Pure Michigan: Hiking the Porcupine Mountains

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a fantastic travel destination that was seemingly built with the outdoor adventurer in mind. For my money, the U.P. – as it is referred to by the locals – is quite possibly the best wilderness setting east of the Mississippi River, providing visitors a great outdoor playground for just about all of their adventure needs.

In fact, in previous blog posts I have shared my experiences kayaking on Lake Superior, and mountain biking the outstanding trails that are found there as well. But hikers, backpackers, and campers will discover their own little slice of heaven in the U.P. as well. That comes in the form of the Porcupine Mountains, a beautiful and remote landscape that just begs travelers to come explore.

Spread out over more than 60,000 acres of prime U.P. real estate, the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is a fantastic destination for those looking for scenic day hikes, or a place to make an extended stay in the backcountry. The park falls along the northwest corner of the Upper Peninsula, and looks out onto Lake Superior itself.

Known locally as the “Porkies,” the park features rolling hills covered in old growth northern hardwood forests, which consist mainly of Maple trees, Yellow Birch, American Basswood, and Eastern Hemlock. The park is also home to a myriad of wildlife, including deer, moose, gray wolves, bobcats, lynx, and river otters. Black bears are also quite common throughout the region, and visitors are encouraged to stay vigilant while hiking there.

The park has approximately 87 miles of mixed-use trails that crisscross the Porkies, and grant access to some of the more scenic areas, as well as the wild backcountry. Those trails are mainly for hiking in the summer, and cross-country skiing in the winter, although a few are open to mountain bikers as well.

Visitors will find that the trails are well developed, and provide easy walking, when close to the trailhead, but as you get further away from the parking lot, the routes become narrower, more rugged, and demanding. Backpackers can pick from a number of routes to take them deep into the wilderness, and for the most part, they’ll be the ones most likely to see the truly wild sections of the trails.

Backpackers and campers will also discover that there are a number of modern and primitive campsites available, as well as rustic cabins that can be reserved in advance of a planned visit. These sites make for a wonderful place for travelers to truly experience everything the Porkies have to offer, starting with spending a night in an amazing wilderness setting, far from the noise, lights, and commotion of any city.

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Water plays a crucial element throughout the park, helping to shape its over time. As mentioned, many of the park’s vistas overlook Lake Superior, but there are also a number of smaller lakes and rivers that flow through the Porcupine Mountains too. Several of the rivers cascade down the sides of the steep hills, creating breathtaking waterfalls that are amongst the most popular hiking destinations in the entire park. These beautiful settings are mesmerizing to watch, and make for a memorable travel experience.

The crown jewel of the park is, without a doubt, the Lake of the Clouds, a massive body of water that sits between two tall ridges, and is completely surrounded by dense forest. The lake is fed by the Carp River, which flows in from the east, and out the west as it continues its long march to Lake Superior.

An easily accessible scenic overlook makes it a breeze for any visitor to the Porkies to see the Lake of the Clouds in all of its glory, but in order to actually walk its banks, you’ll need to hike deeper into the park itself. I’m sure the Lake of the Clouds overlook is amongst the most popular locations in the entire park, and can be quite busy at times, but when I visited it was relatively quiet, and easy to enjoy the fantastic view.

Now, lets make one thing clear. The Porcupine Mountains are not really “mountains” in the strictest sense of the word. You won’t find snow-capped peaks rising above the tree line in Michigan, and visitors won’t be contending with altitude on their excursions into the backcountry either. But, these steep hills and thick forests are still a wilderness playground worthy of any outdoor adventurers attention.

The landscapes are rugged, remote and demanding, and the Porkies are located far from any major city. Cell service is practically non-exstant, and if someone were to run into trouble in the wilderness, it could take some time for help to reach them. In short, the Porcupine Mountains are a destination that needs should be respected, both for what they offer, and what they could do to someone who takes them lightly.

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In my brief stay in the Porkies, I was able to hike a couple of excellent trails, and get a very brief taste of what the location has to offer. What I saw was an outdoor setting on par with anything you’ll find in the eastern United States, and a worthy adventure destination in its own right. After spending a few days in the region, I have simply come to the conclusion that I need to go back to see more of the area for myself.

There are trails to be hiked, and remote places to be visited, that I simply did not have time for on my most recent visit. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to change that in the future, but in the meantime, you should add the Porkies to your list of places to visit. You won’t regret it in the least, and you’re likely to fall in love with park too.

Find out more about what the Upper Peninsula, and the rest of Michigan, has to offer at Michigan.org.

Kraig Becker

3 thoughts on “Pure Michigan: Hiking the Porcupine Mountains”

  1. The Porkies are definitely a place to add to anyone's Bucket List! I would like to add that there is much to see that does not require one to be an avid hiker. Some areas are even ADA accessible. The short Union Mine Interpretive Trail is only a one mile loop along the waterfalls and beautiful scenic views. There are even some benches along the way to rest and take in the beauty and sounds of nature.

  2. Very true! And thanks for pointing that out. The backcountry areas in the Porkies are a challenge, but some of the front country trails are very easy to walk.

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