Leaf Peeping in the Upper Peninsula
Updated: Sep 22, 2022
Hike in the Porcupine Mountains to breathtaking views of the Lake of the Clouds and Carp River Valley. Explore waterfalls and take a ski chairlift for more stunning foliage views.
Morning Hike The Escarpment Trail
Midday Hike the Presque Isle River Loop Trail
Late Afternoon- Fall Color Chairlift Ride
Where to Eat
Build an Itinerary
What to Wear and Pack
When to Go
Hike the Escarpment Trail
The Escarpment trail is an 8.2-mile out-and-back trail with 1,689 feet in elevation gain. It is considered one of the most scenic hikes in all of Michigan and should not be missed if you are visiting the area.
If you are accustomed to hiking on bigger mountains out west or east, it won’t feel like 1,689 feet in elevation gain. If you typically hike on Midwestern trails with minimal incline, this will seem like a tougher hike with lots of uphill. There are multiple options to shorten the hike and avoid parts of the elevation gain too.
If you are traveling during peak fall foliage times, arrive at the trailhead as early as possible to avoid lines at the entrance and to find available parking.
There are three options for where to start the hike:
The Trailhead at the Lake of the Clouds Overlook Parking Lot
If you want a shorter hike option, start here and then hike out along the ridgeline for 1 or 2 miles for continued views of the Lake of the Clouds. You have the option to hike until you want to turn around or go until you reach the mountain peak and then turn back. There is no marker for the peak of the mountain but it’s a large smooth rock cliff where other hikers will likely be resting and taking in the views. This section of the trail is the most scenic and follows along the ridgeline so there is minimal elevation gain or climbing. This trailhead also has the largest parking lot. The downside of this option is that you see one of the best views of the Lake first thing.
The Government Peak Trailhead off of highway M-107.
For a longer hike that requires work to earn your views, start at this trailhead for the full 8.2 mile hike. The first hour or so of the hike is largely uphill until you reach the top of the mountain ridge. Hiking along the ridge there are views of the Carp River Valley.
About 2 miles into the hike the views of the Lake of the Clouds begin. When you hit the built out walkways for viewing Lake of the Clouds then you turn around to hike the same trail back. There is a small parking area for this trailhead.
Start at an unmarked spot along M-107.
There is an opening in the trees on the south side of the road that is in between the Government Peak Trailhead and the Lake of the Clouds Viewpoint Parking Lot. It is about .75 miles beyond the Government Peak Trailhead. Look for other cars randomly parked along the side of the road. This option allows you to shorten the hike and eliminate most of the initial incline that is in option two. It also allows you to work towards the views of the Lake of the Clouds and not see it first thing. It cuts off about 2 miles of the hike.
Hike the Presque Isle River Loop Trail
Drive about 30 minutes to the Presque Isle River section of the park. Here there is a trail to hike to three waterfalls and to views of Lake Superior. Park at the Nawadaha Falls parking lot and then you have two options for the hike:
Hike only the West River Trail for a 1.6 mile hike. It is primarily a trail on boardwalks with lots of stairs. It takes you to Nawadaha Falls, Manido Falls and Manabezho Falls. Hike all the way to the end of the west side to see the Presque Isle River entering Lake Superior. Then turn around and hike back the same way you came to the parking lot.
Hike the West River Trail described above and then continue on to hike the full River Loop around on the east side as well for about a 3 mile hike. The East River Trail does not have boardwalks and has more rugged terrain but most of the falls face east so it has better views of them. There is also a suspension bridge you cross on the full loop. In the winter and spring you may not be able to complete the full loop when the water levels of the river are too high to cross.
Fall Color Chairlift Ride
If you travel to the area between mid-September to mid-October set aside time to take the ski chairlift at the Porcupine Mountain Sports Complex for views of fall foliage and Lake Superior. In the fall they only run the chairlift on Saturday and Sundays between noon to 7 pm. It is located near the Union Bay Campground.
Where to Eat Near Porcupine Mountain State Park
Curbside Chicken Restaurant on Wheels
This food truck is located a quick 5 minutes outside of the park entrance. They are known for their broasted chicken and local whitefish but also sell burgers, fries, cheese curds, pulled pork and subs. They have outdoor seating around the truck and make everything fresh to order. They are open for lunch and dinner but close at 7pm or when they run out of food.
Build an Itinerary
There are numerous other trails in Porcupine Mountain State Park that could fill another day for a full weekend visit, or you could spread the activities in this itinerary over 2 days. If you are road tripping throughout the Upper Peninsula you could also consider adding on Pictured Rocks National LakeShore. See my post on it here.
What to Wear and Pack for Porcupine Mountain State Park
What to Wear
Hiking boots or shoes
Long sleeves and pants in the summer months when the bugs are bad
What to Pack
A daypack for hiking
A water bladder
When to Go
The views on these hikes during peak foliage time are absolutely stunning. Try to visit between mid-September to mid-October for prime foliage viewing. This is the most crowded time of the year, so weekdays are better for avoiding crowds, but the chairlift only runs on weekends. The exact timing of the leaves changing varies year to year and rain and storms can affect how long the leaves stay on too. There are numerous sites that track and predict the foliage conditions week by week. I found this site helpful when planning our trip
Spring and summer visits work well too, but be prepared for more mosquitos and biting bugs in those seasons.
Additional Reading: Pictured Rocks Summer Itinerary, Pictured Rocks Winter Itinerary
Trip Dates: September 2020
Article Updated: August 2021
*Some links in this article are affiliate links that I receive a small commission for at no cost to you.