Lake Superior Circle Tour: Part II – Porcupine Mountains, Apostle Islands and more

In my previous post, I wrote about the first part of our Lake Superior Circle Tour, which included a train ride through Agawa Canyon and exploring Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. After we left the Bay Furnace campground near Pictured Rocks, we made a few stops at various waterfalls and arrived at Porcupine Mountains shortly after sunset. The Lake was unusually quiet and perfectly smooth, and the transition between water and sky was seamless, almost invisible.

Lake Superior at Porcupine Mountains

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park

Porcupine Mountains is a state park located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. To be honest, we chose this park as one of our destinations because we needed to break up a long drive so we didn’t expect much from the place. Then, we arrived there and fell in love with it. So much so that we have already been back since that road trip.

So why are “Porkies” (yes, that’s how you call it for short) so special? It is Michigan’s largest state park and one of the few large wilderness areas in the Midwest so you can expect thick towering forests, secluded lakes, miles of rushing rivers, very few roads, and all the solitude and quiet that comes with undeveloped, pristine areas.

Lake Superior at Porcupine Mountains

One of our all-time favourite camping memories is actually connected with this park. On our first day at the park, we stopped by the Visitor Centre, where we stumbled upon letterboxing. We didn’t know what letterboxing was but our always enthusiastic younger son decided to join in. Kids made nature-related rubber stamps (Roman made a bat cave) but the actual fun started after the program at the visitor centre was over. Kids kept their stamps and also got a little pad and a list of clues to help them find 14 letterboxes hidden around the park. Each box contained a stamp of its own, a notepad and an ink pad. The idea was to collect all those stamp prints in your pad and also leave your own print in each letterbox pad.

We thought, “Sure, it’s a great idea! Let’s collect a few.” But you don’t know Roman if you think he stopped at a few. The next thing we knew we were crisscrossing the park trying to find them all. That was quite an undertaking because the park is so big and we only had a day and a half. But Roman can be quite persistent so in the end we did it! And saw quite a bit of the park along the way, too! The pad now occupies a proud spot in our chest of camping treasures.

letterboxing at Porcupine Mountains

General info:

There are two campgrounds in the park: Union Bay Modern Campground ($27/$18 per night) and Presque Isle Rustic Campground ($15). We didn’t visit the Presque Isle Campground but the Union Bay one didn’t particularly impress us. It had showers, electricity and potable water but the campground was just one big field divided by roads. As we drove through the campground, we saw people sitting on their allocated strips of grass, back to back with their neighbours, pretending they were in the wild. Luckily, we didn’t book a site there.

The park also has 24 rustic cabins and yurts. All of them, except for Gitche Gumee, are in the backcountry and require quite a bit of hiking. Since we only stayed in the park for two days (three nights was all we could book), we decided to go with Gitche Gumee. Right across the road from Lake Superior, it can be accessed by car. Even though, it’s no more than five minutes away from the road, there is a very remote, middle-of-nowhere feeling to it.

Gitche Gumee cabin at Porcupie Mountains

The cabin is quite spacious with eight bunk beds, a table and benches, a wood stove, kitchen counter, pots and pans but there is no electricity or water. There is an outhouse right next to it and a large outdoor fire pit. The best part about the cabin is its proximity to Lake Superior, which means lots of swimming on a beautiful sandy beach and amazing sunsets in the evening.

inside Gitche Gumee cabin at Porcupine Mountains

Another favourite camping memory: each cabin and yurt has a log for people to share their adventures and impressions of the park. The book at Gitche Gumee was full of stories, poems, drawings, collages and game scores. Every night, we would read it together by the light of the lantern (somehow it felt a candle would have been more appropriate, although slightly dangerous in a log cabin), connecting to all the roamers and travellers who’d sat at that same table before us. Before leaving, we wrote a few stories as well, adding our own strands to the grand communal quilt of storytelling.

For more information about Porcupine Mountains, visit the park website.

sunset on the driftwood beach

Must see and do:

Lake of the Clouds

Lake of the Clouds is one of Michigan’s most photographed attractions. The viewing platform is a short and easily accessible walk from the parking lot. The views of the Lake and Big Carp River are truly incredible, especially at sunrise (read more about my experience taking a picture of sunrise over Lake of the Clouds in my Globe and Mail essay). You can also trek down to the Lake for a more up and close view.

sunrise over Lake of the Clouds at Porcupine Mountains

Big Carp River   near Lake of the Clouds

Summit Peak Scenic Area

Summit Peak is the highest point in the park so you get great views and there is very little work involved. The trail to the peak is only half a mile long (a little less than one kilometre) with a viewing tower at the end.

view from Summit Peak at Porcupine Mountains

view from Summit Peak at Porcupine Mountains   view from Summit Peak at Porcupine Mountains

Presque Isle River Scenic Area

Located in the western part of the park, this mountain river with its wild rapids and swirling gorges is definitely a must see. Porcupine Mountains have over a dozen of waterfalls but the three waterfalls on Presque Isle River – Manabezho Falls, Manido Falls and Nawadaha Falls – are the most impressive and are often considered among the most beautiful in the Upper Peninsula.

Presque Isle River at Porcupine Mountains   Presque Isle River at Porcupine Mountains

Presque Isle River at Porcupine Mountains   Presque Isle River at Porcupine Mountains

Take a hike

The park has over 87 miles (140 km) of recreational trails. Hiking trails range from an easy half a mile trek to a challenging 17 mile trail so you have a lot to choose from.

Union Mine Trail   Union Mine Trail at Porcupine Mountains

Other activities

With mountain biking, canoeing and kayaking, relaxing on the beach, taking a dip in Lake Superior and, of course, incredible sunsets, there is no shortage of things to do.

sunset o Lake Superior at Porcupine Mountains

 Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore comprises 21 islands and 12 miles of mainland lake shore. Sandstone caves are the most popular attraction in the park and are best explored in a kayak. Camping is offered on 18 islands in the park and one mainland campground. In addition to kayaking and camping, the park offers sailing and boating, hiking, fishing, scuba diving and lots of guided activities.

For more information about Apostle Islands, visit their website.

Devils Island at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Unfortunately, we only had a few hours so we stopped at the Visitor Centre and then took a cruise of the Islands. The cruise departs from Bayfield, Wisconsin. For more information, click here.

Bayview, Wisconsin

Cruises are not the most exciting way to explore (way too passive) but we decided this would be part of our research for the next trip when we come back for a longer stay, with our tent and kayaks. During the cruise, we got caught in the most terrifying storm. Grateful we were actually in a boat and not in a kayak that time, we watched strong winds whipping water of the surface of the Lake and waves merging with pouring rain in one big swirl.

storm over Apostle Islands

One of the things that impressed me most about Apostle Islands was the fact that they used to be inhabited before they became a national lakeshore. Apparently, there are still remnants of old cars and roads and an odd fishing village but nature has taken over once people moved out. To me, that speaks to nature’s incredible resilience and gives hope that it can survive humans’ impact.

Trip from Duluth to Thunder Bay

After spending a night at the Duluth KOA, we headed back to Canada. Highway 61 hugs Lake Superior’s western shore so the ride offers superior (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) views at every turn. Since the distance from Duluth to Thunder Bay is a little over 309 km, we decided to make a few stops along the way.

rainbow over Lake Superior

Split Rock Lighthouse

Great place for a stop, especially for kids. One of America’s best preserved lighthouses, it is also one of Minnesota’s best known landmarks. You can tour the grounds, climb to the top of the lighthouse, see the light keeper’s house, or take a hike around the park. This historic site is surrounded by a state park so you can camp for a few days should you decide to make your stay a bit longer.

For more information about Split Rock Lighthouse, go here.

For more information about the state park, visit their website.

Split Rock Lighthouse   Split Rock Lighthouse

Grand Portage

This national monument explores the history of the Ojibway people and North West Company of the North American fur trade (or should I say, presents official narrative – more about it in the next post). Unfortunately, by the time we got there, it was already closed so we only got a peak of the place but it was a great spot to rest and get some dinner.

For more information about Grand Portage, click here.

One of the great things about the Lake Superior Circle Tour (apart from the obvious reasons: enjoying the beautiful sites and exploring some of the most incredible remnants of wilderness) was learning about people who have built their lives around the Big Inland Sea: First Nations and Aboriginal people, mariners, lighthouse keepers, fishers, miners, voyageurs… For them, the Lake has been more than just a beautiful sight – it’s their home. Looking into their faces in old black-and-white photos and drawings at various museums, historic sites and visitor centres, we tried to see the Lake through their eyes.

Grand Portage memorial   Grand Portage memorial

I will stop here, just as we are about to cross back into Canada. Check back soon for Part III of the trip log: Fort William, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Pukaskwa National Park and more.

3 thoughts on “Lake Superior Circle Tour: Part II – Porcupine Mountains, Apostle Islands and more

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