The Jordan Valley Pathway (aka Jordan River Pathway) is a popular backpacking destination in Michigan due to its challenging terrain, scenic overlooks, and ability to be completed as an overnight hike.
While I had day hiked sections of the trail during the fall and winter last year as I was working towards my Hike 100 patch for the North Country Trail Association, I was quite pumped to actually be backpacking the loop in its entirety for the first time.
Joining me for the trip was my friend Amanda, a first time backpacker, as well as her sister Kelli, who planned to day hike along the trail with us and then head home once we reached camp.
My friends an I arrived at the trailhead at 9:00 A.M. with fresh legs, full packs, and a dose of excitement.
We began our hike at Deadman’s Hill which, according to legend, was named after a lumberjack who was killed here in a logging accident during the 1910s. A sign near the trailhead tells his story.
The scenic overlook offers an expansive view of the Jordan River Valley.
After taking a few moments to admire the view, we made our way into the woods for what would become several very muddy miles through the woods along the DNR side of the pathway.
Although the weather forecast had only predicted a 20% chance of rain for the weekend, the skies opened up about two miles into the hike.
The trail wound its way into a forest of maples still holding onto their green leaves, up and down a series of rolling hills, across a small foot bridge, and eventually, spilled out into a beautiful meadow.
After a little over six very muddy miles, we finally made it to the Landslide Overlook and decided to stop for lunch.
By this point the rain had let up, offering us a few moments of golden sunshine while we ate the snacks we had packed the night before and took off our squishy shoes to allow our feet to dry.
After taking nearly an hour to relax and enjoy the view, we were back on the trail.
After a series of pointless up-and-downs over muddy terrain, as well as a few quaint little footbridges, we descended a long staircase to the bottom of the valley and came upon quite the scene.
Sunbeams peaked through the trees of the old growth forest and shone down through the mist that rose from the clear stream that trickled its way along the forest floor.
If you know me, you know that I am certainly NOT an “everything happens for a reason” person. That said, it was in this moment I realized that had it not poured rain on us for four-and-a-half straight miles, we would have never seen the “godrays” shining down upon that stream.
You see, in my experience, the rules for surviving Zombieland also apply to hiking. “Enjoy the Little Things” is Zombieland Rule # 32, and it’s an important one to remember. On a backpacking trip, things will be difficult and things will go wrong, but this is how one is able to learn and grow. The best way to get through the challenging stretches is to stop and actually take a few moments to appreciate all the beautiful things along the way so you can remember why you’re there.
After taking a few more moments to enjoy the view we had stumbled upon, I decided it was time for us to head out and finish the last couple miles before camp.
Along the way we encountered a group of volunteers from the North Country Trail Association who were out performing trail maintenance on some of the planks along the trail, thanked them for the work they were doing, and kept hiking.
Our next point of interest was the 45th Parallel, or the halfway point between the equator and the north pole.
We snapped a couple of photos, signed the trail register, and continued onward through a few more sections of forest and another grassy meadow.
I like to joke that in backpacking there is almost always one final “screw you” along the trail before you reach the end of your hike for the day, and on this day, the trail did not disappoint.
When we reached Pinney Bridge, we discovered that the trail was completely flooded for a small stretch. Fortunately (I guess), our shoes were already wet from a long day of hiking through a thunderstorm, and we were close to camp, so there was zero point in changing into flip flops to navigate the small “water crossing”.
After climbing up one last hill, we finally reached the Pinney Bridge Campground, which happened to be quite full of other campers.
Happily, I dropped my pack onto the ground and looked down at my watch. We had covered almost 11 miles through muddy terrain with nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain.
As we began setting up and getting ready to settle in for the evening, Matt met us at our camp to swap out Kelli for Patronus. (Being able to join us for a backpacking trip made Patronus’ day, in case you were wondering.)
As I crawled into my tent to unpack the rest of my gear, I discovered that there had been a hole in the waterproof bag I had stored my sleep system in, causing my sleeping bag and pillow to become soaked in the rain storm. (Lesson Learned: Always check your gear for holes before heading out on a backpacking trip!)
Long story short, Matt returned to our camp and swapped out my waterlogged sleeping bag for his sleeping bag. Thankfully, I would have a dry bag to sleep in for the night, and Patronus would not have to share his blanket with me. Crisis averted!
As evening rolled around, I was not feeling particularly great. I had a Snickers bar and a can of Amanda’s pinot grigio for dinner just to get some food into me while Patronus at his dog food. Suddently, it began to rain (again).
The three of us crawled into my tent and hung around talking for a couple hours until the rain finally let up and we were able to stash the bear canister away from our campsite and head off to bed.
The next morning, Amanda went and got the bear canister while Patronus and I lazily stumbled out of bed. We sat together at our picnic table and had a lovely breakfast of Pop Tarts and water (and a Nuun tablet for me), offered Patronus some breakfast as well, filled up our bottles at the water pump, and began the long task of breaking down our camp.
After two hours we were finally awake, packed up, and ready to hit the trail.
Early on into the day’s nearly 9 mile hike, we were treated to one more expansive view of the Jordan River Valley.
From there, the Jordan Valley Pathway / NCT made its way over hilly terrain as we climbed in and out of the valley and navigated our way through forests, swamps, and meadows.
We stopped for lunch (and our final break before finishing the trail) at one of my favorite parts of the loop.
Amanda and I took off our shoes one last time, pulled out the foam sleeping pad she had borrowed from me before the hike, and sat down to admire the fall foliage and have a snack. Patronus laid upon a shaded patch of dirt on the ground beside us and took a nap.
Although this was the longest hike I had ever taken Patronus on at this point, he seemed to enjoy every single minute of it.
After a half and hour or so of rest, it was finally time to make our way through the slippery wooden planks that covered the final, muddy stretch of wetland.
This was the area of the trail where I had seen bear tracks on a winter day hike last year, so we were extra careful to make lots of noise so not to surprise any unsuspecting wildlife.
Just as we had finally settled back into a comfortable pace, it began to rain. (Yes, again.)
I scrambled to put my camera away while Amanda hurriedly put on her rain coat. Thankfully, there were only about 1.5 miles left to go!
The final stretch was a series of uneven, rolling, rooted hills and wooden beams that made us really have to watch our footing, but overall it was not too difficult to navigate.
The rain had mostly let up by the time we reached our final post. With wet packs and tired legs, we climbed the long ascent out of the valley and back up to the top of Deadman’s Hill.
At last we had completed the trail!
After making our way through the packing lot and back to my car, I looked down at my watch to see the day’s stats. We had hiked just under 9 miles with 2,638 feet of elevation gain. Pretty good for Michigan!
Although the trail had its ups and downs (both literally and figuratively), overall it was a great experience and a fantastic trail to backpack, especially at this time of year.
In the end I was able to check one more “goal hike” off my bucket list, Patronus earned himself a shiny new mileage PR, and Amanda completed her first backpacking trip (and first longer-distance day hike).
All in all it was a weekend well-spent.