Waterfalls happen on the way to the Porcupine Mountains
A river gorge in the forest at Porcupine Mountains Park
Before I knew better—that is, before consulting an actual map—I always had the impression the famed Porcupine Mountains were far from Wausau. Friends and family raved about this state park, affectionately known as “the Porkies,” in Michigan’s upper peninsula along Lake Superior. So when I discovered it was less than three hours away by car, I kicked myself for not heading up there years before.
This vast wilderness area is home to a wide range of landscapes, all connected by a well maintained system of trails—from Lake Superior beaches, to lowlands, gurgling streams that fall over smooth boulder, a lake in the sky, and of course the mountains themselves (really just big hills, but still dramatic).
The visitor center is located pretty much due north of Wausau, and the drive itself makes for a spectacular journey. The familiar hilly forests of northwoods Wisconsin turn more rugged and extreme as soon as you pass Watersmeet, the town on the border of Wisconsin and the U.P., on Hwy. 45.
I took this route last summer instead of straight up Hwy. 51 because my sons and I wanted to scope out some specific waterfalls along the way—they’re everywhere in the U.P by the way—and because it was a more direct way to our lodgings at a little resort on Lake Superior a few miles east of the Porkies, outside of Ontonagon.
The 15-miles (Hwy. 107) between the Porkies and Ontonagon offers several lodging options, and for good reason. Lake Superior’s shoreline here is basically one big beach. I’m talking wide, fine sand beaches with little dunes and several creeks pouring into the big lake. You could walk a mile or more of pure sand. At Superior Shores Resort where we stayed, the gorgeous beach stretched as far as we could see in both directions, with just a few private residences or other resorts in between. Given the dramatic natural beauty of this entire area, it’s surprising how relatively quiet and sparsely developed it is.
Porcupine Mountains park itself offers plenty of lodging and camping options. One of the most renowned for adventurers: about 18 rustic cabins and several yurts spread across the trail system. All but one requires at least a one- to four-mile hike from a parking area, and all are connected by miles of trails. In others words, you could hike from cabin to cabin, staying for days deep in the wilderness.
Logistically, a multi-cabin itinerary is tricky to arrange, because some cabins get reserved a year in advance. On the other hand, there also are numerous tent sites, all of which makes the Porkies such a mecca for backpacking.
Less rugged day trippers to the Porkies, though, will find the most popular and easy trails right next to the parking lot at the Lake of the Clouds scenic area. This dramatic overlook alone is worth the trip.
Only two roads run though the 92-square miles of Porcupine Mountains park. The northern road (M-107) takes you the eight miles from the visitors center to Lake of the Clouds. From the parking lot, steps, paved paths and a large stone “deck” bring you to the breathtaking views on a 400-foot cliff over the 133-acre lake, which is situated between two ridges of the Porcupine Mountains. Lake of the Clouds’ elevation is several hundred feet higher than nearby Lake Superior, and makes its name feel earned.
From the overlook, you can head east or west along the Escarpment Trail with continued views of the lake and dramatic cliffs. With my two sons and our dog (many other hikers brought four-footed companions), we hiked this trail and its offshoots for miles, stopping to eat a packed lunch on another cliff overlooking the lake. At one point, we bushwhacked our way down to Lake of the Clouds, scrambling over rock outcroppings along an unofficial but obvious footpath.
Exploring this one small section of the Porcupine Wilderness Area took up most of the day. By late afternoon my 11- and 15-year-olds were feeling weary, but I was able to goad them into exploring another very different part of the park.
Less than two miles south of the visitors center (on the only other road) we parked at an access point to the Union Spring and Union Mine trails to find one of the many deep-forest rivers of the Porkies. And here we discovered a magical, fairytale-like place.
The trail takes you along a little river that topples over bedrock, along moss-covered boulders, and between colorful rock gorges. The sweet-smelling, humid forest air seemed to make everyone giddy. My previously weary boys suddenly perked up and started “hiking” in the crystal clear stream: through gravel shallows, hopping over little waterfalls, riding down smooth rock slides as the river flows over huge sections of rock. Leaving the trail behind, we walked in the water for nearly two hours, as each bend in the mostly shallow, tumbling river revealed a surprise we couldn’t resist.
Waterfalling en route
The Lake Superior shoreline is basically one big beach between the Porkies and the town of Ontonagon.
Back at the resort, the sun set blazing over Lake Superior, with the hazy “hump” of the Porcupine Mountains (about six miles away) clearly to its left. The Porkies were so named because from a distance the hills and its trees resemble the roundish quilled critter common in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the U.P.
Visiting a “big” waterfall was on the agenda for the next day en route back to Wausau—there are literally dozens of them between the Porkies and northern Wisconsin. Luckily, we found maybe the best one: Bond Falls, right off Hwy. 45 (turn east at Paulding) about 13 miles north of Watersmeet.
Here the Ontonagon River tumbles in a frothy waterfall 50 feet down, over a wide, rocky “hill” into a shallow, calm area below that’s actually accessible in times of low flow. It’s clearly only knee deep, though it takes some sure-footedness to navigate the rocks. Being experienced river rats, my boys waded right in, finding spots in the falls where they could sit and feel the power of the rushing water.
Bond Falls, located about 13 miles past the Wisconsin/Michigan border
Unlike many waterfall destinations where you can only look at the falls, Bond Falls allows you to get up close and personal. And you don’t necessarily need to get full-on wet. Stone steps up the right side of the falls take you within an arms reach of the water. There’s a boardwalk with six viewing locations over the river, plus a family-friendly park just upstream from the falls, within easy walking distance. Find another highly-regarded waterfall, Agate Falls, about nine miles north by back roads, also east off Hwy. 45.
If you’re making a road trip up to the Porkies, be sure to schedule in waterfall stops along the way—with some extra time built in just in case you find a gem like Bond Falls that makes you want to linger.
About Porcupine Mountains
A lunch-spot cliff overlooking Lake of the Clouds in Porcupine Mountains Park
Porcupine Wilderness Area is a Michigan State Park, and requires a state park pass for entry. In addition to details you’ll find at the official websites below, it’s a good idea to scour the internet for first-person backpacking and trail blogs to get a real sense of what you’ll experience in this large park.