Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Porcupine Mountains 2014, Day 4: Mirror Lake to Lake of the Clouds

Last time: Big Carp to Mirror Lake, uphill all the way. See also a list of all of my backpacking trips.

Mirror lake 2-bunk in the morning

We woke later than usual, stiff but well rested. The tall cliffs and tall pines surrounding the Mirror Lake 2 bunk make it a bit harder for morning light to filter through.

We made tea and walked to the Little Carp River Bridge. This bridge crosses the river and nearby swamps at a long inlet near the west end of Mirror Lake. Sitting on the bridge, sipping hot tea, and chatting in the cool morning is one of my favorite memories of the trip.

Back at the cabin, we made a quick breakfast, packed up, and headed out. Our plan for this final day was to hike the North Mirror Lake trail north to Lake of the Clouds, up the Escarpment, and out into the parking lot where we had left our car.

Inlet on Mirror Lake

The North Mirror Lake trail starts about half a mile away from the two-bunk cabin. We passed the other two cabins (and the world's most amazing latrine), crossed a stream, and found the trailhead. Just up the trail, we met the tall hiker (and his dog) from two days ago, who was wearily sitting on a log at the top of a hill.

This time, we stopped to chat a bit longer. The hiker turned out to be from Illinois, and was in the Porkies for the first time. He said that he was an avid solo backpacker back home, and often did 10 to 15 miles per day. In the Porkies, he was finding 6 to 8 miles per day to be exhausting, and was resting a bit before tackling his final leg.

Yesterday, we both started from near the mouth of the Big Carp River. However, our hiker friend had taken a very different route. While we did 7 miles straight uphill along the Big Carp and Correction Line trails, he had taken the Cross Trail. The guide books universally describe the Cross Trail as "the most lonely trail in the park" (usually followed by "you're more likely to see a moose than a person"), and emphasize that it goes straight through a huge swamp. (He confirmed that this was every bit as fun as it sounds.) It connects to the Little Carp River trail, which eventually makes it to Mirror Lake. This is a much longer route than we had taken -- nearly 11 miles in all -- with the same elevation change, worse mosquitoes, and even more mud. We wished him good luck and headed on our way.

The trail was in remarkably good condition, especially considering what we had seen in previous days. We set a good pace and enjoyed the cool morning air, while a light breeze kept the mosquitoes off. Along the way, we passed through a wide variety of terrain, including a huge swamp (crossed on miraculously dry boardwalks), previously logged forest (it did happen in some parts of the Porkies), old-growth evergreens, and of course the usual selection of hills and valleys.

The North Mirror Lake trail is considered one of the most rugged trails in the park. (Are you tired of hearing that yet? It turns out that we had chosen all of the most rugged trails in the park for our trip.) From its low point at Lake of the Clouds up to its high point near Mirror Lake, it gains over 500 feet. Luckily, we were hiking this section in the "easy" direction -- downhill -- at least until we reached the Escarpment, where we would regain all of our elevation in one brief climb.

The steepest part of the North Mirror Lake trail starts just after a small stream crossing. Over half of a mile, the trail has a grade of 12% -- quite steep, even for the Porkies. A small stream marks the start of the Great Descent, coming out of a series of small swamps. Shortly after crossing the trail, the stream turns and starts to cut out an enormous ravine. This amazingly unnamed stream forms one of the most picturesque gorges in the entire park, cutting through an open forest with steep hills on either side. There are many small waterfalls, as well as a collapsed copper mine shaft. I once spent a long afternoon scrambling up that very ravine, looking for the shaft, but never found it.

Ravine and a tiny waterfall

Today, however, we followed along the trail and didn't test our legs on any tricky rock climbing. We eventually crossed Scott Creek on a small bridge, and headed uphill again. The mosquitoes started to swarm us, getting worse in the lower swampy areas. We hurried on, knowing that the bridge over the Big Carp River at Lake of the Clouds would give us some respite. It soon became obvious that we were close to the very popular Lake of the Clouds area. The trails widened. Muddy areas were covered with well-maintained boardwalks or corduroy.

Each step took us through swarms of mosquitoes. We ramped up the pace, until we were nearly jogging just to stay away from the bugs. Finally, with one last downhill, we sprinted out into the open and saw the bridge at the end of Lake of the Clouds just ahead of us. We walked all the way to the middle of the bridge before taking off our packs, safe from the bugs. We scarfed down the last of our rice cake sandwiches and enjoyed a serenade by some bullfrogs. High above us, we saw few people at the Lake of the Clouds overlook -- the middle of a week in early June is not a popular time to visit a remote state park.

The last leg of our trip was straight uphill. Just past the turnoff for the Lake of the Clouds cabin, the trail takes a sharp turn upwards. A series of switchbacks (the only switchbacks of the entire trip!) leads up a cut in the face of the Escarpment. At the top, a wooden bench awaits the hearty few who choose to hike that direction. When we stumbled to the bench, we collapsed in relief -- we had made it!

... Except, we hadn't. Because the trail leads up a cut in the cliff face, it tops out at a low point. There were quite a few more steps left before we reached the top -- actual wooden steps, on a well maintained trail -- but it required just a little more effort than we had expected. We arrived at the real top, next to the Lake of the Clouds overlook, exhausted and somewhat ornery.

OK, actually it was just me who was ornery. The Lake of the Clouds overlook is very built up -- well-paved roads lead to a large parking lot, where wide boardwalks make their way to a walled-in overlook. It is extremely easy to get to one of the most stunning views in the UP. And yet, when we arrived at the top of the trail, near the overlook, there were tourists. I don't mean just people who tour around to see the sights -- I mean tourists who arrive in a 50 foot RV, reluctantly tear themselves away from their satellite TV, and haul out a 5-gallon McDonald's pop while complaining about walking a slight uphill. Having to work so hard (4 days!) to get here made me lose all sympathy for anyone who was unhappy merely because they had to mosey along 300 yards of paved trail to get to the beauty.

I should make it clear that visiting the Porkies is something which everyone should do. Visiting such a rugged and beautiful place is a great experience. Everyone is welcome there -- and the remoteness and solitude is good for the soul. So really, I shouldn't complain. But, I did.

Grumpily, we walked the last few yards to our car. We left our trusty walking sticks leaning against a rock and climbed into the car, groaning at our aching backs. Then we headed straight for the pop machine in the Visitor's center, to share the world's best Cherry Coke. I might be a hypocrite -- but I earned it!

The Cliffs in the Keweenaw, my other favorite hiking location.

I drove the 1.5 hours to Houghton, while Sarah napped in the passenger's seat. We stayed in our favorite little town for two days. Sarah helped a friend with wedding preparations, while I -- of course -- went hiking.

In total, the trip was wonderful. For all of the complaining I've done in these blog posts -- mud, mosquitoes, hills, and tourists -- I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. Staying in the Big Carp 6 bunk right on Lake Superior was one of the highlights of my backpacking life so far. The solitude, silence, and remoteness scratch an itch for me like nothing else. I would do it again in a heartbeat -- and hopefully next year, I will! [Spoiler: We did.]

See you next time!

Final summary:

Miles hiked: 3.75
Grand total miles: 21.0

Some other interesting trip statistics:

Elevation change (lowest to highest): 1065ft
Total elevation increase (adding up all the uphills): 2314ft
Total time: 3 days, 19.5 hours
Number of large non-human mammals seen: 1 (of the creepy-ass variety)


Navi said...

Awesome. I really enjoyed this travelogue.

Jain said...

Thanks for taking us along! I haven't been to the Porkies in a few years and really enjoyed your stories and photos.

DC said...

Jain, glad you like it! I love the Porkies, and I hope we can get back again soon.

Mike Zeddies said...

I really enjoyed reading about your experience in the Porkies.

Carl Gustavson said...

Your account of your trip was very organized, and helped me to understand the trail segments of the Porkies. I think it is a very interesting place, with tons of options for hiking and camping. Staying in my first rustic cabin this summer (Lake Superior Cabin) with my family. Last year my dad and I hiked all around the Lake Superior trail. It was in early august, and Lake Superior was actually pleasant to swim in. I'm not kidding. People we doing it everywhere. It was one of the coolest camping experiences ever. I'm looking forward to delving into your other blog posts. You can follow my blog at

DC said...

Thanks, Carl. You'll love the cabins! I hope you'll blog about it.

dwhittle said...

I so appreciate your thorough and detailed accounts of both the Porkies and Grand Isle. As not very experienced backpackers, but lovers of wilderness and day hiking, it helps us tremendously as we plan a Porkies trip from down in the Milwaukee area. I would love to know what you recommend in the Houghton area as we plan to hit there after 3 days in the Porkies.

DC said...

Hi @dwhittle - I'm glad my trip logs are helpful! What kinds of things are you looking for around Houghton -- hikes, restaurants, history...?