Hiking Michigan’s Highbanks Trail along the Au Sable River

Listen to Hike’s podcast episode on the Highbanks Trail
Highbanks Trail Sign

On May 1st I went out to do a day hike on the Highbanks Trail. I didn’t know anything about this trail, except that I had some familiarity with the Au Sable River from kayaking near the Grayling area. This section of the river was totally new and unfamiliar to me. Little did I know how incredible this hike would be – full of surprises and natural beauty. And even some inland dunes! Did you know there are inland dunes in Eastern Michigan? Me either

When most people think about hiking or backpacking a river trail in Michigan, their first thought is the Manistee River Trail (MRT) or Manistee River – North Country Trail loop. It’s the place I first tried out solo backpacking at last May. It’s a great beginner trail to cut your teeth on if you’re new to backpacking. I’ve been hearing that the MRT has been extremely crowded as of late, especially on the weekends.

As part of my spring and summer hiking series on the Hike podcast, I also wanted to check out as many “new to me” hikes as I could. I picked up Jim DuFresne’s 50 Hikes in Michigan book and the Highbanks Trail caught my eye. I was intrigued also by the rustic camping along the river and that this hike had some interesting history along the way.

Highbanks Trail Overview

The Highbanks Trail is a 7-mile point to point hike along the bluffs of the Au Sable River. It provides hikers with dramatic views of the Au Sable River. Hikers are able to see out over the river view and even glimpse Lake Huron in some spots.

During the summer hikers may see bald eagles that nest in the area, along with many other wildlife that inhabit the area.   During winter, snowshoers and cross-country skiers looking for ungroomed trail will find it on the Highbanks Trail (source: US Forest Service).

How to Get there

It’s located in Michigan’s Huron-Manistee National Forest. The linear trail begins 15 miles outside of Oscoda, with access areas and parking at Iargo Springs, Lumberman’s Monument, and Sid Town.

It’s also along the River Road National Scenic Byway. “The twenty-two mile River Road National Scenic Byway extends westward from Lake Huron into the Huron National Forest. It parallels the historic Riviere aux Sable (River of Sand). The Au Sable River was a major transportation route for floating Michigan’s giant white pine from forest to the sawmill towns on Lake Huron. You can learn more about this lumbering history at Lumbermen’s Monument Visitor Center that sits at the center of the byway” (Source: US Forest Service).

Source: Michigantrailmaps.com

Iargo Springs

Iargo is the Chippewa word for many waters. Native Americans used the springs well before European settlers as a meeting place and for the cold, clear waters. There are several observation platforms that both take you above the springs flowing below and also to vantage points along the river. For those who may not want or be able to do the stairs, there is a large viewing platform at the top with signage.

The Western Terminus of the Highbanks Trail is at Iargo Springs. There is a large parking lot and restrooms available (vault style). So in theory one could park there and just hit up the trail (the trailhead is hidden a bit from view when you’re in the parking lot, but it’s behind the restrooms). However, you’ll want to explore Iargo Springs first. Plus the 300 stair descent onto the boardwalk and climb back up gives you a great warm up to the hike.

You’ve been warned!
What goes down must come back up…the Iargo Springs stairs

The stairs wind you through a beautiful cedar forest and the tranquil sounds of the springs as you make your way to several signs that explain more about the history of the springs and it’s impact on the surrounding areas.

Iargo Springs

The trail signs have seen better days but I still enjoyed reading them all
Iargo Springs
View from Iargo Springs Observation Deck

Heading out on the Highbanks

As you head out on the trail, the path is wide and well marked by blue diamonds. You’ll follow along the bluffs and get peeks of the river down below on the left side as you continue along the path.

Blue Diamonds mark the trail

There is some power line corridor walking that you will do. I didn’t find it too distracting. But this doesn’t last too long and you will dodge back into the trees until you reach the mid point of the out portion of the hike.

You will come out at Canoer’s Memorial Monument.

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On the Highbanks Trail
A peek of the Au Sable River from trail side

Canoer’s Memorial Monument

Canoer’s Memorial Monument

Canoers Memorial was erected to honor canoers who have participated in the Au Sable River Canoe Race held each year. The Au Sable River Canoe Marathon was the idea of two men, Harold Brubaker and Frank Davis. They conceived the idea in 1947 as an aid to tourism. The first race took place in Sept. of 1947 in canoes made of wood and canvas. There were 46 teams entered, 15 teams finishing the race. Allen Carr and Delbert Case of Grayling finished first with a time of 21 hours and 40 minutes.

There is also a panoramic view of Cooke Dam Pond.

View from Canoer’s Memorial Monument

You’ll pick up the trail again on the other side of the monument.

The trail on the other side of Canoer’s Memorial Monument

You’ll have a stint in the woods but eventually do more power line corridor walking before ducking into the woods. Also, there are places where you definitely can hear the road noise. If that bothers you, I suggest bringing some ear buds to listen to some music (hey, or even a podcast!) or plan your hike very early in the day or midweek where traffic might be lighter.

You head into the woods again and come across a burn area starting at the power line corridor.

I did some research after my hike and learned the burn occurred just a week prior to my hike. Here’s some info from the Iosco News about the prescribed fire of just over a 1,000 acres which escalated into a wildfire that burned over 5,000 acres. It didn’t get fully contained until around the day before my hike. You definitely could tell it was a very recent fire while walking through it.

Walking through the burn area

The burn line ends right before heading into the Lumberman’s Monument area.

Where the burn ended

Lumberman’s Monument

After a couple of miles of mostly solitude on the trails, you will come out into a picnic area and see the visitors center of the Lumberman’s Monument ahead of you.

I recommend taking a break at one of the picnic tables and having a snack or your lunch since at this point you’re about halfway done with the hike and you’ll want energy for the upcoming stair climb and dunes overlook. You’ll see a lot of day visitors, but it’s unlikely you’ll see anyone else with a pack on.

Make sure you check out the exhibits that are in the area. There’s one that talks about the CCC and some of the devastating fires the area had seen and how the timber rebuilt many cities – including the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. There’s also a small gift shop and restrooms with running (but not potable) water and flush toilets. In the center, you’ll come across some large displays and the Lumberman’s Monument.

The Lumberman’s Monument is a monument dedicated to the workers of the early logging industry in Michigan. Standing at 14 feet, the bronze statue features a log surrounded by three figures: a timber cruiser holding a compass, a sawyer with his saw slung over his shoulder, and a river rat resting his peavey on the ground. The granite base of the statue is engraved with a memorial that reads “Erected to perpetuate the memory of the pioneer lumbermen of Michigan through whose labors was made possible the development of the prairie states.” It is also inscribed with the names of the logging families who dedicated their time and efforts to the industry in the area. It was built in 1931 at the cost of $50,000 and dedicated in 1932.

The bronze Lumberman’s Monument

Go past the monument and down the stairs to see a replica of a wanigan at the river’s edge. A wanigan is a cook’s raft that kept the river rats fed during the logging drives.

The Wanigan replica

There’s also some interpretive signs to read and places to rest for a few minutes on the long climb back up to the monument area.

That dune on the right is where you’re going next by the way

And don’t forget to check out all the other signs and exhibits before heading back out on the trail!

Example of the signage at Lumberman’s Monument

From the stair climb, you’ll want to get back on the Highbanks Trail and take it to the left. You’ll soon come to a gravel path that heads to my favorite part of the hike – the Au Sable Dunes.

Au Sable Dune Overlook

This is your view from the dune overlook

I can imagine this is a very popular place during summer and fall, especially on the weekends. It’s not a long walk from either the Monument Campground or the parking area of Lumberman’s Monument. However, even around the lunch hour on a beautiful day, there was less than half a dozen others at any given time and I had plenty of solitude to gaze outward.

Au Sable Dunes

It was hard to pull myself away from the dunes, especially since I knew I had to backtrack back to Iargo Springs. Overall though, the backtrack didn’t bother me. It seemed to go faster as I was focused on getting back to my vehicle. I did take one diversion down the side trail to the banks of the Au Sable. It was a steep descent (which of course meant I had to tackle a climb on the way back up).

I’ll be back to explore this side trail later
A view from the riverbank

I followed the banks for a little bit and wondered if it would take me back to the main trail. But after a day of hiking, I didn’t want to risk getting too far off and having to backtrack or bushwhack up the bluffs. But it’s something I might explore later on with fresher legs and more food in my back.

And 10.3 miles later I was back at my car in the Iargo Springs parking lot!

My All Trails recording / hike stats

I definitely recommend hitting up this trail if you are near the Oscoda or general Au Sable River area. Hike to the dunes and also consider staying in one of the more than 100 rustic campsites along the river (you can even boat into some of the sites!). If you are looking for more amenities, check out Monument Campground. Either type of camping can be reserved at recreation.gov.