Showcasing the DNR: Hiker treks from Belle Isle to Ironwood

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Showcasing the DNR

Showcasing the DNR was originally designed for weekly news publications, but we see benefit in sharing it more broadly. You’re invited to share these stories with friends, family and anyone you believe finds value in learning about the DNR’s efforts to better connect people of all ages to Michigan’s great outdoors and cultural heritage.

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Thursday, Oct.3, 2013
1,041 words
Photos available: Yes

Hiker treks from Belle Isle to Ironwood


Chris Hillier admits he wasn’t watching television that November day in 2012 when Gov. Rick Snyder called for a hiking trail across Michigan that would take folks from Belle Isle to Ironwood. But as soon as Hillier heard about it, he was all about making that hike.

“I said, ‘I’ll be the first,’” the 45-year-old Taylor resident remembered. “In the long-distance hiking community, that’s something.”

Hillier went right into action, mapped out a route – which included a fair stretch of state where there are no designated trails – and lined up supporters to help him re-supply along the way. And on April 26, 2013, Hillier left Belle Isle, took a right on Jefferson, a left on Connor, and was on his way to the westernmost edge of the Upper Peninsula.

By the end of the first day, Hillier had covered 24 miles and made it into Macomb County. From there, he picked his way along roadways, railroad tracks, or whatever route he could find until he made Midland where he knew he had a 230-stretch of well-maintained trail that would take him to Mackinaw City.

Long story short? Eleven weeks and 924 miles after he started, Hillier trekked into Ironwood on July 18, the first person to take the unofficial Belle Isle-to-Ironwood Trail.

“I asked around,” Hillier said. “Nobody’s done it.”

On his best day, Hillier covered 27 miles. He averaged 12 to 15 miles while hiking about 12 hours a day, though there were plenty of bumps in the trail. Just outside Midland, for instance, he was warned that the Kawkawlin River flood plain was pretty much flooded, but he pressed on regardless.

“It was swamp,” said Hillier, who calls himself a professional long-distance hiker. “I wound up sinking up to my waist. Got soaking wet. I did about 20 miles and wound up right where I started.
But you know there are going to be days like that. That’s the down side of long-distance hiking.”

Hillier endured a number of “zero days,” as he calls them, over the course of his adventure when he made no progress. One was in Marquette, when bad weather caused him to hole up for a day. But he also took four in a row in Mackinaw City, when a re-supply package – filled with texturized vegetable protein, minute rice and instant mashed potato flakes – he was to pick up at the post office was lost in the mail.

Still, for every hiccup, there was a high, Hillier said.

“The very best day of the whole trip was when I hit the Lake Superior shoreline,” he said. “I could finally take off my mosquito netting. I’d had it on for two weeks straight. There was a cool breeze, no bugs for the first time in weeks, a beautiful lake and no one around for miles and miles.

“Pictured Rocks - nowhere else in the country has beauty like that,” Hillier continued. “I took a whole week to hike from Grand Marais to Marquette. It was great. I was under no time pressure and I’m easily distracted.”

A U.S. Army veteran who was trained as a medical technician and worked in the health care industry for years before he went into hiking full time, Hillier has hiked all over the country. The Michigan trek was among his toughest ever, he said.

“Along the Lake Superior shoreline was amazing and beautiful, but the toughest times were when I had to cut back through the woods,” Hillier said. “It was kind of an emerald tunnel, not exactly scenic. And bugs? I used a gallon of DEET. I’ve hiked in the Okefenokee Swamp and the in the Everglades and I never experienced mosquitoes like that.”

And the mosquitoes were only one of the challenges of making across the Upper Peninsula, Hillier said.

“There are parts of the North County Trail that are undeveloped, just dotted lines on the map,” he said. “I had to bushwhack my way – just fight through the thick Michigan woods. It’s difficult – hard on your body, hard on your gear, and it takes a lot of energy. But it’s a long-distance skill that I needed to sharpen up on and I did. It teaches you to stick to a compass heading and not panic.

“There was no way to quit, even if I wanted to,” he continued. “There’s no place to go. It’s so thick you can’t even sit down. You just have to keep on going.”

Hillier said he got a lot of weird looks and plenty of questions from passers-by as he made his way across the state. “But everybody was cool,” he said, especially the folks he met on his last leg of the journey as he pulled into Ironwood.

“The reception I got was over the top,” he said. “The mayor, the chamber of commerce and a bunch of people came to the edge of town and gave me a police escort into town. They really rolled out the red carpet. They’ve worked very hard on the trail system there and they want hikers and bikers to come there to enjoy it.”

Although the official Belle Isle-to-Ironwood Trail has yet to be completed, adventurers who like to hike, bike or otherwise explore the state by trail have more options in Michigan than anywhere else in the Midwest, thanks, in part, to the more than $100 million the Natural Resources Trust Fund has invested in them over the years.

Michigan boasts more than 12,000 miles of recreational trails, including some 900 miles of state parks trails, 560 miles of looped forest trails, more than 1,400 miles of water trails and 1,300 miles of bicycle trails.

here are more miles of converted rails-to-trails pathways – 2,653 – than anywhere else in the nation.

Don’t have the energy to self-propel your way? Well, there are 590 miles of designated equestrian trails – including the 300-mile Shore-to-Shore Riding Trail – 3,627 miles of off-road vehicle trails, and 6,407 miles of snowmobile trails.

The governor made it clear that he wants Michigan to be known as the “Trail State.” And while the proposed Belle Isle-to-Ironwood Trail would only bolster the title, most Michigan trail enthusiasts would tell you we’re already there.

For more information on Michigan’s trails, visit or



Editor’s note: Photos to accompany this story are available for download at in the folder marked Cross Michigan Hiker.

  **Credit photo: Michigan DNR


DSK 480 24.jpg: Hiking along the South Haven to Port Huron Trail - on one leg of his journey from Belle Isle to Ironwood - Chris Hillier is accompanied for a way by his neighbor Phillip Frazier.

DSK 480 28: Avid hiker Chris Hillier, of Taylor, became the first person on record to hike from Belle Isle to Ironwood - and he did it in 11 weeks.

DSK 480 33: Long-distance hiker Chris Hillier carries everything he needs on his back. This past summer, Hillier logged 924 miles from Belle Isle to Ironwood.

DSK 480 43: Hiker Chris Hillier says he replaces his boots every 10,000 miles, and for good reason. The Taylor resident recently trekked more than 900 miles on a journey from Belle Isle to Ironwood.

DSK 480 44: Taylor resident and veteran long-distance hiker Chris Hillier prepares for every situation before hitting the road. Here he is, carrying everything he needs on his back, on a 924-mile hike from Belle Isle to Ironwood.