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From The Mountains to the Sea
Our last newsletter on the best 10 backpacking adventures in Michigan generated a lot of comments so this issue is devoted to the number two trek on the list; the Big Carp River Trail in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the Upper Peninsula.
If you need a guide to this trail and Michigan’s largest state park, Jim DuFresne is the author of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park: A Backcountry Guide for Hikers, Backpackers, Campers and Winter Visitors. The latest edition of his guide is available from the MichiganTrailMaps.com e-shop. If the nine-hour drive to the Porkies is too much for you check out other trails on the MichiganTrailMaps.com site.
Big Carp River Trail
By Jim DuFresne
We began the day on a high rocky bluff overlooking the rugged landscape of an ancient mountain range. We ended it on the shores of Lake Superior, the world's largest freshwater sea. In between we followed an entire river from its beginning to its end. There are more than 2,000 miles of foot trails in Michigan but none quite like the Big Carp River Trail in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.
This well-worn trail is a 9.6-mile hike from the mountains to the sea.
It begins at the most popular spot in the park, the Lake of the Clouds overlook, and ends at one of the most remote, the mouth of the Big Carp River. In between there are thundering waterfalls, stands of virgin pine, a steep-sided gorge, black bears, bald eagles and brook trout.
Click on the maps to the right and below to view a larger version or print.
From the Lake of the Clouds overlook, most hikers head east to walk the Escarpment Trail, a popular day hike in the park. Big Carp River Trail heads west and for almost 2 miles skirts the Escarpment, a 400-foot-high rocky bluff with alpine-like vistas and views of the park's rugged interior.
Within 30 minutes you reach the high point of the day at 1,447 feet. Here you can stand on the edge of the steep-sided ridge and look down to see where the Big Carp River emerges from Lake of the Clouds. You briefly resume following the rocky crest of the Escarpment and then make a half-mile descent off the bluff.
The descent quickly becomes a gentle grade through giant pines as the beech-maple forest near the top of the Escarpment gives way to a stand of ancient hemlock. The average age of the hemlock is 220 years old but park naturalists say some could have been around when the Pilgrims landed in America almost 400 years ago.
After viewing the Big Carp River from above, you finally reach the river near Mile 5. This far upriver the Big Carp is actually a large stream with a gentle current that swirls through a series of pools.
Backpacking anglers will often stop here and set up camp at one of three backcountry campsites that are located on the north bank of the river where there was once a three-sided shelter dubbed the “Porcupine Hilton” (it was not). Then they spend their afternoon stalking the upper reaches of the Big Carp for big brookies.
Others continue along the trail as it curves to the north to follow the river to Lake Superior. Within 2 miles you pass through another impressive stand of hemlock and skirt the edge of a steep gorge until you are standing just downriver from Shining Cloud Falls.
Reached at Mile 8.2, the cascade is stunning, a powerful thrust of water that first explodes from between the narrow walls of the gorge and then drops 35 feet into the river. It's name comes from the ever-present cloud of mist that fills the gorge and creates rainbows on a clear day.
In the final two miles you stay close to the river and pass another dozen cascades, all unnamed except the last one; Bathtub Falls. Bathtub is a series of small drops and pools; a giant, ice-cold Jacuzzi where hikers will often kick off their boots and soak their weary feet.
Big Carp River Trail ends where the river does, on the shores of Lake Superior, almost 10 miles from where you started, 4 miles from the nearest road. It's such a remote spot that most hikers make provisions to spend the night by either renting one of three wilderness cabins in the area or packing along a tent and staying in the backcountry campsites.
Then in the evening they gather at the mouth of the Big Carp River to watch the sun melt into the wide blue horizon that is Lake Superior. The final attraction of the day rarely disappoints them in this remotely beautiful place.
The three wilderness cabins - Big Carp River Six-Bunk, Big Carp River Four-Bunk and Lake Superior - are $60 a night and can be reserved six months in advance. The backcountry campsites are $14 a night for up to 12 people and are used on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Cabins are reserved through the Michigan State Parks Campground Reservation System (800-447-2757; www.midnrreservations.com).
For more information call the park headquarters at (906) 885-5275 or check its web site at www.michigan.gov/porkies.