There was a snafu with the cabin keys. Somebody forgot to pick up the set for the eight-bunk cabin on Mirror Lake before our backpacking trip into the Porcupine Mountains. Only, we didn’t discover it until we had reached the six-bunk cabin at the mouth of the Big Carp River … 7 miles from where we hiked in, 10 miles from where we left the other vehicle, a 4-mile walk just to the nearest road.
That startling discovery gave us the same sinking feeling a skier has after twisting an ankle, miles from the trailhead. In the middle of Michigan’s most rugged corner in the western Upper Peninsula, we were without tents, sleeping pads or the key to the next cabin.
Time to make do. A couple from Chicago were gracious enough to let us spend an extra night in the cabin on the Big Carp River. Then the next day we did a 10-mile trek through the heart of this 61,000-acre state park in a driving rain, wearing full packs.
From the shores of Lake Superior, 611 feet above sea level, we marched across the Porkies, at one point reaching 1,620 feet only to descend several hundred feet to Mirror Lake before ending the day by climbing to a parking lot near Summit Peak, the highest point in the park at 1,958 feet. In between, we crossed streams without bridges, slogged through mud that swallowed our boots, and paused to catch our breath beneath towering maples and hemlocks 300 years old.
“It’s either mountains or mudholes out here,” said one member of our party. With cold rain dripping down our faces and shoulders throbbing from the weight of 30- or 40-pound packs, we all agreed. This place was rugged enough to be called mountains, remote enough to stay wild, unforgiving to those who come unprepared and very much worthy of its middle name.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is indeed a wilderness.
It’s always been that way to those who have endured the steep climbs. As early as 1750 B.C. Indians were wandering into the Porcupine Mountains during the summer to mine copper. Using fire and water, they fractured boulders, pounded out the metal and shaped it into tools, ornaments and projectile points. It has been estimated that the ancient miners extracted between 500 million and a billion pounds of copper from an area that included the Porkies, Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula, and then traded it throughout North America.
The first white settlements consisted of only a few isolated fur trading posts until 1840. That is when Douglass Houghton published his geological survey of the western Upper Peninsula and triggered a copper stampede to both the Porcupine Mountains and the Keweenaw area.
Despite uncovering the Ontonagon Boulder, a 3,708-pound nugget of copper that
today rests in the Smithsonian Institution, the veins in the Porkies quickly ran out on the miners. The loggers that followed harvested the trees along the Lake Superior shoreline but passed up the rugged interior of the Porkies for more accessible tracts elsewhere.
Thus, the interior remained unmolested by miners, loggers and other entrepreneurs and was so pristine that in the late 1930s the federal government designated the Porkies as a potential site for the next national park. The plans were abandoned by the financially strapped Congress at the start of World War II, but when the war demand for lumber renewed the loggers’ interest for the interior timber, concerned citizens and the state stepped in.
Global conflict or not, this distant corner of Michigan, the largest stand of virgin maple and hemlock between the Rockies and the Adirondacks, was too precious to be stripped just for its trees. A push for the Porkies’ preservation resulted in it becoming a state park in 1945.
Michigan’s largest state park is 26 miles long and 10 miles at its widest point. Along with peaks that top 1,900 feet, the Porkies contains 25 miles of Lake Superior shoreline, four lakes, entire rivers, trout streams that are choked with spawning salmon in the fall, and a dozen waterfalls that are named — and dozens more that are not.
There also are more than 90 miles of foot paths that wind through the heart of this wilderness. The longest is the Lake Superior Trail that stretches for 16 miles along the lakeshore. Many say the most scenic trek in the Upper Peninsula is the 4-mile hike along the Escarpment Trail that gives way to vistas of sheer cliffs and panoramas of Lake of the Clouds from Cuyahoga and Cloud peaks.
But of all the trails within the park, the path down the Big Carp River best mirrors the diversity of the Porkies. It begins near the Lake of the Clouds overlook and for two miles parallels the west half of the escarpment, providing outstanding views of Big Carp River Valley and the rugged interior of the park.
The trail then descends into the valley, passing the old Lafayette Mine and some of the park’s largest old-growth hemlocks along the way, and finally crosses the Big Carp River. From this point the 9-mile trail swings more to the north and follows the river on its course to Lake Superior. Along the way you pause on the edge of a gorge to take in the wonder of Shining Cloud Falls that thunders down between sheer walls of rock.
Mountain views, stone canyons, thundering waterfalls and a Great Lake … it’s a bit ironic that the park’s most unique feature for many visitors is manmade: the 18 trailside cabins scattered throughout its backcountry.
They range in size from two to eight bunks. They contain wood-burning stoves, tables, benches, and a logbook to jot down tales and tips for the next group to read. There also are cooking and eating utensils, axes and saws, and some of the hardest mattresses you’ll ever sleep on.
But in the middle of wilderness — when it’s snowing in September or raining in May — there is nothing prettier. It’s what truly makes the Porkies unique. You can find black bears roaming the night, eagles soaring overhead and trophy steelhead trout elsewhere. But this state park is the only one in the Midwest with a network of cabins along its trails; rustic log structures that can only be reached on foot.
It’s either mountains or mudholes out here.
— Anonymous Hiker
Many backpackers stay at a different one each night and then move on. Others book one as a base camp to explore a portion of the park and some families believe renting a rustic cabin is the only way to celebrate Thanksgiving, hiking in the turkey and all the fixings.
But the popularity of the cabins is almost as legendary as the mudholes along Correction Line Trail or the climb to Government Peak. You can reserve them six months in advance (midnrreservations.com) and should for most of the summer.
The reason why is easy to understand. You still have to hike in but you don’t have sleep on the ground, and that small concession is enough to open up the wilderness, even one as rugged as the Porkies, to some of the most unlikely people.
The logbooks are filled with such testimonies.
“I’m not a woodsman, nor a person who really gets close to nature,” wrote one Wisconsin visitor at the Big Carp River Cabin. “Roughing it to me is staying at the Holiday Inn when I had reservations at the Hilton.”
Yet he was out there.
What to Do at the Porkies
Not all activities in the Porkies involve lugging a backpack up a ridge:
- Stay at a cabin or a yurt without hiking: Gitchee Gumee Cabin is a five-minute walk from the car. The Union Bay Yurts are on the edge of the modern campground. At any of them a quick run to Ontonagon for beer is not out of the question.
- Jam out in the wilderness: For three days at the end of August the downhill ski area is host to the Porcupine Mountains Music Festival (porkiesfestival.org). The outdoor event features more than 20 bands and a stage at the base of the ski slopes that serve as a natural amphitheater. Bring a blanket.
- Take a swim: Blame global warming if you want, but happy campers and others can be seen diving into Lake Superior August to early September.
- Ride the chairlift without skis: The triple chairlift is operated weekends from mid-September through mid-October so visitors can enjoy a deep blue Lake Superior framed by spectacular fall colors.
- Take a class: At the Porcupine Mountains Folk School (porkies.org/folk-school) you can enroll in classes that range from basket weaving and stained glass to making a cutting board.
- Stick your head in a bear den: Join a ranger-led hike to an actual bear den where you can look around inside. Hopefully, the bear isn’t bedded down for the winter yet.
- Celebrate the longest day: Summer Solstice lasts 16 hours in the Porkies and is celebrated at the Folk School with a campfire, games, poetry, music and dancing.
- Play disc golf: What else were they going to do at the downhill ski area in the summer? The 18-hole disc golf course features a back nine that climbs the ski slopes for great views of Lake Superior.
- Go mountain biking: In the summer and fall the cross-country ski trails, including the scenic but rugged West Vista Loop, are open to knobby-tire bikes. This is “mountain” biking.
Jim DuFresne is the author of “Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park Guide.”