A massive, remote old-growth forest is hidden in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This jewel, little known even to many Michiganians, is the Porkies — the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park.
The region’s forests, mountains, rushing rivers and cascading waterfalls cover a vast stretch of shoreline on the southwestern tip of Lake Superior. This ancient expanse of northern woods is packed with many activities as well as healing solitude.
The Porcupine Mountains are the highest point between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian range, and the state park is Michigan’s largest. In summer and autumn, this 60,000-acre wilderness area offers camping, hiking, scenic touring, hunting, fishing, animal- and bird-watching and kayaking as well as the calm of rustic cabin life.
The personality of the park changes in the winter, but activities still abound. Visitors may go downhill skiing at an excellent facility and chalet or explore the many miles of cross-country ski trails — and there also are snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, tubing and hiding away in one of the area’s cozy cabins.
The park’s old-growth forest is dotted with 16 cabins for rent, among the most popular programs in the park. Three of the cabins are open year-round. Some are a mile from the nearest road, but the hiking trails to the cabins are easy, and their remoteness adds to the allure of quiet, simple cabin life. These cabins are well-built, but they have no running water or electricity; they offer families, campers and seekers of peace and quiet an ideal way to escape the rush of city life — a quiet cabin in the Porkies may have curative powers.
Renters can experience cooking on an open fire or on an old-fashioned wood-burning stove. The cabins have all the utensils and tools needed, from frying pans and spatulas to axes and brooms. Most are situated close to a river or lake, and some cabins include a rowboat for exploring.
There is no ambient light anywhere near the state park, and stargazing on a clear night reveals millions of lights on God’s blackboard. On cloudless nights, the Milky Way is clearly visible, as are the northern lights. Call the state park headquarters for more information on the best cabins for stargazing. All cabin rentals within the park are made through the park headquarters.
HIKING AND CAMPING
More than 90 miles of hiking trails in the area give visitors a wide range of trails to choose, from short and easy to very challenging. Whether you plan a short waterside hike near your tent or cabin (or hotel room) or wish to confront the 16-mile Lake Superior Trail, there is a hiking experience for everyone in the Porkies. The North Mirror Lake Trail, a mere 11/2 miles, shows two lake views and provides easy access to the treasures within sight of the bridge near Mirror Lake.
For the more adventurous, the Lake Superior Trail is a magnificent trek, one of my most memorable hikes. Much of the trail runs along the rocky coast of moody and diverse Lake Superior. The trail winds through old-growth forest and waist-high fern meadows, and hikers frequently find themselves close to Superior’s coast.
Along the way, if the time of the year is right, hundreds of bizarrely colored mushrooms of many shapes and sizes are visible. The true beauty of the deep blue, orange, purple and speckled red mushrooms cannot be truly appreciated until they are seen hiding on the forest floor near logs and under ferns.
When you are ready to drop the backpack for the day, you’ll find there are many camping spots along the way, and some places have fire rings. Once the tent is up, take time to sit on the large rocks on the nearby Superior coast. On clear evenings, the red, yellow, pink and orange sunsets are stunning.
The Escarpment Trail can be hiked for distances of two, four and eight miles. The escarpment overlooks the coast, with blue vistas west toward Minnesota. It also provides a wonderful perspective of much of the Porkies.
Numerous waterfalls decorate the Porkies’ trails. From the Presque Isle campgrounds, it is a short hike to dramatic falls and cascades. Check with the park headquarters to get a list of active waterfalls.
Wildflowers of every imaginable color thrive in the park; scores of unique specimens can be seen along the roads and trails. Wildflower hunters and photography buffs should bring along a copy of the “Audubon Society Guide to North American Wildflowers” (Knopf) while they search the Porkies to identify the twayblade orchid, the yellow lady’s slipper, the trout lily, Dutchman’s breeches or the Indian pipe.
You need not be a bold adventurer to discover secrets the Porcupine Wilderness State Park offers. Your first stop should be the park headquarters, where rangers can provide the latest information about everything happening in the park. The headquarters building offers exhibits, slide presentations and information handouts. The professionals there offer expert advice on everything from recent animal sightings, weather, fees and reservations to local hospitality.
A must-see scenic drive takes visitors to the far western end of the Porkies to the Lake of the Clouds. Walk a few hundred yards from the parking lot to the lake’s scenic overlook because far below is the Lake of the Clouds, surrounded by a deep green forest. This vista is one of the finest in the park. Bring your camera and binoculars for the incredible views, and take time to savor this spectacle from different angles at the overlook.
The South Boundary Road goes through primeval forests and flowered meadows and past the Presque Isle Campgrounds and Scenic Area. This is a fine drive for appreciating a roadside view of the park.
Then there are the charming local towns of Silver City and Ontonagon.
Silver City is a village but offers the hospitality of a well-kept Best Western Hotel and in-town cabin rental for those not camping or staying in the state park.
The hotel runs an enjoyable restaurant and tavern within the facility. Friendly locals and visitors will play pool with you if you drop the quarters into the jukebox.
Two other restaurants in Silver City also serve excellent breakfasts, local specialties and tourists’ favorites as well as dinners and drinks. The ice cream shop is the favorite haunt of local black bears. Silver City also has a fine outfitter ready to equip all outdoor enthusiasts.
Close-by Ontonagon is a quaint Upper Peninsula town that is well worth visiting while touring the area. Be sure to visit the Ontonagon County Historical Society Museum for a new perspective on the importance mining played throughout the area.
Ontonagon’s Lake Superior shore has many additional boating, fishing and kayaking opportunities. The town also offers groceries and several restaurants with friendly proprietors ready to give you the lowdown on things to do in the area.
Lake Superior sunsets are just that — superior — and are among the most beautiful anywhere. On clear evenings, the entire western sky explodes with hues of orange, red, purple and pink. Most observers of this sight are drawn into a sense of wonder and inner peace as they watch the big orange sun sink slowly into the lake. During the warm summer months, human activity at the park comes almost to a standstill as everyone finds a spot to watch the sky painted by the colors of a northern Michigan sunset.
Whether you are hiking, boating, driving or sitting quietly, there is plenty of wildlife to see in the state park. A sample of the out-of-the-ordinary creatures well known in these woods are black bears, martins, porcupines, peregrine falcons, bobcats, badgers, red foxes, wolves and fishers.
Occasionally, full-grown moose can be seen rambling in the most remote ends of the park.
The rumors persist, now stronger than ever, that the wolverine walks the Porkies. Wolverines have been seen and photographed recently in more civilized parts of Michigan, so why not the Porkies, too? After all, this is the Wolverine State.
Seeing or photographing any of these animals could be challenging and will require a great deal of luck, patience and a knowledgeable local guide. Nevertheless, all those critters are out there, perhaps available for photographs.
The fishing opportunities in the area are daunting. Rivers, small lakes, a Great Lake — they’re all here. Unless you are hauling your boat up to the Upper Peninsula to fish, do some research online and on the phone for the best guide or outfitter to fit your needs.
The Ontonagon Chamber of Commerce is a handy start. The brook trout, smallmouth bass, pike, lake perch and bluegill await and — when the season is right — you can catch steelhead and salmon from the shore of Lake Superior. Outside of the Great Lakes, the only other places to shore-fish for salmon are in Washington and Oregon. A Michigan fishing license is required to enjoy this unique experience, and many area stores sell them.
SEA AND RIVER KAYAKING
The coast of Lake Superior provides excellent sea kayaking opportunities, but the challenges are great. Experience and proper equipment are musts. Lake Superior is a huge, cold and, at times, rough body of water, legendary for its storms sinking large ore freighters.
The Porkies’ Lake Superior coast is remote and pristine, without auto traffic, houses or civilization. Sea kayaking and camping along the coast are singular adventures.
It is difficult to find a sea kayak challenge within the lower 48 states that is not on an ocean coast.
Lake Superior is one place that will challenge the adventurous kayaker. In fact, kayaking to a park cabin from the Union Bay Marina is a popular option for the experienced sea kayaker.
The less experienced may want to test their skills at Union Bay Marina or Presque Isle campground before venturing out into the big lake.
Sea kayaking off the coast of nearby Ontonagon might be a bit easier for those not ready to travel too far from the shore.
River kayaking in the Porkies is a wonderful alternative to sea kayaking. Michigan’s most challenging white-water stretch is on the Presque Isle River within the state park.
The white-water section of the river runs generally west for more than 17 miles. Portions of the river are rated a IV on the scale of difficulty — not advisable for open canoes. Local outfitters will provide lots of advice and support.
Visitors to Michigan’s secret jewel of a state park can share its beauty and quiet with the many people who come to the park annually to renew their love affair with the old-growth forest. You probably will embrace the quiet cabin life, marvel at the and mountains and begin to plan your next trip to the Porkies.
For more information about the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park, Contact: Park Manager. Porcupine Wilderness State Park, 33303 Headquarters Road, Ontonagon, MI 49953; phone 906/885-5275; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit the Web site, www.exploringthenorth.com/porkiesum/intro.html.
Information is available from another Web site, www.michigandnr.com/parksandtrails/ParksandTrailsInfo.asp.