Word of a jutting slab of basalt rising high above the forest canopy lures our correspondent—ropes and camera in tow—for a weekend of Upper Peninsula rock climbing, just as fall colors explode. (FYI: You can just walk up, too.)
This article is featured in the October 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.
As any Michigander knows, traveling through the U.P. is full of surprises and character is everywhere. The long list of local secrets not found in travel brochures leaves us trolls on a constant treasure hunt. Secrets travel softly but often with much enthusiasm among travelers and regular visitors. Locals wisely stay mum. If you’re inclined and you listen closely or ask the right questions you might be able to pick up some secret spots or local favorites to explore.
The Hilltop Cafe is known in small circles as an Upper Peninsula delicacy. As with most gems in the humble U.P. if you blink you might miss it; if you spot it you probably wouldn’t take note. I am not sure how many times I had passed before a friend mentioned that The Hilltop was a breakfast joint worth trying. The Hilltop is great home cooking served up with a smile. L’Anse is a small town, but the parking lot at the Hilltop is always at capacity, a sure sign for the more observant traveler. If you stop in for a belly brick breakfast, make sure you don’t leave without their signature sweet roll. Putting Cinnabon to shame, you will feel like the biggest glutton upon receipt of your calorie bomb. This is their signature delight, a cinnamon roll, made fresh every morning to ooey-goey perfection, rolled up lightly into the size of a toddler’s head! I am sharing this little secret with my two good friends and new U.P. residents Rachel and David as we pass by on the highway. I watch David lean in, and press his forehead to the window, staring longingly at the front door. He may have licked the glass? “Treats such as these are for victory only. We have a mountain to climb, buddy. We will be back,” I say, as I take in the spectac view of L’Anse Bay as we crest the hill that gives Hilltop Restaurant its name.
This is so often how U.P. secrets spread: a friend makes a casual note. Just as I discussed The Hilltop in passing, it was in this same way I came to know of Silver Mountain. I am sure we were in the middle of an ice climb when a good friend mentioned a basalt monolith tucked into an odd corner of the Upper Peninsula. He said it was a superb rock-climbing destination. I am also sure I laughed a little, assuming it to be a joke. Part of the U.P. charm is you have to take everything lightly. In reference to Michigan, you seldom find the words “superb” and “rock” coming together to cause piloerection on a climber’s neck. But something was convincing in his delivery, so confident, and I couldn’t help but take note of this suggestion.
Years later, on a crisp October morning, I found myself at a campsite near Marquette ready to investigate this top-tip. I donned my explorers cap, checked my bag of chalky climbing gear and slid out of my sleeping bag to snag a cup of coffee downtown and then make my way west to meet up with friends.
The Baraga Plains is a large swath of land bordering M38, which is itself an odd ribbon of highway unfurling westward from Baraga, a dividing line that separates the Keewanaw from the rest of the Upper Peninsula. I suppose this corridor is interesting in its own way but it really reminds me of northern Wisconsin or southeast Michigan. As the name implies, the plain spreads out flat and farmy, with tall grasses and short shrubs—a surprising departure from the western U.P.’s tall forests, rolling hills and low, ancient mountains, and hardly a place you’d expect to find great climbing.
I concede that the past week’s chill has me already looking ahead to wintertime adventures. Typically in 100 percent support of fall in Michigan, I have found myself thinking of camping on winter-crisp nights with friends. Of snow crunching under the weight of snowshoes marching down a path lit only by moonlight as we explore wooded lots near lost lakes canopied by bright stars. I start to think about ice, of course the ice! Large translucent blue vertical pillars that form in odd shapes and features as water seeps from porous rock on sandy cliffs dotting the shores of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It is these icy columns that first tempted me to test my climbing skills. I do love winter, and every fall I look toward it with excitement while enjoying the fleeting feeling of the seasonal transition.
We turn off the highway and into a large forested patch. After bouncing through a maze of forest roads, we exit the van, and I notice the cold air of the morning has changed to a constant warm breeze that is filtering through the forest. We organize our gear, heave loaded packs onto our shoulders and take off on a twisty single-track through the dense woods. The air smells of leafy decay, and our path is painted with fiery colors. This is the fall I am after, and it is a perfect day.
Our Technicolor trail winds back and forth and begins to climb slightly. I start to notice a shadow to our right. I catch glimpses of rock as we inch closer. We are nearing a gigantic chunk of rock that I cannot see the top of through the colored leaves. Soon we find ourselves surrounded by thick forest strewn with boulders, tumbled from this craggy feature that juts up before us. We settle at the base of a bolted route and prepare some gear as I rope in. With excitement I begin confidently pulling on this porous basalt and climb higher and higher. Quickly I ascend past the top of the tallest flame orange maple, above the last decorated oak branch. My effort is instantly rewarded with a view of a canopy of dancing orange and yellow gently rolling away like a tumbling wave framed by an almost cloudless azure sky. Up here the dark rock has been warmed by the sun. It radiates heat into my face and arms. Rays of sunlight are doing the same to my backside. As I continue to climb I realize that I am on the tallest structure around, by far. No hill, treetop or cell phone tower impedes my view as far as I can see. I am in awe. This basalt outcrop seems out of place on this plain, not to mention its location within borders. My world is this rock and open air, and the power and beauty of this experience has pulled me back into the moment. I am in full embrace of this warm fall day and any longing for winter has moved far into the distance. From my high perch I gaze across the canopy and have to remind myself again and again that I am in Michigan. Every time the thought passes through my mind I smile. Michigan always holds surprises.
In rude fashion I sit in my harness hanging at the anchors at the top of the climb for longer than I should—climbing etiquette dictates that I should finish up to let others get on belay. Remembering my friends below, I yell down to lower me out. On my descent I study the rock of this route. It’s volcanic, it’s grippy, it’s clean. Touching down, I say, “this place is special,” and grin ear to ear.
We send the next climber up and I relive the climb again in my mind. This process gets repeated for hours on route after route on this same rock face. Eventually we are exhausted, and with a setting sun, we all top out. We gather to stand on this large plateau that is the summit of Silver Mountain. The sun settles across a subtle valley. The low light mixes sun and shadow across the trees. The Michigan countryside pops with fall colors bathed in amber, playing out in a multitude of textures. This view would be great on any occasion but certainly feels sweeter than even the world’s best cinnamon roll today. Satisfied, we shuffle off the mountain and back to civility.
3 Michigan Climbing Areas You’ve Never Heard Of
SILVER MOUNTAIN (46.6622, -88.8382)
Come prepared during mosquito season! Fall is prime time at Silver Mountain. The Ottawa National Forest does not allow camping at this site. If you have your heart set on tenting, camping can be had right on the water at the Ontonagon State Township Park. Syl’s Cafe is the place to go for a filling breakfast. Finnish vibes and a mix of wholesome food makes you feel like you’re in the heart of Yooper Nation. If you want a comfier place to rest your head, try the Adventure Motel, 25 miles northwest, in Mass City—which also opens up the opportunity to tour a real copper mine at Mass City’s Adventure Mining Co.
THE AAA WALL (46.78142, -87.77866)
Another climbing area off the beaten path. Only 10 minutes from the outpost of Big Bay, the wall is a nice place to tune out and get away. You may fight some crowds on holidays, but for the most part you have your pick of any of the mostly sport climbs. In Big Bay you will find camping at Perkins Park or stay in a lighthouse turned B&B at the Big Bay Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast. Refueling is easy at the Lumberjack Tavern. Grab a beer and a burger and read up on the infamous murder at this historic tavern.
MARQUETTE AREA (46.5834, -87.3874)
If you would like to stick closer to town. There are numerous climbs available near the amenities of Marquette. Bouldering and top rope and trad climbing can be had just right in town at Presque Isle Park. More classic climbs await on Marquette Mountain. Living is pretty easy in Marquette. Sleep at the Marquette Tourist Park, or get fancy at the Landmark Inn, Marquette’s own Boutique Hotel. P.S. The food at the Landmark is pretty hard to beat even though most climbers might spend more time grabbing slices at Main Street Pizza and tasty beer from Black Rocks Brewery or Ore Dock Brewing.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR ADVENTURE
Downwind Sports in Marquette or Houghton can offer gear and local knowledge of all U.P. climbs. These guys know their stuff and are willing to point you toward the right rock. downwindsports.com. Backcountry North in Traverse City or Birmingham can set you up with all the gear to enjoy your adventure. backcountrynorth.com.
From Baraga, take M38 west to Prickett Dam Road and turn south. Follow 2.3 miles to right on Forest Road 2274 and follow signs to Silver Mountain parking area.
Erik Olsen shoots outdoors and active lifestyle photography. [email protected].com