Top 10 backpacking trails in the upper Midwest
Everyone has their favorites. I have my favorite hiking boots and my favorite backpack. I have my favorite camp food. I also have my favorite backpacking trails. In fact, I have 10 favorite trails.
These top 10 list of favorite trails or trail areas are not based on some highly scientific method of selection, nor is it a list of preferred trails identified by a group of renowned experts. It is simply my personal favorites of the many Midwest trails I have hiked over the years. My list includes those trails that offer a challenge, beautiful surroundings, unique landscapes and an opportunity for solitude and some off-trail camping.
Having grown up in Upper Michigan, I found spectacular backpacking options available to anyone wanting to carry a pack there. Although Wisconsin has 42 designated Wisconsin State Trails, the trails of my choice include those that are remote and excitingly woodsy. And although I have relatively little experience hiking in Minnesota, I found exceptional trails there, too.
1) Isle Royale National Park
On my first visit to Isle Royale National Park I saw a moose. On my second adventure there I saw seven. The history behind Isle Royale’s moose and wolf interaction is phenomenal. In its 56th year of study, the 2014 results revealed that the wolf count was lower over the past three years than ever before with only nine wolves remaining on the island, while the moose population increased, now at 1,050.
This picturesque 132,018-acre federal wilderness park that sits on a 45-mile long and nine-mile wide island in the northwest corner of Lake Superior has no roads but rather has 165 miles of trails to explore. Although the two ports, Rock Harbor on the east end and Windigo on the west, seem to buzz with lodge dwellers and day hikers, backpacking on the Greenstone Ridge can be quite a solitary experience.
After we were dropped off by water taxi on the far east- end of the island, six of us climbed to catch a magnificent view from Lookout Louise, 800-foot-high bluff. We then hiked 10 miles on the Greenstone Ridge Trail to East Chickenbone Lake without seeing another soul. We camped in our tents and in unique screened-in shelters throughout our trip.
Getting to the island is half the fun. You can take a ferry from either Houghton or Copper Harbor, Michigan, or from Grand Portage, Minnesota. The other option is take a seaplane. Go online or call 906/482-0984 for further details.
2) Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park
On the shores of Lake Superior lies the 60,000-acre Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park of Upper Michigan, located 15 miles west of Ontonagon. Out of the many scenic trails in the park, including the Lake Superior Trail that parallels the lake and the Little Carp and Big Carp River trails that follow rivers and meander through an old growth forest of virgin pine and past waterfalls, my preferred hike is on the four-mile long Escarpment Trail.
Why? Because once I reached the highest point on the trail at 1,600 feet above sea level, I caught a beautiful view of the 300-acre Lake of the Clouds some 400 feet below. Jim DuFresne, author of a book on the park, aptly described the Escarpment Trail as “the crowning jewel of trails.”
A friend and I pitched our tent at an off-trail campsite along the escarpment. Cooking supper on our gas stove while overlooking Lake of the Clouds provided a definite meal with a view.
For information about the state park and its backpacking trails, campsites and rustic rental cabins, contact the headquarters at 906/885-5275 or go online to Michigan DNR.
3) Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
“The long views from the points and promontories offer a strong sense of place, a feeling of traveling along a timeless landscape,” is how author Eric Hansen describes the experience at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in his book Hiking Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The 42-mile stretch on the North Country National Scenic Trail from Munising to Grand Marais meanders along Lake Superior beaches, through hardwood forests, by waterfalls and inland lakes and along sandstone cliffs. The view of the Grand Sable Dunes on the far eastern end of the trail is absolutely stunning. On the western end of the trail at Sand Point, you get a clear view of the Grand Island National Recreation Area, another location great for backpacking.
Since 15 miles of the trail are along 50 to 200 foot high cliffs with loose sandstone gravel, the National Park Service strongly recommends caution and to stay away from cliff edges.
There are many spectacular linear segments along the Upper Peninsula lakeshore. And there are some loop options, too, such as the Chapel and Beaver Lake loop, both intersecting with the North County National Scenic Trail.
The Pictured Rocks backcountry is extremely popular in summer, and campsite reservations are very competitive, so check out the U.S. National Park Service website for details or call park HQ at 906/387-2607.
4) North Country National Scenic Trail, Trap Hills Segment
If you have ever been on a roller coaster ride, The Trap Hills Segment of the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) will offer you a similar sensation, but on foot with a backpack. My trek on this trail was extremely challenging, going up and down until we set up camp off-trail. Nearby we enjoyed a panoramic view from atop a ridge of the pine forest below.
There are 34 miles of the NCT that go through the Trap Hills in the Ottawa National Forest of Upper Michigan, from Highway M-64 north of Bessemer and ending at Old Victoria just after passing a splendid view overlooking Victoria Reservoir. This linear trail is known for its minimal use by backpackers, so you may spend a full day hiking and never pass anyone doing the same.
“The Trap Hills provides one of the best choices for backpacking in the Upper Midwest,” according to The North Country Trail Peter Wolf Chapter states. See the chapter website. Another resource is the U.S. Forest Service in Ironwood at 906/932-1330
5) Sylvania Wilderness Area
In winter, spring, summer and fall, I have backpacked and canoed in the Sylvania Wilderness Area. This has been the most frequented location in my top 10 list. I have taken college student on many week-long canoeing adventures and weekend backpacking and winter camping trips there.
This 18,327-acre wilderness area is an old-growth forested utopia for both paddling and backpacking. The Sylvania Entrance Station is about a seven-mile drive west of Watersmeet, Michigan, just off U.S. Highway 2. Beyond that point are 34 pristine lakes to paddle and over 25 miles of trails to hike. Camping is available at any of the 50 wilderness designated campsites where the sound of loon calls abound. Other than Crooked Lake, all other lakes allow only quiet, nonmotorized watercraft.
My top weekend backpacking option is the eight-mile trail around Clark Lake. This footpath offers scenic views, a mixed forest of hardwood and hemlock, an open sandy beach and creek crossings. However, due to major construction in 2014, some roads, landings and the Sylvania campground will close for part of the summer. Contact the Sylvania Entrance Station at 906/358-4404 or the Ottawa Visitor Center in Watersmeet at 906/358-4724 for more information.
6) Ice Age Trail, Jerry Lake Segment & Chippewa Lobe Loop
Out of 1,000 miles of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail (IAT), why did I select this particular segment for my top 10? True, there are over a 100 excellent, meandering IAT segments to backpack between the Door Peninsula at Lake Michigan to the St. Croix River at the Minnesota border. However, I am partial to the IAT Chippewa Lobe Loop and Jerry Lake Segment because of its rustic seclusion and varying terrain.
Hiking among mixed conifers and deciduous trees, over rolling hills and into swamp areas, past a beaver dam and to a backcountry camp site on a very small lake, the loop offers a variety of landscape that keeps the hike interesting. The Chippewa Lobe Loop is a 9.3-mile circle with two miles of the north section on the IAT.
Heading southwest from there on the IAT for eight miles to Jerry Lake will provide a longer trek for the more adventurous. Be careful crossing the south fork of the Yellow River when in route and enjoy the remainder of this rustic trek to the lake.
Author Eric Hansen considers the Jerry Lake Segment as “a quiet footpath, one of the best woodland walks in the state.”
Located 19 miles northwest from Medford and in the southern section of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, are trailheads that access both the loop and IAT. For Information about this area, contact the Medford-Park Falls Ranger District at 715/748-4875. A key resource is the Ice Age Trail Alliance at 800/227-0046 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
7) North Country National Scenic Trail, Great Divide District
Years ago, a group of university students and I backpacked along a northwoods trail within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Just a few miles west of Mellen is the trailhead to this stretch of the North Country Trail in the Great Divide District.
We arrived following a major storm that knocked down what seemed to be a 100 trees in that area of the forest. At least it seemed like we climbed over 100 of them in our 10-mile hike the first day. We finished exhausted. The trail has since been cleared.
Setting up camp off-trail in this rugged backcountry was my main attraction to the area. Incidentally Mellen was named “Wisconsin’s First Trail Town” by the North Country Trail Association in 2012.
Although the NCT is 4,600-miles long and meanders through seven northern states, the Wisconsin NCT spans a relatively short distance. From Hurley, Wisconsin, at the Wisconsin-U.P. border west nearly to Jay Cooke State Park southwest of Duluth, Minnesota, the trail is 200 miles in length.
For information about this region and the trail, contact the Forest Service Great Divide Ranger District in Glidden at 715/264-2511. The North Country Trail Association website has more information.
8) Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Due to an unusual freeze this past winter, over 138,000 people visited the popular Apostle Island ice caves on frozen Lake Superior in a two-month period, a phenomenal turnout. Now that the ice is gone, what islands are considered prime locations for backpacking? Four of the 21 national lakeshore islands are recommended for backpacking by Jack and Elizabeth Hailman in their book Backpacking Wisconsin. They include Basswood, Oak, Stockton and the Outer Islands.
I backpacked on Oak Island with two friends and hiked the 10.5-mile Loop Trail and Overlook Trail to an 862-foot-high overlook at the northernmost end of the island. The panoramic view of Lake Superior and some of the other islands made the long hike well worthwhile. At 1,081 feet above sea level, Oak Island is the highest point in the Apostle Islands.
Although we had no encounters with bears during our visit, bear are known to frequent the island. In fact, Stockton Island is known for having the largest concentration of black bears, estimated two bears per square mile.
Campsites are available on the four islands, and wilderness camping is permitted if away from water and trails. The only means to the islands is by boat. We took a commercial cruise service to reach Oak Island. Information can be acquired by contacting the park superintendent in Bayfield at 715/779-3397. Or go online to the National Park Service.
9) Superior Hiking Trail
Robert Earle Howells wrote for National Geographic that the Superior Hiking Trail is “the best long hike in the country between the Continental Divide and the Appalachian Trail.” From Duluth to the Ontario border just beyond Grand Portage, the 296-mile Superior Hiking Trail is a footpath that runs parallel to the North Shore of Lake Superior and Minnesota Highway 61. The trail traverses a rocky ridgeline where from occasion outcroppings you can catch stunning views of the greatest of the Great Lakes
The unique aspect to this trail is that you can access it from many locations off Highway 61 and intersecting roads. And there are about 30 trailheads located roughly every five to 10 miles. Some of the sensational sights and stops along the way are river crossings, cliffs, waterfalls (such as Gooseberry Falls) and Minnesota state parks that span the North Shore. The mixed forests are rich and full of wildlife. You may even spot a moose.
Along the trail are 92 backcountry campsites where permits, fees and reservation are not needed. In addition, there are seven state park campgrounds along the way with camping for a fee. An excellent resource is the Superior Hiking Trail Association, online at www.shta.org or by phone at 218/834-2700.
10) Superior National Forest, Bass Lake Trail
Several years ago during a trip to Ely, Minnesota, to attend a writer’s workshop at Vermillion Community College, I visited the International Wolf Center, Listening Point and other area attractions. I also took to the trails around Bass Lake. Six miles from Ely, this small wilderness area has trails through tall red and white pine, at the base of small waterfalls and up a steep ridge. I so enjoyed the terrain, the views and backcountry ambiance of this small but significant area.
The Bass Lake Trail is a 5.25-mile loop. There are also the Dry Falls and Dry Lake loops, as well as an opportunity to hike the full exterior loop around both lakes. Backpackers may camp at designated sites. Dispersed camping is permitted, too.
For information, contact the Kawishiwi Ranger District in Ely at 218/365-7600.
You now have my top 10 favorite backpacking trails in northern Wisconsin, Upper Michigan and northeast Minnesota. There are so many more trails in the tri-states, so as I continue to explore other areas for hiking and backpacking, I hope to add to my top list.
Until then, happy trails to you.
Jim Joque is the director of disability services at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He is also an adjunct adventure education instructor at UWSP, teaching courses on camping, backpacking, snowshoeing, adventure leadership and Leave No Trace concepts.