One weekend in July, my fiancé and I packed up the car and headed north for a little escape from the hustle and bustle of Grand Rapids.

Our itinerary was pretty simple — exploring the great outdoors in Manistee National Forest, specifically hiking and hammock camping on the North Country Trail.

Manistee National Forest encompasses 540,187 acres of dense, wooded forest and is located in nine Michigan counties. Passing through the forest, the North Country Trail stretches 4,600 miles across eight states — all the way from North Dakota to Vermont. Much of the trail is narrow, although trees marked with blue paint help hikers stay on the path.

After driving through some long, winding roads, we finally found an entrance to the trail near White Cloud and parked our car and headed into the pine-hardwood forest. Although east of The Pike, a drive from the historic byway to our starting point takes less than an hour.

Credit: Courtesy of the North Country Trail Association

When we entered the trail, the sun was already hanging low in the sky, casting just a bit of light between the trees, giving us a dreamy view. We heard deer crashing through the forest and saw whimsical trees — I felt like we were in a fantasy novel.

Manistee National Forest was established in 1938 and nearly greets the shores of Lake Michigan in a number of spots — Nordhouse Dunes and Ludington State Park sit within the grounds of the forest and provide both views of the lake and a lush, green backdrop.

After hiking north for about an hour, we found the perfect spot to set up our hammocks. We wanted to make sure we didn’t stray too far from the path and that we weren’t too close to a swamp; there are rules campers must abide by while staying in Manistee National Forest, one of them being camping at least 200 feet away from a body of water — unless at a designated site. Also, avoiding water keeps you away from the hordes of mosquitos that come with it.

Credit: Courtesy of the North Country Trail Association

Hammock camping offers a great perk — the ability to stargaze through the towering trees. Light pollution is scarce in Manistee National Forest, so the stars easily came into view. We couldn’t take our eyes off the immense beauty of it all, and we were slowly lulled to sleep by the brightly speckled sky, with our hammocks softly swaying in the cool breeze.

Despite using mosquito nets and distancing ourselves from the water, I sit here a few weeks later writing this, stopping every so often to itch the small red bites that cover my arms, legs and back. Next time, we won’t forget the bug spray.

No matter, another hike through the Manistee National Forest on the North Country Trail will definitely be on the calendar in the near future.