Hiking in the UP – or trying to at least…

WAAAAAAY WAAAAAAAAAAY back when the Earth was young and the election was still a month away, Matt and I decided we still wanted to do some kind of trip this year despite the pandemic. We originally wanted to go back to Pukaskwa National Park in Canada to do a 2 week out and back hike of the Lake Superior Coastal Trail but obviously with borders closed that wasn’t going to happen. (A little backstory to that – we went in 2019 for a 7 day trip and it was amazing. Matt, whose pictures I’m using for this post, took a TON of absolutely stunning photos but then disaster struck a few months later when the server we use for all of our files decided to die during an upgrade. We lost all of our personal documents, Matt’s tens of thousands of photos including our vacation photos with family, to Ireland, to Key West, and to Maine, and all of my pdf sewing patterns. It was pretty awful.) Pukaskwa is still on our list of places to go back to but it will probably be a while before that happens with the way things are right now. Anyways, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (lovingly referred to as the UP by locals we discovered) is very similar to Pukaskwa so we decided to trek up there for a couple of weeks instead.

While I enjoy backpacking more than day hiking and camping at this point, there weren’t a ton of places that were remote enough to really warrant that kind of expenditure of effort in my opinion. If you’ve never been backpacking before but you’d like to try it, make sure you don’t bite off more than you can chew. When we went last year we were both training for endurance for months prior to our outing. We also weighed less and were just generally more active since there wasn’t a pandemic going on. If you decide to go on a backpacking trip, don’t go alone. You NEED a partner your first time and preferably someone who has a bit of experience. Also, make sure your trail isn’t incredibly remote and is used fairly regularly. When we were in Canada we encountered exactly 3 people when we were out in the backcountry. If something had happened to one of us then the other could go for help (we had an emergency beacon as well) but if you’re alone and you get lost or run out of water or just twist your ankle and you AREN’T prepared, then you could be in a world of hurt. Remember, nature is wonderful and should be enjoyed but it can still kill you.

Ok, off of my soapbox now.

So we went to the UP. I spent about 6 weeks prior to our trip researching different parks, trails, and regions in the UP and also putting in reservations. Normally I would have spent longer than this on my research but with Covid I wasn’t sure we’d even be able to go. The UP was in the middle of a surge when we went but we weren’t very concerned since we didn’t plan on going to any hotels, restaurants, or places like that. Also, a “surge” in the UP was still much less severe than what was going on around us in the Indy area. The UP has a much smaller population compared to our suburb and the surrounding area. We’ve both been really anal about not going out to restaurants or in public and when we do have to venture out we’re always masked up and use hand sanitizer like it’s going out of style so I wasn’t concerned that we would be bringing Covid to the UP with us. All of my research led me to a couple of places to hit:

  1. Hiawatha National Forest
  2. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness
  3. Twin Lakes State Park
  4. Tahquamenon Falls State Park
  5. Wilderness State Park
  6. Ludington State Park
  7. Warren Dunes State Park

This definitely looks a little intimidating to look at now but most of the parks weren’t huge and we were looking for long trails to do day hikes on rather than multiple small hikes. This was also a loop going up from Indiana to Munising then through all of the other parks on the way back home.

After deciding we wanted to see as much foliage as possible, we determined to head out on the morning of October 9th. We drove north through Wisconsin and stopped at a small brewery in Milwaukee to grab some food. The grilled cheese with a side of cheese curds was probably not the healthiest decision I’ve ever made but #yolo. The drive from Indianapolis to the Bay Furnace campground was about 9 hours and we ended up pulling into our campsite at around 5pm. By the time we’d setup our new popup tent (don’t judge, we were just camping so I wanted to get something quick and easy to setup and I didn’t care about the weight) it was getting dark so we didn’t have time to explore that day.

The next morning we talked to some people from the campsite next to us (who were clearly outdoor enthusiasts and sounded like they were from an area nearby) to see what trails we should go to in Hiawatha. They told us that for the single day we had devoted to the area that it would probably have better luck going to Grand Island and exploring that instead. We caught the first ferry out had an invigorating ride out to the island.

I want to pause here for just a paragraph. If you aren’t aware, Lake Superior is, well, massive. It’s huge. It’s deep. It’s also FRIGID. According to NPS, Lake Superior surface water rarely goes above 60 degrees even in the summer. That may not sound very cold but remember that water is much denser than air and it only takes about 10 minutes for a human to go into hypothermia. AND THAT’S IN THE SUMMER. I knew all of this when we got onto the “ferry”. I think that “ferry” was a bit of a stretch for this vessel. It was a flat piece of metal with a small edge on it so that you wouldn’t go overboard. The day we took it, it was pretty breezy so the waves were a little bigger than I was comfortable with. Moral of the story – if you’re not a huge fan of being cold/damp on a breezy day then maybe find a different area to explore.

Grand Island itself was pretty grand. 🙂

The island is a great place to go if you’re in the area but I recommend planning to either stay all day or even spend the night at one of the campsites if you’re able. Unfortunately we didn’t realize that the island would be best suited for mountain bikes so we hadn’t rented any. We didn’t get to see the northern part of the island due to this (we might have been able to push ourselves and make it out and back to the cliffs but we really didn’t want to risk missing the ferry back). We went north on the west side of the island and took some pictures. We went up to about mile 5 then turned around and went back to mile(ish) 4 and went northeast to Echo Lake and had our lunch.

According to some of the plaques we read, Echo Lake is possibly the largest lake ever created by beavers. The whole island used to be a recreation resort (for the whole 4 months when it wasn’t too cold) and I guess people used to swim in Echo Lake. Who knows? Still too cold for me! There are some private residences on the island but the overwhelming majority of it is managed by the state.

By this point the temperature was starting to fall and the wind was picking up. It was also getting close to noon so we decided to start back. We went south on the Echo Lake Circle trail then continued south. We realized we were making excellent time so we decided to go by Duck Lake which was a little more out of the way. We were still making really good time so we meandered through some of the historic areas (including a private family cemetery that’s still active) on our way back. We still ended up getting back too early and had to wait for the ferry to come for about an hour (most of the other people were also waiting so I think we were all ready to get back to the mainland). We finally got cell service at the drop off/pick up site and saw that the temperature was now in the 40s so I didn’t feel very bad about how cold I was at that point. In case you’re wondering, the ride back was as terrifying as the ride over.

When we got back, we picked up some more firewood (you can’t have enough on camping trips!) and grabbed Matt a Coke at a gas station. We were both tired from our excursion so Matt went to bed right after dinner and I hung out by the fire for a few hours and read Stamped from the Beginning while drinking some whiskey to warm up a bit (because that’s how that works). When we woke up in the morning we decided to pack up and head to Porcupine Mountains as soon as we could.

Just a note on the Bay Furnace campground – this was one of the only campgrounds I could find that still had spots open when I looked in August (we weren’t the only ones who wanted to see the foliage apparently). It appeared to be operated by the USDA when I looked at it online but it turned out to be contracted to a random guy. He was not very nice and I don’t think I’d stay at this campground ever again. I heard the “owner” and his female companion (not sure if it was a partner or wife or friend) get snippy with multiple campers, ourselves included. Matt was yelled at for walking through an empty campsite (as in no equipment and no reservation tag on it, he just wanted to use it for a better picture of Lake Superior) and I heard them yell at some kids in the afternoon for being too loud as well. It was pretty but all of Michigan was pretty at that point. The bathrooms were also grosser than vault toilets normally are. The small road back to the sites was also full of potholes the size of our car. If you have a different option I’d suggest you take it.

From Munising it was about a 3 hour drive to Porcupine Mountains. It was a beautiful day with lots of sunshine and beautiful foliage to look at. As I said before, the UP is sparsely populated. There are a few “big” cities but otherwise there are scattered teensy towns/villages with mom and pop shops and maybe a McDonald’s. It was truly gorgeous to have Lake Superior on one side and peak fall foliage on our other side. We arrived in the Porkies around noon.

If you’ve never heard of the Porcupine Mountains don’t worry, we hadn’t either. It’s probably one of Michigan’s best kept secrets (or maybe I’m just a moron and hadn’t heard about the area before. That could be it.). It’s a large state park that takes about half an hour to drive through. There are lots of trails of different lengths and difficulties including a portion of the Lake Superior Trail which you can do some backcountry camping on. Since we were there during the last weekend of peak foliage, though, all of the backcountry sites on that trail were reserved so I’d reserved us a couple of nights in the Preque Isle Campground followed by a couple of nights in the Union Bay Campground. We decided to do a short hike out to Mirror Lake and back to our car before setting up camp.

This was probably the most beautiful hike of my life. All of the leaves were at full peak, there weren’t a lot of people out (despite it being the busiest weekend of the season, people still were wary of going on a “moderate” trail), and the temperature was absolutely perfect. It was about an 8 mile hike that took about 3 hours. We probably could’ve made better time but there were a lot of photo ops that we couldn’t help but stop for. It’s also really hard to make yourself hurry when it’s a perfect day outside. 🙂

We decided to check out some of the waterfalls just up from the campground that night as well. This area was fairly crowded due to the parking lot next to the “trail”. The trail is a series of wooden boardwalks to different waterfalls. There were lots of people taking them in, posing for selfies, and probably not social distancing enough but we were good. If it had been a little earlier in the day we probably would have taken some of the other trails that come off of the waterfall trails but Matt’s knee was seriously starting to hurt (he sprained it this past summer and didn’t really do any kind of training prior to our trip) so we called it a day and headed to camp.

When we got to Presque Isle we were really happy with it. This one specifically is tailored more towards tent camping rather than RVs. I don’t have anything against RVs but a lot of the people who use them also tend to go “camping” to have an excuse to drink too much, stay up really late, be really loud, and leave their trash around. Tent camping is always so quiet and laid back. It’s much more relaxing for me. We each had a beer, made some food, and Matt went through his photos while I read some more. Like I said before, it was a great day.

The only thing I’d caution campers about is really not a big deal in my opinion. There aren’t showers at this campground (not a big deal – you could absolutely go to the Union Bay campground instead and use their showers I’m guessing) and the water is also only in a couple of spots. There are two different water pumps – one at either end of the campground. You have to actually walk out to it, pump the water up, and then walk back with the water. This might be an issue if you need a lot of water or if you want coffee as soon as you wake up and you haven’t prepped for it. Again, though, this situation is really common in campgrounds that are a little older and shouldn’t turn you off to it.

Unfortunately, when we woke up the next morning it was starting to rain. We didn’t have any cell reception so we jumped in the car and tried to find a radio station to get a weather report (also unfortunately, we hadn’t packed our weather radio since we only planned to hike and camp rather than backpack). The only station we found was an AM station where 2 elderly ladies (or maybe they weren’t, who am I to judge?) were talking about mundane things like what they made their husbands for dinner that weekend, what was going on at their local rotary club, and things of that nature. To be honest it was really entertaining but not at all what we needed. Around 9AM we headed south towards a little town I’d gone into the night before (more firewood) since I knew I’d eventually had reception on my drive. About 30 minutes south of our campsite we finally had it! Woohoo! At least we had a legit expectation of when the rain would clear up. The radar showed a large storm with lots of red in it heading our way so we decided to go back to camp. By the time we got back, the wind had picked up (we later learned it was getting up to 60mph where we’d been) and it was thundering/lightning/raining like a tropical storm. It was also getting really cold, really fast.

So our first mistake was assuming the UP forecast was about as reliable as that in Indiana. Hoosiers love to tell everyone who will listen that if it’s too sunny/hot/cold/whatever in the morning just wait until evening when the weather will be different. Friends. This is not the case. We are not as extreme as Michigan. Ooof.

Second mistake – not having a backup plan. Any other year and this wouldn’t have been an issue. There used to be quite a few hotels and inns in the area as well as restaurants but the pandemic shut most of them down, at least for the season. There was one hotel that had ONE room left by the time we showed up at their door (because, again, no cell reception). I was wet, cold, pretty tired since I didn’t sleep well the night before, and willing to pay whatever price was asked for a damn room. That hotel was AmericInn. I will forever be grateful to the angels who let us check in early (10AM!) and just hang out in our room for that entire day. There’s also a little bar/grill in the hotel so we didn’t have to eat our dehydrated food although I think the burger and onion rings I had was probably worse for me. We didn’t leave our room until about 6pm when there was a break in the rain. We ventured out to watch the sunset and Matt took some photos before we hunkered in again and I made him watch both of the Adams Family movies FOR THE FIRST TIME. HOW DID I MARRY SOMEONE WHO HADN’T WATCHED THOSE MOVIES BEFORE?

The next morning it was still raining but the forecast showed that the system coming off of Lake Superior (oh yeah, didn’t I mention that Lake Superior is so MASSIVE that it makes its own unpredictable weather?) was ending and it would probably turn out to be a decent day. We checked out at 11AM to a slight drizzle but the clouds were breaking so we went to the Lake of the Clouds parking area to get started on our dayhike.

We did a loop from the Lake of the Clouds parking area along the Big Park River Trail to the Correction Line Trail and back along the North Mirror Lake Trail. The loop was one that had been suggested by the Porcupine Mountains map for being a strenuous loop trail that wouldn’t take more than 8 hours (it took us about 6.5). Overall the trail wasn’t difficult. It was very muddy but we expected that since it had been raining for the last 24 hours. There was one creek crossing that I stupidly thought would have a bridge or at least a piece of wood to cross (as others had) buuuuut it didn’t. The water was cold but not unbearable and it gave us a pretty great reason to trudge on and not turn back! The loop itself wouldn’t be difficult at all if the weather wasn’t wet but the mud definitely upped the ante. By the time we made it to the 7/8 mark Matt was about ready to throw in the towel (his knee hurt and we were also out of water since he decided not to bring any) but, I mean, that wasn’t really an option. It was a great hike despite the mud and I’d recommend it to anyone who wanted a good day hike.

After we finished up that hike we setup our camp at the Union Bay campground. As stated before, this one was tailored more towards RVs and pop ups but many people had already left undoubtedly due to the weather. Our neighbors had an RV and apparently cell or satellite signal and informed us that guess what? It’s going to start raining again in the morning around 8. Ugh.

We repacked most of our gear except for what was necessary and prepped to make a quick getaway in the morning.

The next morning we quickly packed everything else back up and then asked our neighbors if anything had changed since the night before’s forecast. It had! Not for the better, though. More wind and rain was heading our way but it looked like it was going to miss most of the Houghton area (the only place we could find a hotel that wasn’t hours out of the way) so we headed north and ended up at the Holiday Inn. As soon as we got there it started pouring (we’d hoped to explore some of the parks and trails in the area but hiking in the sleet is not high on my list of things to do on vacation) so I ran into Walmart, found a $2 bathing suit (!!!!!) and hung out in the hot tub at the hotel with my mask on and my antiracism book out. I think I stayed in there for at least an hour which probably wasn’t great for me but I didn’t really care at that point.

The rest of the evening was spent reading and watching more Halloween movies. Matt also had Little Caesar’s for the first (and last) time since college. When we woke up in the morning the temperature had dropped and the rain was starting to turn into a sleet/freezing rain instead. Super fun.

The next destination on our itinerary was also looking a little mucky when we arrived the next day so I moved our reservations around and we drove over to Tahquamenon Falls instead. When we arrived it was beautiful so we went ahead and (dumbly) setup camp before going on one of the smaller trail loops (about 1.5 hours) to see some of the waterfalls. Unfortunately, by the time we got back the weather had SURPRISE taken a turn for the worst. It was sleeting again and was super cold. The park has a brewery so we decided to go try to find some WiFi there.

We didn’t find any internet but the bar tender did tell us that 1) we were idiots to think the weather would follow any kind of forecast as the past week of weather wasn’t out of character for the UP and 2) we were suckers for thinking we could tent camp during October in the UP without a backup location/plan. Oh, and the sleet was going to turn to snow and there would absolutely be accumulation so we might be able to try our hand at snowshoeing.

As much as I want to go back to Michigan to do some winter sports, we hadn’t prepared at all for it on this trip. After a couple of beers I finally turned to him and told him I was miserable and this vacation was pretty awful. He laughed and agreed. It was only 3 so after a little soul searching (the cold walk back to the campsite), we decided to pack it in and cut our losses. We stayed in Mackinaw City that night, had some awful Italian food (Matt wanted “real food” although we’d barely touched our dehydrated stuff the whole time), and hit the hay. In the morning there was about an inch of snow waiting for us on the car (and about a foot at Tahquamenon Falls and even more back in the Porkies). We headed home without regrets.

Lessons learned:

  1. Don’t camp in the UP during a pandemic. You’ll still encounter people which is an unnecessary risk to an already overburdened healthcare system.
  2. The UP has no rules.
  4. If you’re going tent camping, be sure you’re aware of normal weather fluctuations for that time of year.

Get out in nature but be smarter than me about it. 🙂