Backpacking the Potawatomi Trail


The Potowatomi Trail is a beloved destination for hikers, backpackers, trail runners, and cyclists, offering over 17 miles of hilly trails in a quiet area of southeast Michigan.

Ironically, when you look at it on the map it appears as if you’re going through Hell [Michigan].  Admittedly, unless you’re in superhuman physical condition, some sections of it feel like you’re going through hell, too.

In his book Backpacking in Michigan, Jim DeFresne rates the difficulty level of the Potowatomi Trail–”The Poto” for short–as moderate to challenging.

After having so much fun on my trip to South Manitou Island last fall with my friends Megan and Erin, the three of us decided to plan an overnight trip along the Poto from April 13-14 to help us get into shape for some longer hikes later this year.

Despite the fact that I have been hiking pretty consistently all year (check out my winter report if you’re interested), I was a little bit nervous about heading out on a backpacking trip with my hand in a cast.

(For those who might be wondering, I tripped over some uneven concrete while I was out running and fractured a bone in my hand.  If you enjoy looking at gross things, I’ve uploaded a couple of pictures here.)

I was still getting used to doing everything one-handed, so a hike in double digit miles over hilly terrain didn’t exactly seem easy.  As it turns out, I was pretty much right.

Day One: 10.8 Miles

It was sunny and in the low 50s when Megan and I pulled into the parking lot on Saturday afternoon.  Erin hadn’t quite reached the park yet, so after checking in, we decided to stop in the lower parking lot to hit up the outhouse.

Nobody was really around, so when it was time for my turn, I decided to take advantage of it.  After all, the park would have no other restrooms until we reached camp at the end of a long day, and I would be hiking with a pack on and full use of only one hand.

Unbeknownst to me, a random group of kids appeared out of nowhere.  My entire bathroom break was pretty much spent yelling at kids for continuously knocking and pulling on the door while their mothers did nothing and Megan repeated over and over that the outhouse was occupied.

My annoyance level was pretty high by the time I was done, but thankfully by that time Erin had arrived and it was time to begin our hike.

The three of us got our packs situated and made our way to the trailhead alongside Silver Lake.  Our path skirted the lake, then made its way into the woods over rocky, sandy, rolling hills.

Somewhere around Mile 2.5, where the Poto splits off from the Crooked Lake Trail, my hand started to swell.  The doctor told me to elevate it if this happened, so I pretty much spent the next 8 miles walking with a trekking pole in one hand and my other hand raised in the air, looking like an awkward dork.  Consequently, I did not manage to get many photos on my own this time around.

Eventually we came to a road crossing that indicated there was a shortcut to the campground that would knock 3 or 4 miles off our hike.  I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t slightly tempting, but we were there to train for longer hiking days, so we continued onward.

The trail snaked around through the woods, passed a few homes, and eventually came to another road crossing, followed by a small pond-like body of water called Gosling Lake.

There was nothing particularly interesting to look at during this section of the hike.  It was mainly just a series of pointless up-and-downs.

When we reached our final road crossing before the trail turned towards the direction of camp (just after Mile 6), we decided to take a break so Megan could treat some hot spots on her feet and I could fix the gross Band Aid on my knee.

We sat for a moment on the side of the road snacking on cinnamon bears, jelly beans, and water, then debated whether we wanted to take advantage of our last chance at a shortcut or keep going.  Despite our tired feet, we kept going.

The trail made its way into a forest of gnarled old trees, curved around, then ran along a tall chain link fence until reaching the quiet road we had crossed when we took our break.

Miles 7 and 8 were probably my favorite section of the day’s hike.  Although my feet, legs, butt, and arm were all pretty much beginning to be over hiking by this point, there was a climb that offered a nice view overlooking Gosling Lake, where we were serenaded by a chorus of frogs.

Mile 9 seemed to drag on forever.  After trudging through a seemingly endless section of trees we came to a tall foot bridge which, admittedly, looked pretty cool.  After crossing it, we came to what was probably the most torturous part of the entire day.  This area of the trail seemed to wind up a seemingly endless hill full of roots.

We continued on past a boy scout camp and another road until we finally saw the large wooden sign for the Blind Lake Campground.

The campground was full of other campers, many of which were boy scouts who had come to hike the Poto to train for a future trip to Isle Royale.

By the time we actually got to camp the sun was beginning to set, so we made quick work of getting our tent set up.

Finally, after 10.8 miles of hiking and getting all of our camp chores done, we were able to take off our boots, put on our comfy sleep clothes, and enjoy some dinner.  We had plans to stay up late and hang out, but by the time 10:00 P.M. or so hit we were all cold and tired and sore and wanted nothing more than to crawl into our sleeping bags and settle in for a solid night of rest.

Potawatomi Trail Pinckney, MI

Day Two: 5 Miles

In the morning we awoke to the sound of raindrops on our tent and a small pile of snow outside the vestibule.

By the time we finally mustered up the courage to crawl out of our sleeping bags, all of the other campers had already packed up and hiked out.

According to the weather report, it was 37 degrees with light rain, with heavier rain forecasted for later in the afternoon.  Since we only had about a 5 mile hike out to get back to our cars, we collectively decided to forego breakfast and coffee in favor of heading out sooner.

The hike out had us a little worried because there was a section on the map labeled “serious hills”, but fortunately, none of them turned out to actually be anything worse than what we had encountered the day before.

I did manage to trip over one of the “serious hills” and fall, but thankfully, my cast actually protected my arm from taking any damage.

We hiked over a lot of tiny foot bridges, did a few more hills, and eventually found ourselves on the other side of Crooked Lake.  We were almost done!

Since it was raining, I had to spend the entire  morning hiking with a bag over my hand to protect my cast from getting wet.  Rather than attempt to hide how stupid I looked, I decided just to go for it.

Although hiking in the cool, rainy weather wasn’t actually unpleasant, we eventually grew hungry and tired and ready to be done.  We decided to take a shortcut out.

We stopped at the stone fireplace since Megan hadn’t day hiked in the park to see yet, and met a guy named Sam Boyd who was practicing photography.  We talked to him for a bit and he offered to take some pictures for us.

Pinckney Recreation Area Backpacking

Root Cellar Pinckney Recreation Area

Since my camera was packed away in my backpack to prevent it from getting wet, and attempting to take pictures with a trekking pole in one hand and a cast on the other proved to be quite annoying anyway, this was most welcome.

After about one more mile of hiking, we reached the parking lot at last!  Unfortunately the trail ended in the lower parking lot, and our cars were in the upper lot, so we still had one last uphill climb to do.

When we reached our cars, we took a few moments to talk about the hike, have a snack, and get our gear situated before loading up our vehicles and heading home.


Hike Details:

Trail Distance: 17.5 Miles w/ Multiple Optional Shortcuts
Difficulty: Moderate to Challenging
Highlights: Inland Lakes, Hills, Camping
Map:  Michigan DNR

If you’re interested in finding out what gear I use on my hikes and backpacking trips, you can find that information here.


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