For those living in Michigan, “up-north” has long been the weekend getaway for residents of the more urban settings stretching from Detroit to Grand Rapids. The debate about where “up-north” actually begins has been unending for years. Some say just north of Grand Rapids, others say not until you’re north of the Mackinaw Bridge.
For me, “up-north” begins in Newaygo, just south of Baldwin. Newaygo is a sleepy little town on the Muskegon River and the gateway to the Manistee National Forest. M-37 is a two lane highway that takes you on a scenic tour of rustic small towns dotting the map all the way to Traverse Bay.
For Jeep enthusiasts, this is also the gateway to some of the most unique offroading that Michigan has to offer. If you’re an offroad aficionado in Michigan, you’ve heard of towns such as Baldwin and Irons, two of the most popular areas to kick off your Jeep excursion in the Manistee National Forest.
Unlike other trail systems in the United States, Michigan has more than 6,000 miles of national forest roads that are open to ORV and highway vehicles usage. Just recently, Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources has opened more forest roads to ORV use, boosting ORV tourism Michigan. It just so happens that the Manistee National Forest is the closest national forest to civilization, otherwise known as, Grand Rapids.
Kicking off in Baldwin, only 88 miles from Grand Rapids, we hit the Little Manistee South ORV Route right away. Winding through dense hardwood forest and tall Red Pines, is 43 miles of soft trail, more than 12 feet wide in most spots. A hot spot for ATV’s and side-by-sides, the trail can be busy on weekends.
Nonetheless, with a cautious eye and easy throttle, enjoying the picturesque ride through one of Michigan’s timbered gems is nothing to complain about. High berm turns and rutted trails mix fun with technical skill. It offers fun for the experienced offroad driver and especially for the passenger, posing unification of excitement and serenity.
If you want to get away from the crowds of the ORV trail system, the next best thing to traveling four hours north to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is forest roads. Hundreds of miles of forest roads run like veins through Manistee National Forest. You could drive for hours without spotting another pair of headlights through the abundant foliage enveloping the forest floor.
Even though forest roads split off in multiple directions at junctions deep in the forest, it’s almost impossible to get lost in the national forest. Eventually, you’re going to run into a highway system. US-31 and M-37 border the national forest east and west, while M-55 borders it to the north. Within the national forest are rustic little towns, offering Michigan’s finest food and fuel. Just make sure you top off on both before venturing deep into the forest.
We traveled the forest roads of Manistee National Forest in a Jeep Gladiator, a pretty large offroad rig on 37’s. We only encountered one hurdle in my exploration, two tree’s choking the trail, not nearly wide enough for the fender flares of the Gladiator to squeeze through. We had to reverse three-quarters of a mile to a spot big enough to pull off a 3-point turn.
However, we found some of the most relaxing, challenging, and entertaining offroading that we’ve faced in a very long time. With the inability to get lost, you can literally drive where the trail takes you, without a care in the world.