An article in the Detroit Free Press rekindled my interest in the Michigan Polar-Equator Trail. This is a series of roads roughly paralleling the 45th latitude across the northern lower peninsula. It starts near Elk Rapids and ends at Lake Huron several miles south of Alpena. I’d driven the trail several years ago, but it was a renewed intrigue to wander it again which brought me back.
Truthfully, the history of the Polar-Equator Trail is more interesting than the route itself. The Michigan Polar-Equator club formed sometime in1965, with archery legend Fred Bear among the founders. At the time it was mostly a social club for world trophy hunters. As time passed, the club settled on an objective to “establish and maintain a trail across the State of Michigan as close to the 45th parallel as possible.” Over the next decade the club erected 200 trail markers and successfully lobbied the state legislature to declare the trail a significant tourist attraction. In 1973, they published detailed guidebook to the trail.
Today there is little evidence of continued maintenance on the trail. Particularly west of Gaylord, the route is difficult to follow and some sections no longer exist. One such area is the stretch of Alba Road at the Northland Ranch. The original guidebook describes the route here as having a “western feel” but the road is closed through this section. Other stretches have been renamed or are just no longer passable.
The actual beginning of the Polar-Equator Trail as it travels west to east is at a cairn outside the village of Elk Rapids. It’s quite a picturesque spot, on a dirt road in the middle of farm country. The cairn was erected in 1938, and has a stone from each of Michigan’s 83 counties. From there, it meanders east along the south shore of Torch Lake, and onward to Bellaire. After leaving this charming village, the trail crosses though a convoluted section passing through the Jordan River Valley, and a series of difficult to follow side roads, before winding up in the town of Alba.
This is probably the logical starting point for someone wishing to take the trip. CR 42 pushes east until it runs into M 32, just west of Gaylord. Originally, the trail followed Old Alba road, but that section has been closed. If you head west on this road as it leaves Old 27 on the north shore of Otsego Lake, you’ll notice several of the trail markers. The Polar-Equator trail from Gaylord to Alpena is still mostly intact, and my choice for anyone who would endeavor to take the trail.
From Gaylord, the trail resumes again at Johnson Road off the I75 business loop. Follow this as it becomes Bobcat Lake road. This is a glorified two-track for the most part, it might be advised to take M32 east to Turtle Lake road, turning south. A left turn at Fennigan road before a right turn brings you back to Heatherton road. As you can probably tell, this was not a route laid out by the chamber of commerce.
Follow this to Tin Shanty Bridge road. Here, you are on the southern fringe of the Pigeon River Country. I have seen elk here. You now should be at Meridian, which runs into Rouse road, or county road 622, fairly well marked. This is back country driving. The road is good quality, and there are interesting sights and historical markers, you will have this stretch to yourself. Route here is fairly stable until it runs into M33.
At this state highway, turn left (north) for about a mile and a half. At that point, a right on Brush Lake Road resumes the trail. One important note; soon after turning on Bruch Creek road, you will come to a fork. Take the right fork, Brush Creek Trail. This road travels more than 8 miles through the back country before ending at Pine Oaks road. Take a right here, and a left at Pleasant Valley Road, which runs 3 miles east hitting M32 at Hillman. Here, you encounter civilization again. The restored mill will be on your right, and the museum is worth a stop. A curiosity of sorts is that after a 1990’s rerouting of M32 south of town, MDOT, designated the old route as Business 32, the shortest business route in the state.
The Polar Equator Trail is now back on main roads. Heading east on M32 to the intersection of M65. Turn right or south at M65 until you reach Werth Road. The countryside here is agricultural, much different than the backwoods you have been traversing. A left on Werth will take you through some variety of scenery, as the farmland succumbs to state forest facilities which evolve into the fairly urban edge of Alpena.
At US23, you are at Lake Huron. A right turn and 3 miles brings you to the 45th parallel. This is the eastern terminus of the Polar Equator Trail. Do a u-turn and head to Alpena. It’s a cool little town, worthy of a couple days.
The directions contained in this blog are fairly general, and hopefully serve a a general guide to this intriguing trip. If would like a more detailed set of directions, please e-mail me.