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The 62-mile North Central State Trail offers a multiuse trail adventure into the hills, agricultural areas, woods, and waterways of Michigan, with connections to well-established tourist towns at both ends. For those seeking a longer adventure, the trail helps to make up the developing 2,000-plus-mile Iron Belle Trail, which stretches from Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula to Detroit.
From the northern end, the trail starts just south of the famed Mackinac Bridge spanning 5 miles across the Straits of Mackinac (pronounced “Mackinaw”) to join the Lower and Upper Peninsulas of Michigan. The trailhead offers parking, restrooms, and water and also serves as the northeast terminus for the 32-mile North Western State Trail to Petoskey.
Starting in Mackinaw and heading south, the trail is paved and well used for the first half mile, after which its surface turns to well-maintained crushed stone, and usage declines. The trail’s route is mostly flat throughout its length, even where there are rolling vistas.
Although the route parallels US 23 for the first 15 miles, it boasts the beautiful northern woods as its backdrop, where you’ll get to spot interesting birds as well as an occasional view of Lake Huron, to the east. Rail buffs may be interested in the remaining railroad tracks and historical markers along the trail, chronicling old rail towns. Snowmobiles use the trail in season, and trailside businesses cater to them.
Usage increases again as the trail reaches Cheboygan, at about mile 16. The Cheboygan trailhead offers parking, restrooms, water, picnic facilities, and an option to head southeast on the North Eastern State Trail just south of Lincoln Avenue. You can also detour off the trail here for food and beverage options. Those planning to continue south should fill their water bottles at the trailhead, as water is scarce between Cheboygan and Gaylord.
Continuing south from Cheboygan, you’ll pass through a popular section of trail that skirts Mullett Lake, a beautiful, 15-mile-long inland lake that stretches to Indian River. A highlight of this segment is the town of Topinabee, which has a public beach, park and playground, parking, and restrooms, as well as a library inside an old railroad depot. Nearby Indian River has restrooms, a market, covered picnic tables, a playground, and a train depot repurposed into a boutique.
Trail users should be extra-vigilant when crossing busy MI 68, south of Indian River, as the trail is located near an entrance ramp from I-75. South of Indian River, the trail feels more solitary and wildlife sightings increase; be on the lookout for turkey, deer, snakes, and frogs.
As you near the trail’s southern endpoint, you’ll pass a state forest campground and then a train depot in Wolverine. You’ll parallel I-75 between Wolverine and Vanderbilt, the final town along the route, after which the remote feel of the trail continues until its terminus in Gaylord.
To reach the northern trailhead in Mackinaw City from I-75 heading north, take Exit 338, and turn left onto S. Nicolet St. Take the first right onto Mackinaw Crossings Dr., and then turn left into the trailhead parking lot after you pass the North Central State Trail.
To reach the southern trailhead in Gaylord from I-75, take Exit 282 for MI 32 toward Gaylord/Alpena. Head east on MI 32/W. Main St., and then take the second left onto N. Ohio Ave. Go 1 mile, and turn right onto Fairview Road. Look for parking immediately to your right at the soccer fields. The trail endpoint starts just farther east.
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