Showing posts with label Michigan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michigan. Show all posts

Pure Michigan: Hiking the Porcupine Mountains

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a fantastic travel destination that was seemingly built with the outdoor adventurer in mind. For my money, the U.P. – as it is referred to by the locals – is quite possibly the best wilderness setting east of the Mississippi River, providing visitors a great outdoor playground for just about all of their adventure needs. In fact, in previous blog posts I have shared my experiences kayaking on Lake Superior, and mountain biking the outstanding trails that are found there as well. But hikers, backpackers, and campers will discover their own little slice of heaven in the U.P. as well. That comes in the form of the Porcupine Mountains, a beautiful and remote landscape that just begs travelers to come explore.

Spread out over more than 60,000 acres of prime U.P. real estate, the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is a fantastic destination for those looking for scenic day hikes, or a place to make an extended stay in the backcountry. The park falls along the northwest corner of the Upper Peninsula, and looks out onto Lake Superior itself. Known locally as the "Porkies," the park features rolling hills covered in old growth northern hardwood forests, which consist mainly of Maple trees, Yellow Birch, American Basswood, and Eastern Hemlock. The park is also home to a myriad of wildlife, including deer, moose, gray wolves, bobcats, lynx, and river otters. Black bears are also quite common throughout the region, and visitors are encouraged to stay vigilant while hiking there.

The park has approximately 87 miles of mixed-use trails that crisscross the Porkies, and grant access to some of the more scenic areas, as well as the wild backcountry. Those trails are mainly for hiking in the summer, and cross-country skiing in the winter, although a few are open to mountain bikers as well. Visitors will find that the trails are well developed, and provide easy walking, when close to the trailhead, but as you get further away from the parking lot, the routes become narrower, more rugged, and demanding. Backpackers can pick from a number of routes to take them deep into the wilderness, and for the most part, they'll be the ones most likely to see the truly wild sections of the trails.


Backpackers and campers will also discover that there are a number of modern and primitive campsites available, as well as rustic cabins that can be reserved in advance of a planned visit. These sites make for a wonderful place for travelers to truly experience everything the Porkies have to offer, starting with spending a night in an amazing wilderness setting, far from the noise, lights, and commotion of any city.

Water plays a crucial element throughout the park, helping to shape its over time. As mentioned, many of the park's vistas overlook Lake Superior, but there are also a number of smaller lakes and rivers that flow through the Porcupine Mountains too. Several of the rivers cascade down the sides of the steep hills, creating breathtaking waterfalls that are amongst the most popular hiking destinations in the entire park. These beautiful settings are mesmerizing to watch, and make for a memorable travel experience.

The crown jewel of the park is, without a doubt, the Lake of the Clouds, a massive body of water that sits between two tall ridges, and is completely surrounded by dense forest. The lake is fed by the Carp River, which flows in from the east, and out the west as it continues its long march to Lake Superior. An easily accessible scenic overlook makes it a breeze for any visitor to the Porkies to see the Lake of the Clouds in all of its glory, but in order to actually walk its banks, you'll need to hike deeper into the park itself. I'm sure the Lake of the Clouds overlook is amongst the most popular locations in the entire park, and can be quite busy at times, but when I visited it was relatively quiet, and easy to enjoy the fantastic view.

Now, lets make one thing clear. The Porcupine Mountains are not really "mountains" in the strictest sense of the word. You won't find snow-capped peaks rising above the tree line in Michigan, and visitors won't be contending with altitude on their excursions into the backcountry either. But, these steep hills and thick forests are still a wilderness playground worthy of any outdoor adventurers attention. The landscapes are rugged, remote and demanding, and the Porkies are located far from any major city. Cell service is practically non-exstant, and if someone were to run into trouble in the wilderness, it could take some time for help to reach them. In short, the Porcupine Mountains are a destination that needs should be respected, both for what they offer, and what they could do to someone who takes them lightly.

In my brief stay in the Porkies, I was able to hike a couple of excellent trails, and get a very brief taste of what the location has to offer. What I saw was an outdoor setting on par with anything you'll find in the eastern United States, and a worthy adventure destination in its own right. After spending a few days in the region, I have simply come to the conclusion that I need to go back to see more of the area for myself. There are trails to be hiked, and remote places to be visited, that I simply did not have time for on my most recent visit. Hopefully I'll get the chance to change that in the future, but in the meantime, you should add the Porkies to your list of places to visit. You won't regret it in the least, and you're likely to fall in love with park too.

Find out more about what the Upper Peninsula, and the rest of Michigan, has to offer at Michigan.org.

Pure Michigan: Kayaking Lake Superior

Summer on Michigan's Upper Peninsula brings a host of possibilities for outdoor adventure. Last week, I talked about the amazing mountain biking that can be found there, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. The U.P. sits on the edge of Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, which means there are ample opportunities for paddling excursions throughout the region as well. Whether you enjoy whitewater rafting, flat river paddling, or sea kayaking, there is something to appeal to every kind of kayaker.

My base of operations while on the U.P. was Copper Harbor, a town of just 80 permanent residents who take pride in all of the outdoor adventures they have just out their backdoor. The small town sits on the banks of Lake Superior, and while the hills overhead make for amazing mountain bike riding, the lake offers endless opportunities of a different variety.

Covering approximately 31,700 square miles (82,103 sq km), Lake Superior more closely resembles a sea rather than a like. That means, most of the kayaking is done in sea kayaks, which are longer boats that trade maneuverability for stability. The day I was out on the water, the conditions were so smooth that just about any kayak would have sufficed, but a long boat designed for the sea cut through the water nicely, making it easy to get up to speed, and cover solid distances without much of an effort.

As with my mountain biking adventure, my group rented our equipment from the Keweenaw Adventure Company. The expert guides from this locally owned shop were able to quickly and easily set us up with all the gear we needed, and matched us to boats that were fitting for the size and level of experience of the paddlers. A couple of the journalists that I was traveling with had never kayaked before, but their apprehension was soon quelled by putting them in a tandem boat with someone that could help get them through the experience. Before setting out, the staff from the Adventure Company gave us an orientation on the most efficient way to paddle, how to turn the long sea kayaks, and what to do in case our boats tipped over. Fortunately, that never happened while were out on the water, so while those instructions were valuable, they weren't needed.


Before too long, we were on the water and setting out from a small, protected cove, for the lake itself. Following a long, harsh winter, the lake has been slow to warm up this season, and the temperature hovered around 40ºF (4.4CºC) even in July. Because of that, we were forced to wear wetsuits, which would help insulate us from the cold temperatures, should any of us be unfortunate enough to fall in. As I said, fortunately that didn't happen, but the cold water was probably the biggest danger we faced that entire day.

Once out onto the lake itself, we hugged the shoreline, and soon were making good progress across water that was nearly as smooth as glass. That isn't always the case on Lake Superior, where massive storms can create big swells at various times. Unlike on an ocean or sea, where the moon can create tidal patterns, the water on the Great Lakes is more affected by weather conditions, with changes in pressure creating tides in a completely different, and more unpredictable fashion. A natural phenomenon known as a seiche (produced "sayshe") occurs when high pressure pushes down on one portion of the lake, creating higher water levels on another. This isn't often as pronounced as a big tidal pattern, but it can create dangerous conditions at times.

That certainly wasn't the case on my afternoon out on Lake Superior. I couldn't have asked for better conditions, with a warm sun shining overhead, a slight breeze bringing cool air across the open water, and surface conditions that couldn't have been more perfect. The water was incredibly clear, allowing us to see a variety of things just beneath the surface, including an array of large rocks, the remains of an old dock that had been destroyed decades earlier, and even the occasional fish. A marker buoy – made from an empty beer keg – marked the spot where a ship called the John Jacob Astor had sunk in the harbor back in 1844.

As we paddled down the shore, the old Copper Harbor Lighthouse came into view, standing guard over the entrance to the harbor as it has since 1848. During the day, it makes for a nostalgic image, harkening back to a bygone era when lighthouses were provided important navigational clues for ships coming and going along the Great Lakes. Now days, more sophisticated GPS and radio systems have replaced these relics, but they remain an important part of our history none the less. If you ever visit Copper Harbor, I recommend taking a visit to the lighthouse, as it provides an excellent look at the life of those who manned these important stations. When my group took the tour later that evening, we even spotted a large bald eagle perched amongst the tall trees there.

Once we had paddled for a distance, our guides decided we were ready to turn our boats out across open water, and make our way towards Porters Island, a small chunk of land that separates the harbor from Lake Superior itself. By now, everyone was feeling comfortable in the cockpit of their kayak, and we soon rounded the edge of the island, with nothing but open sea off to our side. Moving away front he relatively safety of the shoreline gave you a sense of just how vast Lake Superior truly is, as once you passed beyond Porters Island, water stretched unbroken to the horizon. It was an experience that was both exhilarating and humbling at the same time.

Before I knew it, we were turning our boats back into the protective little cove, and ending our paddling adventure. Much like my experience on the mountain bike, it was just enough of a taste to whet my appetite, and encourage me to want to return to the U.P. once again in the future to explore the paddling opportunities further. I feel like kayakers will discover that Michigan's wild backcountry can provide them with a wide variety of great experiences, and Lake Superior is just one of many excellent places to paddle.

Beyond that however, visitors to the U.P. who are not there kayak should take the opportunity to give it a go as well. The trained staff at the Keweenaw Adventure Company will provide you with all of the skills and equipment necessary to head out on the water for a fun adventure. They will ensure that you stay safe at all times, and sea kayaking on Lake Superior is a safe, fun introduction to the sport. It is also a beautiful destination to enjoy a paddling excursion as well.

To find out more about what the state of Michigan has to offer, visit Michigan.org.

Video: The Miner's Revenge Mountain Bike Race

If you read my post yesterday about mountain biking on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, you probably saw my mention of a unique mountain bike race held there every year. It's called, the Miner's Revenge, and it takes place in and around the Adventure Mining Company on the Keweenaw Peninsula. What makes this race so special is that the course of the race runs not just around and over the mountain, but inside it as well. Racers must negotiate a narrow tunnel left over by the copper mines that once populated the area. It certainly adds a new twist to a race, and as you'll see in the video below, the tunnel makes for a unique environment. This is a race unlike any other, and only adds to the great riding in the U.P.


Pure Michigan: Mountain Biking on the Upper Peninsula

Photo Credit Bryen Dunn
Michigan's Upper Peninsula quite possibly may be the most remote and wild place in the eastern United States. Bordered on three sides by the Great Lakes, it is a land covered in thick forests and rolling hills, and devoid of most signs of civilization. Just how remote is it? Consider this. Michigan is home to approximately 10 million people, and yet less than 3% of them live in the U.P. If you go there, don't expect reliable cell phone service, speed Internet, or much in the way of amenities. What you should expect is some of the most down to Earth people that you could ever meet, an abundance of great outdoor activities, and plenty of adventure.

My travels in the U.P. took me to the town of Copper Harbor, which is located at the extreme north of  the Keweenaw Peninsula, directly on the shores of Lake Superior. It is a sleep little town that has just 80 year-round residents, but welcomes adventurous travelers, particularly in the summer. One of the local businesses is the Keweenaw Adventure Company, which hosts kayaking trips out onto the lake, as well as guided mountain bike rides onto the nearby trails. But those trails aren't just some run-of-the-mill singletrack with little to offer experienced riders. The network of trails in and around Copper Harbor have been rated as a Silver Level Ride Center by the International Mountain Biking Association, which means they rank amongst the top five in the world.

With that kind of a reputation, I was eager to check out the trails for myself, and one morning while I was there, a few of us grabbed some bikes, and hit the trail. After a bit of a warm-up on some flat and fast trails near town, we caught the shuttle up to the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, which is home to beautiful golf course, but also provides access to several of the mountain bike trails. Soon, my companions and I were zipping off down the road to the trail head for a route called Garden Brook, which would eventually provide access to another called Bullwinkle. Within minutes, we were flying across a trail that was both technically challenging, and incredibly fun, mixing the twists and turns of downhill, with just a enough climbing to give your legs a good workout as well.



The lush green forests that line the hills around Copper Harbor made for a great backdrop to the ride. The trails wandered through those woods as if they were meant to be there, rather than something that was carved out by human hands. The setting would have been almost serene, were it not for the breakneck speeds that were obtained on the sustained downhill portions of the ride. When you conjure up dreams about what a perfect mountain bike ride through a forest should be like, it will resemble what is found in the hills above Copper Harbor. Fast, demanding, wild, and fun.

The trail isn't the only thing that is wild in the region. We had only been on the trail for a few minutes when we came across bear scat that was fresh from that morning. Black bears are plentiful on the U.P., and there was one wandering close by. Fortunately, we never came across him on our ride, although a bear sighting would have only added to the great sense of fun that was had that morning.

Photo Credit: Hansi Johnson
Both Garden Brook and Bulwinkle are narrow singletrack from top to bottom, with the occasional wooden bridge to help cross over parts of the trails that are easily washed out, or could cause damage to the surrounding landscapes. The route is easy to follow, even for first timers, and sign posts clearly mark the intersection of trails. We passed several of them on our descent, with each giving an enticing hint as to other possible rides that were available, if only we had time to take them.

Before we knew it, our morning on the mountain bike trails were over, and we had to turn in our bikes in order to move on to other activities. But the exhilarating, adrenaline-inducing run down the Copper Harbor trails stayed with us for the rest of the day. There were so many other trails to ride, and so much more to explore. I wanted to stay for several more days just to see what other opportunities were available, and I look forward to a time when I can return, to do just that.

Our next stop was off to the Adventure Mining Company, where we would eventually walk deep under the Earth into an old copper mine. That is a completely different story for another time, but while we were there, we learned about a unique mountain biking race that takes place each year. It is called the Miner's Revenge, and it challenges riders to take their bikes over, around, and through the mountain. That's right, this race not only features a trail that wanders up and over the surrounding hills, but it actually goes into the copper mine itself, with riders traveling along the old tunnels that are still open there. Now that sounds like a crazy ride!

If you'd like to learn more about the mountain biking trails on the Upper Peninsula, and in Copper Harbor in particular, check out CopperHarborTrails.org. You'll find an interactive trail map, information on local events, and more. It is a great place to plan your own mountain biking excursion to the U.P.

And for a good look at the trails themselves, check out the video below as well. It'll truly give you a sense of what to expect.

Find out more about everything Michigan has to offer at Michigan.org.