Northern Michigan Vacation: Winter Camping in Porcupine Mountains

Camping compadre Tim, up on the Escarpment Trail, Porcupine Mountains, Michigan.

I had the great pleasure recently of heading up to the Porcupine Mountains for a winter campout in the snowy backcountry with a couple of longtime pals from Minnesota.

 

The Porkies are beautiful any time of year, and for me, winter there is made especially beautiful because, well, this is kind of selfish I guess, but because you know there aren’t too many people who make it into the backcountry that time of year to enjoy it. You can pretend it’s all yours.

 Old growth hemlocks stuffed with snow in the Porcupine Mountain backcountry.

This year we headed out in mid-February, so, still in the heart of winter, and that’s very much what the park felt like. The snow was fresh and still falling, and a whole lot of it was still stuck up in the trees—the wind hadn’t yet blown it all out. For winter devotees, snow in trees is a lucky and wonderful thing to see and wander within because … well, I don’t really know why. Just because.

 

Home sweet home.

We set up camp in a hemlock forest not far from the Union Spring—basically a natural pit that fills with crystal clear water from underground springs. One day we skied up to the Escarpment Trail, which is the gee-whiz trail of the park, the one that runs along the ridge of the valley that cradles Lake of the Clouds. Michigan is always lovely when seen from the Escarpment Trail.

 

Lake Superior, from a shoreline ridge in the Porcupine Mountains, Michigan.

On our last day, after we’d broke camp and come out, we went to the Porcupine Mountain downhill ski area and bought lift tickets to the top, where you can access some XC ski trails. One super bonus was a couple of overlooks that we skied to. One gave a really remarkable view down the valley of Lake of the Clouds and another delivered an on-high view of that vast ole Lake Superior on a blue-sky afternoon—gorgeous.

 

Once, when I was telling my daughter that I was having a hard time finding people to go winter camping, I said, “I don’t know, I guess a lot of people just don’t like to go camping in winter.” And she said, “Yeah, Dad, it took you this long to figure that out?”

 

Taking a break in an old growth hemlock forest. Dean on left; Tim on right.

But the thing is, winter camping is worth a try if you know somebody to go with. Because what you can’t understand until you do it is that you really don’t get cold. When I think back on winter camping, I really never think about the cold, I just remember wandering with a couple of my best friends through old growth hemlock stuffed with snow and skiing in perfect conditions across hills and ridges that deliver amazing views of winter landscape, views that most people are skipping because they are home with a TV remote in their hand. (Ooops….sorry, edging toward self righteous there.)

 

Superb view of the Escarpment ridge. Lake of the Clouds is in the bottom of that valley.

So, just once in your life, give winter camping a try. Here’s one piece of advice. If you do it, I recommend building a quinzee, which is a snow shelter. It’s really warm and will keep you comfortable even when the temps drop below zero at night. Watch this video to see how easy and fun it is to build one. Practice building one at home, but it’s basically a no-brainer. (By the way, this year, we did sleep in a tent, which is why there is a tent in the pictures, but know I still prefer the quinzee.)—Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine

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