Hike, Camp and Be Enchanted by the Jordan Valley Pathway

Step along the Jordan Valley Pathway for a weekend away. The easy overnight hike heads over the river, through the woods and into the heart of the hills. But first, uh, get a good map.

Featured in the September 2009 issue of Traverse Magazine. Subscribe for more classics.

Anyone who has ever hiked a path or passed eighth-grade geometry might be wondering how one manages to get lost along the not-very-convoluted line of a circle. I’m wondering the very same thing.

I’d like to defend myself in saying that each of the large maps that were supposed to be standing along the trail, and which help make sense of the numbered posts on the trail, were missing. I’d also like to add that the Jordan Valley Pathway, marked by blue spray-painted dots on trailside trees, intersects with the North Country Trail, which also appears to be marked by blue spray-painted dots on trailside trees. Furthermore, the North Country Trail appears to break off into several offshoot trails.

Can I be certain of any of this? Absolutely not. Why? Because I had no map.

Wait. Check that. I had a map. But it was the kind of map you download from the Internet one minute after meeting a deadline for one story, and three minutes before dashing out the door to pack your backpack and hit the trail for your next story.

Thus: my map was a small map—8 1/2-by-11 inches because that’s the paper size in the office printer. My map was also a vague map—basically, the pathway was drawn as a single thin black line, sometimes dotted, sometimes solid—uninterrupted by contours, elevation changes or lines denoting other, intersecting paths.

And that was a shame—not only because it contributed to our being lost, but also because it in no way revealed the fact that the Jordan River Pathway, tucked in the northeast corner of Antrim County, and the valley through which it runs is a luscious, 18,000-acre wild landscape replete with elevation changes (aka ridges and hills) that serve up a couple of the most spectacular vistas in the Lower Peninsula. Nor did the feeble squiggle that stood for the Jordan River in any way hint at the cold, clear, cedar rimmed waterway that is so lovely it became the first Michigan river to obtain the federal designation of Wild and Scenic River. A real map, a beautifully rendered map or even a nice technically accurate one, can somehow suggest the spirit of a landscape, but the lame-o map that I chose revealed practically nothing.

In my lighter moments, I like to think my lax attitude toward maps speaks to an unbridled spirit for discovery. A love of spontaneity. An as-yet-unconfirmed remnant of Hernando de Soto’s DNA burbling around in my veins. But in my darker moments—those generally involving witnesses—I have to admit: my lax attitude toward maps is a problem.

I could bore you with dozen more tales like this. But that’s not the point. This is: I’ve always found my way out. Usually late. Sometimes only after heading back in. Often after turning in several circles. Never after asking directions. And always testing the patience of any who let me lead.

But I do find the way out. And clearly, as I sit here safely typing away, I live to tell the tale. So I feel kind of smug. Unless I’d gotten lost to begin with, what sort of tale would I have? And then, really, what kind of travel writer would I be?

With that in mind, I recommend a two-day hike on the Jordan Valley Pathway, and I do so with the same enthusiasm I felt when we came upon a marvelous view after climbing a hill out of the darkening woods just before sunset on day one of our hike. The hilltop, bathed in pink and gold light, looked as though it had cracked open the sky. A single bench sat under an awning of maple branches. For a few blissful minutes, my guy and I sat there together, cupped in the center of its sway-bottomed seat—hip to hip, hand in hand—watching the fingers of the fading sunbeams trickle across the treetops below.

Then my partner stood up. He had noticed there were no more blue dots on the trees. Was this our trail? He walked farther up the pathway. Came back. Retraced our steps back down the trail toward the woods. Came back again. “This isn’t the trail,” he said.

“I know,” I said, trying to sound concerned. We were lost.

What to Know Before You Go

Length of the Jordan Valley Pathway

18 miles

Difficulty

Moderate. Expect some hills—most of gradual ascent and descent.

Trailhead

Deadman’s Hill Scenic Overlook. Head two miles west on Deadman’s Hill Road (six miles north of Alba) from U.S. 131. Trailhead is at the north end of the overlook; trail end is at the south end along the fence line.

Camping

Pinney Bridge 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. 

Maps

Don’t leave home without one—a good one. The best can be found at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Gaylord Operations Service Center, (989-732-3541). The East Jordan Chamber of Commerce (231-536-7351) also offers maps, as well as information on guides and outfitters. MichiganTrailMaps.com has a map you can buy online.

Directions

The Jordan Valley can be entered from several points. Best routes are from Mancelona by driving eight miles north on M-66 to Pinney Bridge Road, or 11 miles north of Mancelona on US-131 to Deadman’s Hill Road. From the village of Alba, drive northeast on US-131 about six miles 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 ½ miles west of Alba to Harvey Road and north 1 ½ miles. For more information on the North Country Trail contact: North Country Trail Association.

The Cheat Sheet

If a two-day 18-miler with backpacks scares the bejeebers out of you, don’t assume the Jordan Valley Pathway is out of your league. You’ve got two other options to take advantage of this gem.

 Day Trip: A three-mile loop is available at the north end of the trail. Like its big 18-mile brother, it descends from and loops back to the Deadman’s Hill Scenic Overlook, and wends past wetlands full of wildlife, through the woods and near the river. After your hike, cruise by car directly to the awe-inspiring Landslide Overlook on Harvey Road.

Ultra-Light Overnight: A two-car team can make this 18-miler as footloose and backpack-free as a walk in the park. Simply park one car—and your heavy overnight gear—in the dusty lot linked to the hike-in-only 1/2–mile path to Pinney Bridge Campground (5.5 miles northwest of Alba via 620 and Cascade Road). Park the other car at the Deadman’s Hill Scenic Overlook trailhead. Just be sure to take along keys to the car at Pinney Bridge and any essentials—lunch, water, sunscreen, bug spray, rain gear—you’ll want while you’re hiking.

The Jordan River region is one of the truly wild spots in Northern Lower Michigan and a perfect spot for an overnight camping trip. This 18,000-acre portion of state-owned forest land in the upper, northeast corner of Antrim County is filled with wildlife and breathtaking scenery, as well as life in and around the Jordan River, Michigan’s first waterway to be officially designated as a Wild and Scenic River by the federal government.

There are a few different hiking trails, but the most notable is the 18-mile Jordan Valley Pathway that winds through a portion of the Mackinaw State Forest. Make the entire pathway your goal and pair it with overnight camping at one of the two state forest campgrounds located within the valley, the Pinney Bridge and the Graves Crossing campgrounds. Or choose one of several loops of the pathway, of varying lengths, for a lovely day hike. One such loop begins at Deadman’s Hill, offering a gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside and river floodplain. A second memorable vista is can be seen from the Landslide Overlook.

It’s important to note that Jordan Valley River hiking trails are moderate to rugged and may be poorly marked in spots. (See below for our best map suggestion—and bring it.) It’s a spectacular spot to visit any time, but it should be noted that because of the low, wet nature of this site, spring flooding is common in the floodplain. Black flies, deer flies and mosquitoes can be extremely numerous in spring and summer. Come prepared and you’ll be comfortable.