of the most peaceful and pretty vacations you’ve ever taken.
That said, here’s an overview of my four-day itinerary, which was inspired and guided by the book Canoeing Michigan Rivers, written by Traverse City’s own Jerry Dennis and Craig Date.
Note: I highly recommend getting this book and photocopying the first four pages of the section on the Manistee River to take along with you (in a Ziploc bag, of course) on your trip. I read and re-read mine roughly 12 times a day—more frequently as night grew nearer and I grew increasingly panicky about where to set up camp. They proved invaluable for peace of mind.
M-72 to (a non-sanctioned campsite) somewhere beyond the CCC Campground: 16ish miles.
I parked my car and put in at the M-72 Bridge (downstream side of the bridge) in Grayling. From here it’s 14.5 miles (5 to 7 hours) to the CCC Bridge, where two campgrounds await on either side of the bridge. While both were easily accessible by low banks, and boasted nice open flats for setting up camp, I was in love with the river scenery, which had changed from cabin-edged to green-tree wilderness, so I kept paddling, pulling up some distance later—a mile or two, maybe?—at a no-camping put-in point (marked by a small, desktop-sized platform on the river, below a steep set of stairs leading up a bluff).
I don’t recommend camping here given the “No Camping” sign, but my excuse was that it was dark, and I was desperate. Had I had it to do all over again, I would have kayaked a little ways past (20 minutes-ish), where, the next morning, I was treated to the sight of about two dozen more accessible banks backed by more appropriate open camplands. Live and learn, I guess.