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Backpacking The Porcupine Mountains, MI – Oct 2011

Porcupine Mountains Backpacking Overview

Porcupine Mountains Photo Gallery

  • Location – Porcupine Mountains, Michigan
  • Park – Porcupine Mountains State Park (Wilderness Area)
  • Trail Hiked – Custom Route
  • Miles Driven To Destination – 1170 miles round trip
  • Length Of Time Hiked – 3 days, 2 nights
  • Trail Type – Loop
  • Miles Hiked – 25
  • Trail Difficulty – 4/10
  • Fires Allowed – Yes (in metal rings only)

michigan porcupine moutains hiking trail map

Besides Isle Royale, the Porcupine Mountains is the only place left in Michigan that I’ve really wanted to hike, not including a few “less than spectacular” destinations in the lower peninsula. After seeing pictures of Lake of the Clouds, I was sold! I’ve heard it’s one of the best hikes in Michigan, and although it wasn’t exactly close to home at over 10 hours away, I knew it would be worth the drive.

This was a solo trip, as my hiking partner Jesse would not be joining me for this one. Although we drove up to the U.P. together, he was going to visit his family while I hiked.

This trip was actually part of a 14 day “vacation” for me. Only 48 hours prior, I had just finished a 20 mile hike at Manistee River. After the Porkies, I did some fishing on Lake Superior with Jesse’s family, and then a bit of partridge hunting before heading back home. The day after I got back from the U.P., it was time to go Salmon fishing on the Pere-Marquette River! And to make this whole experience even better, we had unseasonably warm weather during this time. It  was the first week of October and the Porcupine Mountains saw 80° temps! No rain either, that was a nice change as well.

Notes

A permit is required to camp anywhere in the Porcupine Mountains, including the backcountry. For a party of 1-4 people, it’s $14 per night. You can get your permit at the visitor’s center, located here:

33303 Headquarters Road
Ontonagon, MI 49953
Phone: 906-885-5275

In case your GPS can’t find it like mine did,  the Visitor Center is located on the West side of South Boundary Road, just South of the M-107 junction.

The Wilderness Visitor Center is open daily from 8am-6pm EST, from late May through mid-October.

Getting There

The plan was to drive up to Jesse’s family’s cottage on Rabbit Bay, just East of Houghton, MI. While he would be staying with his family all week, I spent the night at the cottage and left early the next morning to drive the remaining 2.5 hours to the Porkies.

I parked at the Summit Peak Trailhead, located about 12 miles south of the M-107 junction of South Boundary Rd. The trailhead coordinates are as follows:

n46°44.586′ w089°46.296′


View Larger Map

The trailhead is marked by the green arrow on the map above. You’ll see it if you zoom in far enough.

Day 1 – October 4th, 2011

Miles hiked – 10.6
Route – Summit Peak Trail to South Mirror Lake Trail to Little Carp River Trail to Connection Line Trail to Big Carp River Trail to the Escarpment Trail

I had a “short” 2.5 hour drive to get here from Rabbit Bay, where I had slept the night before. Before hitting the trail I stopped at the visitor center to get my permit. $28 bucks for 2 nights… pretty steep for backcountry camping if you ask me. Nevertheless, I was on my way to the trailhead with permit in hand. I’ll be parking at the Summit Peak Trailhead off South Boundary Road, several miles down the road.

porcupine mountains observation tower at summit peak

backpacking the porcupine mountains

Me with the Porcupine Mountains below

View of the fall colors from the Summit Peak observation tower

After leaving the parking lot, I headed North on the Summit Peak Trail. Here, the trail is a wooden boardwalk that provides easy access for anyone. The boardwalk leads up to the Summit Peak area which has a 40 foot tall observation tower that provides a great overlook of the entire area. I climbed up to get a good view of the area I’ll be hiking. The fall colors were amazing, and you could even see Lake Superior from here. After 5 or 10 minutes I climbed down and continued along the Summit Peak Trail for another .5 miles until reaching the South Mirror Lake Trail. I passed a man and woman who had just left Mirror Lake, and had done some fishing there. He said they caught a few small fish but that’s it. I brought my pole and was hoping to get a few casts in on this trip as well, so I continued on my course towards Mirror Lake.

mirror lake - porcupine mountains - ontonagon,  mi

Mirror Lake

After hiking another 1.5 miles from the Summit Peak Trail I arrived at Mirror Lake. The name of this lake is very fitting as it was very calm and reflected the image of the fall foliage in it’s waters. There was a few nice campsites along the lake, but I needed to hike up to the Escarpment Trail by the end of the day so I only hung out here for a few minutes. You need to follow the Little Carp River Trail North from here for a few tenths of a mile before it meets the Connection Line Trail.

porcupine mountains connection line trail

The Connection Line Trail was a nice hike. This area was heavily forested, lots of very old looking trees and large rock formations protruding from the Earth. There were several small streams that crisscrossed the area, but none were large enough to fish or pose a problem crossing. I passed an older couple out for a day hike, on their way back to the parking lot. After this, I didn’t see anyone else until I reached the Escarpment Trail later that day.

porcupine mountains big carp river trail

After 2.8 miles, the Connection Trail meets the Big Carp River Trail, which I then followed East from here. This section of the trail seemed the longest for me. It was 5.3 miles to the Escarpment Trail from here, and this was mostly uphill. What made things a little difficult for me here was the fact that I had just purchased some new hiking boots a few weeks prior, and had only worn them once on my hike at Manistee River 48 hours earlier. This probably would have been enough time to break them in enough to be comfortable, but I mistakenly bought my Asolo Flame GTX boots one size size too big. I was already developing blisters from the Manistee hike, and did not have enough time in between trips to get new boots. Needless to say, my feet were killing me by this point. I spent most of the afternoon sweating and cussing my way up to the top, wishing I had chosen my footwear more wisely.

lake of the clouds view from big carp river trail

After a few miles on the Big Carp River Trail, you are presented with your first view. This made it all worth it, and the pain in my feet quickly be came less of an issue. While exploring the cliff’s edges, I figured out that I could jam my trekking pole into the ground and balance my camera on it to take pictures of myself. My pace slowed a little as I became more interested in taking pictures and checking out the views than covering a lot of ground. It was absolutely gorgeous up here and I was really hoping to get a campsite that overlooked Lake of the Clouds. Still on the Big Carp Trail, about halfway in between the Connection Line Trail and the Escarpment Trail there were three campsites along the edge of the cliff. The best one was already taken, and I was really bummed. I was hoping to stop here for the day as my feet were killing me, plus the view was incredible. And, to top it all off, the campsite did have a metal ring for a fire, which not all campsites had. So, I had to keep going and hope one of the sites closer to the lake were still available.

porcupine mountains, mi - lake of the clouds

Lake of the Clouds

Once you near Lake of the Clouds, there’s a parking area just off the trail and a large observation area overlooking the Lake. There were around 20 people here, which really takes away from any feeling of solitude that you may have had. I took a few pictures here where the views of the lake are probably at their best, and continued along the trail, now the Escarpment Trail. Only a few tenths of a mile farther and I encounter another campsite along the trail, above Lake of the Clouds. This one didn’t have a fire pit, but I didn’t care at this point.

porkies lake of the clouds shoreline

View of Lake of the Clouds from the shore

After setting up camp I headed down the North Mirror Lake Trail to the Lake so that I could filter some water and cook dinner away from my camp. This was a short hike but pretty steep. A big burger was dinner tonight, which always tastes delicious when camping. I kept it frozen in a cooler on my way to the trailhead and let it thaw in my pack while hiking during the day. By the time I was done eating and filling up my water supply, it was getting dark and I headed back up to my campsite. Finally, I was able to take my boots off and survey the damage to my feet. I put some moleskin on over my blisters, but there was nothing I could do for the rash I had above my ankles. Damn these boots.

Damn these boots

Although I had no fire tonight, the stars were very bright and I had a great viewing spot on the rocks near the cliff’s edge. I laid my sleeping pad on the flattest, smoothest spot I could find and stared up at the stars for a while before going to bed.

View from my campsite at sundown

Day 2 – October 5th, 2011

Miles hiked – 8.6
Route – Escarpment Trail to Lost Lake Trail to Government Peak Trail

Early morning on the Escarpment Trail

sunrise in the porkies over lake of the clouds

Sunrise over Lake of the Clouds

Escarpment Trail

I woke up early this morning to watch the sunrise, but was already packed and ready to go before it rose. Still, the scenery was stunning and I slowly made my way down the Escarpment trail, taking pictures and just enjoying myself. This was the best part of the entire trip for me. Lake of the Clouds was as smooth as glass, and made for some great pictures as the sun finally peaked over the mountains. I passed on other person up here who was taking a day hike, mainly out here to take some pictures. We chatted for a few minutes before parting ways. I took my time hiking this morning as I was not in a hurry to leave the beauty of the Escarpment Trail behind.

Lake of the Clouds to the West

Eventually I came across the Lost Lake Trail which I needed to take South. I dropped my pack at this junction and had a quick snack while airing out my feet. M-107 was very close to the trail at this point and you could hear cars driving by. I didn’t hang around here long, and was back on the trail after 15 minutes.

Lower Trap Falls

There wasn’t a whole lot to note here on this section until you get to the point where the trail follows the banks of the Upper Carp River. The river wasn’t huge, but it was scenic. There were a few small waterfalls as well as a couple of stream crossings that basically involved stepping on some rocks to make it across. I stopped to fish a pool at the base of Lower Trap Falls and caught one small brook trout before calling it quits and moving along.

Awesome view, huh?

Now on the Government Peak Trail, it was early afternoon. After passing an open meadow the trail became wooded again and began to climb in elevation. There were a lot of leaves on the ground now, more-so than yesterday it seemed, and it was difficult at times to follow the trail where there were no blue blazes. There were a few times where I lost the trail for a second and backtracked to find where I had strayed off course. This was no more than a 5 minute setback at most. The section of trail just before Government Peak was pretty steep, and I was very disappointed when I reached the top. There was no view at all, the summit was completely covered in trees. There’s a sign marking the elevation and some sort of old concrete structure up there, but that’s about it. Although my feet were hurting, I decided that I should push on to the next campsite West of Government Peak and hope this one was better. Besides, if I were to camp here, there’s no water and I’d have to hike to to the next campsite anyways in order to filter some.

porkies campsitee near government peak

A short hike Westwards on the Government Peak Trail and I was at the next campsite, which was decent. It had a fire pit, bear pole to hang food, nice clearing for my tent, and was next to a meadow with a small stream running through it. This was it, my feet have had it. It was only 2:30pm , so I had plenty of time to gather firewood, set up camp, and relax.

Best backpacking dinner in my book

Hiking solo, I was more cautious than normal when it comes to bears, so I made sure to cook my food a ways away from camp. Dinner tonight was 2 italian sausages on the camp stove near the stream. I’ll take a hearty meal like this over some noodle based meal any day! These things are great any day, but they taste unbelievable out in the woods. That’s a fact!

Tonight I started a fire using my flint. I had some birch bark and dried grass for tinder. It took a few minutes, but as dry as this tinder was it started quickly once it got a good spark. I ate some sour patch kids by the fire as the sun went down shortly after 8pm. This was a very relaxing night that I really enjoyed, even though I was really hoping to spend it somewhere with a proper view. But that’s the thing about backpacking, you need to be flexible. For me, I was perfectly happy in this moment and went to bed that night reflecting upon my time on the Escarpment Trail  earlier and the unforgettable views of Lake of the Clouds.

Day 3 – October 6th, 2011

Miles hiked – 5.7
Route – Government Peak Trail to North Mirror Lake Trail to Little Carp River Trail to Beaver Creek Trail

There was no point in getting up super early today as I only had a little more than 5 miles to go before reaching my car, and a 2.5 hour drive back to Rabbit Bay. It was another beautiful sunny day, temps in the upper 70’s.  I was really glad to have had such amazing weather this trip as I am usually not so lucky. I was on the trail again by 8:30 or so and was making good time towards Mirror Lake. The trail follows the North side of Mirror Lake which was a nice hike. Here, you pass a few rustic cabins that can be rented for $60 per night. As I hiked past one, there was a really scruffy looking guy taking a piss along the side of his cabin. He didn’t seem to happy to see anyone around, and I didn’t care to talk to him so I just kept moving.

Eventually, the North Mirror Lake Trail meets the Little Carp River Trail on the West side of Mirror Lake. After this, the trail becomes pretty boggy. Most of the time there was wooden planks to keep you out of the muck, which was really nice. There wasn’t much to note on this final stretch of trail, it was rather boring to be honest. There wasn’t much to see at all, so I kept going with few stops all the way back to my car. It was around 11:30am or so by the time I saw the parking lot, which was a huge relief for my aching feet.

Final Thoughts

I would have enjoyed this hike so much more if I had boots that fir properly. Now don’t get me wrong, my feet did not keep me from enjoying myself, but they sure were on my mind throughout the day. Fortunately REI has an excellent return policy, and I was able to exchange them for another pair of boots. I Didn’t get another pair of Asolo’s, instead I went with a pair Zamberlain Vioz GT boots which I LOVE!

The way this hike panned out went really well. The weather was awesome and the fall colors were out in force. A week earlier or later would not have been as nice, it was absolutely perfect in terms of timing. Don’t count on having 80° temps in late September or early October as I had, since these were record breaking temps, or damn near it.

The Escarpment Trail was by far the best part of this trip. If I were to hike here again, I would not repeat any of the trails I hike except the Escarpment. Instead, I would probably opt to hike the Lake Superior Trail and possibly some of the other trails on the West side of the park, closer to Presque Isle. The hike up to the summit of Government Peak is not worth it in my opinion.

Even if you didn’t want to hike here, seeing Lake of the Clouds from the overlook area off M-107 is worth it. The sunset is not really visible from the Escarpment but the sunrise is definitely an experience you won’t want to pass up if you’re here.

Complete Porcupine Mountains Photo Gallery

 

As always, questions and comments are welcome!

If you found my trip report useful, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment! Alternatively, if you feel you have any information you’d like to share with others regarding this hike, please feel free to leave that below in a comment as well.

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