The Midwest’s Last Great Wilderness: The Porcupine Mountains

Lake of the Clouds | Copper Peak and Summit Peak 

Go waterfalling | Porkies’ Facts-at-a-Glance

Want a true wilderness adventure in the U.S.? One with unrivaled vistas of Lake Superior’s stunning shores, roaring waterfalls, miles of rivers and streams, 35,000 acres of untamed old-growth forests and 90 miles of hiking/backpacking trails? You don’t have to travel to the wilds of Colorado, Utah or Alaska to immerse in nature. Come to the rugged Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the western reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

At nearly 60,000 acres, this is Michigan’s largest state park which you can access with a daily or annual recreation pass. But don’t think you have to be a diehard off-the-gridder to experience this vast Midwest wilderness. No one is left out of adventuring in the “Porkies.” Here are ways to enjoy it:

Visit one of the most photographed sites in the U.P. — Lake of the Clouds.

Photo credit: @abwalczak

You can access this exhilarating view in the Porcupine Mountains by foot, wheelchair or motorized cart. Follow the signs on South Boundary Rd. off of M-107. Park and take a 100-yard walk on a paved trail or ADA-accessible boardwalk to the top of a steep escarpment overlooking the beautiful Lake of The Clouds. Surrounded by forests and dramatic mountains, this lake is gorgeous all year but it’s a top destination for fall leaf-peepers when the forest is drenched in brilliant oranges, yellows and reds.

Hikers and anglers (catch-and-release only) can reach the shores of Lake of the Clouds by the Big Carp River Trail or Escarpment Trail.

Two other easily accessible lookouts — Copper Peak and Summit Peak

Photo credit: Copper Peak

Copper Peak boasts several titles. Located 10 miles north of Bessemer via County Road 513 to Copper Peak Rd., it is the only ski flying hill outside of Europe. It is also the highest man-made ski flying hill in the world and offers the highest unobstructed view in the Midwest.

To reach this vantage point, you take an 800-foot chair lift ride, then an 18-story elevator ride to the viewing platform. There you can gaze out at 2,500 square miles of spellbinding lush forests (yes, it’s a top fall color tour destination) and the glistening waters of Lake Superior. The hardiest adventurers can climb an additional eight stories to the ski jump’s starting gate for a jaw-dropping view. On a clear day, you can see parts of three states: Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In addition to viewing the scenery from the ski jump, experienced mountain bikers will love riding the surrounding trails’ thrilling descents. There are also trails for beginners, too.

Summit Peak Observation Tower, accessible from South Boundary Rd., is the highest vantage point in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. At nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, its climbable 50-foot tower is reachable after a short hike. If it’s a clear day, you can see Lake Superior, the Apostle Islands and Isle Royale. Open late spring to mid-October, this is a definite destination to add to your fall color itinerary.

Go waterfalling.

Photo credit: @adventurevert

Spring is peak waterfalling season in the Porkies. It’s when the snowmelt sends rushing water roaring down rivers and over glistening rocks. Other times of year are also camera-worthy, including when winter showcases its sparkling ice sculptures. There are 15 waterfalls in and around the Porcupine Mountains (here’s the official map)—giving you reasons to return multiple times to see them all. When building your itineraries, be sure to include:

Agate Falls near Bruce Crossing, one of the most scenic sites in the U.P.

Black River Waterfalls includes five major falls and several smaller ones that you can access along County Road 513, also known as the Black River Scenic Byway.

Bond Falls is located in the western U.P. in southern Ontonagon County near Paulding. This impressive waterfall on the middle branch of the Ontonagon River is 100 feet wide with a total drop of about 50 feet. It is one of the most photographed falls in the U.P. (While you are near Paulding, stay until after sunset to decide if the eerie Paulding Mystery Light is for real or not.)

Manabezho, Manido and Nawadaha Falls, the Presque Isle River Waterfalls, are located on the far west of the Porcupine Mountains near Wakefield Township. All three are reachable from the parking lot.

Play outside from sunrise to starry night! Name your adventure and you will find it here. Hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, disc golfing, canoeing, kayaking, boating, fishing, stargazing and Northern Lights viewing are all ways you can fill multiple days. Since this wilderness is home to one of the largest old-growth forest tracts, you also can spend time outdoors birdwatching and wildlife viewing. During the winter, outside activities include several downhill ski and snowboarding resorts plus miles of picturesque snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails.

Photo credit: @mending.mama

The stories these mountains can tell. You are never far away from hearing about the ancient copper miners, the 19th-century copper rush, lumberjacks and sailors who braved the heaving waves of Lake Superior off the coast of this remote corner of the U.P. Visit the Ontonagon Historical Society Museum to see a replica of the Ontonagon Boulder, a 3,700 chunk of nearly pure copper that is now housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. While in the vicinity, visit historic downtown Ontonagon and the Ontonagon Lighthouse, one of the oldest in the state.

Other historic sites include the Adventure Mine in Greenland — one of the best-preserved copper mines in the region — where you can choose from four underground tours, including one that sends you rappelling down to the second level. Or dig for minerals and rocks at Caledonia Copper Mine near Mass City.

For a glimpse into what working conditions were like during the copper rush, visit the Old Victoria Restoration. Self-guided and hour-long guided tours are available from mid-June to mid-October.

Porkies’ Facts-at-a-Glance

Photo credit: @portraits_of_a_traveler
  • Open all year. Requires a current Michigan recreation pass to enjoy the park. The park roads close Dec. 1 through late spring but the park is accessible via snowmobile during the winter months.
  • Make your first stop, the park’s Visitor Center, open mid-May to mid-October, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. It is located three miles west of Silver City on South Boundary Road, one quarter-mile from M-107. Built next to the largest old-growth hardwood-hemlock forest in the Great Lakes region, you can walk a one-mile trail that winds through the hemlocks and over majestic streams. Stop in the center to see the exhibits about the Porcupine Mountains and its wildlife, sign-up for interpretive programs and hikes, check trail conditions, buy fishing/hunting licenses, make backcountry camping reservations, browse in the gift shop and get directions to the park’s scenic sites and other nearby wilderness adventures.
  • Will you see porcupines here? Not likely. The mountains got their name from early adventurers who thought the outline of the trees along the ridges resembled the large rodent’s quills.
  • Two annual festivals are expected to return in 2022. The Snowburst Winter Carnival in February will offer downhill skiing, lantern-lit trail events, live music, fireworks and more. The Porcupine Mountains Music Festival will be held post-pandemic the weekend before Labor Day. Live music, workshops, jam sessions and children’s activities draw musicians and concert-goers to hear bluegrass, Americana, folk, rock, country, blues and more drifting on mountain breezes.

As 2022 approaches, call the park staff for upcoming festival dates and events, (906) 885-5275.

  • Lodging is available at resorts and hotels in nearby Silver City and Ontonagon. Porcupine Mountains cabins, yurts, cottages and campgrounds are also available in and around the park.

Ready to deepen your love of our amazing planet? Find wonderfully wild adventures in the Porcupine Mountains.