Our trip to the Upper Peninsula (UP) had ended at the tail end of July on a high-note. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore had been a quick but thoroughly enjoyable experience. As a matter of fact, the 2nd half of that trip had been quite remarkable. I think we both realized on the trip home, we had actually wanted more.
Once we arrived back in Chicagoland, we immediately began giving some serious thought about getting to the Porcupine Mountains, a Michigan State Park we had planned on exploring during our jaunt to the UP, but due to weather and timing, were not able to make happen. After looking at our schedules and in consideration that we had a place to stay in northern Wisconsin, we made a plan, and within a week and a half we were back on the road for for an addendum to the UP trip.
North Woods Wisconsin
We are really privileged to have family who own a place to stay a little outside of Minocqua, WI. Located in the heart of of the North Woods, we had spent plenty of extended weekends near this popular summer haven. When making the 6 or so hour drive to the outskirts of Minocqua, there is often quite a bit of traffic until you cross the Illinois-Wisconsin state line just north of Rockford, Il, so we left just before lunch to avoid any rush hour traffic.
The North Woods make up the northern 20% or so of Wisconsin – stretching from the Lake Superior coast down about 80-100 miles south, and most of the way from the Minnesota border on the west to the western edge of the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which connects to Wisconsin’s northeastern tip. Though there are cities, from Duluth in the west and Ashland in the center, smaller towns are infrequent- you run into them every 30 or so miles it seems.
One’s entrance to the north woods of Wisconsin is a transition from the rolling farmlands north of Madison and Steven’s Point into pine forests which are ever-increasing in both size and scent. Before long, the trees stand like sentinels guiding the highway towards the weekend getaways further north.
The purpose of this trip was first and foremost the Porcupine Mountains. Spoiled by numerous visits to Minocqua, we had just a few things to accomplish there: do some bike riding on the trails and to get to Mama’s Supper Club for some heavy Italian food.
This had been the first time we had brought bikes, and within minutes of arriving in downtown Minocqua we were in desperate need of stretching our legs. We decided to head straight for the Bearskin Trail, which has its launch point right in the middle of town. In the past we had walked the trail on a number of occasions – it begins with a planked bridge across the town’s namesake lake. Once over the bridge, the trail borders some private properties before beginning a straightway into the surrounding forests. The trail, which goes on for 18 miles, grows quite empty a mile or so on, and for the most part, is shaded by the trees. Outside of the need to stop for occasional crossroads, the fairly flat trail is a peaceful getaway from the business of Minocqua. The Bearskin Trail will be something we revisit in the future.
The Minocqua area offers an abundance of activities for those looking for a getaway. In another post, I will dig deeper into specifics, but for now it is worth noting that the town has similarities to other getaway towns – restaurants, sweet stores, mini-golf, and antique shops surrounded by dozens of glacial lakes and pine trees. If possible, I highly recommend staying outside of the downtown in one of the nearby cabins. Though Minocqua itself is not large, tourist season (Memorial Day- Labor Day) congests the town square.
By the time our ride was through, sunset was only minutes away, and we made our way 20 or so miles down the road to our stay for the night in preparation for an early start in the morning.
The Porcupine Mountains
Just a week and a half earlier, storms along the Lake Superior coast had amended our travels in the Upper Peninsula. On our drive from east to west, we had intended to make our way to the Porcupine Mountains (the Porkies,) which sit on the western side of the UP, hugging the Superior Lakeshore. Unfortunately we had not made it to the destination.
After a night’s stay in Minocqua, we were ready for the 1.5 hour trek to the mountains. The north woods drive covers landscape similar to our experiences in the UP. Tall forests, dotted with lakes, occasional cabins, and the rare small town, led to the western gateway of the state park. Though we had read varied descriptions of the park, we entered the park with high expectations.
Upon entering the park after a short and comfortable drive, we made our way to the eastern side. With only one day to absorb as much as we could, we figured we’d try to avoid driving long distances through the park on the return, especially if we were here after nightfall.
The use of the word “mountains” in the name of the park could be perceived as mildly deceptive. The Porkies are not the Rockies, the Sierra Nevadas, or even the Appalachians. Though much larger than simply foothills, the mountains of the UP have their own character and are best appreciated when not compared to some of the other domestic ranges.
Let me begin with a summary. The place is awesome and extensive. It would easily have been a “best-of” had it officially been included in our larger UP trip. Gorgeous hikes, 360 degree vistas, perfect blue skies, and what may be my favorite waterfalls in the U.S. make this park a “must.”
Our trip through (or really around) the park to the east side rolled up and down through the range. Though elevations changed, it was not a roller coaster ride at all and we arrived at the visitor center in about 45 minutes. There we noted a few of the places we wanted to explore, and within minutes were back in the car heading a short distance to the Lake in the Clouds.
The trailhead/ lot for the Lake in the Clouds sits higher in elevation, providing a view of the Lake from above. The rocky outcrops in the area provide dazzling vistas, and the lake holds true to its name- lake waters reflecting the sky and clouds, while snuggled by the density of the surrounding forests. The lake itself is quite large, and though we did not hike all the way down it, it did not take much of an imagination to to think the shores would provide a great spot for some rest and relaxation.
The crowds in the area existed, but were not so large as to distract from the beauty of the area. After 30 minutes soaking in the views, we began making our way downhill on a hike. The surrounding old growth forests quickly placed us in relative isolation. The path, though clear from years of being shared by others, still had a strong primitive vibe, as it was often broken up by fallen trees and roots systems which had made their way to the surface. We hiked for a bit, sort of aimlessly, just enjoying the peace and quiet. We eventually made our way back up to the viewing area, taking a few more minutes to just stop and stare. The views of the lake were a great way to start this trip.
It was already clear from our drive in, and the stop at Lake of the Clouds, that the Porkies could be a multi-day destination of all their own. In some ways, realizations like this are actually great – amazing areas such as this have a magnetism that encourages you to come back and dig deeper. As I write this, I am literally sitting here wondering if there “is a chance we can get back there in the next few months?” For the moment, I will have to settle with pictures and the memories.
Our drive from the Lake of the Clouds was the actual start of the return trip, though we planned on at least 2-3 other stops before truly beginning the return to Minocqua. Just down the road from the Lake was a place to stop for gas and quick snacks, and from there we headed a few miles down to the Union Mine Trail. Like many other trails in state and national parks, this trail worked as a standalone hike, but also offered connections to other, larger trails. In this case we took about an hour or so, and quickly made a small descent toward the riverbanks on what was a relatively primitive trail. The colors of the trees coupled with what looked like orange oxidation on the surrounding rocks made for a nice middle of the day hike through what had historically been mining territory.
We continued on our way a bit further down to the Summit Peak Scenic Area. A larger parking lot provides access to the numerous trailheads in the area, and we chose one which lead us to an overlook of the park. The trail was short but provided a steady ascent of a few hundred feet.
Though protected from the overhead sun by the trees, the warmth created by the sun in these peak hours of the day were some of the higher temperatures we had had up in the Northwoods. After about 30 minutes or so, a wooden man-made structure was visible in the distance. We beelined for the tower, and before long were making our way up the few dozen steps to the top. Like the overviews at Lake in the Clouds, the vistas here provided 360s of the park – green blankets of trees occasionally pock-marked by blue lakes. For a quick minute, the views oddly reminded me of the vistas we had taken in at the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. After 10 minutes or so looking outward from the structure, a larger family was arriving. Choosing to make way for our fellow explorers, we headed back down and descended to the lot for our car. We had decided on one last, longer stop before our exit from the park, the Presque Isle area of the park.
To be very clear, this is a different Presque Isle from what we had visited a few weeks before, a few hours east in Marquette, Michigan. Perched along the Presque Isle River, the sights here were my favorite in the park. On the north end, the rush of the river leads you to Lake Superior, which we had grown familiar with over the past weeks. However, if taking the trails hugging the river south, you found yourself in denser forests. We had been told the waterfalls really made the area, but I was really enjoying the shaded stroll amongst the trees. Eventually we chose one of the trail stems and made it down to the riverside.
I have to be honest – I do like waterfalls, though I never go quite as crazy about them as others do. We’ve been lucky to see dozens, including some of the most popular in the states. As we wandered along the riverside, what became clear was that these were not just waterfalls.
Appearing hand-sculpted and smoothed, the black rock below was shaped as such that portions of the river swirled around in a whirlpool-like fashion.
Large rock outcroppings, appearing as numerous flat and elongated shelves, extended for yards out onto the river yielding unobstructed views of the waterfalls to the south. The rock platforms provided a lot of space for visitors to walk out and view the surroundings.
I have never seen something quite like this before, and though the park provided many cool views, this was the goldmine. We stayed put for a good bit before eventually making our way to the planked trails father south for views of the other 2 waterfalls in the area.
Presque Isle of the Porkies is home to 3 great waterfalls and all 3 are within hiking distance of each other. Note that there are multiple lots for parking. I think we could have spent half-a-day here alone. Though the crowds were a bit larger here than other areas, it never felt congested. We took the trail for the final waterfall at a slower pace, appreciating the shade of the trees and making the most of the time we had as the afternoon was giving way to evening. The Porkies were incredible and I cannot wait for an opportunity to get back there.
One of the few things about road-tripping that gets me anxious is driving in desolate areas after dusk. Getting lost, wildlife, running out of fuel, car problems – for some reason, this is what freaks me out about being on the road, and it’s rare that we take these night-time risks. With these thoughts being at the forefront of our minds we made our way back to the car in hopes of being back in Minocqua around sunset.
The drive back was actually a breeze – there’s not a ton of traffic up north, and outside of the few small towns where speed limits shrink, you have a pretty constant speed of about 65 mph. We arrived back at our home base just as night began to fall, which was shortly before 9.
Of the many things I appreciate about being away from big cities when we are on our trips is the ability to look up into the night sky and see so many stars it would make you dizzy to attempt to count them. As night takes hold, your eyes fail to recognize individual stars as the blanket of soft sky light is held together by a tight configuration of stars we cannot see in Chicagoland. On a moonless night, hours after sunset, and with about 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark, you can actually see the Milky Way. I had taken the time on a much earlier trip to the Minocqua area to see this, and this trip was a time to revisit. There is not much else to say besides it is one of the best treats available for your eyes. Outside of the buzzing bugs, the stillness and silence of the area give you the chance to really recognize just how small we are – everyone should see it at least once.