I dove through diamonds the sun had sprinkled on the surface of Lake Superior and came up with a gasp. It was bracing and I loved it. I’d grown warm hiking along the Lake Superior Trail in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, and had been looking forward to this refreshing plunge since the rivulets of sweat began trickling down my back, several miles ago.
The juxtaposition of the trail’s heat and the lake’s chill is one reason I love hiking here. Another is that, though they’re the crown jewel of Michigan’s state park system, the Porcupines seldom feel crowded. At 60,000 acres (26 miles long and 10 miles wide), this is Michigan’s largest state park. Every turn on the 90-mile network of trails showcases nature’s grandeur.
The Porkies, as the park is affectionately known, contains a remarkable diversity of natural features. Twenty-five miles of Lake Superior shoreline serve as the northern boundary. Within the park are four inland lakes, several river systems, and dozens of waterfalls.
The park was established in 1945 to protect a rare tract of old growth forest, and in 1972, it gained its “wilderness” appellation with passage of Michigan’s Wilderness and Natural Areas Act. In 1984, it was designated a National Natural Landmark thanks to “the largest relatively undisturbed northern hemlock hardwood forest west of the Adirondacks…[and] excellent examples of wave-cut beaches marking former glacial lake shorelines.”
The park’s visitor center, located just off South Boundary Road, offers a video, exhibits and a one-mile interpretive trail highlighting features of the park. Here you can also sign out a fishing pole — there’s excellent fishing in the park — or a birding kit. The park’s frequent interpretive programs invite visitors to join in activities as diverse as taking a guided hike to an old mining town, trying out the park’s archery equipment, identifying common Lake Superior beach stones, learning about gray wolves in the park, peering into a bear’s den and more.
It’s possible to hike for hours without seeing another person on some of the remote trails. You may, however, see bear, wolf or moose, or countless smaller animals — fisher, otter, marten, and, of course, porcupine. Most of these creatures are naturally shy and will retreat unseen when they encounter humans. Should you be fortunate enough to spot wildlife, keep quiet and make sure the animal has a clear and unobstructed escape path. Do not feed wild animals, especially bear; it creates danger for yourself and others.
The park’s trails range from handicap accessible to highly challenging, even for an experienced hiker. They range in length from just a mile to 17 miles. The longer trails are broken into segments for easy navigation. The Little Carp River Trail is one of the most scenic, with rapids, waterfalls and old-growth forest. The Superior Hiking Trail is the longest and most rugged, and promises some of the most rewarding vistas; its western portion is part of the sevenstate North Country National Scenic Trail. Lake of the Clouds, one of Michigan’s most scenic spots, is best seen from the Escarpment Trail if you’re an avid hiker. There is also a short ADA access trail from the Lake of the Clouds parking area.
Counting one of the park’s most prominent features — its waterfalls — is problematic. When the rivers run high, there are fewer, longer falls. When rivers are low, some of the long drops are broken up into a series of shorter falls. Greenstone Falls on the Little Carp River Trail is a good example of a smaller, more picturesque drop. For something more dramatic, try the East and West River Trails along the Presque Isle River. Boardwalks, decks and observation platforms paralleling the river make it easy to view several falls on the river. Look for the 25-foot Manabezho Falls, named for a powerful spirit-god of the native Ojibwa people. The park’s most dramatic falls is Shining Cloud Falls, about a mile-and-a-half from the mouth of Big Carp River. It’s a strenuous fivemile hike, but worth it. Whether you hike in search of a waterfall or prefer to stroll easier paths, everywhere you turn in the Porkies, you’ll find breathtaking scenery.
Because such scenery invites creative expression, the Friends of the Porkies established a Folk School inside the park, where you can take a one- or two-day workshop in painting, stained glass, wood-working, fiber arts, writing, story-telling and more. The Friends also invite a handful of artists into their artist-in-residence program each summer, and host the annual Porcupine Mountains Music Festival, a three-day traditional music festival held the last weekend in August.
A BEDROCK TALE
The foundation, literally and figuratively, of the park’s diverse and beautiful landscapes is its geology. Its bedrock is a veritable classroom of the evolution of the North American continent when the earth was young. Volcanic activity just east and south of the Porkies resulted in the dramatic Portage Lake Volcanics, visible from Summit Peak Scenic Overlook. A second cataclysmic event was the “Midcontinental Rift,” which occurred when the North
American earth crust began to pull apart a billion or so years ago. Such rifts typically result in an ocean that gradually separates continental segments — in this case, it resulted in Lake Superior. What happened in the Porkies those eons ago is “among the world’s best examples of a failed attempt at continental breakup from plate movement.” Instead of a divided continent, we got a vast inland sea and “rock exposures that tell us much about the early stages of rift formation in continents.” The outcroppings that resulted from that Midcontinental Rift are visible from Lake of the Clouds Scenic Overlook. The Lake Superior region is one of the few places on earth to see such rift outcroppings; elsewhere, they’re covered with younger rock. The rocks that resulted from this rift are rich in silver and copper deposits, especially within the Porkies and nearby Keweenaw Peninsula.
Fast forward several eons to the era of glaciation. The last of the glaciers to affect this area advanced about 12,000 years ago and retreated 9,000 years ago. As the glacier melted, it created a series of lakes that, though they were short-lived, left telltale shorelines that today show up as cobblestone beaches carved into prominent elevations high above Lake Superior. These proglacial shorelines are easily visible at the trailhead to Government Peak trail.
BEFORE IT WAS A PARK
The Porcupine Mountains were named by native Ojibwa people, for the escarpment that rises gradually from the shore of Lake Superior and plunges sharply into the Carp River Valley some 12 miles later. Its shape, they thought, resembled the shape of a crouching porcupine.
Today, visitors come for the solitude. A century-and-a-half ago, they came to make their fortunes. Plentiful copper deposits in the UP proved valuable for use in electrical wiring, and helped make widespread use of electricity possible across the U.S. Between 1845 and 1910, 45 different copper mines existed in what would become the state park. Reminders of three of them are still evident today.
The very scenic Union Mine Trail leads to interpretive signs around the site of the Union Mine, opened in 1845 and abandoned a year later. As copper prices rose during the Civil War, it was reopened, but its fortunes crashed along with the crash of copper prices when the Civil War ended. Sketchy remains of two Union Mine shafts are located near the trail.
In 1858, miners began working the Carp Lake Mine, which closed in 1918. The property changed hands a number of times and in 1927, a new tunnel, visible today from M107 a couple miles of east of Lake of the Clouds, was drilled a thousand feet into the base of the bluff just below the original Carp Lake Mine. The Mead Mine, as it was called, was closed by 1929. When the State of Michigan bought the property, it stabilized a hundred feet or so of the adit (horizontal opening into a mine) and left it open as a historic exhibit. It has since been closed to protect bat populations, but just peering through the gate will give you a hint of what it might have felt and looked and smelled like to enter a mine during the heyday of this important era in UP history.
Evidence of a third mine — the Nonesuch — and the town that grew up around it is found off South Boundary. It’s hard to find, but worth getting directions or joining a guided hike. Today, Nonesuch is a barely discernable ghost town, but in its heyday, it had a population of some 300, a school, boarding house, U.S. Post Office, markets, livery stable, stagecoach service and a uniformed baseball team.
I’ve never heard tales of hauntings from these mining sites, but I do find myself haunted by the beauty of the enchanting park. And though the bedrock comfort of this place is compelling, I find I am more easily lured by the promise of a fortune of my own imagination — the silver sheen of Lake of the Clouds, the gold and rubies of a summer sunset, diamonds sparkling on sapphire blue Lake Superior. Fortunes such as these are priceless.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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