Looking for a new trail to travel in Northern Michigan? Check out the scenic North Central State Trail running through from Gaylord to Mackinac City.
With its rushing rivers, lush forest landscapes, scenic waterfalls, and breathtaking nature landmarks, Michigan is a paradise for those who love being outdoors. One of the best ways to enjoy and appreciate the state’s beauty is on a nature hike, and the North Central State Trail is one of the best.
This 60+ mile northern Michigan route allows travelers to soak up scenic views, travel through quaint small towns, and connect with nature on the way to the northernmost parts of the Lower Peninsula.
Getting to Know the North Central State Trail
The North Central State Trail (NCST) spans 62 miles, taking adventurers northward from Gaylord to Mackinaw City while virtually running parallel to I-75. The trail also services the nearby towns of Indian River, Vanderbilt, and Cheboygan.
Named by Rails to Trails Conservancy as one of the nation’s top five autumn destinations in 2008, the NCST connects to the North Western State Trail (NWST) via Mackinaw City and the North Eastern State Trail (NEST) via Cheboygan.
The NCST makes up what was once the northernmost section of the Michigan Central Railroad, a Detroit-based railway that once ran locally around Mackinaw City, spurred partly by a booming timber industry.
From the early 1880s to the early 1960s, the northernmost section of the railway serviced Mackinaw City and other points in northern Michigan. North of Mackinac City, freight and passengers were transferred onto car ferries, helping to extend rail service into the Upper Peninsula.
The opening of the Mackinac Bridge in 1957 lessened the importance of trains in the region, and the spur line ceased operations in the 1980s, eventually becoming a trail.
Traversing the North Central State Trail
Trail trekkers can access the NCST in more than half a dozen cities/villages as they travel northward. All but one have parking and bathroom facilities, making it easy for travelers to stop and rest. The trail is open year-round to all non-motorized users, including horseback riders, and to snowmobiles from December 1st to March 31st.
The trail is part of the Iron Belle Trail bike trail that stretches from the Upper Peninsula to Detroit. Among Michiganders and Midwesterners alike, the NCST is a premier destination for cycling. Its flat terrain of mainly crushed limestone and only slight elevation change makes for an easy, comfortable ride.
The trail’s mile markers follow the historical numbering of the Michigan Central Railroad, stretching from Bay City to Mackinaw City. Mile marker 121 is located north of Gaylord, while mile marker 181 can be found south of Mackinaw City.
The access points and the approximate distances between trail towns are as follows:
Gaylord to Vanderbilt (8.4 miles)
The NCST trailhead is in downtown Gaylord at 360 W. Main St. The trail follows a rail line and an abandoned rail corridor before travelers journey into the Otsego County highlands.
Vanderbilt to Wolverine (11 miles)
This stretch of trail is very scenic and crosses along E. Main Street. It offers excellent opportunities for birding at Stewart’s Creek Marsh. Travelers cross the Sturgeon River before heading into Wolverine.
Wolverine to Indian River (11 miles)
Travelers can visit one of two parks located between the trail and the Sturgeon River, which both have amenities. Wolverine has a few places to stop, including a general store and a canoe/kayak livery.
The trail continues through the Sturgeon River Valley, including the Haakwood State Forest Campground, a comfortable place for a short stay.
Indian River to Cheboygan (19 miles)
Travelers on the NCST can cross the Indian River, take a photo next to the historic Indian Totem, and head toward the shore of Mullett Lake. Travelers are treated to scenic views going through Topinabee and can stop to enjoy some time at the beach at the trailhead for Topinabee.
The route for the NCST continues for about six miles along Mullett Lake, allowing travelers to enjoy excellent views, meander through resort communities, and head toward Cheboygan along M-27.
Cheboygan to Mackinaw City (16 miles)
The NCST trailhead in Cheboygan is between Lincoln Avenue and Taylor Street. Travelers will find restrooms, trailer/RV spots, parking, and a pavilion. Continuing north for a short distance and following the bike route along Division Street takes travelers downtown.
Approximately halfway along the route, there’s a short connector trail to an MDOT park situated on Lake Huron. This park features basic amenities like pit toilets, water facilities, and picnic tables. It serves as an ideal spot for a break, offering a stunning view of the Mackinac Bridge right from the shoreline.
The Mackinaw City trailhead is on Mackinaw Crossings Drive east of Nicolet Street, where parking, restrooms, a pavilion, and water are available. Heading southwest from the trailhead takes travelers toward the North Western State Trail.
Located north of Saginaw on I-75, Gaylord is the ideal “midway point” of Northern Michigan and the perfect spot to explore on a getaway.
Known by some as Michigan’s Alpine Village, downtown Gaylord offers plenty of space for walking and shopping. Downtown options include a chocolate shop, a hobby shop, a bookstore, and clothing shops.
The Call of the Wild Museum is a hidden gem, which includes a unique museum, a go-kart track, and a mini-golf course. The museum features a dazzling array of taxidermy animals, and the auditory calls of the animals add something special to the experience.
Golf enthusiasts can take a detour to play a round at Treetops Resort. This top-notch resort caters to golfers of all skill levels and offers five courses to play, including a par-3 course. The resort is considered one of the top spots in the state to play, and the views are incredible.
As a gateway to areas of Michigan in all directions, Gaylord has plenty of chain and locally-owned restaurants to refuel hungry customers on the go.
Nestled amidst the picturesque landscape of northern Michigan, Vanderbilt offers a tranquil setting for anyone who visits. The area’s scenic beauty and peaceful atmosphere make it a desirable destination for those seeking a retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life.
The village is known for its small-town charm, friendly community, and access to outdoor recreational activities. With its proximity to natural attractions such as Pigeon River Country State Forest and Sturgeon River, Vanderbilt provides ample chances for hiking, fishing, and wildlife observation.
Hungry travelers looking to take a break can visit one of several Vanderbilt eateries serving everything from pizza to bar favorites to sandwiches.
Surrounded by lush forests and nestled along the Sturgeon River, Wolverine offers a serene escape for nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers.
The village exudes a peaceful, small-town ambiance with its charming downtown area and friendly community. Outdoor activities like fishing, kayaking, and hiking are popular among locals and visitors alike, inviting nature enthusiasts to explore the surrounding natural splendor.
The peaceful, small-town ambiance travelers feel when visiting Wolverine can be seen in its restaurants, which offer sweet treats and mouth-watering meals.
Situated along the picturesque Indian River and Burt Lake, the area is a haven for water enthusiasts, with chances for boating, fishing, and waterfront relaxation.
The village exudes welcoming small-town charm, with a vibrant downtown area and a strong sense of community. The tranquil setting in Indian River and its proximity to natural attractions make it an ideal destination for those seeking a peaceful retreat in the heart of northern Michigan, where the beauty of the outdoors seamlessly blends with small-town hospitality.
Fans of unique attractions should take the opportunity to visit the Cross in the Woods Catholic Shrine of Indian River. Such an impressive display routinely draws tourists of different religious backgrounds. The world’s second-largest crucifix is the main attraction — an enormous redwood piece that towers 55 feet above the national shrine.
The sculpture of Jesus is made of bronze, stretching 28 feet from top to bottom and weighing 7 tons.
The grounds also include the Nun Doll Museum — a collection of 525 dolls dressed in various religious attire.
Indian River Restaurants
After soaking up the beautiful Indian River scenery, travelers of all ages have plentiful options when they want to sit down for a delicious meal. Some of the local options include:
Situated along the shores of Mullett Lake, Topinabee offers a picturesque waterfront setting that adds to the enjoyment of traversing the trail.
With its small-town charm and friendly community, Topinabee provides a welcoming retreat for those seeking a peaceful northern Michigan escape. The natural beauty of the surrounding landscape, combined with the laid-back ambiance, makes Topinabee an ideal destination for relaxation and outdoor enjoyment.
On the way to exploring more of Mullett Lake, travelers have several local options for a good meal.
As Michigan’s third-largest inland lake, Mullett Lake offers a picturesque setting for boating, fishing, and water sports.
The area’s peaceful ambiance and access to outdoor activities make Mullett Lake a sought-after destination for those seeking a tranquil retreat in northern Michigan.
Surrounded by lush forests and charming communities, Mullett Lake provides a serene escape for visitors and residents alike. Crystal-clear waters and sandy shores make it an ideal destination for swimming and relaxation.
Nestled a short distance from the Mackinac Bridge, Cheboygan is a year-round destination that offers a little bit of everything.
Lighthouse enthusiasts are in luck because Cheboygan has two — the Cheboygan River Front Range Lighthouse is open for tours, and the Cheboygan Crib Light offers a beautiful photo op by the Cheboygan pier.
In addition, Nautical North Family Adventures offers Cheboygan visitors a chance to take unforgettable tours, passing by lighthouses and down the Cheboygan River while taking passengers to see shipwrecks. The wrecks are shallow enough to be viewed in a glass-bottom boat.
The Cheboygan Opera House is one of many historic theaters in Michigan and is an excellent place to watch theatrical performances, concerts, and more. Visitors can explore downtown and visit quaint shops before and after performances.
Cheboygan has restaurants to satisfy any taste bud, and visitors will love the variety of options they find as they explore the city. Some of our suggestions include:
This history-rich village is a popular tourist destination and offers plenty to do for travelers of all ages.
Mackinaw Manor Haunted Mansion is a unique year-round attraction. This state-of-the-art haunted house is fully automated and can put a scare into visitors young and old, even in winter.
The Jack Pine Lumber Shows highlight the region’s logging history, and the competitive shows feature ax throwing, chopping, logrolling, and more.
Travelers who want to see more of Michigan can continue north toward the Upper Peninsula by driving over the Mackinac Bridge or detouring on a ferry to wonderous Mackinac Island. They can also keep hiking on the North Western State Trail, which runs to Petoskey.
Mackinaw City Restaurants
Travelers can refresh and refuel at one of many Mackinaw City eateries, including:
Explore the North Central State Trail Today
The North Central State Trail has something for everyone, from the most experienced hikers to those setting off on their first Michigan hiking adventure. The beauty of the vast wilderness must be seen up close to be believed, and the relatively short distances between trailheads give hikers places to stop, eat, rest, and explore.
Whether you want to climb aboard a bike and pedal the entire 62-mile length of the trail or you’re determined to set off on foot, grab your gear and hit the trail for a true northern Michigan trail adventure.