Getting the Upper Hand on Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains

In Destinations by Ryan

A backpacking story about beer in the Porcupine Mountains. Or maybe it’s a beer story about backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains.

The Porcupine Mountains - Lake of the Clouds.
The view of Lake of the Clouds from the Escarpment Trail

On an overcast fall afternoon, Chris and I eased out of the car after a nearly nine hour drive from mid-Michigan to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the western edge of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

It was our first trip to one of the state’s most challenging trails, which hardly qualifies as “mountains” to experienced hikers from out west, but it’s what we have. As we shouldered our comically oversized packs and started out on our four-day, three-night trek into the wilderness, it started to rain.


The Porcupine Mountains, named by the indigenous people who first called the land home because the peaks and valleys of the forest resembled crouched porcupines, covers more than 60,000 acres and is Michigan’s largest state park.

“The Porkies,” as they are affectionately known, rise up from the shores of Lake Superior and at 2 billion years old are considered one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. The second highest peak in Michigan, Government Peak, at 1,850 feet, is nestled in the park, which also features 90 miles of hiking trails of varying length and difficulty.

The Lake Superior Trail is often considered one of the toughest trails in the park as it winds through wetlands and is often defined by muddy terrain and fallen trees. You’re rewarded, though, with campsites along the largest freshwater body of water in the world. Meanwhile, the Big Carp River and Little Carp River trails run parallel to the respective rivers they are named after and provide a consistent water source and a pleasant soundtrack. They also take you past several waterfalls and while they are impressive, they aren’t quite as grand as what you would see in the Sierras.

The Government Peak Trail will take you to, you guessed it, Government Peak. Sadly, the peak is covered by a large canopy of trees so there isn’t much of a view when you reach the top save for a sign letting you know you’re there.

Meanwhile, South Mirror Lake and North Mirror Lake trails cut through the center of the park and lead to and from the highest lake in the park, Mirror Lake, at 1,532 feet. Then, there’s the Escarpment Trail, which offers sweeping views of the park as you trudge along rugged and rocky terrain.

There are also shorter trails and connecting trails, but those are generally the big seven.

Rustic campsites and cabins are dotted throughout the park, all of which have to be reserved. Some sites fill up fast though. The soonest you can book a site is six months before your trip.


Our plan to hike the Porcupine Mountains was hatched months prior and seemed like a natural extension of the day hikes we dragged our families on.

Those started as a way to get the kids out of the house during COVID and morphed into weekend trips up north to hike out five or six miles to catch views of Lake Michigan. A full-fledged backpacking trip seemed like the natural evolution. I mean, if I can hike five miles with a squirming child strapped into a carrier on my back, I could manage 10 miles with gear that weighs about the same, right?

Wrong.

Before we talk about the actual trip, and the beer that accompanied us along the way, let me just say that I seriously overpacked. I know that’s a common pitfall of your first backpacking trip so I can chalk some of it up to beginner’s remorse. That being said, I brought so many things that I really did not need and definitely did not use. Those things included:

  • A small cellphone tripod for night photography
  • Eight carabiner clips of varying sizes
  • Roughly 100 feet of paracord
  • A change of clothes for every day
  • Food I didn’t want to eat

The last two items were probably the biggest missteps in terms of added weight, particularly the food. I carried with me four pounds (yes, I weighed it) of trail mix from Costco and never once opened one of the bags. That means I carried four consumable pounds throughout the Porcupine Mountains without ever reducing that weight.

All added weight isn’t bad though. For instance, beer.


It didn’t dawn on us until we were almost to the wilderness state park that we didn’t have any beer to load into our already overloaded packs to commemorate the end of each day. So, we stopped at literally the last gas station before the Porcupine Mountains to see what we could scrounge up. The parking lot of the M-64 Truck Stop had been completely torn apart, save for a small strip of asphalt that led you to a couple of gas pumps and a spot to park out front.

Chris hopped out and returned moments later with a six pack of Upper Hand Upper Peninsula Ale.

It seemed like a fitting beer for our Upper Peninsula adventure. After all, Upper Hand is a spinoff brewery of Larry Bell’s and when it first launched in 2014 you could only buy Upper Hand Brewery beers in the Upper Peninsula. Upper Hand thankfully expanded to the lower peninsula several years later so us trolls (an affectionate, or not, name for people who live south of the Mackinac Bridge) could enjoy it.


Day One of our Porcupine Mountains Journey:

With beer loaded into our packs, we set out from the gravel parking lot of the Government Peak trailhead on what we assumed would be a easy 1.5 mile hike to our first campsite, ES-1. The site, and the trail that leads you there, is renowned for its sweeping views of the park, including Lake of the Clouds. But first, we had to climb out of the woods and onto the Escarpment Trail.

Hiking in mid-Michigan, and even up north, we were often treated to wide, well-maintained trails and foot bridges. Sure, there may be tree roots to navigate, but those weren’t too much trouble as long as you paid attention to where you were stepping. But this trail had rocks, jagged and slippery rocks, and they lined the entire trail up from the parking lot.

After roughly a mile of poorly managing the rocky trail we emerged from the trees and were treated with panoramic views of the park including the Upper Carp River, Lake of the Clouds and Lake Superior, the latter well off in the distance.

After another half mile and an animal encounter we couldn’t quite identify (something growled, we walked faster), we arrived at ES-1, which is tucked just off the trail and features a fire ring and a bear pole for safely storing your food overnight. I’d like to say we quickly set up camp, but it took a bit to dig through the unnecessary gear to unearth tents, sleeping pads and bags and overstuffed food sacks.

Eventually, we did get our camp set up, got a fire going and cracked open the first Upper Hand UPA. Little did we know, but this would be the only fire we would have the entire trip.

Upper Hand’s Upper Peninsula Ale, or UPA, is a classic pale ale and paired well with just about everything the Porcupine Mountains threw at us. At 5.5% ABV it wasn’t too overpowering. The nose and palate were dominated by fruit and floral notes, perhaps a touch of melon, and a light caramel sweetness to balance things out. Bonus: It had only been a few hours since we picked the beer up so it was still fairly cold.

UPA made a great way to cap a long drive and short first day of hiking. As the sun disappeared behind the park we decided to call it a night, but not before catching signs of life in the distance. We didn’t run into many people throughout our trip, but judging by the campfire on the banks of Lake of the Clouds we could see from above, we knew at least one other person was in the park with us.

As darkness set in, more clouds rolled in and soon, the pitter patter of rain could be heard bouncing off of rainflies. That pitter patter turned into a driving rain accompanied by flashes of lightning and loud claps of thunder. It’s a little unnerving at first, when you realize how little tent material is sheltering you from the elements, but then I rolled over in my sleeping bag and let the thunderstorm lull me to sleep.

Day Two

The rain tapered off at some point overnight and when we woke up we were greeted to a forest shrouded in fog.

After choking down a breakfast of oatmeal and assorted seeds and dried fruits (I now realize I don’t like breakfast when backpacking) and retrieving our bear bags from atop the bear pole, we set off in the direction we came from the day before to connect up to the Government Peak Trail.

Day Two would be our longest day of the trip covering 10 miles to our campsite for the night, ML-3.

Going down the same jagged and slippery rocks we went up less than 24 hours earlier wasn’t any easier than going up. And after a few near falls, we detoured back to the car to load up on more water – which was completely unnecessary.

For those who haven’t backpacked before, water is heavy. A liter of water adds a little more than two pounds to your pack and I was convinced I needed three liters of water for the day, which was an additional six pounds. Considering my pack weighed 42 pounds when I left the house and I didn’t eat enough for dinner or breakfast to make a dent in my consumable weight, I was lugging nearly 50 pounds on this leg of the trip. And while it is smart to plan ahead, we were passing enough water sources that it would be easy to filter and refill along the way.

I sloshed my pack back on and we got on our way.

By this point, the fog had given way to a bright September sun, although it was hard to tell as we traipsed through a green tunnel that dimmed the sun’s rays. The first few miles were mostly downhill and through a wetland, with makeshift single-track bridges to mostly keep your feet dry. Then, we began to make the climb up Government Peak.

Many of the trails we were used to in mid-Michigan had switchbacks, a zig-zag pattern of trail that makes it easier to go up steep inclines or declines. The Porcupine Mountains didn’t really have switchbacks. You basically either went straight up, or straight down. So, straight up we went.

When you reach the top of Government Peak you almost wouldn’t know it if it weren’t for a sign because it looks like most of the rest of the trail: Green. With no views to be had, we continued on to our campsite and then it started. Rain.


I spent months researching and purchasing gear for the trip to the Porcupine Mountains. I hadn’t camped since Boy Scouts and hadn’t hiked for more than a few hours so I was basically starting from scratch. Over time, I added a tent and pack and then the sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, cook system, hiking boots, socks, a wide-brimmed floppy hat that became useless when it got wet. You know, the essentials.

I won’t be posting my LighterPack, an online app that allows hikers to track gear and humblebrag about how ultralight they are, because there was nothing light about my setup at the time.

Taking new things into the backcountry is an interesting experience. I think it’s human nature to want to take care of new stuff. We try and keep it clean and reduce wear and tear. That’s how I treated my gear the first roughly 24-hours on trail, sidestepping puddles and trying not to lean my pack against any tree sap or quickly wipe away any dirt.

But when it rains, and I mean really rains, you realize this gear was made to get wet and dirty. And as we hiked out from Government Peak, it really rained.


As the big drops, somewhat slowed by the tower tree branches, began to fall, we quickly got out our pack covers to try and keep our gear dry. But by the time we did that, there was no sense grabbing the rain jacket. We were soaked and the rain was only picking up. So, we kept going.

There’s something strangely therapeutic about walking in the rain. It’s almost like your cares are literally being washed away. It’s also hard not to laugh, given the circumstances, because, really, what else are you going to do.

After what felt like hours (but was really just a few miles) of hiking through a driving rain, we arrived at ML-3, a spacious campsite under towering trees and on the banks of Mirror Lake.

Looking up at the canopy from ML-3

The rain had slowed to a drizzle at this point so we set up a tarp to hunker down under while we waited for the weather to pass.

It didn’t pass.

A steady rain continued for what was left of the afternoon so under the tarp we stayed, boiling water for dinner and keeping our eyes on a pair of squirrels that kept inching closer to our food bags. We also cracked the second UPA of the trip and boy did it taste good.

The beer wasn’t as warm as I expected it to be and it was nice to sit back, sip and gaze out on the ripples on Mirror Lake created by the rain.

We tried in vain to start a fire, and with clothes drying under the tarp and the sun setting, we decided to call it a night. No more than 30 minutes after we zipped up our tents, the quiet of the forest was shattered by a blood-curdling scream that sounded a lot like this.

While this doesn’t sound too bad from the comfort of your laptop, it’s a little jarring out in the backcountry. Shrieking owl aside, the night came and went without any other disturbances.

Day Three

Fog draped parts of Mirror Lake as we slowly got moving, checking on wet gear that was still a little wet and boiling water for coffee but not the oatmeal that I opted to skip this time.

Our final full day on the trail would take us a modest seven miles along the Correction Line Trail, to the Big Carp River Trail, where we would climb out of the forest again and up onto the escarpment and camp at BC-3.

We sipped coffee and watched two swans gracefully patrol Mirror Lake before packing up and heading out for the day. As we exited camp, we passed a group of what looked like college-aged kids. Little did we know at the time, but our paths would cross again and they would bail us out in a big way.

The day started much like the day before, fog giving way to sunshine that couldn’t quite push through the canopy and then clouds. The Correction Line Trail, while only about three miles, took longer than we expected. We found out after the trip that this trail isn’t as regularly maintained as some of the others, so we dealt with all sorts of downed trees across the trail. I may have toppled over a few times while trying to lunge over these trees.

The end of the Correction Line Trail brought us to our first and only true water crossing, an ankle deep wade across the frigid Big Carp River. We swapped out hiking boots for sandals and worked our way across, filling up fresh water to filter along the way.

After shouldering our packs again, we set out on the Big Carp River Trail. Shortly after we turned a corner on the trail to hike parallel to the river, we came across a large campsite with a large family and a man waist deep in the river, naked, presumably bathing or maybe just being naked in a river.

We silently acknowledged filtering water downstream from the campsite minutes prior and hiked on.

It wasn’t long before we began climbing up, taking large steps up and over tree roots and rocks along the way, and that’s when we saw him. Barreling down the trail in a short pair of red shorts, a tank top, headband and oversized sun glasses was a bearded man with hair sprouting out in every direction under his clothes, who resembled a taller Zach Galifianakis. “Beautiful day,” he huffed at us as he continued down the trail at breakneck speed.

We stopped for a few minutes and watched, expecting him to take a spill on any one of the objects on the path. But like a sasquatch with wings, he simply glided across the trail and faded into the distance.

A few miles later and after traversing the only real switchback we came across, we settled into BC-3. The campsite is set back a bit from the trail and is highlighted by a throne carved out of a withered tree stump. We were both ready to do our best of Game of Thrones impersonation, but then it happened again: rain.

It started slowly at first, which gave us just enough time to set up our tents and string up our tarp before it really started pouring.

Campsite in the Porcupine Mountains.
Not pictured, my hiking boots which I left out in the rain

At this point, there was nothing left to do but drink. So, we cracked open the last UPA and sipped away as we laughed about the naked man in the river and the half naked man running down the trail. I also packed an emergency pint of Wild Turkey for just such an occasion, which we shared as we waited for the rain to stop.

And eventually it did.

The skies parted around dinnertime which gave us an opportunity to move our camp chairs out near the trail and look out on the park.

As we enjoyed what we could see of the sunset, sipping on bottom-shelf whiskey, we looked at our trail map as we had every afternoon to plot the course for the coming day. And it was in that moment we realized we parked in the wrong parking lot and instead of being two miles from the car, we were six miles from it.

On any other day, an additional four miles wouldn’t be a big deal. But we were soaked, our feet were aching and our legs were throbbing.

Day four was supposed to be easy, a short jaunt to the car and then back on the road and home by dinner. But being six miles from the car changed everything. So, we decided to do what any sane people would do in the situation: Get up before the dawn, night hike to where we were supposed to park and either road walk or hitchhike our way back to the car.

Staring down the barrel of an alarm set for 5 a.m., it was a restless night marked by off and on rain showers and an obnoxious chipmunk or mouse that kept scurrying past my head for what felt like most of the night.

Day Four

We were both up before our alarms and packed up our gear in silence. It was dark and the moon was shrouded by clouds. No breakfast or coffee today. Time was of the essence.

We heaved up our packs, clicked on headlamps and started off. No sooner did we start off on the trail did we hear a voice shout, “You guys heading out this morning too?” It was one of the college kids we saw the morning before. The group he was with was tearing down camp and getting ready to hike out too.

We gave them a nod, said good morning, and continued on our way, figuring they would catch up to us fairly quickly. And they did.

We hiked along for a bit, guided by headlamps, and talking about the crazy weather we all endured. And then we encountered a 3-4 foot drop on the rocky trail. As the least coordinated of the group and the one with the heaviest pack, it only made sense for me to go down first, and I went down hard.

My foot slipped on the wet rock, my body twisted and my head went straight for the volcanic rock. Thankfully, my headlamp was there to cushion my fall. I bounced off the trail and tumbled backward for a moment before springing back up hoping no one noticed my fall. Everyone noticed my fall.

While I was no worse for wear, my headlamp was busted.

We let the spryer group of hikers pass and tried to figure out how to go the next mile in complete darkness. It was slow going on the rocky and root covered path. Chris would hike ahead 10-15 feet and turn around and shine his light back on the path so I could gingerly make my way across. We repeated this dozens of times until we finally made it back to the Lake of the Clouds overlook and where we should have parked.

As luck would have it, the college students – members of the Outdoor Adventure Recreation Program at the University of Wisconsin – Breen Bay – were there too, waiting on a few stragglers from their group. They arrived a few minutes later and as we chatted and they were loading up, I asked, “could we catch a ride to the Government Peak lot?” They happily agreed and we climbed into the back of a pickup truck and enjoyed a slow ride, much of it downhill, with a chilly fall breeze on our faces.


Sometimes it’s not just the beer you’re drinking that’s great, but the setting you’re drinking it in or the circumstances around it. I have drank what some would consider world class beers over the last 15 years or so, but some of my favorite memories involving beer have more to do with the people I was with than the beer we were drinking, even if it was a crazy night of verticals.

Hell, one of the best tasting beers I’ve ever had was a Revolution A Little Crazy on tap at a hotel in Chicago after a disastrous day of delayed and cancelled flights while attempting to fly from Detroit to an airport in Columbia, MO. Don’t get me wrong, A Little Crazy is a great beer on its own, but there was something about those first few gulps after a really rough day that hit the spot and has stuck with me for a decade.

Could we have picked a better beer to slosh around in our packs for three days in the Porcupine Mountains? Maybe. But Upper Hand UPA was the perfect beer for an imperfect backpacking trip and added to the memories.


This fall will mark our third trip to the Porcupine Mountains and we’ve learned a few things along the way. I now pack less clothes and have finally dialed in my food so I’m not bringing so much back home with me, and hauling it around in the process.

Last year, my pack weight was down to 32 pounds after upgrading my sleep system and cutting down on the clothes and heavy food. That trip was a bit less exciting in that we didn’t come across many colorful characters, there were a few less mishaps and the beer was just fine. Sometimes, the trip that goes really well isn’t the one that makes for the best story. And, no, we didn’t see the trail-running Zach Galifianakis doppelganger this time around. But we did have some awesome views.

We reserved some of the best campsites in the Porcupine Mountains this last go-round, including BC-7 and LC-5, which are right on the water, and LOC-4. The latter sits on a peninsula that juts out into Lake of the Clouds. I would highly recommend any of the above for those planning a future trip.

As we prepare for this year’s trip, my pack should be lighter as I’ve shed nearly 10 pounds with the addition of new gear and the subtraction of gear I didn’t use during the last trip. That will make more space in the pack for whatever beer we stumble across at the M-64 Truck Stop and the memories that come with another trip to the Porcupine Mountains.

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Ryan

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Equal parts beer nerd and policy geek, Ryan is now the curator of the Guys Drinking Beer cellar. The skills he once used to dig through the annals of state government as a political reporter are now put to use offering unique takes on barrel-aged stouts, years-old barleywines and 10 + year verticals.

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