WRITER | MARY ROSE KULCZAK
PHOTO| GARY GEEK
There are some must-see destinations on this planet. The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is one of them. It is aptly named — a genuine wilderness, ruggedly untamed, thrillingly beautiful, and a rare find east of the Mississippi River. Yet, for all of its wildness, some of its most stunning views can be seen from a wheelchair or stroller. No one needs to stay home in this adventureland.
Lots of boasting rights. Spanning 60,000 acres in the western UP, it is Michigan’s largest state park and home to the state’s biggest mountain range. Affectionately nicknamed the “Porkies” by locals, these mountains were formed two billion years ago and are part of one of the oldest mountain chains in the world. They may not be the tallest in the US, but for this part of the country, these mountains offer spectacular up-there views.
Three ridges make up the Porkies. The first rises 1,000 feet from Lake Superior and peaks at 1,600 feet. The landward side of this escarpment is reachable by vehicle. A short boardwalk from the parking lot is accessible to wheelchairs and takes you to one of the most photographed views, an overlook of the Big Carp River Valley and Lake of the Clouds. On a clear day, you can see 25 miles to the west.
The second ridge is higher, peaking at 1,850 feet. The two Mirror Lakes are in a high valley (1,500 feet) on the south side of the ridge. The third ridge is the tallest. At 1,958 feet, Summit Peak is the third-highest point in Michigan. Climb the 50-foot observation tower, and you’ll be higher than Michigan’s highest point, Mt. Avron. The view is worth the exertion.
Another boasting right is the park’s 35,000 acres of old-growth forest. It is the biggest and best tract of virgin northern hardwoods in North America and one of the largest relatively undisturbed northern hemlock-hardwood forests west of the Adirondacks. The federal government has named the Porcupine Mountains a National Natural Landmark.
You can immerse yourself in its wild beauty along more than 90 miles of hiking trails or 20 miles of mountain biking trails. Hikers of all levels can follow the 1.4-mile Visitor Center Nature Trail to learn more about the park. Or take the 1.2-mile East River Trail or the 1.1-mile West River Trail along the Presque Isle River, the largest river in the park. From the trails’ boardwalks and platforms, you will see astounding views of the waterfalls and rapids. Hikers seeking a multiday, rigorous trek can follow the 17-mile Lake Superior Trail, the longest and most challenging in the park. You will be awed by the views. For trail descriptions, visit the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park page on Michigan.gov/dnr.
It is difficult to decide whether the park’s Lake Superior shoreline or waterfalls are more stunning. Three public beaches bring you toe-dipping close to this greatest of the Great Lakes. Ontonagon Township Park, Union Bay, and Black River Harbor Recreation Area are perfect for leaving footprints in the singing sands, gathering agates and driftwood, swimming, stargazing … and with luck, watching the Northern Lights shimmer above the horizon.
The waterfalls in and around the Porcupine Mountains are equally enticing, however, and a dozen are within the park itself. The Presque Isle River falls include Manabezho, Manido, and Nawadaha. All three are easily accessible from a nearby parking area. Despite its name, Overlooked Falls are some of the most viewed in the area and are a gateway to reaching Greenstone Falls. Explorers Falls is a good example of a conglomerate slide; Little Union Gorge Falls is most impressive in spring after the snow thaws; Nonesuch, Traders, Trappers, and Trap Falls are all camera-worthy. And for backcountry enthusiasts, Shining Cloud Falls are a premier hiking destination.
But all is not wild here. The Friends of the Porkies host Folk School classes spring through fall to foster creativity and a deep appreciation of the area’s natural history and cultural heritage. And the weekend before Labor Day, the group provides three days of live music, jam sessions, workshops, and children’s activities during the Porcupine Mountains Music Festival held at the Porcupine Mountains Ski Area. (Note that this year’s festival has been rescheduled for 27-29 August, 2021, and the organizers hope to see you then!)
When visiting the Porkies, it’s possible to stay close to the wild yet in touch with civilization at area lodging, shopping, and dining destinations. With so much to explore, it’s easy to realize your Porcupine Mountains vacation. Let your wildest adventures begin.