Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Fall 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.

The Michigan Trail Riders Association thinks the state Shore-to-Shore Trail is something to sing about. The organization’s annual October Color Ride completes the group’s 56th year of saddling up for the iconic Empire to Oscoda crossing.

Veteran rider Judy Schlink of Kalkaska has logged 5,000 miles in the saddle over the years. She completed five 220-mile Shore-to-Shore Trophy Ride crossings as one of the trail’s early riders. Back then, as now, the day’s ride concluded with the equestrian group singing around the campfire Old West style.

“We wrote two songs,” Schlink said. “One was about riding to Tawas — and it’s still in print.”

The original trail songs and others were assembled into the group’s official songbook celebrating trail life, said MTRA spokesperson Jan Wolfin. Wolfin plans to complete her 51st Lake Michigan to Lake Huron crossing in September.

“Just because I did 50 doesn’t mean I’m going to stop,” she said.

The Shore-to-Shore Trail is one of only a handful of Midwest equestrian trails offering distance rides with the benefit of established overnight camps. Campgrounds along the trail are located about 20 miles apart. The Ovid-based MTRA manages the trail under a special permit from the Huron-Manistee National Forest and Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Just over 100 trail miles run through the Huron National Forest. Other segments cross state lands and private properties.

Traverse City area trail segments wind through Lake Dubonnet, Muncie Lake and Sand Lakes Quiet Area. It converges briefly with the North Country Trail north of Kalkaska. Farther east, horses carry their riders splashing through the Manistee River near Grayling. A segment along the Au Sable River highbanks on Michigan’s Sunrise Side is considered by many the most scenic trail stretch.

Rider Roseanne Jamrok of Interlochen, an avid outdoors woman, learned something about the state in completing two crossings.

“Michigan is more scenic and varied than I thought,” she said. “Woods, swamps, hills — the terrain is as varied as the weather.”

Riders travel 20 to 25 miles daily along a primarily single-track trail. They may catch sight of deer, small mammals, songbirds, woodpeckers and the occasional bald eagle or black bear, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Jamrock said despite the wonders of Michigan’s natural landscapes and wildlife, the best reward is the sense of achievement in completing the trek.

“The most exciting part is riding into Empire,” she said. “People are cheering you and you receive a trophy.”

MTRA offers six group trail rides each year. This past summer 127 riders earned trophies for completing the crossing. Horses completing either the 10- or 16-day journey may be registered as a Michigan Trail Horse.

MTRA’s annual October Color Ride traverses different trail segments every year to showcase the extravagant colors of northern Michigan woodlands. The Shore-to-Shore trail features a northern spur winding from the Luzerne Trail Camp to Mackinaw. A southern spur meanders between Luzerne and Cadillac.

The eight-day 2019 autumn ride begins Oct. 5 from Cadillac. Riders travel just over 60 miles with stops at Hopkins Creek Trail Camp in the heart of the Manistee State Forest at Manton. The next leg travels to Scheck’s Place State Forest Campground at Williamsburg where oaks and pines offer a colorful fall backdrop. The final trek journeys to Rapid River Trail Camp north of Kalkaska, also surrounded by blazing oaks contrasted by evergreens. Three layover days make the October Color Ride a more relaxed trail experience.

“Layover days give riders time to enjoy other riders and to do tourist things,” Wolfin said.

Fall rides require less effort to battle mosquitoes and ticks, but weather is a wild card.

“I always tell everyone to take a swimsuit, long underwear and everything in between,” she said. “A few years ago, we had a foot of snow at the Kalkaska camp.”

Even though the October ride is shorter than lake-to-lake crossings, horses must be conditioned for the experience.

“It’s like an athlete training for a marathon,” Jamrok said. “But it’s harder because the horses can’t tell you how they feel.”

She said riders have a right to be proud of their horses for accomplishing the distance trail rides.

MTRA volunteers maintain more than 500 trail miles of the trail network.

Don’t have a horse? The nonmotorized and marked Shore-to-Shore is open spring through fall to equestrians and hikers. Cross-country skiers and snowshoers enjoy the ungroomed trail during winter months.

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