Don’t Sleep On Those Midwestern Mountains

For those of you involved in the outdoor community, my story is one I’m sure you’ve heard a hundred times before. I was raised in northern Illinois, where cornfields and suburbs meet right along the Wisconsin Border. Weekends were spent camping in local parks with my family, with larger vacations spent traveling north to Minnesota, or west to Montana and Wyoming. Looking back, those trips were the most interesting and influential of my life — but of course, I couldn’t see it at the time. After graduating college with a B.A. in Environmental Science, I took the first opportunity I could to move to the mountains and hit the road for New Hampshire, where I still live. I began thinking about the Midwest as a boring, unappealing place that I would only visit around the holidays.

I had written off any sort of meaningful outdoor recreation, and boy was I wrong to do so. 

sthrough the brush
The Porcupine Mountains, a Midwestern treasure.

 

As I’ve grown older and have begun budgeting my own vacation days, I’ve had to balance my desire to adventure and to visit my family in the Midwest. I’m afraid to say the two have not always been evenly balanced. This year I did not have to make this choice, however. NEMO, like many companies, has adapted to a hybrid work from home policy that has allowed me to combine a trip to Illinois, my brother’s graduation from Iowa State University, and my annual NEMO GOFAR adventure. Once again, I’d be dragging my dad with me into the backcountry, but this time instead of flying across the world, we’d be staying “relatively” local. After some minimal research and one recommendation from a former coworker, we’d decided we would backpack close to 30 miles in a hidden gem of the Midwest, the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

before the adventure bgins
My Dad and I before 30 miles in the Porcupine Mountains.

 

Michigan’s largest state park is found on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — right up against the shore of Lake Superior. Its proximity to my hometown in Illinois and ease of access made it a no-brainer choice for my 2021 GOFAR. I’ve hiked in the Midwest before, so I thought I knew what to expect. Long stretches of flat forested land with the occasional break in the trees to gaze out over farm fields. What I wasn’t prepared for was the true sense of wilderness that came with exploring this beautiful state park. At 60,000 acres, the Porcupine Mountains, or “Porkies” as they are fondly known, are home to the largest stand of old-growth northern hardwood forest west of the Adirondacks of New York. They also have a thriving population of moose, wolves, black bears, and many other animals often associated with wild spaces.

fall foliage
We timed it perfectly for the fall colors.

The landscape is dotted with a variety of ecosystems, transitioning seamlessly between forests, swamps, cliffs, and rocky shorelines. Similar vegetation to my new home state led to a sense of familiarity, but the wide-open understory made it feel completely foreign at the same time. New Hampshire is a dense unruly place, where the trail’s edge is often a wall of coniferous entanglement. We found that in many portions of the Porkies, one could easily travel or explore off-trail. While not as tall or rugged as our White Mountains, the Porkies still served up a humbling dose of sore muscles and tired feet each day as we wandered into camp.

sitting at campsite
Kicking back after a long day on the trails

 

Our plan was to spend 4 days in the backcountry of the state park. We would drive up on Saturday and hike into our first campsite, then make our way counterclockwise along the Porcupine Mountains Scenic Loop. This would have us hiking around 7-8 miles a day and allow us to camp on the shore of Lake Superior for two evenings. A strict reservation system was a change of pace from our usual trips where we could generally camp wherever we wanted as long as we followed LNT principles. We picked campsites on a whim, and I don’t think we could have done better. We began our hike at the Little Carp River Road trailhead and in order, we stayed at the following campsites ML1, LS16, and LC14.

two tents
One of our campsites- a peaceful flat by the water.

 

Each site had close access to water, a bear pole for food storage, a large fire pit, and was off the beaten path. One site even had a legitimate chair which my dad and I spent hours guessing how it got there. If carrying and sleeping in a tent isn’t quite your style, the Porkies also offer the unique possibility to stay in one of their backcountry cabins. While access to these is strictly saved for the folks who reserved them, from the outside they looked cozy and comfortable. The combination of scenery and campsite amenities make this route an excellent choice for beginner and experienced backpackers alike. One major consideration for this area is the forecast. Lake Superior is notorious for its storms and has sunk between 350 and 500 ships, including the famous Edmund Fitzgerald. We had stunning autumn weather while we were there but a day earlier had high winds and massive waves that drenched some campers who spent the evening on the shore.

sitting in chair by campsite
Whoever left this wasn’t practicing LNT, but it was nice to take a seat at the site.

 

Somehow, my dad and I both overestimated and underestimated these mountains at the same time. We would wake up each day with the sun and pack our gear to begin our hike, expecting to keep our usual mountain pace of about a mile an hour. Since the Porkies are a smaller range than we generally play in, we ended up pushing ourselves too hard during the day and arriving at camp in the early afternoon. This was because we were hiking at a faster pace than was necessary due to the general lack of elevation. What this meant was we would arrive at our campsites exhausted, but with plenty of daylight to set up camp, cook dinner, and hang out. Since the park lies right on the EST and Central time zones, the sun would set pretty late for this time of year which gave us even more time to unplug and relax. When we were camping by the lake we would sit on the stones and watch the sunset before spending the last 10 minutes trying to skip stones on the crystal clear water.

lake sunset
Sunset by the lake, our favorite close to every day.

 

Normally, I tend to stay away from backcountry fires, but our final campsite was preemptively stacked with a healthy supply of downed and dead firewood, so we indulged ourselves for our last evening out. On our last day, we deviated from the “official” route and followed the Little Carp River Trail instead of the Cross Trail which allowed us to enjoy several waterfalls along the river that had me wishing I had brought my fly rod. 

This trip refreshed my opinion of the Midwest and I’ve been finding myself researching flights for next year, hoping to explore more of Wisconsin and Minnesota next. It’s so easy to get caught up in the bigger is better mindset when it comes to outdoor adventures — but let this be a reminder that you don’t need huge peaks or deep valleys to have a great time.

For those of us who grew up, or continue to grow, in the so-called “fly-over states”, I have a single piece of advice — Don’t sleep on those Midwestern Mountains.

lakeside camping
Another beautiful campsite in the Porkies.
Gear List
  • Hornet Elite™ 1P: Coming off almost two years of Netflix binging going ultralite on this trip helped disguise my lack of fitness
  • Kayu™ Men’s 15° Regular: Tried and true, this is the updated version of the bag I took to the Arctic and I knew I would be extra comfortable.
  • Tensor™ Insulated Regular: This pad is quiet and comfortable, plus the included Vortex Pump-sack makes inflation a breeze.
  • Chipper™: This one’s a no-brainer. Who doesn’t love a comfy place to sit that is ultralight and made of recycled materials?
  • Switchback™ Insulated Regular: I decided at the last minute to bring this along and didn’t regret having something cozy to fall asleep on during lunch breaks.

Travis Gagliano is a Dealer Services Representative at NEMO and loves to fly fish, backpack, and explore new landscapes.