Having explored many parts of Michigan’s raw beauty, I have to say this is still one of my most favorite areas. It has everything: river views, forests, sandy bluffs, lake views, and even animal encounters.
There are many ways to explore this river trail. We explored it by foot on the Highbanks Trail and by car on the River Road Scenic Byway. In the summer, you can explore it by kayak or canoe when rental facilities open on Memorial Day weekend.
The Au Sable River
The Au Sable River is 138 miles long and stretches horizontally across the state of Michigan from Grayling to Oscoda. One of the beautiful things about the river is that it dead-ends into Lake Huron, making it a very scenic area to view both different and equally beautiful bodies of water.
There are many parks and areas to explore this 138-mile-long river, but we were exploring it right before it dead-ends into Lake Huron in the Oscoda area.
Hiking on the Highbanks Trail
The Highbanks Trail is located within the Huron-Manistee National Forest. The trail is 7-miles long but does not go in a loop. If you plan to hike the entire trail, plan on a 14-mile round trip hike. The USDA Forest Service has an interactive map on its website.
One of the most popular parts of the hike is Lumberman’s Monument. I’ve written about that stretch of the hike here if you’re interested in hiking that part. Since we’ve explored that area extensively, we wanted to check out the other parts of the trail.
We hiked a portion of the trail, starting at Iargo Springs. Once we arrived at the parking lot of Iargo Springs, we walked up the paved path to an overlook of the Au Sable River. There were bathrooms and an informational kiosk here with more details about the trail.
Although the entrance of the trail has a box for maps, there were no maps when we were there. The trail is very easy to follow, so I’m not sure you need a map. (And this is coming from someone who is very directionally challenged and has a hard time reading maps.)
The hike is mostly flat and easy to hike. We hiked through the forest with lots of tall trees, and sand beneath our feet. Every few minutes, we were greeted with an opportunity to view the river through the trees. There were many opportunities to see both the forest and river, even though the trail mostly runs through the forest. This is because the trail is on the bluff.
At the start of the hike, there are informational signs about the different flora and fauna. (And, of course, information on invasive species.)
In addition to encountering many birds, ducks, and bugs on the trail, we also encountered a snake on the trail. I would have gotten a photograph, but I was too busy hyperventilating.
We thought it was a water snake, and they appeared to be sunning themselves until we rudely interrupted them. The 2-foot snake scurried away quickly as we both screamed and gained our composure.
Other than being scared out of my mind, it was a beautiful hike and I highly recommend hiking any or all of the 7-mile trail. You can’t beat the views. (And you won’t beat the snakes. Those babies are fast.)
Driving Along the Au Sable River on the River Road Scenic Byway
In addition to hiking, a great way to explore this area is by car. We brought our new Bronco with an open-top (Detroit pride!) which enhanced the smells and sights driving along the scenic byway.
With or without an open-top vehicle, be sure to roll the windows down and take in the fresh Michigan air.
The 22-mile River Road Scenic Byway is a great way to see the views down along the river. Some of the views rivaled what we saw in Isle Royale this past summer. Clear, dark blue water, green trees, birds, and sand.
The U.S. Department of Transportation provides a map on its website (as well as an overview, directions, and photographs of the byway).
We started the drive at Iargo Springs after we finished hiking. It’s a very easy route to follow, and you can stop wherever you want. Some natural places to stop that are marked on the map include Iargo Springs, Canoers Memorial, Lumberman’s Monument and Footponde Overlook.
Canoers Memorial is a great stop along the byway to view the Au Sable River. Pictures don’t really do this view justice, but it really is beautiful. You can also see boaters from here.
It’s named Canoers Memorial because it has a memorial to honor canoers who have participated in the Au Sable River Canoe Race.
There are also so many opportunities along the byway to camp, hike, boat, and even take a river cruise.
The Au Sable River Queen is a popular thing to do in the summer. It’s a double-decker, authentic paddlewheel river boat. We did it a few summers back, and it was a little too busy and kitschy for our taste. The river views are wonderful, though.
Cooke Pond Primitive Campsite
We stopped by the Cooke Pond Primitive campsite ground, which had a short walk down to the river, and offered some great views.
The camp is open April through November, so depending on the weather, it would be enjoyable in the spring, summer, and fall. The firepits are directly next to the river, so this would be a really scenic place to camp.
One of my favorite stops is Foote Dam. You’ll see people bringing their boats in and out of the water here (which is where you’d pick up a canoe or kayak rental) and a small dock where people fish.
I like the views here, and if you like to watch boats, it’s a great place to do that.
My biggest tip for enjoying the drive is to actually enjoy it. Take your time. Whenever we’d see a view we liked, we just pulled over. There are so many places you could picnic, or have a snack and watch the water.
Even though Lake Huron is so close and has a beautiful body of water, the Au Sable River is clear and deep blue and its views are equally enjoyable.
You have so many options to explore this area, and you can’t really choose poorly. I highly recommend a visit to Oscoda for some great views of a river. (And maybe you’ll see a snake, too!)