Saturday, January 24, 2009

Porcupine Mountains yurt camping

Sploosh! Head first, hair wet. This will be the first of many "mini-trips" in this format. Some will have happened in the past, many more in the future. The Porkies trip was this past Sunday-Tuesday.

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is 60,000 acres of old-growth timber and trails located on the south shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In the summer you can find trees, lakes, hikers, mountain bikers, birds, bears and mosquitoes. Winter brings snow, XC skiers, snow, alpine skiers, snow, snowshoers, ice, and snow.

It is a silent sports paradise. Along with the 100+ miles of ski, bike, and hiking trails, the Porkies are studded with 19 “rustic” cabins and 4 yurts spread throughout the Park. In the summer, most are 3-6 miles from any road and are only accessible by foot or mountain bike. In the winter however, the 2 roads within the park boundaries are not plowed making your hike a little linger. Generally you'll end up snowshoeing or cross country skiing 5-18 miles to the cabins and yurts. My girlfriend Lori and I stayed in a yurt about 6 miles from the downhill ski parking area.

Labor Day weekend 2008 Lori and I spent 2 nights in another Park yurt (they sleep 4) with friends Tim and Christina. It is also considered "rustic" by most people's standard as there is no power or running water but was only 100 yards off the pavement. Still, we had a great time and the nearby showers were welcome in the summer after hiking around the surrounding trails. But this time around we wanted to do something a little more exigent. The West Vista yurt just southwest of the downhill ski area fit the bill nicely.

The 4 yurts, ranked by difficulty to get to in winter and distance from parking are:
Union Bay, about a mile from parking
Little Union River, about 3 miles, trails groomed every 3-4 days
West Vista, about 6 miles, trails are groomed every 3-4 days (Relocated to Union Bay in 2012!)
Lost Creek, about 6 miles, trails are only groomed about half way then turn into a cross country footpath.

But there are many routes you can take to get to your destination. Add a mile or two loop on the groomed trail, hoof it through the bush and make your own route or take a summer hiking trail instead of the XC ski trail. The entire park is open to foot traffic. If you do stray off the trail though, for God' s sake pack a compass and know how to use it. What looks like a mile shortcut on the map can quickly turn deadly if the wind picks up and the temps drop. Not to mention trudging through waist deep fresh powder uphill will quickly exhaust you if you are not prepared.

The online and print maps are a little deceptive as some only show the hiking/biking trails and some only show the XC ski trails. And none of them capture the mountains* and valleys adequately! (*I use the term mountains loosely. Yes, they are the Porcupine Mountains but a traveler from Colorado or Switzerland will scoff. These are mountains by Midwest standard; plan on elevation changes of up to 1000' while traversing the Park.)

We picked the West Vista because it was a mere 6 miles +/- from the parking lot and because it was the first available. Reservations for yurts and cabins must be made in advance at . You may book up 12 months in advance and weekends are usually not available for 2 months. As of this writing (Jan 23) the first Saturday available for yurt camping is March 21. Weekday reservations are much easier to come by. Cabin reservations seem to be hit or miss but are a bit more of a hike in wintertime. In 2008 and 2009, rates were $60 per night for both cabins or yurts.

Back to the story. We left Wisconsin for the UP on a Sunday and stayed at the fabulous Dancing Eagle Resort and Casino in Watersmeet so we'd have all day Monday for showshoeing. $50 gets you a nice room along with $25 in "play money" for each of us at the casino downstairs. I picked the DERC because it is only an hour from the Park plus is just a few miles from Bond Falls flowage, another great place to visit if you are in the area. We were going to meet with our friends from earlier in this story to hike down to the Lower Falls to take some pictures and stretch our legs before the trip the next day. I lost my $25 in about 2 minutes but Lori is Lady Luck and took the casino to the bank. Nice!

Monday morning we arrived at the park fairly early, picked up our keys and map, donned our packs, strapped on our 'shoes and started out. Blizzard conditions. There were unfortunately winter storm warnings for Ontonagon County when we left the casino that only got worse once we stated up down the trail, visibility was down to 100 yards at times. It snowed 7 inches in the time it took us to snowshoe up the trail, about 6 hours. This was at the bottom on a groomed XC ski trail (it had been groomed by the XC ski groomer 3 days ago).

An hour later...

Arriving about an hour before dark. It’s only 15 degrees out but we’re pretty much roasting from the hike. The couple 600mL water bottles we carried froze into slush. (Sorry, not too many photos between departure and arrival due to not wanting to get the camera full of blowing snow and poor photo conditions anyway).

The snow’s about waist-high on the last ¼ mile or so of the trail…

Not much here! (or in the rest of the yurts and cabins) A pair of bunks, a table and chairs, stove, wood (frozen under the platform outside), ax, bow-saw, broom and a couple pots, pans, coffee mugs, and coffee pot are stored in a bear-proof box outside. Also a pretty cool log book in each yurt and cabin. Lots of stories about bear and wolf sightings, memories, short-story fiction, drawings, poems, and the like. In the summer, there is a picnic table and fire ring outside (but no wood, you have to go cut your own from downed trees). There’s also a frozen outhouse about 50 yards from the yurt.

The yurts are made out of semi-insulated canvas with a solid wooden door in front and heavy plastic windows (you can replace them with zip-on screens in the summer) so it takes awhile to heat up. After 2 hours you can no longer see your breath inside but by 3 hours it’s 75 degrees. Unfortunately, you have to add wood every 2 hours to maintain 60-75 degrees. You only make the mistake once of waking up to a 30 degree yurt before you learn to set an alarm. There is also a skylight/vent in the ceiling which is very nice in the summer.

Tuesday morning we woke to a fresh 3 inches of snow and after a breakfast of melted snow-tea and snoatmeal we put a few more miles of trail underfoot.

This is the West Vista Overlook, the trail back down is in the valley behind us and Lake Superior is behind the tree to the right but you can’t tell due to the overcast conditions.

Near the West Vista Overlook is the Outlook "shortcut" trail. I thought we might have tried this on the way up but it hadn't been travelled in some time (it's actually a summer hiking trail, not a ski/snowshoe trail). With snowshoes on the snow was still past my knees. I wouldn't even want to try this 2 km trail downhill.

Around noon the skies finally cleared on our way back down. From here you can see about 50 miles out into Lake Superior. Even with the recent sub-zero temps, the Lake is only iced over 2-3 miles out, then open water.

Of course at the bottom near the end of our trip the sun finally came all the way out. Our only sunny pic!

What would I do differently next time? We brought some pretty large packs but for a 1-night trip you don't need more than a small day pack. For the same trip later this winter or next winter, I would leave the large backpacks and water bottles at home and just bring a Camelback stuffed with food and figure out a way to lash smaller sleeping bags to them. We packed two sub-zero sleeping bags not knowing how warm it would get in the yurts but they were way overkill in the 75-degree heat.

Also, if you are hiking mid-winter you really don't need to bring water. We overestimated how much we would need on the trail and once we got to the yurt it was super easy to melt snow in a pan and top off all our bottles. We also had more than enough food, all the extra clothes could have stayed at home since the synthetics dry so fast, the small flashlights just took up space as did the batteries. I really think we could have gotten by with packs weighing 10-12 pounds for this short trip instead of 20-ish. Next time!  Or maybe we should have stayed a few nights...


  1. There was big monster cookies from Festival Foods that played a role before eating hotdogs! Oatmeal w/ choc. chips with a touch of peanut butter. They are to die for! We also brought along yogurt covered pretzels.

  2. Hi--I did a google search on the yurts at porcupine mtn state park and your blog popped up. Enjoyed the post--especially the photos. Cheers!

  3. Great post. My siblings and I are always looking for ideas. My brother sent your post my way. Not sure 4 or 5 40yr+ brothers and sisters should risk being snowed-in together for a stretch of time, but the trip sounds fantastic!

    1. This is something my siblings like to do too. Might consider one of the 8 bunk cabins just 1/4 mile in for my less outdoorsy sisters. But thinking along the same lines as you. Minn and Wisc parks also have some nice 8-16 person cabins, some with electricity and propane heat.

  4. Thanks for all the great detail! My friends & I are hoping to get up there this winter. I'll be passing along your blog to them for trip prep. Thanks!

  5. Headed for 4 Yurt nights next week, (April 1-5). Really appreciate the advice on packing, water, bears, and snoatmeal. Thanks!