Out, See, Go: My picks for colorful hikes and drives

By Chris Engle, contributor

One thing that’s always amazed me about Gaylord is how I can drive 10 minutes in almost any direction and go from city to country to wilderness in that short window of time.

Sometimes it’s even less.

Here’s a great example: The Alpine Soccer Complex is a huge expanse of manicured turf on Ohio Avenue, one of Gaylord’s busiest side streets. It hosts huge tournaments and regular scrimmages and is a stone’s throw from our hospital and St. Mary Cathedral, the heart of the Catholic diocese for Northern Michigan.

But drive north past the complex and Ohio Avenue abruptly turns into Morgan Road. Soccer fields and residential streets give way to farmland and groves of trees. City water towers become silos and barns.

It’s also the back way to Vanderbilt and the Pigeon River Country State Forest which I learned when my friend’s dad, who coincidentally lives just off Ohio Avenue, took this way on one of my first fishing trips to the Pigeon. Now I have a bit of a special attachment to this route.

Which brings me to my next point: This is the time of year when we’re all scrambling to fit in a colorful drive or hike on a weekend or after work. Thankfully, with Gaylord’s proximity to some great back roads and foot trails, we don’t have to drive an hour just to get somewhere to drive some more.

So here’s my list of great hikes and drives, ranked in order from closest and easiest to farthest and hardest, keeping in mind they’re all within a stone’s throw of Gaylord.

Five Lakes Natural Area

Location: Five Lakes Road, off Murner Road or North Townline Road, 10-15 minutes from Gaylord.

Specifications: 1.1 miles of gentle, narrow trails.

Of all the area around Five Lakes, this nature area is the only public access. It is owned by Gaylord Community Schools and maintained by the Otsego Conservation District as a public place to view wildlife and native plants.

A long dock extends into one of the lakes to offer glimpses of frogs and fish and a beautiful panoramic view of the lake.

More about the nature area can be found here.

Pine Baron Pathway

Location: At the end of Lone Pine Road, off Old Alba Road, 10 minutes from Gaylord.

Specs: Clover-shaped network of trail loops, each about 2 miles long. Two-track trail with gentle inclines is good for walking and biking. Off-road baby stroller friendly.

This is my favorite local hiking trail year round but the best part about this pathway in fall is all the colorful mushrooms.

The hiking/skiing pathway is maintained by the Department of Natural Resources and is as much a logging area as it is a recreational area. Massive stumps line the pathway in some spots as a monument to the historic use of the place. It’s still actively cut each year which generates new growth for upland birds and new stumps for the dozens of mushroom varieties which grow there.

Sturgeon River Preserve

Location: Whitmarsh Road, off Old 27 North, where the road crosses the river.15-20 minutes from Gaylord

Specs: Two short trail loops on 40 acres. The trail is steepest at its entrance.

This is the newest member to the family of hiking trails in the Gaylord area. It was purchased in 2011 from a private landowner and donated to Gaylord-based HeadWaters Land Conservancy with the intent to make it into a public preserve.

Volunteers have been working to build the trails which meander through hilly and rugged country near the river. The trail purposefully steered clear of the fast-flowing Sturgeon River to avoid problems with erosion and damage to aquatic habitat, but the river can be viewed from the roadway and a short stretch of the trial.

A sign at the entrance pays homage to the late “Rusty” Gates, owner of Gates AuSable Lodge and founder of Anglers of the AuSable who was also known to venture north and fish the Sturgeon River.

Just driving here is pretty in itself because of the rolling hills and thick forests of maple trees.

Deadman’s Hill Overlook and Jordan River Pathway

Location: At the end of Deadman’s Hill Road, off US-131, about 4 miles south of M-32 in Elmira. 20-25 minutes from Gaylord.

Specs: 100-yard walk up gentle incline to overlook area. There is also a 3-mile trail loop over steep terrain into and out of the valley, an 18-mile loop for 2-day hikes, and a 1-hour scenic drive through the valley. Outhouse available at overlook.

The overlook is one of the most popular sightseeing destinations in the area because of its unmatched view looking west over the 18,000 acre Jordan River Valley. Even so, there’s plenty of room for everyone to take pictures and soak in the sights.

The trail runs south along the ridge offering a few different vantage points to those who want an easy out-and-back hike of about a mile or so. The 3-mile loop requires commitment, with good shoes, a bottle of water and at least a few hours before sunset. It gets dark fast in the valley.

If you want to see the entire valley by car, Jordan River Road meanders through the whole thing. Get on the dirt road off US-131 just south of Elmira and take it deep into the valley. Good tires and smart driving is helpful in some sandy spots at the beginning.

You’ll have at least three or four good spots to get out and see the river, including the first spot where the river practically pours out from the base of the hill. That is the origin of the river which eventually ends 25 miles away in East Jordan.

Before you leave the valley make sure to stop at the Jordan River National Fish Hatchery which is free and open to the public. The raceway houses are open for viewing some of the 2 million lake trout reared there annually.

That should be enough to get you started. If all else fails get yourself a good map, a tank of gas and a bag of snacks, and go find your own favorite spot.

— Chris Engle is a stay-at-home dad, an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Herald Times. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.