Breweries of the North Country Trail

by Nick Meekhof

Hiking the longest trail in the United States is no easy undertaking. The North Country National Scenic Trail travels over 4,600 miles through scorching badlands, rugged mountains, festering swamps, and primeval forests. For those spending weeks at a time in the unsettled wildernesses of the North, it may come as a pleasant surprise that the state of Michigan knows how to cater to thirsty thru-hikers. Along the 1,150 Michigan miles of the NCT are 14 breweries ready to serve up ice-cold brews for the backpacker, all located less than 500 feet from the trail.

1. Dark Horse Brewing Co – Marshall, MI

Photo: Dark Horse Brewing Co.

If you’re hiking east-to-west, 72 miles after crossing the Michigan border you’ll arrive in the charming Trail Town of Marshall, Michigan. Following the Kalamazoo River for the past 13 miles is sure to make you thirsty, so the sight of Dark Horse Brewing is a welcome one. Known for having the largest Mug Club membership in North America, Dark Horse will be happy to serve you up a Thirsty Trout Porter or a Crooked Tree IPA before you head back out on the trail.

2. Arcadia Ales – Battle Creek, MI

Photo: Nick Meekhof

Just 20 miles further, the NCT goes urban, cruising through the heart of Battle Creek. Hikers are certain to notice Arcadia Ales, one of the more prominent edifices along Michigan Avenue. A major bottler in the Midwest, Arcadia can reward hikers with special ‘draft only’ beers, like the Battle Kriek or Cereal Killer.

3. New Union Brewery – Lowell, MI

Photo: New Union Brewery

Lowell is special for several reasons. Home to the regional National Park Service office where the NCT is headquartered, Lowell also represents the official halfway point of the trail in the same way that Harpers Ferry, WV splits the Appalachian. Rarely do hikers stumble out of the woods in downtown Lowell without pausing to take in the beauty of the Flat River, the scent of Main Street BBQ, and the hospitality of the NPS staff. New Union opened just last fall, embracing Lowell’s Trail Town status with their popular ‘North Country Ale.’

4. Big Boiler Brewing Co – Lowell, MI

Photo: Big Boiler Brewing Co

Although New Union may have beaten them to the punch as Lowell’s first brewery, Big Boiler has hit the ground running. While the name and centerpiece pay homage to a Rust Belt relic Kewanee Boiler, the brewery is keeping its eyes on a greener future, already playing host to a number of Grand River restoration projects. Just kitty-corner from the NCTA’s national headquarters, Big Boiler is ready to serve up hearty Hefeweizens and Heritage IPAs to day hikers and thru-hikers alike.

5. Rockford Brewing Co – Rockford, MI

Photo: Rockford Brewing Co

Rockford Brewing wins the award for being the closest to the NCT. If you’re sitting on the patio, you can literally hand a beer to a passing thru-hiker! It’s only natural that one of the most outdoor-rec-friendly breweries set up shop in one of the most outdoor-rec-friendly cities in Michigan. On the other side of the brewery, the rapid-filled Rogue River draws kayakers and fly fishermen from across the country, while the NCT’s shared path with the White Pine Trail attracts cyclists headed anywhere from Grand Rapids to Cadillac.

6. Cedar Springs Brewing Co – Cedar Springs, MI

Photo: Experience GR

When Cedar Springs Brewing made its dramatic debut onto the Michigan craft beer scene in 2015, they advertised heavily to the outdoor community. With trailside access to the pre-existing White Pine Trail, CSBC played a big role in getting the NCT rerouted through downtown Cedar Springs and markets itself as “a destination beyond the campground.” To get a scope of their commitment, consider the fact that CSBC has a major entrance facing the trail, with a message shouting “Welcome to Cedar Springs!” Only 7 miles from Rockford Brewing, the two breweries often co-host events on the NCT like the Arctic Cruise, a mid-winter fat-bike race between breweries.

7. Petoskey Brewing Co – Petoskey, MI

Photo: Earl Leatherberry

Just outside the Petoskey city limits and the state park, the five-story Petoskey Brewing building stands sentinel over the NCT, like a lighthouse guiding backpackers to its doors for a break from the trail and a toast to trudging onward. Another brewery with trailside access, nothing says “Welcome to Petoskey” like a refreshing pint of ‘Morning Fog.’

8. Beards Brewery – Petoskey, MI

Photo: Beards Brewery

Hike the NCT long enough, and you’re bound to grow a beard the size of Willie Robertson’s. But that’s ok, because you’ll fit right in at Beards Brewery in downtown Petoskey! Despite its great length, the NCT only glimpses the shoreline of Lake Michigan for a mere eight miles, but four of them are along Petoskey’s Little Traverse Wheelway. Once the brewery moves to 215 E. Lake Street, patrons sipping Bonspiel will be able to see the NCT and Lake Michigan beyond from the patio.

9. Tahquamenon Falls Brewery – Paradise, MI

Photo: Bill Wooten

Of all the trailside breweries in Michigan, Tahquamenon Falls must be the least expected. Smack dab in the middle of a 46,000-acre state park with spotty cell service, TFB isn’t actually in Paradise, but rather a 20-minute drive from the town of celestial nomenclature. But who cares, when you’ve been trekking through the Upper Peninsula’s unforgiving swamps and battling blackflies the size of sparrows for the last 8 days, I couldn’t think of better trail magic than finding a brewery at the brink of a thundering waterfall.

10. Lake Superior Brewing Co – Grand Marais, MI

Photo: Yinan Chen

Right before you embark on the most stunning stretch the NCT has to offer, official Trail Town Grand Marais greets hikers with sweeping views of Lake Superior, plenty of outdoor outfitters, and tall draughts of craft beer. What better way to prepare for 42-miles of nonstop, cliff-topped, Great Lakes panoramas than to imbibe a Sandstone Pale Ale or Hematite Stout before the trip?

11. Pictured Rocks Brewing Co – Munising, MI

Photo: Pictured Rocks Brewing Co

Of course, if you’re going to drink some Pictured Rocks-themed brews before your backpacking excursion, you ought to bookend the trip with a few more from Pictured Rocks Brewing Co. in Munising once you’ve had your fill of cliffs, arches and ice caves. Operating within the fire department-themed Shooters Firehouse Brewpub, PRBC’s brews reflect the spectacular landscape you’ve just hiked through: Spray Falls IPA, Chapel Rock Cream Ale, Grand Portal Point Porter, Lovers Leap IPA…

12. East Channel Brewing Co – Munising, MI

Photo: East Channel Brewing Co

If you’re hiking the NCT’s road connector through Munising and choose not to steer toward Pictured Rocks Brewing, you have another option. East Channel Brewing opened up just last year and is located just a block from where the trail passes through. The name comes from Lake Superior’s deadly East Channel, the passage between mainland Pictured Rocks and Grand Island. Many a snowmobiler has fallen through the ice in the East Channel hoping to ice-climb less crowded routes on Grand Island. Should you lose an expensive ice-axe to the spirit of Gitche Gumee, you can at least console yourself with a Port Side Red and think up safer ways to cross the water.

13. Ore Dock Brewing Co – Marquette, MI

Photo: Travel Marquette

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Marquette is the straight-up best town in Michigan. A city unlike any other, Marquette lives for the great outdoors. This official NCT Trail Town is also the largest city in the Upper Peninsula and home to Northern Michigan University. Adventure culture surges through every street and courses through every vein. Year-round, Marquette is a playground for surfers, backpackers, whitewater kayakers, fat-tire bikers, mountain climbers, backcountry skiers, dog-sledders, and cliff divers. Downtown Marquette sits on a bluff overlooking Lake Superior and its iconic ore docks which load freighters with copper and iron. Ore Dock Brewing Co. pays homage to these docks, as well as to the vast array of outdoor pursuits to be sought in Marquette.

14. Marquette Harbor Brewery – Marquette, MI

Photo: The Vierling Restaurant & Marquette Harbor Brewery

The Vierling Restaurant & Marquette Harbor Brewery is a nod to the old Marquette, the age of boomtowns and streetcars and copper barons. An imposing brick edifice faces the rest of downtown, while the back windows overlook the NCT, the ore docks, and a wide panorama of the Marquette harbor. The brewery makes for a perfect pit stop to fill up a growler before heading out into the Huron Mountains for the North Country Trail’s next section of wilderness.