Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Michigan – Lake Superior
Hiking the Heart of the Porkies
By Mikel B. Classen
The trails lead through old-growth forests meandering between the Michigan Mountains. The moss covered rock outcrops are immense and around every turn. Following alongside are spring fed streams. As you walk down the mountainsides, small gorges that the streams have cut get bigger and wider, the water flowing faster and with increasing volume. Around every bend and turn sights gets more breathtaking, more powerful. Ahead, there are breaks in the trees and looming in front, ominous and foreboding, rugged and magnificent, is the Escarpment.
The Porcupine Mountains, near Ontonogan, is one of the best known destinations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Many visitors get to view the Lake-of-the Clouds, one of the only drive-to attractions, and its picture appears in every travel brochure dealing with the State. What most people don’t get to see is the interior, the heart of the Porcupine Mountains.
The interior of the mountains is a diverse and wondrous place. It is a stronghold for nature in all of its grandeur. No matter where and how you spend it, there is nothing like a “Porkie” experience. It is singular to anything else in the State of Michigan or mind, and if you learn what a journey into its heart is like, you can literally spend the rest of your life plotting different unique and wonderful adventures.
Make no mistake. None of this is easy and no hiker should attempt any of these trails without having made the proper preparations and taken the proper precautions, mentally, physically, and practically. These are trails through true wilderness and even though there are frequent visitors to the interior of the Porkies, once you are out there you are essentially on your own. The realities of this cannot be over emphasized.
A hike of any length should be carefully prepared for. A compass or GPS and waterproof matches should never be left behind. A multi use fold-up knife can be carried easily and could save your life. Know exactly how long the trail you are taking is, roughly the directions it runs and its difficulty level. Know if it intersects other trails and where. Maps are essential.
The interior has dozens of trails. The heart and center of the Porcupine Mountains is a magical place called Mirror Lake. The interior trails all lead to or from here depending on how you want to look at it. The major ones are lengthy and require a generous amount of time allotted to the journey. Let’s examine them closer.
Union Springs & Union Mine Trail: These trails were created for the visitor that has little time and wants to see as much as possible. The trail heads are located off the South Boundary Road. They are relatively easy trails which lead to Michigan’s second largest fresh water spring. There is a floating bridge that the hiker can get out on and see the water bubbling up from the ground. Also featured is the Union Mine, an 1800’s abandoned copper mine, and the Little Union Gorge. These two trails are quick ways to get the feel of what hiking in the Porkies is really like without becoming committed to the depths of the Mountains.
Lost Lake Trail: This trail runs from the South Boundary Road to the Government Peak Trail. It follows Lost Creek uphill to Lost Lake, a secluded wilderness lake. This is a beautiful walk, but it is steep. Once the climb is over, it stays that way. Probably the most underrated trail in the park for its dramatic scenery.
Summit Peak & South Mirror Lake Trail: Three miles of hard rough trail. This trail runs from the South Boundary Road and is considered one of the main access trails to the heart of the mountains. It begins with a steep climb to the peak of Summit Mountain and has some panoramic views of the Carp River wetlands. The way back down is just as steep. The rest of the way is an average up and down hike through hardwoods into the Carp River and Mirror Lake basin. This is not an easy trail.
Beaver Creek Trail: This is the alternative to Summit Peak and South Mirror Lake trail. It is one of the easiest walking trails the Porkies has to offer. There are no scenic overlooks or panoramas that the other trails offer. Instead it takes the hiker down into the valleys and wetlands of the Little Carp River. A boardwalk crosses a beaver wetland that is framed by Summit Peak and smaller mountains. At the end of this trail is a short and easy walk to either Mirror Lake or Lily Pond.
Lily Pond Trail: This is another reasonably easy hike. There are no major mountains to get over. The route meanders through deep hardwood forests until it comes out at Lily Pond which is a picturesque, trout infested beaver pond. One of the interior cabins is here and well worth a stay.
Little Carp River Trail: Can be accessed through the South Boundary Road or the three previous trails. This trail runs from Mirror Lake to Lake Superior. It is one of the longer trails in the park and takes the hiker through virtually every type of terrain the park has to offer. There are several sets of waterfalls along the way and the Little Carp River provides excellent Brook Trout. Interior cabins at Greenstone Falls in the deep woods provide a gorgeous and serene spot.
Cross Trail: This trail runs between The Little Carp River Trail and the Big Carp River Trail. This is another fairly level and uneventful hike. The highlight of this one is the huge stands of hardwoods and pines. There are cabins where the Cross and Big Carp Trails meet the Lake Superior Trail.
Lake Superior Trail: This has the distinction of being the longest trail in the park. Beginning at the far western park boundary at the Presque Isle River and running all the way to M-107 near the Lake-of-the-Clouds, it parallels the shoreline showcasing Superior as well as the streams that feed it. There are a lot of low areas and wetlands along here so this trail should be avoided during peak bug months. This isn’t to say that the rest of the Porkies don’t have their share, but along this stretch the shore flies have been known to drive early settlers and campers to near madness. Any other time of the year this trail is breathtaking and worth every step providing plenty of views and unique scenery that only Lake Superior has. There are cabins all along the trail as well.
Big Carp River Trail: From one extreme to the next. That’s what this trail is. It starts at the Lake-of-the-Clouds scenic overlook parking lot and runs to Lake Superior. The first section of it follows the edge of the Escarpment and then drops down into the Big Carp River valley. This is a difficult hike and it isn’t recommended for anyone that isn’t in good physical shape. If you do take it, it will be a hike that will be remembered for the rest of your life. Many endangered birds nest and hunt along the cliffs of The Escarpment. Frequently Falcons, Eagles, Vultures and Hawks can be seen at eye level, up close circling, hunting, and diving. The Big Carp River Valley has virgin pine and groves of hardwoods.
Correction Line Trail: Another cut across trail that runs from the Big Carp River to Mirror Lake. This is one of the serene wetland and deep woods hikes. It gives the feel of what it is like to hike through isolated wilderness. This trail is deep in the park and meeting other hikers is rare, even in peak season.
North Mirror Lake Trail: This is one of my personal favorite trails. It starts at the parking lot at the scenic overlook for the Lake-of-the-Clouds and travels to Mirror Lake. The trail drops steeply into the Big Carp River/Lake-of-the-Clouds basin providing views that are what the Porcupine Mountains legend is made of. The trail then follows a stream tributary that has created a rock cut that gets more exciting around every bend. Eventually the trail leads to the source of the stream which is a flowing spring. A little further on a stand of thick tall pines welcome you to Mirror Lake. This trail to me shows Nature at her perfection making it my top trail.
Government Peak Trail: This one slices through a section of the mountains few see. It runs from Mirror Lake to the Escarpment and M-107. It is a grueling and magnificent walk. It will take you into the soul of the Porkies through virtually every kind of terrain that can be found. Thetrail meanders along wetlands, the Upper Carp River and the Trap Waterfall, up one of the tallest peaks in Michigan and into a huge tract of tall, straight, old oaks that have to be seen to be believed.
Escarpment & Overlook Trails: These actually don’t go into the heart of the Porkies, but you sure can see it from there. These trails parallel M-107. The Escapement Trail begins at the Lake-of-the-Clouds parking lot and follows the edge of the escarpment and comes back out about four miles down the road. The Overlook Trail enters at the same place the Escarpment Trail ends and simply makes a long loop back to the same place. The views on these trails are worth the hike. Most of the park can be seen from up here and spreads out below the sheer cliffs to the horizon. The Overlook Trail is the easiest of the pair. The Escarpment is a hard and at times extremely steep hike. This is recommended for the hiker in sound physical shape.
Something should be said about the cabins and trailside facilities. Throughout the interior are designated tent campsites as well as camping shelters that can be rented for a nominal fee. They are simple screened-in structures that have bunks for two or four. These can be quite a relief if you spend a few days in the interior.
There are cabins as well. They are fully equipped with bunks and cooking utensils, woodstoves, saws, ax, and some have boats included also. A stay in the cabins is a special experience, vacancies are rare so plan ahead. They can be reserved up to a year and a half before a trip.
No matter what kind of hike you might decide to take into the mountains or how long, nothing compares to time spent here. There is beauty like no other in the wilderness and nowhere else is it so beautifully displayed. The interior of the Porcupine Mountains is a special place for people looking for a journey into the natural world of Lake Superior wilderness.
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