33303 Headquarters Rd., Ontonagon, MI 49953-9087
Where is Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park?
Michiganders often liken their state’s shape to a mitten, using their hand to show where they live. But this park is neither in the “thumb”, nor in the rest of the “hand”. In fact, the Porcupine Mountains are far northwest, in the Upper Peninsula bordering Wisconsin to the west, and Lake Superior to the north. Many believe the locale, which is part of the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province, to be the prettiest in the state. The nearest major city is Duluth, Minnesota. About 150 miles west, it’s a 3-hour drive.
How big is Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park?
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is 92 square miles (59,020 acres), with its highest point, Summit Peak, towering nearly 2,000 feet. It’s one of the highest points in the state. Here, the overlook tower allows gorgeous views of the bright foliage in autumn. The park lies entirely within Michigan, descending into waterfalls along the Presque Isle River and eventually, the deep blue waters of Lake Superior.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park Weather
The weather varies greatly from season to season in the “Porkies.” Winters are frigid at their coldest, and generally in the 20’s. This is great for downhill skiing, which is hard to come by in the central region of the United States. Springs are rainy and cool until May, when it only begins to warm up. June is quite temperate, with July and August warm and pleasant. Rarely however, heatwaves bring temperatures into the nineties with humidity. Bring plenty of water if you’re hiking any of the 87-miles of trails in the park in hot summer months. Fall is chilly with some wind, but is a great time to view the region, which is peppered with some of the most colorful forests in the country. The park is filled with both common and rarer animal species throughout the year, such as black bear and moose. However, winter is a good time to spot a bald eagle, due to the bare trees.
When did the Porcupine Mountains become a State Park?
The Porcupine Mountains and surrounding area gained state park recognition in 1945, in part to protect its maple-hemlock trees. With an environmental act passed in 1972, it became known as Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.
Things to do in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
This state park is diverse in activities, terrain, and wildlife. Read on for a list of fun things to see and do at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.
Summit Peak At this literal highpoint of the park, you can climb to the top of the observation tower for outstanding views that differ by season. Most agree that fall views are incredible, with yellow, green, red, orange, and deep purple foliage interspersed across the expansive vista.
Ski the Porkies Trying to find a slope in the Midwest is a formidable task, so the UP is one of few locations with good skiing. Go to the park’s Alpine Ski Area and spend the day downhill skiing, or snowshoe nearby. Lift tickets are available for individuals and families, by the season, day, or half-day, and are reasonably priced.
The Porkies Music Festival The last weekend in August features a fantastic music show, from performers in the Busking Barn to on the Chalet Stage. Be prepared for three days of singing, dancing, and general revelry by renting a room at one of the park’s many lodges. Or, come for just the day.
Back to School Check out the Visitor’s Center to see what classes are being offered during your stay. They range from folk art, to archery, to fishing, so there is something for everyone. The Visitor’s Center also has exhibits full of cultural, historical, and natural information.
Presque Isle River Waterfalls The gushing Presque Isle River meanders throughout the park, creating a multitude of scenic waterfalls before emptying into equally scenic Lake Superior. Picturesque bridges allow crossing from side to side as well as ample photo opportunities. The view and sound of the falls’ roar make the sometimes brutal up-and-down hike worth it!
Lake Superior In the summer months it’s glorious to take a refreshing dip in the lake after hiking for a few hours. Alternatively, park nearby and just have a short picnic or look along the shore for the pretty Lake Superior agate featured in local jewelry.
Hiking/Snowshoeing Hiking is one of the most popular activities in the Porkies because of the hilly, varied terrain. Much of the trail is shaded by lush forest in the summer, yet is sunny in winter, after trees have dropped their leaves. Snow is the norm in most of winter, making snowshoeing a fun change from regular hiking.
Camping There are so many cozy lodges here that camping might seem like a disappointment. However, you won’t regret it when you catch a glimpse of the stars above your tent on Lake Superior. The lack of competing light makes for black skies that showcase each gleaming constellation. Don’t leave food outside overnight unless you want to host some black bear!
Artist-in-Residence Each year, the park hosts a different talent from the art world. It could be a musician, painter, poet, or other creative sort. Regardless, the competitive program yields only incredibly gifted people. See a concert, participate in a workshop, or view a sculpture, depending on who is featured.
Play Disc Golf Throw your frisbee at 18 different steel mesh targets. Just like in regular golf, accuracy is key. Whoever hits the target in the fewest attempts wins. The “holes” are easier at the beginning and more difficult toward the end of the course. Either way, disc golf at the park is a unique way to get a lot of sun and exercise.
When to go to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
The park is open year-round. When you go determines what you can do. There’s skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, hiking in all other seasons, and disc golf once the ski area has been outfitted for the warm-weather sport. Swimming in Lake Superior is best only in July and August unless you have a wetsuit to keep you warm. Much of Lake Superior freezes solid in winter. In fact, a section of the lake to the west of the park becomes an “ice road” that has been featured on television because of this. By the time Lake Superior thaws and warms, it’s July. Remember too, that “warm” is a relative term. Kayaking is great in late spring through early fall, especially along the amber sandstone sea caves that nature has carved into parts of the shore.
Must-Have things to bring to the Porcupine Mountains
In addition to the usual basic items you would need in the outdoors, there are a few things needed more specifically for Porcupine Mountains State Park. Read on for a list including both.
Water Always have your water bottle, as you can’t avoid burning calories and sweating in this hilly location.
Food/Snacks Bring protein snacks for hiking, as well as whatever you want for camping. Be certain to store and dispose of it safely so you won’t attract bears. Don’t keep any garbage near your tent in these parts. Talk to the locals, as North Woods residents are used to living among the furry creatures and know how to do so safely.
Park Maps It’s important to have physical maps with you, which you can get at the Visitor’s Center, as you probably won’t have cell phone coverage in this remote area. (No one in my group had cell coverage in the park, nor for about a half-hour drive outside the park. This is common in the North Woods.)
Proper Footwear Whatever your favored activity, be sure to bring appropriate shoes for it. Good hiking boots that provide ankle protection from insects and poison ivy in the summer, snowshoes for the winter, and your own skis, if you prefer.
Cold Weather Attire Single-digit temperatures don’t stop Yupers (people from the Upper Peninsula) from skiing all day long. How do they brave the cold? They wear layers, including good thermal long underwear, rated for extreme cold, and an outer layer that keeps all skin covered. Any exposed parts are subject to frostbite, so many wear a ski mask or balaclava to the extent their helmets permit.
Frisbee Except in winter, you won’t want to miss a few “holes” of disc golf. Like the ability to sleep in a yurt, the opportunity to play disc golf is something you get at this state park, but few other places. Disc golf is a fun activity that most anyone can play, and seldom has champions that have trained to beat you their whole lives!
Binoculars and Camera You’ll want to see and capture all of the great views here, including fall foliage, snowy mountains, frozen waterfalls and any eagles that happen by.
Bear Spray The park is home to the largest percentage of black bear in the state, so make sure to familiarize yourself with bear safety guidelines and have bear spray with you whenever possible. It bears mentioning—no pun intended, that folks often overestimate the danger of bears while underestimating that of moose. Both are dangerous and can kill. Educate yourself on these topics before visiting, so if nature presents you with the rare opportunity to see a bear or moose in the wild, you can do so safely. This is not a good time for a selfie, unless you want it to be your last!
Life Vests Located as it is on Lake Superior, Porcupine Mountains State Park offers many water activities. Make sure to bring life vests if you’re kayaking or canoeing. This body of water is cold and can be choppy. Though all those t-shirts boasting “no salt, no sharks, no problem” don’t lie, I’ve always thought of Lake Superior as more like the ocean than a lake. Young swimmers could benefit from life vests as well.
Plastic Bags Whether you’re near the river and get sprayed by a waterfall or you are taking a dip in Lake Superior, plastic bags can help keep your belongings dry. They’ll also help protect small electrical devices. If you’re camping, you’ll need to double bag garbage and tie it up tightly before disposing of it at a distance from your tent. Otherwise you may get some visitors yourself, in the form of black bear.
Where to stay in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
A yurt! Where else can you sleep in one of these primitive round dwellings? Think of yurts as Russia’s answer to a teepee. If you have children in tow, they’ll delight in an overnight stay in one of these rare cylindrical cabins. There are lots of other options for lodging in the Porkies as well. There are places to stay throughout the park, with the ski lodges being a favorite. If you want to rough it, there are ample campgrounds in Porcupine Mountain State Park. While there are local motels and inns in the area around the park, the region is more sparsely populated than you might guess, with lodging reflecting this. Plan ahead and don’t assume you will have several options available on the spur of the moment.
Food nearby the Porcupine Mountains
While restaurants such as AJ’s Walleye Lodge Bar & Grill and Konteka Restaurant and Black Bear Lounge are at your disposal, the North Woods is not an area known for its culinary appeal. Most people cook their meals camp-side here and enjoy being “away from it all”. If you do go to a restaurant, try the local catch with a microbrew—usually a tasty option. Many eateries hold a Friday Fish Fry and if you’re just looking for a nice cold beer, choices abound.
Airports near Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
The closest major airport is Duluth International Airport, about three hours, or 150 miles west of the park. However, a better option for flyers is to use Gogebic County Airport in nearby Ironwood, Michigan. This is a very small airport, with one landing strip. You can rent a car from the airport, which is convenient. Air Choice One offers direct flights from Chicago and Minneapolis on their Cessna Caravans. The view is spectacular and unobstructed since the large windows are below the wings. You’ll see farmland, forest, and eventually the Porcupines and Lake Superior. It’s half commuter flight, half tour plane.