Experience the Jordan Valley Pathway in a day. Hike along as each mile is captured in photos and words that don’t just instruct, they inspire.
Featured in the April 2020 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.
Heather Higham had an itch: She wanted to hike the entire Jordan River Valley, located in the northeast corner of Antrim County. It encompasses 18,000 acres of wildland. It winds its way through Mackinaw State Forest, intersects the North Country Trail and follows along the Jordan River, the first in Michigan to obtain the federal designation of Wild and Scenic River.
People often choose to hike portions of the trail from one of four different trailheads or to see the view from the main trailhead located at Deadman’s Hill Overlook. Those who want to complete the entire trek usually stay overnight at Pinney Bridge State Forest Campground. But Heather, a Traverse City area photographer who knows the Pathway well, wanted to put it all together in one spectacular day. Step into her adventure, then chart one of your own.
Mile 00: Landslide Lookout. I begin my 19-mile adventure with my pup, Petey, at this unconventional starting spot, thanks to other magical memories I’ve made here. (I watched a lake effect rainbow cascade into the fire-colored valley in October 2017.) Plus, the inspiring view is a perfect way to bookend a long hike. (See Heather’s fall color photo of the valley.)
Mile 01: Traipsing on the trail through trillium it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful descent into the valley. I have to remind myself to look up! The canopy appears to be electrified as late morning light filters through newborn leaves.
Mile 02: A light fog fills the valley around Section 13 Creek, giving the place an ethereal vibe. It seems like there should be mosquitos, but the cooler temperatures seem to be keeping them in hibernation. Trillium along the bank pull me in for a closer look. It’s funny the things you find when you aren’t looking for them; a single morel catches my eye. Normally I’d bag it, but I don’t think it will fare well after several hours of jostling alongside my camera in my pack.
Mile 2.5: Another Jordan River tributary flows through a sea of green ramps and new understory growth. I hesitate to get the camera out of the pack—it feels like I’m spending a lot of time photographing and I know I have a long way to go—but the scenery’s siren call is too strong. The air is clearer here, rivaling the pristine water. Those marsh marigolds and the clear sandy bottom sing a sublime spring song. I stow the camera for a bit and march on.
Mile 4.5: I’ve climbed out of the valley, yet feel even more embraced by the forest. Loving the layered spring textures; cerulean sky, chartreuse treetops, grey trunks, verdant floor.
Mile 06: A wooden fence signals my approach to Deadman’s Hill Overlook. I’m pleased to see this maple is every bit as lovely in the spring as the fall. The morning’s cheerful puffy clouds have given way to high wispy ones, promising a bluebird afternoon. Grasses, conifers, buds and fresh leaflets bring a surprising array of color to the river valley.
Mile 7.5: Following a long descent from Deadman’s Hill, I find myself intrigued by this bowl-shaped meadow full of trickling meltwater. The cedars, as they often do, remind me morels could be near. Maybe I should’ve picked that one a few miles back.
Mile 08: A sign indicates a view 0.1 miles away. I arrive at Beaver Pond and take my pack off. I eat, feed Petey and explore the boardwalk, which ends in a long footbridge that once spanned the pond. The blue-green water is a welcome surprise, like a secret treasure tucked under the cover of the surrounding valley.
Mile 9.5: At my personal mile 9.5 (not the trail marker), I am back in the exact same spot I was at mile 8! I’m at the landing on the same pond, looking back at the same boardwalk and broken bridge. It becomes obvious that at mile 8, after leaving the boardwalk and rejoining my pack and the trail, I got a little turned around, following old trail markers. I discover that instead of building a new bridge across the beaver dam, the trail markers decided to blaze a trail all the way around the pond. And I’d taken it … all the way around. Frustration builds. Seems like it would’ve been easier to build a new bridge than an entire section of trail. Perhaps I should have a snack. (Note: I’ve since re-done this hike in the fall, and some trail users had made a makeshift path over the beaver dam, and the pond has gone down some.)
Mile 11: Determined to break my negative mindset, I focus on the details. Trillium, spring beauties and a variety of violets all catch my attention. Then I stumble across a robins egg perched on a shelf of fungus. It tugs on my heartstrings because I realize this chick will never hatch, but I appreciate the beauty of the vignette regardless. I’ve been lallygagging, but it’s been worth it to refocus my attitude.
Mile 13: Downed logs, swift water and more marsh marigolds. Realizing how sow my last few miles have been, I’m reluctant to stop, but this perfect Jordan River fish habitat pulls me in. Petey enjoys a quick frolic before we take off at what I hope is a decent pace.
Mile 17: After crossing Pinney Bridge and making the steep climb away from the river, I feel like I’m almost back. I stop to admire a maple and a beech growing shoulder to shoulder in an interspecies relationship. Love is love. Petey also stops for the first time—all day—and waits patiently for me to photograph the scene.
Mile 18: Nothing like a sign to make you feel special. The North Country Trail is a footpath spanning about 4,600 miles across eight states (Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota), yet it only crosses the 45th Parallel here. The trail’s posts always make me feel connected to nature and adventure, but this sign, in particular, feels special.
Mile 20: Nineteen miles ticked in at 20 miles thanks to my unplanned beaver pond addition. After more than seven hours, I’m back to my starting point. I admire the view, standing in the hazy late afternoon sun, and then turn toward my car. I feel a sense of accomplishment, relief and gratitude. Also, I’m hungry.
What to Pack
Consider what your likely pace will be over 20 miles; somewhere between 2–3 mph is a decent estimate. Pack enough water and food for that amount of travel. I recommend something energy-and-nutrition-dense, but not heavy, like several RXBAR or Larabars. If it’s cold, you’ll want to warm these up near your body before eating because they harden significantly at low temperatures.
What to Wear
Dress in layers. I started in a synthetic tank top, a base layer and a down jacket with a hat and gloves. I ended up with the down layer and hat stowed, and the gloves on/off. I recommend waterproof shoes, as there are sections of the trail that remain muddy (real mud pits here) year-round. If your feet sweat, consider a change of socks. The trail is well marked and you can follow along on AllTrails with GPS, though I always conserve cell phone battery use in the wilderness and keep my phone off or in airplane mode when I’m not using it.
How to Get There
The Jordan Valley can be entered from several points. The best routes are from Mancelona. Drive eight miles north on M-66 to Pinney Bridge Road or 11 miles north of Mancelona on US-131 to Deadman’s Hill Road, turn left (west) and follow the signs about two miles to Deadman’s Hill Scenic Overlook. To get to Landslide Scenic Overlook, drive 1.5 miles west of Alba Harvey Road and north 1.5 miles. For more information on the North Country Trail contact the North Country Trail Association.
What to Know About a Jordan Valley Pathway Hike (Before You Go)
Moderate. Expect some hills—most of gradual ascent and descent.
Pinney Bridge State Forest Campground (also known as Penny Bridge, even on maps) conveniently sits at the midpoint of the 18-mile loop. Find 15 rustic campsites with picnic tables and fire rings, hand pump and vault toilets. Sites available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Don’t leave home without one—a good one. The best can be found at the DNR’s Gaylord Customer Service Center. The East Jordan Chamber of Commerce also offers maps, as well as information on guides and outfitters. Here is a map you can buy online.