The Manistee River and autumn color, icons of the Northern Michigan outdoor experience. We suggest pairing the two for a Northern Michigan fall color tour getaway, roaming a lovely waterway at its most colorful and dramatic best. To help you take on the river as you like it, we’ve asked four devotees of the Manistee—a paddler, a fisherman, a hiker and a charter plane pilot—to share access tips for a perfect weekend, and we’ve tossed in ideas for food and lodging to keep it all easy.
Check our fall color map every week to find out where peak foliage is!
The Manistee River winds 233 miles from Antrim County in the northern Lower Peninsula through rolling, glacier-tilled landscape, dropping 700 feet from the headwaters to spill into Lake Michigan at its namesake port city. A designated National Wild and Scenic River, the Manistee is one of Northern Michigan’s largest in volume and length, and one of the most stable flowing in the world.
The river lures anglers for some of the finest fishing in the Midwest—and some would argue the country. But the Manistee is more than a sum of superlatives. To appreciate it requires an explorer’s mindset akin to the spirit of the area’s earlier inhabitants, the Anishinaabek, who hunted and fished the Manistee’s shores. Still today no roads neatly trace the Manistee’s banks. And each section of the river—upper, middle and lower—feels like a separate river unto itself with its own experience.
But the Manistee’s elusiveness is also its charm. Those who venture off the beaten path to wet a line, paddle an oar or cross a footbridge are met with rewards that explain why the Ojibwe Indians named the waterway “Manistee,” meaning “the spirit of the woods.”
Photos by Todd Zawistowski
Fall Color Tour on the Water
Lois Goldstein, Outings Chair, Traverse Area Paddle Club
The Manistee is a paddler’s paradise. With accessibility for all paddler levels, stunning scenery unbroken by development, contoured high banks and wide expanses, it’s no wonder that the Manistee draws fans of kayaks and canoes. And an ideal time to paddle is in the quiet yet showy shoulder season of autumn. Also, the Manistee’s spring-fed waters provide a steady, even flow when other Michigan rivers have dropped following summer heat.
Beginners and families can easily navigate the river’s wide expanse and moderate current, while intermediate paddlers can test technical skills in the Manistee National Forest between Hodenpyl Dam and Red Bridge, where eddies create funky currents. Boaters who love camping can stay at one of the many designated campsites along the river. Another popular combination is to hike and boat—spot your canoe or kayak upstream, drive downstream, then hike back to your boat and enjoy the return paddle.
Whether you own a boat or need to rent, you have plenty of paddle route possibilities. Liveries dot the river north of Hodenpyl Dam and at the lower end near Manistee. Liveries usually put in upriver so passengers can float back down to their cars, offering trips from two hours to 10 days. (Tip: Many liveries will drive paddlers with their own kayaks/canoes for a small fee.) Lois
Goldstein, who spends 100 days a year kayaking, has a few preferred stretches, including US131 to Baxter Bridge as a picturesque and comfortable 10-mile section. Her favorite for scenery is Baxter Bridge south to Harvey Bridge, though the 20-mile stretch makes the route more appropriate for experienced paddlers.
Paddling in autumn provides unmatched serenity and stunning color, but it requires extra precautions. Paddlers should dress in layers for colder temps, including wearing boots and synthetic socks. And boaters will want to stay out of the water so as not to risk hypothermia. If renting, be sure to call liveries ahead to see how late they run in the season.
Fall Color Tour in the Water
Mark Tonello, Biologist, Michigan DNR Fisheries Division
The Manistee is the most heavily fished river in Northern Michigan—not a surprise considering it delivers world-class fishing. It is home to the largest runs of Pacific salmon and steelhead trout plus the best stretch for trophy brown trout in the Midwest. The Manistee also boasts fisheries for smallmouth bass, wild trout, walleye and pike. If that weren’t enough, it supports one of the few remaining lake sturgeon populations through a rearing facility maintained by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.
Mark Tonello manages the fish population in the Manistee River Watershed and explains that the Manistee’s stable flow and cool temperature create perfect conditions for fish to thrive. He has fished the river from top to bottom, and his personal favorite is the steelhead fishing—he claims there isn’t a better river for it in the Midwest. Something else unique to this river is a fall steelhead run. The fish are aggressive, hungry and feisty, making an incredibly fun catch.
Anglers also like the thrill of not knowing what they’re going to pull up. With so many species in the river, you can be fighting a big fish and not know what it is until you bring in your line (that’s also one of the reasons Tonello recommends purchasing an all-species fishing license if you fish the Manistee). Don’t know the difference between a spinner, fly or jig, or just want to go with an expert who knows where the fish are biting? Contact a local outfitter for half- and full-day fly-fishing excursions by boat (rod and reel provided but Michigan fishing license required).
For Tonello there’s another element that makes the river special. Both his son and daughter caught their first trout on the Manistee at 5 years old. The Manistee is big enough for everyone—the fly fisherman with $10,000 worth of gear and a jet boat, and the person (or child) with a $30 rod on a pier. And the river offers plenty to catch.
- Shel-Haven Canoe Livery: 11852 W. M-72, Grayling (eight miles west of Grayling). 989.348.2158. Open year round but by appointment in off season—reserve ahead for fall trips.
- Smithville Landing: 13177 Old M-66 SE, Fife Lake between Lake City and Kalkaska. 231.839.4579. Open through Sept. 30; weekends only after Labor Day.
- Wilderness Canoe Trips: 6052 Riverview Road, Mesick. 800.873.6379, 231.885.1485, open through mid-October.
- Manistee Paddlesport Adventures: 231 Parkdale, Manistee. 231.233.3265. Call ahead to inquire about the fall schedule.
- Traverse Area Paddle Club: Recreation club of 130 kayakers and canoeists who go on weekly excursions throughout Northern Michigan. Membership: $15 for an individual; $25 for a family. Paddling Michigan, Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom. Paddling guide by longtime Michiganders who provide helpful details on 70 Michigan waterways, including the Manistee River.
- Wolfe Outfitters: Manistee. 877.442.4294. Fly-fishing guides for both Upper and Lower Manistee. Salmon and steelhead in the fall, winter and early spring; trout and smallmouth bass during the summer and early fall. Half-day up to 2 people $325, full day $400, add a 3rd person for $100.
- Schmidt Outfitters: Wellston. 231.848.4191. Full-service fly-fishing outfitter and award-winning fly-fishing school since 1976; also offers lodging. Guides mostly along the lower Manistee. Half-day trips are $275 for up to two anglers; full-day trips (including lunch) are $375. Early fall trips fish for salmon; late September through November fish for steelhead.
Prime Fishing Holes (north to south)
- Headwaters in Antrim County to M-66 (Upper Manistee): Wild trout stream (no stocking) mostly of brown and brook trout. Stretch of the famous “hex hatch” starting in late June when the Hexagenia limbata (mayfly) hatches at dusk, bringing the largest trout to the surface for the annual fly feast.
- M-66 to Hodenpyl Dam: Stocked brown trout along state forest land. Walleye, occasional wild brook and rainbow trout, pike and smallmouth bass.
- Hodenpyl Dam to Red Bridge: Most wilderness-like stretch of river. Big brown trout, large populations of walleye, smallmouth bass and pike.
- Tippy Dam to Manistee Lake: Most heavily fished river run in the state, with the largest crowds in the fall for Chinook salmon (most of which are naturally produced) and spring for steelhead.
- Explore the Shores: A network of barrier-free, accessible water sites in Manistee County, including along the Manistee River at Rainbow Bend, Bear Creek, High Bridge, Sawdust Hill and Tippy Dam South Access.
- Michigan DNR Fisheries Division, Cadillac Service Center: 8015 Mackinaw Trail, Cadillac. 231.775.9727. Contact for daily status of fishing conditions along Manistee River.
Fall Color Tour Beside the Water
Heather Payton, Publicity Chair, Grand Traverse Hiking Club
Heather Payton has logged thousands of miles trekking throughout the country, yet she spends most of her time along the Manistee because she can’t beat the scenery combined with the white noise of rushing water. The draw of the Manistee River for hikers is its diversity, she says. You can be up high on a bluff with views of the river valley one minute, and suddenly drop into a beautiful valley of hardwoods, then cross a stream surrounded in mature cedars before passing through a stand of beech. Wildflowers and birds complete the tableau in the spring, and a rolling landscape with rich color saturation greets the senses in the fall.
Hiking along the Manistee can take a few hours on an afternoon, or two to three days as an overnight backpacking experience. The North Country Trail, which flanks Manistee’s western bank for 50 of its 4,600 miles through seven states, is a key attraction for two-footed travelers. A popular multi-day hiking loop is to combine the 11-mile Manistee River Trail on the east bank from Hodenpyl Dam to Red Bridge with the 8.5-mile segment of the North Country Trail on the west bank. Camping is available at either terminus (Seaton Creek and Red Bridge), or hikers can break up the trip further by staying at one of seven scenic, rustic campsites along the Manistee River Trail. Primitive camping is allowed anywhere on the North Country Trail as long as tents are 200 feet from the trail and water.
Trails also come in smaller doses. The Manistee River Trail is level and easy, offering a comfortable out-and-back hike as long or short as desired from either end. Heather’s favorite hiking area is the Highbank Rollway near Buckley. It’s the highest bluff over the Manistee River and affords stunning vistas in the fall.
Fall Color Tour Above the Water
Derek DeRuiter, Owner, Northwoods Aviation
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the vastness of the Manistee River in its entirety is from above. From an airplane in the fall, you’ll get the double pleasure of experiencing the azure blue ribbon of the Manistee juxtaposed against crimson and gold foliage, analogous to looking at Technicolor-dyed broccoli heads (uh … or something like that). And you don’t need your own Cessna to enjoy the view.
A handful of charter flight companies at Northern Michigan airports provide short, scenic fall tours, and most will take customers to the Manistee River valley. For prime fall Manistee River scenery, Derek DeRuiter suggests flying over the river between Hodenpyl Dam Pond and Tippy Dam (the same vantage point our photographer enjoyed) to see what he describes as a “blanket of color” stretched across rolling terrain.
Derek recommends flying north out of Cadillac through Manton to the Manistee River, following it southwest as it meanders through Mesick to Hodenpyl Dam Pond and Tippy Dam, and then heading back east along M-55 to Cadillac. Northwoods Aviation can cover this ground in a 30-minute flight. One other pointer—start from an airport close to where you want to tour to avoid paying extra to get there and back.
- Grand Traverse Hiking Club Chapter of the North Country Trail Association: Maintains 40 miles of the North Country Trail along the Manistee River from US131 south to Beers Road below Hodenpyl Dam. Their website provides hiking maps of the region.
- Spirit of the Woods Chapter of the North Country Trail Association: Maintains the 10-mile stretch of the North Country Trail beside the Manistee River between Hodenpyl Dam and Red Bridge. Their website provides hiking maps of the region.
Charter Scenic Flight Companies
- Northwoods Aviation: 8186 E. 34 Rd., Cadillac (Wexford County Airport). 231.775.6641, $105 for a 30-minute scenic tour for three people, $150 for a one-hour tour.
- Orchard Beach Aviation Inc.: 2323 Airport Rd., Manistee (Manistee County Blacker Airport). 231.723.8095, $15 for every six minutes/$150 per hour for three people (minimum time needed to get to/from same part of the western Manistee River Valley, though one could fly a shorter distance over western terminus of Manistee River).
Where to Stay
- Tippy Dam State Recreation Area: 1500 Dilling Road, Brethren. 231.848.4880, midnrreservations.com. Small, scenic rustic campground with 40 primitive sites (vault toilets, no electricity) located at the Tippy Dam Pond boating access site. $12 per site. One six-person camping cabin overlooking Tippy Dam backwaters available for $60 (two sets of bunk beds plus gas heating, stove, outdoor hand pump and vault toilet. Bring own bedding and camping equipment.) Reservations taken through Oct. 31.
- U.S. National Forest Service Campgrounds: Primitive yet scenic campgrounds with vault toilets, reserved on a first-come, first-served basis. Locations at Blacksmith Bayou, Government Landing, Red Bridge, Sawdust Hole and Seaton Creek.
- Northern Exposure Campground, RV and Recreation Park: 285 Manistee River Rd., Mesick. 800.563.7425 or 231.885.1199. Private, modern campground (water, electric and flush toilets/showers) on 300 wooded acres, including two miles along Hodenpyl Pond. Options and daily fees include back sites ($25), water sites on Hodenpyl Pond ($30) and pull-through RV sites ($40). A handful of camping cabins are available for rent starting at $55. Open through Oct. 15.
- Michigan Fly Fishing Lodge at Schmidt Outfitters: 918 Seaman Rd., Wellston. 231.848.4191. Seven units; standard and deluxe rooms ranging from $95 to $115 per night. Also for rent: three-bedroom, two-bath Schmidt House, which includes a gourmet kitchen, dining room, yard with grill and fire pit, and even a fly-tying room. $275 per night with a maximum six guests.
- Coyote Crossing Resort: 8593 S. 13 Rd., Cadillac. 231.862.3212. Ten finely-crafted, deluxe cabins, each with two bedrooms, full bath, living room, kitchen, satellite TV, Wi-Fi and individual patio. Sleep up to six. On-site bar and restaurant. Pricing starts at $129 per night for weeknights in the fall.
- McGuire’s Resort: 7880 Mackinaw Trail, Cadillac, 800.634.7302. Classic Northern Michigan four-season resort. 116 rooms and suites, 27 holes of golf, pool, fine dining and sports bar. Wi-Fi and breakfast included. Rooms start at $99 per night.
Where to Eat
Part of the charm of the Manistee River valley is its remoteness—which also means you have to hunt to find a place to refuel your belly or your gas tank. Small towns like Kalkaska, Buckley, Mesick and Wellston with mom-and-pop restaurants are nestled near the river if you need a break—or head east to Cadillac for a larger selection of amenities. A few places to try below…
- After 26 Depot: 127 W. Cass St., Cadillac. 231.468.3526. Opened in June 2013. Hundred-year-old railroad depot turned cafe serves up tasty breakfast and lunch while giving back to the community, providing jobs to adults with developmental disabilities and cognitive impairment through its inventive nonprofit business model.
- Blue Heron Café and Bakery: 304 N. Mitchell, Cadillac. 231.775.5461. Located in downtown Cadillac and a new location in Traverse City’s Old Town, featuring delicious breakfast and lunch entrees using locally sourced ingredients.
- Clam Lake Beer Company: 106 S. Mitchell St., Cadillac. 231.775.6150. Located in the former historic Shay Station building, this is Cadillac’s first microbrewery with a full production room and pub/bar area with 60 Michigan and Midwest beers on tap.
This story was published in the October 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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