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Backpacking Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

This 34.5-mile loop starts and ends at Presque Isle Scenic Area, includes sweeping views of Lake of the Clouds, the Escarpment, and Lake Superior, weaves through towering hemlocks, virgin hardwood stands, and shale rock formations, and covers a wide variety of terrain from wetland mud to slick rock slabs. You'll also enjoy overnights at campsite BC 7 above Shining Cloud Falls, BC 5 along the Big Carp River, and LS 13 & LS 2 on Lake Superior.

A geologist will tell you the Porkies are not technically mountains as they clock in at 1,958 feet high, 42 feet shy of the 2,000 feet or higher definition. However, don't discount the workout your legs will get climbing these steep ridges and the spectacular views of Michigan's largest state park. When planning your trip, we highly recommend Jim DuFresne's Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park Trail Map.

Our trip took place August 16-20, 2020, and while an avid camper, this was my very first backpacking trip. The temperature ranged from 75-81 degrees Fahrenheit, the bugs were a minor nuisance, and the weather was clear, with only a 30-minute shower and a distant thunderstorm. If we were to do the trip again, we'd give ourselves more time to trek the initial 7 miles of the Lake Superior Trail from Presque Isle to BC 7, which includes climbs in and out of creek beds that tired this first-timer out! On day two, we would skip Campsite BC 5 and keep trekking further up the Big Carp River Trail to stay the night at BC 2 or 1 for more impressive views. We did not encounter any black bears, wolves, or river otters, but a white-tailed deer appeared at our campsite one evening, a squirrel dropped a mushroom on my head, a chipmunk tried to steal my granola bar, and we saw two bald eagles sit like sentries on Lone Rock.

Trip Overview

Day 1 - 9.2 Miles: Presque Isle Backpacker's Parking Lot to Campsite BC 7

(Elevation Gain: 620 ft)

  • West River Trail to Lake Superior Trail - 0.2 miles

    • Includes boardwalk hike with view of Manabezho Falls

  • Lake Superior Trail to Big Carp River Trail - 7.6 miles

    • Lunch at the Mouth of the Big Carp River

  • Big Carp River Trail to BC 7 - 1.4 miles

    • Overnight along the Big Carp River & Shining Cloud Falls

Day 2 - 3.09 Miles: Campsite BC 7 to Campsite BC 5

(Elevation Gain: 302 ft)

  • BC 7 to BC 5 via Big Carp River Trail

    • Two river crossings and overnight along the Big Carp River

Day 3 - 10.7 Miles: Campsite BC 5 to Campsite LS 13

(Elevation Gain: 1300 ft, Elevation Loss: 1300 ft)

  • BC 5 to Lake of the Clouds Scenic Area - 5.2 miles

    • Lunch at Lake of the Clouds Scenic Area

  • Road Walk to Lake Superior Trail to LS 13 - 5.5 miles

    • Overnight along Lake Superior with a view of Lone Rock

Day 4 - 9.87 Miles: Campsite LS 13 to Campsite LS 2

(Elevation Gain: 741 ft, Elevation Loss: 659 ft)

  • LS 13 to LS 2 via Lake Superior Trail - 9.87 miles

    • Lunch at Big Carp River Mouth

    • Overnight on a bluff overlooking Lake Superior

Day 5 - 3.44 Miles: Campsite LS 2 to Presque Isle Backpacker's Parking Lot

(Elevation Gain 400 ft, Elevation Loss: 350 ft)

  • LS 2 to Presque Isle River via Lake Superior Trail - 3.42 miles

  • West River Trail to Presque Isle Backpacker's Parking Lot - 0.2 miles

Day 1 - Miles: 9.2, Elevation Gain: 620 ft

West River Trail to Lake Superior Trail (0.2 miles)

The Presque Isle Scenic Area is a"Porkies" must-see with its multiple waterfalls and boardwalks leading you along the Presque Isle River to its mouth in Lake Superior. The Scenic Area also features a campground, picnic area, multiple parking lots, and restrooms. We began our trip at the Backpacker's Parking Area, where you can access the West River Trail's boardwalk and follow it to the Lake Superior Trail. Follow the North Country Trail markers as it follows the same route! Once on the boardwalk, you'll quickly reach the stunning Manabezho Falls, which drop 25 feet. As a bonus, the boardwalk stairs will get your legs warmed up and your pack dialed in. Continuing on, you'll cross a footbridge to an island featuring shale formations cut by the river itself. Watch your step as your cross the slick shale and climb up the opposite bank to reach the Lake Superior Trail and finally put distance between yourself and the crowds.

Lake Superior Trail to the Big Carp River (7.6 miles)

Between the Presque Isle and Little Carp Rivers, you'll climb in and out of numerous creek beds with heavily rooted banks. Be careful, as the soil between tree roots is not always solid and can easily collapse. You don't want to find your foot breaking through the soil, trapping your leg up to the hip...which happened to us twice and almost resulted in broken legs just 3 miles into the trip.

The waves of Lake Superior can be heard to the northeast, but you won't see the Lake until you get closer to the mouth of the Little Carp River. Once past the mouth, be prepared for miles and miles of mud with a few boardwalks for respite along the way. We'd describe the trail as moderate overall, but boy, is it a workout, especially if you're trying to make time.

Big Carp River Trail to BC 7 (1.4 miles)

If the ups and downs of the Lake Superior Trail left you tuckered out, then the rush and beauty of the Big Carp River will buoy your spirits for the last mile of the day. The BC bridge makes for an easy river crossing and the mouth of the river is a great spot for photos.

Campsite BC 7

BC 7 is our favorite campsite in not only the Porkies but perhaps the entire UP. It's fairly secluded, as the closest camping neighbor is almost a mile away, overlooks a gorge through the Big Carp River, and is only a 30-second walk from Shining Cloud Falls. As with all backcountry sites in the Porkies, BC 7 features a bear pole and metal fire ring. Plus, you can't beat being lulled to sleep by the sounds of a backcountry river AND waterfall.

Reservations and permits are required for all backcountry stays in the Porcupine Mountains and can be made online up to 6 months or 72 hours before your trip. At the time of this trip, the camping fee was $15 per night.

Day 2 - Miles: 3.09, Elevation Gain: 302 ft

Campsite BC 7 to BC 5 via the Big Carp River Trail (3.09 miles)

There are two river crossings between BC 7 and BC 5 which can run just deep enough that you'll want to remove your boots before crossing. As of August 2020, the second crossing includes a line you can hold on to as you cross. Overall, the short hike between the two sites made this a relaxing and laid-back day. If we were to complete this trip again, we'd hike past BC 5 and stay the night further up the trail at BC 2 or 1. However, there is no water at those sites or the Lake of the Clouds Scenic Area, so we would have needed to carry enough water with us to get up and over the Scenic Area.

BC 5 is one of three sites along the river at this location and one of the lushest campsites on the Big Carp River Trail. The site is within 50 yards of BC 6 and 10 feet from the river. Beware of the chipmunks, they've clearly enjoyed their share of backpacker snacks. A little guy hopped onto the fire ring bench and tried to take my granola bar while I stood beside it!

Big Carp River at BC 7

Day 3 - Miles: 10.7, Elevation Gain: 1300 ft, Loss: 1300 ft

BC 5 to Lake of the Clouds along the Big Carp River Trail (5.2 miles)

It's only a few miles from BC 5 to arguably the best view in Michigan. You'll hike your way up and out of the trees onto a high rocky bluff known as the Escarpment, where you'll see the Upper Carp River Valley and Lake of the Clouds. The Lake of the Clouds Scenic Area is the most popular stop in the park, so you'll pass more and more day hikers the closer you get to it. The Area offers restrooms and picnic tables, but no potable water.

Lake of the Clouds to Campsite LS 13 via a Road Walk (0.6 miles) & the Lake Superior Trail (4.9 miles)

From the Lake of the Clouds parking lot, it's about a half-mile road walk to the Lake Superior Trail trailhead. About one mile into the trail, you'll have your first glimpse of Lake Superior. The path descends and then heads west, where you'll hear the Lake, but not see it unless you walk out to Buckshot Cabin or one of the campsites that follow it. Keep a lookout for sneaky squirrels in the trees. The cheeky fellow seen above dropped his mushroom dinner on my head...which is how I learned that squirrels eat fungi in addition to nuts.

Lone Rock & Campsite LS 13

Campsites LS 13 and LS 14 are side-by-side and provide little privacy from each other, but each has private access to the beach and fantastic views of Lone Rock. A wooden platform on the LS 14 side of the site provides some respite from the muddy ground but is only large enough for a small two-person tent. A family of 6 was staying at LS 14 and needed to set one of their tents up on our side of the site to avoid the mud. We spent most of the evening on the beach, bathing, enjoying a dinner of Meijer Bacon Cheddar Mac & Cheese, and watching a breathtaking sunset over the Lake. Seagulls sat atop Lone Rock through most of the evening but were replaced by two bald eagles in the morning.

Day 4 - Miles: 9.87 Elevation Gain: 741 ft, Loss: 659 ft

LS 13 to LS 2 on the Lake Superior Trail (9.87 miles)

The section of trail between LS 13 and the Big Carp River is by far our favorite, as you'll finally take steps on the shoreline within a few feet of the waves. Despite Lake Superior providing the trail with its name, most of the trail is further inland and out of sight of the big lake. When the trail weaves out onto the lakeshore, you'll find rocky terrain and slick sandstone slabs. An early rainstorm made traversing the slabs even more precarious and resulted in at least one fall that I, fortunately, quickly popped back up from but left me with a bruised knee.

The shoreline in the western UP is vastly different from that of the eastern UP, where sugar sand beaches and crystal clear waters are common between Picture Rocks National Lakeshore and Whitefish Point. In the Porkies, swimming in Lake Superior is doable but should be done with caution as waves easily wash you into the massive rocks found above and hidden below the surface.

We stopped at the mouth of the Big Carp River to enjoy our usual backpacking lunch of peanut butter and jelly pitas before trodding on to Campsite LS 2.

Campsite LS 2

LS 2 offers a sweeping view of Lake Superior from high atop a ridge, however, the site would make sleepwalkers nervous, as it features a steep 50-foot drop-off to the shoreline. We ambled down to the beach and attempted to take baths, but the Lake water is so churned up here that we came away covered in more flecks of plant debris than we started with...but did smell better! In addition to the high overlook, this campsite features an amenity I'd never seen before, an open-air, vaulted toilet. Views and cozy toilets aside, this site holds a special place in my heart because a white-tailed deer appeared out of the trees like a ghost, walked along the edge of our camp, and disappeared down the ridge. Watch his leisurely stroll below.

Day 5 - Miles: 3.44, Elevation Gain: 400 ft & Loss: 350 ft

LS 2 to the Backpacker's Parking Lot via the Lake Superior Trail & West River Trail (3.44 miles)

Alas, all good things must come to an end. On our 5th day, we packed up and quickly trekked the last 3 miles through a light rainstorm to the sound of distant thunder over the Lake. The Porcupine Mountains are truly a unique and special place. We hope to return and explore the southeast section of the park, ride the scenic ski lift, which operates year-round, and once again slumber to the sounds of Shining Cloud Falls and the Big Carp River.

Thank you for reading and sharing our experience. We hope you found a tidbit or two that will be helpful for your own adventure in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

What are your favorite trails and things to do in the Porkies?

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