The Porcupine Mountains are part of Michigan’s largest state park. There are no roads in the interior of the park but 90 miles of trails gives visitors access to the wilderness. There are quite a few backcountry campsites, cabins, and yurts that you can hike to.

This area is beautiful year round, but especially in the fall. The large old growth forests burst into color starting in September and usually peaking in early October. That is when I spent 6 days in the park. My goal was to photograph the scenic views, lakes, waterfalls, and hopefully, the northern lights.

A small but colorful lake in Presque Isle, Wisconsin
A small but colorful lake in Presque Isle, Wisconsin


Day 1

I arrived after driving 8 hours from Central Illinois through Wisconsin to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. At first I was shocked by how much colder it was. Back home it was 85 degrees, but here the temperature was 40 degrees. The first and last days I was there ended up being the coldest. After checking in to Union Bay campground, I set up my tent. My campsite was so close to Lake Superior’s pounding waves I almost felt like my tent was going to get wet. It was going to be a loud night. But first I wanted to check out Lake of the Clouds overlook. It is the most popular view in the park and is only a short walk from the parking lot. From the cliffs you can see the Lake of the Clouds 500 feet below, along with the Big Carp River and an endless colorful forest.

The Escarpment Cliffs rise up 500 feet above the Lake of the Clouds and the Big Carp River.
The Big Carp River winds through the Porcupine Mountains on it’s way to Lake Superior.

Day 2

Lake Superior waves crash over a rock in Union Bay.

There was not much of a sunrise as thick clouds hung around. I packed up my tent and made my way back to the same place I was the evening before. This would be the start of my 28 mile backpacking trip. I had to be careful to pack everything I needed to survive for 3 days. Food, shelter, sleeping bag, clothes, and other survival gear went into my pack. But the heaviest part of my 40 pound pack ended up being my photography equipment. I started out hiking the Big Carp River trail which traverses the cliffs to the west of Lake of the Clouds.

Lake of the Clouds gets farther away as I hike west.
Thick clouds didn’t clear until about noon.

Once I descended the cliffs and reached the river itself it became sunny so I stopped and ate lunch. The trail would go through a swampy area before reaching the first waterfall: Shining Cloud Falls.

Shining Cloud Falls is at the bottom of a steep ravine and is difficult to get down to.

The next mile and a half of the trail would contain countless waterfalls as the Big Carp River flowed towards Lake Superior. I spent a lot of time here trying to photograph each waterfall.

Rapids on the Big Carp River below colorful foliage

Finally I made it to my campsite after hiking 10 miles. It seemed like the best campsite on Lake Superior had been left just for me. There were many stones on the beach and someone had made chairs and a windbreak for the fire pit.

Lake Superior campsite

It felt great to stick my feet into the icy cold water of Lake Superior. Since the waves were still a little high it was difficult to collect water for filtering without getting wet. But the late evening sunlight dried me off.

A colorful sunsets reflects on the water as waves crash into the rocky shore.

After the sun set I ate dinner and waited for it to get dark. I really wanted to see the northern lights. And I knew based on the weather forecast that this may be my only chance. The aurora borealis is quite rare back home in Illinois, only visible a few times a year. But up here at 46 degrees latitude it’s seen a lot more often, especially during the weeks surrounding spring or fall equinox. As the sky got darker I quickly noticed a green glow off the horizon to the north. But this soon faded away to a very dim light right on the horizon. I checked again at midnight and it was still very dim. But after watching the dark skies for a short time it became much brighter. Colorful pillars of light rose up and slowly drifted from left to right. I watched a couple hours until clouds moved in again. I felt bless to have seen this spectacular show. This was the only night clear enough to see the stars. It was also the only one of the 5 nights I was there that had geomagnetic activity.

Northern lights drift across the horizon under the Big Dipper.

Day 3

The lake was calmer this morning but I could tell a storm was moving in. The plan was to hike 12 miles today along the Little Carp River Trail so I packed up quickly. After hiking 6 miles, I stopped right next to Greenstone Falls to eat lunch. This was a very scenic part of the Little Carp River and there was a cabin nearby. Soon after I left it started raining. I pulled out my rain jacket and cover for my backpack. But then I realized I left my water bottle behind so I had to backtrack a couple miles. I didn’t take very many other pictures this day because it was hard to pull out my camera in the rain. By the time I got to Mirror Lake, I was exhausted. A break in the rain let me set up camp. After eating dinner and hanging my food from the nearby bear pole, I went to sleep.

Greenstone Falls is on a very scenic part of the Little Carp River.


Day 4

After a difficult 14 miles the day before, I slept 11 hours. When the rain let up in the morning, it became obvious how Mirror Lake got its name.

Mirror Lake was very calm after a rainy night.

I only had to hike 4 miles to get back to my car. But much of the North Mirror Lake trail was muddy so it took awhile. When I got down to Lake of the Clouds it became foggy.

A foggy scene near Lake of the Clouds

After I got back to my car I hit the road. Bonanza Falls was one place I wanted to stop just outside of the park. The Big Iron River was wide and shallow here with several waterfalls.

Bonanza Falls is on the Big Iron River south of Silver City.

I spent the night at a campground in Ontonagon 30 minutes away. Nothing makes you crave a burger more than a backpacking trip. So I stopped at Syl’s Cafe where the food was great. It was one of the few places to eat in the small town. It once again rained most of the night.


Day 5

This was going to be my last full day in the Porcupine Mountains. So I wanted to check out a couple places I hadn’t seen yet: Summit Peak and the Presque Isle River. Summit Peak is the highest point in the park and it has a lookout tower at the top. It was very windy and foggy. But after waiting awhile the clouds would sometimes lift revealing a view all the way out to Lake Superior.

Low clouds drift past Summit Peak.
Thick fog moves through the woods near Summit Peak.

The Presque Isle River is the biggest of the many rivers in the park. It contains many powerful waterfalls as well as a small beach on Lake Superior. To see the waterfalls from every angle, it’s best to hike the trail on both sides of the river.

This is the top of Manido Falls on the Presque Isle River.

The temperature became colder as the day went on. I was originally planning to spend my last night at the Presque Isle campground. But I changed my mind and instead drove an hour to Bobcat Lake, which had a national forest campground. This campground was free in the offseason and it was an hour closer to home. Rain moved in after dark and it even changed to snow for a time. But it didn’t stay on the ground where I was. On the drive home the next day I passed some parts of Wisconsin where there was more snow that contrasted with the brightly colored trees.


Day 6

Early season snow near Hazelhurst, Wisconsin


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