The Trap Hills are undoubtedly one of the top three hiking and backpacking destinations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula mainland (Isle Royale notwithstanding). This trip report will cover how I think it stacks up to the Porcupine Mountains and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and what I learned about the kind of hiker I am. As a note, my comments here are restricted to the section of trail between M-64 and the intersection of Norwich Road and Forest Road 630.
--The Trap Hills and NCT--
The Trap Hills themselves are located a few miles east of M-64, north of Bergland, Michigan. The North Country Trail that winds through the rugged terrain is accessible at various points as several forest roads cross the trail, but unless you know exactly what you are looking for, the easiest place to access the Traps is off of M-64.
The forest is mostly older hardwoods with some interspersed pine. Water sources are about 2-4 miles apart with most of them being small runoff streams; however, I can see them being a crap shoot late in a dry summer. As it was, I only had small pools of water to scoop from, but still more than enough.
The trail was, for the most part, well worn. There were sections that the trail seemed to disappear, and I had to take a few seconds to search for the next blaze, but there was nothing too obscure that a little looking didn’t reveal. The route that the NCT takes here is fairly direct, meaning, if there was a hill to go up or a ravine to go down into, you were going head first with little in the way of switchbacks. This makes for some steep, long inclines and will surely get your blood and sweat pumping.
I had expected more of the trail to be along exposed ridges and outcroppings, but much of it was well within tree cover. This was slightly disappointing as I was looking forward to the ridges. That being said, there are about a half dozen good views here, which are a relative rarity in the Midwest. Looking out, you can see nothing except for an endless expanse of trees and distant hills. For sure, when a good view presented itself, it was fantastic.
--The Trap Hills in Comparison to Porcupine Mountains and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore--
As previously mentioned, I consider the Trap Hills to be one of the premier hiking spots, but is it THE premier spot? Well, that depends on your hiking and camping style, or even more simply, what you’re in the mood for. The following is my assessment of each of the three aforementioned destinations.
Trap Hills: This is good for people who like a challenge, wish to see minimal human traffic, and want a true backcountry experience. It offers some great hiking and some great views, but I personally think the views come third place behind Pictured Rocks and the Porkies. You can choose to camp basically anywhere, but are expected to follow LNT principles.
Pictured Rocks: This trail is good for people who really enjoy being near water and great views, but don’t mind seeing exponentially more people on the trail, which is much more tame than the Traps and even the Porkies. The campsites are predetermined and I believe you always need reservations, except in winter. The trail mostly follows the shoreline of Lake Superior closely and you get a mix of sandy beaches, rocky coves, and towering cliffs. The shoreline is spectacular.
Porcupine Mountains: This is kind of a mix between the Trap Hills and Pictured Rocks, mostly depending on your route. You can choose to stay close to the Superior shoreline, or head inland into the hills where you’ll encounter rivers, lakes, waterfalls, and some good vistas. There are fewer people in the Porkies than Pictured Rocks, but still more than the Traps.
While each of these places offer some amazing things, I’d rank them, if I had to, in this order:
Porcupine Mountains (a VERY close second)
Because of my hiking and camping style, this is simply my ranking, and may easily differ from yours. In any case, you can’t go wrong.
--A Difficult Time on the Trail--
(If you’d rather not read an introspective commentary, you can stop here or skip to the photos below.)
The vast majority of my hikes are with my wife, and I really only do an occasional overnighter without her. So when I had the opportunity to do a couple of nights in the Traps while she was off seeing distant friends, I thought it would be a great opportunity to just be out there by myself. What I ended up learning was more than I expected.
My original plan was to set off Friday morning hiking east from M-64 as far as I could go in a day, then maybe push ahead a little farther the next morning before turning around and heading back. I figured I’d camp a few miles from my car Saturday night, then wake up and get back Sunday morning.
I began my hike Friday morning at a quarter to eight as planned. It was overcast, but warm, and I felt good as I took my first steps onto the NCT which wastes no time in giving hikers a workout. Almost immediately the trail began a long, upward climb, eventually reaching the top of a hill (I forget its name), and then immediately back down the other side.
It felt good to just go at my own pace, though, as the morning wore on and the sweat saturated my clothes, I became a little frustrated that I wasn’t making the distance I thought I would. I still felt good, but the miles weren’t “flying by” as I had hoped.
I soon realized that I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to be there simply for the distance. I enjoyed slowing down for my surroundings more than I did ticking off miles. Realizing that I simply wasn’t going to make the distance I had originally hoped, I was happy to change my plan to just be out for a night. I would hike until early evening before setting up camp, then return to my car the next night.
By about 11:45 am, a light rain began to fall. I hiked through the wetness until a little after 1 pm when I found a nice dry spot for lunch under the root base of an overturned tree. By this time, something was nagging at my conscious thought: I missed my wife; this time, more than normal.
Without going into great detail, she and I had been, and still are at the time of this report, going through a difficult period. We had gotten word from her doctor that she needed a brain MRI to determine the cause of some symptoms she was having. Currently, we are still waiting for doctors to figure things out.
So that, along with other things I need not get into, had made for an emotionally charged month, and here I was, alone in the rain. I finished my lunch and was determined to go onward as far as the day would take me, making the best of it. Later that afternoon, the skies cleared and made way for a beautiful day.
As early evening was upon me, I had to start making a decision. Do I go back to my original plan? Or do I cut out early? I hemmed and hawed as I hiked, and I finally realized I just wanted to get back to my car as a strong sense of homesickness washed over me. I’ve never felt that way before and it took me by surprise. I felt like I had let myself down and that I wasn’t the hiker I thought I was. I had given up. It’s not like I was scared of being alone in the wilderness, but I just needed to be off the trail.
I was nearing Forest Road 630 when I decide to turn around and camp on one of the hilltops with a view. Luckily there was a small drainage nearby with a small pool of water; enough for the night. I set up camp as the sun began to fall and made dinner in silence-- at least outwardly. Inside I was trying to make sense of my emotions. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe it had to do with all the stuff going on at home. Maybe I just needed somebody, anybody around. But mostly, I missed my hiking partner.
As I sat on the rocky outcropping watching the sun go down, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing actually flawed with me or my hiking. I simply had discovered how I like to be out on the trail and the wilderness, and that is to be sharing it with someone. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
I was up just before sunrise. Oddly enough, a part of me was ready to continue further down the trail, but I said my goodbye to the hills in the distance and headed back to the car. I made better time than the day before, even as my knee began hurting quite a bit on the downhills. As I got back to my car around 1pm, a light rain began to fall again. Looking at the trail disappearing into the misty forest I thought to myself, “I’ll come back and do this again. But next time, I won’t be alone.”
The NCT trailhead on M-64, about 7 miles north of Bergland
Up I go
As far as the eye can see
A feast for a King
The Bridge to Nowhere?
We're not in Michigan anymore, Toto
Hey, I can see my house from here
A lone tuft of grass atop an outcrop
Home sweet home
The colors of the hills
Reflecting at dinner
A cheery and bright morning
Mist moves into the hills