Stillness & Solitude
Come to Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains for blazing fall color, pristine waterfalls and a break from life’s hectic pace.
Come to Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains for waterfalls, rivers and untouched forests.
“That’s the Porkies,” Mark, my husband, tells us from the helm of our trawler, Mazurka. We were taking our three kids (then ages 4, 2 and 11 months) on a three-week cruise of the largest of the Great Lakes, and had just started our way up the coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when we encountered Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Our kids marveled at the tallest peaks they had ever seen. Lovingly nicknamed the Porkies, Michigan’s largest state park—at 60,000 acres—protects a virgin forest of northern hardwoods as well as waterfalls, rivers and some of the highest peaks in the entire Midwest. The park holds 35,000 acres of old-growth sugar maple, yellow birch, American basswood and eastern hemlock. Its name comes from the Ojibwa Indians, who likened the range’s outline to that of a woodland porcupine. We fell in love with the Porkies on that trip and have gone back every year to explore the area, the park and the mountains, and their many surprising gifts. The park exists today because a forward-thinking group of local residents started a movement to protect the old-growth forest back in the 1940s. They saw the value of preserving the land for future generations. With support from conservationist Aldo Leopold, the park was officially established in 1945. In 1972, it was designated the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Today it is one of the largest stands of old-growth northern hardwoods forest in the Midwest, if not the entire country. During autumn, the Porkies explode in red, orange and yellow beneath an unending sky. These vibrant colors are made even more spectacular by the sweeping vistas afforded at lookout points throughout the park. When the kids were a few years older, we took them to see Lake of the Clouds, one of the park’s highlights. We started out on the Escarpment Trail, which leads deep into the forest and then climbs out for some spectacular views of the lake. The kids ran ahead and reached the viewing platform before us; Mark and I could hear their squeals of wonder while we were still on the trail. Then we emerged from the trees and saw what the children saw: a gorgeous blue mountain lake nestled deep in the forest. We spent more than an hour on the platform and then set off to hike one of the trails nearby. So many things caught our attention, and we kept stopping as each curve revealed yet another stunning view. At about 2,000 feet above sea level, Summit Peak observation tower (the highest point in the park) gives a panoramic view of the forest framed by Lake Superior. On a clear day, you can see Isle Royale National Park to the northeast and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore to the northwest. When we descend from the high peaks, we journey beneath
the thick canopy of centuries-old trees. The light dims, and shadows dapple the rocks and mossy earth. We are in another world. We always listen for any rustling in the brush around us; the Porkies are well-known for bears, though we’ve never encountered one on the trail. Maybe it’s because of all the laughing and singing, and the astonished and excited cries of, “Look at this!” The park’s many waterfalls always elicit shouts of glee. There are more than 90 waterfalls in the park, some requiring a lengthy hike, some reached by car. Waterfalls and rapids along the Presque Isle River are among the most popular in the park and worth spending a day or more exploring (you can camp nearby). Manabezho Falls, the biggest on the Presque Isle River and the last before the river pours into Lake Superior, are gorgeous and always different, depending on the time of year and recent rainfall. Sometimes it’s one big curtain of cascading water, sometimes it breaks into several narrow falls. View it from the overlook or from a trail on either side, or go just a short distance downriver to a suspension bridge (it leads to the Presque Isle State Campground) for another view of the gorge. One of the reasons the Porkies appeal to my family so much is the quiet solitude—even during the park’s most popular weeks (high summer and fall color), it never feels crowded. Our children can really experience the freedom and joy of exploring a wild, ancient mountain wilderness. There’s a respect and reverence among people who visit and care for the park. The land remains true to the vision of its early supporters. Local residents help the park through Friends of the Porkies, a nonprofit group that honors the connection between the natural world and creativity. Their folk school offers classes in topics reflecting the area’s Native American and Scandinavian heritage. Every August the group holds a renowned music festival of folk and eclectic music, bringing both local and national musicians to perform in the mountains. About 15 miles from the park, the village of Ontonagon preserves the history and culture of the Porkies. Founded in 1843 at the mouth of the Ontonagon River, the village was once an early shipping port for the booming copper, lumber and fishing industries of the area. In fact, a 3,708-pound chunk of almost pure copper was found on a branch of the Ontonagon River, leading to the 19th-century copper rush. (That boulder is now at the Smithsonian Institution.) Ontonagon and its historical museum show a town devoted to the rich natural history and beauty of their beloved Porcupine Mountains. At the mouth of the river, the Ontonagon Lighthouse offers a unique tour because nothing is off-limits—visitors can study every detail of the lighthouse and artifacts of the families who lived there, capped off with views of the harbor, mountains and lake. A day (or more) on the shores of that lake is essential to every Porkies visit. Lake Superior’s frigid waves crash the beaches of sugary sand for miles. Our kids will brave the cold and spend all day in the water. We search for driftwood, agates and even the remnants of old shipwrecks. It’s hard to beat a final evening campfire on the shores of a great lake, at the foot of these magical Midwestern mountains.
A footbridge over the river leads to Lake of the Clouds.
Fallen leaves float beside exposed shale along the Presque Isle River.