20 Best Hiking Trails in Michigan

A local hiking expert and author selects his top trails in the state, from family-friendly to the toughest trail of all.
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Backpackers on the Minong Ridge Trail at Isle Royale National Park. // Photograph courtesy of Jim West / Alamy Stock Photo

I like to hike. Apparently, so do a lot of other people. In the past two years, we have discovered that a walk in the woods is the best path to safety and solace during this pandemic we’re in.

Despite being closed for two months in 2020, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore still set an attendance record for the year with more than 1,718,000 visitors, and in 2021, the park broke that record again when 1,723,000 people showed up. The park had a little dip in attendance last year but still had a hefty number of visitors at around 1,500,000. 

If Sleeping Bear Dunes isn’t an option for you, you still have quite a choice of trails closer to metro Detroit.

Michigan is home to more than 13,000 miles of state-designated trails, including 4,020 miles of footpaths. More mileage lies in our three national forests, five national parks, and countless county parks and nature preserves.

Here are my choices for the top trails in Michigan, no matter what kind of footpath you’re looking for. You might say I’ve been down that trail.


Best Day Hikes

Three longer trails lead you to some of Michigan’s most unusual scenery and history.
Silver Lake State Park - best hiking trails in michigan
Take a walk on top of a sand dune in Silver Lake State Park in Mears, near Ludington. // Photograph courtesy of Marek Kasula / Alamy Stock Photo

Escarpment Trail

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Ontonagon and Gogebic counties, Upper Peninsula 

This is the crowning jewel of trails not only in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park — our state’s largest and the only one with mountains in its name — but across all of Michigan. The Escarpment combines a high rocky bluff and alpine-like vistas of the rugged Porkies and the park’s centerpiece: Lake of the Clouds. Scattered along the way are remnants of the area’s copper mining history.

The only drawback is that the 4.4-mile Escarpment is a point-to-point trail (it starts and ends in different locations). There is a spur to return to M-107 after 2 miles, but it would be a shame to hike one of the most awe-inspiring trails in the Midwest and not finish it.

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

Mason Tract Pathway

George Mason River Retreat, near Roscommon

Auto magnate George Mason loved fly-fishing in the Au Sable River’s South Branch so much that he purchased 1,500 acres surrounding the trout stream and bequeathed it to the state upon his death. Paralleling the west bank of the South Branch in the Mason Tract is this 8.7-mile trail.

With trailheads on M-72 and Chase Bridge Road northeast of Roscommon, the pathway moves in and out of view of the river and passes numerous historical sites. The most famous is the remains of Durant Castle, a 54-room mansion with ties to the automaker who founded General Motors Co. Tackle the trail in early evening and you can watch trout feeding on hatching insects or, even better, an angler delicately casting to rising rainbows. 

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

Silver Lake Sand Dunes

Silver Lake State Park, Mears, south of Ludington

This state park is best known for sand buggies and the famous Mac Wood’s Dune Rides. But the majority of the park’s dunes comprise a large pedestrian area, where hikers follow ridges of open sand for more than a mile out to Lake Michigan. There’s not another hike like this in Michigan because no other stretch of dunes is so barren.

For many, the hike continues south along a wide and beautiful Lake Michigan beach for 2.4 miles to historic Little Sable Point Lighthouse. After an extended break, take the adventurous loop back through the open dunes to the pedestrian trailhead for a 7-mile day.

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com


Best Overnight Hikes

Trails where you can pitch a tent and spend an evening counting stars.
North Manitou Island
Bring your grub and gear and get ready to be entertained by nature on North Manitou Island, part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore. // Photograph courtesy of Michael Deemer / Alamy Stock Photo

Lakeshore Trail

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Alger County, Upper Peninsula

In one of Michigan’s most spectacular places, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, you can hike 42.4 miles between two towns: Grand Marais and Munising. This classic trail includes a lighthouse, shoreline shipwrecks, and colorful sandstone cliffs with waterfalls leaping into Lake Superior. Most backpackers spend four to five days trekking, with nights spent at backcountry campsites they reserve in advance. 

But Alger County Transit Authority — ALTRAN — will drop you off at various places along the trail to shorten the outing. Just don’t miss hiking around Grand Portal Point. Simply spectacular.  

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

North Manitou Island

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

You begin this adventure in Leland by boarding a ferry and crossing Manitou Passage to a 14,753-acre island in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. North Manitou is laced with 30 miles of trails, many of them old two-tracks that wind past historic buildings, logging camps, and other remnants of its intriguing past.

Arrive prepared; no services, lodging, or supplies are available on this wilderness island. Backpackers often spend three or more days camping on bluffs and beaches, where their evening entertainment is a fiery sunset dissolving into Lake Michigan followed by a shower of meteorites.

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

Manistee River Trail

Manistee National Forest, Mesick, between Frankfort and Cadillac

Just south of Mesick, the Manistee River flows uninhibited and free for 13 miles before encountering a road. Unmolested by bridges, cottages, or dams, this wild stretch of Michigan’s third-longest river appeals to hikers as much as paddlers. On the east side of the river lies this 11-mile trail that rarely strays away from a view of the water while passing more than 20 walk-up campsites. 

Backpackers then use Coates Highway to cross the river to a portion of the North Country National Scenic Trail. Together, the two trails form the most popular weekend backpacking trek in the Lower Peninsula, a 23-mile loop in Manistee National Forest.

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com


Best Family Hikes

These are easy and short interpretive trails with informational signs so your children can hike and learn.
Cottonwood Trail - best hiking trails in michigan
Cottonwood Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is relatively short and has stunning views. // Photograph courtesy of Pat & Chuck Blackley / Alamy Stock Photo

Ledges Trail

Fitzgerald County Park, Grand Ledge 

This 1/3-mile hike near Grand Ledge (just west of Lansing) was made for kids, combining an easy walk beneath ancient sedimentary outcroppings with a chance of seeing rock climbers in action. The trail begins in Fitzgerald County Park and skirts the Grand River along the base of the cliffs. Within a half-mile, you reach a good vantage point to watch those daredevil climbers across the river.

These ledges are the only place in the Lower Peninsula — other than climbing walls — where somebody can lace up a pair of rock shoes, dip their fingers into a chalk bag, and hit the cliffs. If climbers are out, wrap up this adventure by driving to the city of Grand Ledge’s Oak Park on the north side of the river to watch them up close tackling routes with names like Rocket Man and Second Thoughts.

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

Old Growth Forest Trail

Hartwick Pines State Park, just north of Grayling 

Michigan’s rich logging history is best seen along this 1.25-mile loop. Begin at the park’s visitor center, filled with kid-friendly, hands-on exhibits about Michigan’s amazing forests, and then head out the back door and start hiking.

The trail is best known for the 300-year-old white pines and hemlocks that tower above you. But tucked into the old-growth forest are a reconstructed logging camp, turn-of-the-century “big wheels” that lumberjacks used to transport the trees, and interpretive signs everywhere.

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

Cottonwood Trail

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Leelanau and Benzie counties

Taking Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive at Sleeping Bear Dunes with a hike along this 1.7-mile trail is the best way to see and learn about Michigan’s trademark sand dunes. There are interpretative brochures for the 7.4-mile road — with its amazing overlooks perched above Lake Michigan and the Cottonwood Trail (stop No. 4 on Scenic Drive) — that winds through the dramatic beauty of those shifting hills of open sand. 

The trail is short, but remember that trudging through soft sand can be tiring for little legs. Best to plan lunch at adjacent Picnic Mountain for after the hike.

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com


Top Trails in Southeast Michigan

Get details on the can’t-miss trails close to home. 
Bald Mountain Recreation Area
The tall pine trees in Bald Mountain Recreation Area provide a shady retreat from the summer heat. // Photograph courtesy of Steve Lagreca / Alamy Stock Photo

Bald Eagle and Blue Heron Loop

Crosswinds Marsh County Park, New Boston

Boardwalks and wetlands, Wayne County’s most interesting hike. 

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

Crooked Lake Trail

Pinckney Recreation Area, Pinckney

A 1,000-foot ridge that overlooks lakes and marshes is the highlight of this 5.1-mile loop.

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

Graham Lakes Trail

Bald Mountain Recreation Area Lake Orion

There’s no Bald Mountain, but there is this 3.6-mile loop past a half-dozen lakes.

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

Haven Hill Natural Area

Highland Recreation Area, White Lake

A 4.8-mile hike through the sanctuary where Edsel Ford escaped the pressures of being Henry Ford’s only son. 

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

Hickory Ridge Trail

Island Lake Recreation Area, Brighton

A 5-mile loop that includes three lakes and the Huron River. 

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

North Bay Trail

North Bay Park, Ypsilanti

Walk the water — because half of this 1.5-mile trail is composed of boardwalks and bridges on Ford Lake. 

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

Paint Creek Trail

Rochester

An 8.9-mile rail trail where you can listen to the gurgle of a trout stream or stop at a trailside cider mill.

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

Springlake Trail

Independence Oaks County Park, Clarkston

You’ll be amazed how rugged Oakland County can be on this 3.2-mile hike.

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

Wilderness Trail

Holly Recreation Area, Holly

This 5.2-mile loop is not wilderness, but it is an escape from the urban sprawl spreading toward Flint.

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com

Waterloo-Pinckney Trail

Waterloo and Pinckney Recreation areas

Our only backpacking trail, a 33.9-mile hike between Chelsea and Pinckney.

Learn how to get there: dnr.state.mi.us


Michigan’s Toughest Hike

Need we say more? This is for the adventurous.
Minong Ridge Trail - best hiking trails in michigan
View from the Minong Ridge Trail in Isle Royale National Park. // Photograph courtesy of Spring Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Minong Ridge Trail

Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior

This 29-mile trail is so remote that most backpackers need two days just to reach it in the middle of Isle Royale National Park. Carrying six days of food and fuel is a heavy price to pay to hike along a rocky ridge where the only indication you’re headed in the right direction is an occasional rock cairn.

For enduring sore shoulders and an occasional blister, your reward is frequent sightings of wildlife — especially moose — great views of Lake Superior and Canada, and fewer encounters with other hikers. In other words, true wilderness.

Learn how to get there: michigantrailmaps.com


Jim DuFresne is the author of 20 books, including Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails & Water Routes, 50 Hikes in Michigan, Backpacking in Michigan, and The Trails of M-22.


This story is from the July 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. It has been updated for the summer of 2023.