The hills are alive with the sound of silence
The North Country Trail's Trap Hills are challenging and breathtaking
I was backpacking with my brother-in-law Mark Williams, from Madison, and a friend of mine from La Crosse, Tom Link. It was Halloween Eve several years ago when we ventured on an overnight trip in the Trap Hills along the North Country Trail (NCT) in the Ottawa National Forest of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The trail was marked by blue blazes on intermittent trees. We began our hike east from the Norwich Road trailhead.
We couldn't see much at first because it was drizzling and snowing, and the view was masked by fog. We continued hiking on some tough terrain as the trail took us farther into the hills along its main ridgeline. We came to a location off the trail that had been used before as a temporary campsite. There was a fire ring made of rocks. Keeping in mind that there are no designated campsites along the Trap Hills trails, this was an unusual find.
It was approaching 3 p.m. and dark comes somewhat early that time of year. Miserably wet, we decided to set up camp there and use the fire ring. After setting up our tents and starting a campfire, the sky cleared slightly. It was enough clearance for us to walk over to a ridge and look down on the magnificent forest of pine and mixed hardwood spanning for miles below. The cloud cover came again, and it began to drizzle and eventually snow.
After supper we left our campfire and crawled in our tents. My brother-in-law and I shared my old Eureka dome tent. It was still drizzling at the time and everything was soaking wet, including us.
Early the next morning, Mark woke first. He opened the tent flap and said, "Jim, you've got to see this." The view out the tent was a 2-inch blanket of fresh fallen snow covering the entire Trap Hills. It was like opening a window to a winter wonderland.
The snow was melting as we hiked back to the trailhead. Although we had only hiked about five miles in, we did not see another person along the trail. Back at the trailhead, a young man was getting out of his car for a day hike. He was the only person we encountered.
The Trap Hills of Upper Michigan is known for its majestic views, serenity and lack of visitors.
Few drink in the majesty
Wisconsin author Eric Hansen wrote about the Trap Hills for a 2002 issue of Backpacker magazine. Over the four days he spent hiking there, he saw no one, not even another set of footprints. "This craggy land is so little known that you won't find descriptions in guidebooks or postcards trumpeting its charms," he wrote. Yet, he found "quiet rock outcrops with panoramas so wide you'll be blinking in disbelief."
In his book Hiking Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Hansen devoted more than 17 pages to the Trap Hills. Three of those pages include maps of the Trap Hills Loop and the Trap Hills Traverse. His information is descriptive and resourceful, offering the hiker or backpacker ample information for planning trips.
Hansen classified the Trap Hills trails as "difficult," which they are due to the elevation drops and rises over short distances. In the segment we hiked that autumn, we continually ascended and descended steep terrain. Hiking these hills brought to mind the Greek mythological character Sisyphus, who continually pushed a rock uphill only to have it roll back down and have to push it back up again. I anticipated this when previewing a topographic map of the area. In elevation charts found on the NCT website, www.northcountrytrail.org, trail segments showed up-and-down dips of 100 feet in some areas and 600 feet in other areas. The chart mimicked a roller coaster ride.
I recently returned to the Trap Hills and checked out a few other trail segments. With information gleaned from my visits, the Peter Wolfe Chapter of NCT and Hansen's U.P. hiking book, I found some challenging, yet enjoyable, trip options for backpacking or day hiking. I recommend referencing both resources if planning a trip there since they provide more descriptive topography details than I present here.
Also contact the Ottawa National Forest of the U.S. Forest Service for topographic maps of the area and camping information. They manage most of the land in the Trap Hills. Contact them by phone at 906/932-1330, their main office is in Ironwood, or Google Ottawa National Forest Trap Hills. The U.S. Forest Service website is www.fs.fed.us.
Be careful when hiking in the Trap Hills. Although much of NCT does not go too close to cliffs and drop-offs, there are some areas that do. It is tempting to go off trail to check out the magnificent views from atop bluffs, but these can be dangerous areas without human-made barriers, fences or warning signs.
Segments along NCT in the Trap Hills will involve planning linear trips whereby you park a vehicle at the start of your hike and another at the end. In some cases, there are intersecting trails that come off NCT resulting in a convenient loop. In these cases, you can park at one trailhead and hike in a circle. Although you can park along forest roads where NCT intersects, parking is not a premium there. So check out the roads before parking. Also note that the forest roads are not plowed in winter.
Backcountry camping is permitted in the Ottawa National Forest along the Trap Hills trails at no cost - at this time anyway. However, camping is not permitted on private-owned land in the hills. It is important to refer to maps and be sure you are setting up camp in appropriate areas. When doing so, practice the principle of leave no trace by setting up on a durable surface about 200 feet off the trail and 200 feet from streams. Pack out what you pack in. And minimize your campfire impact by either going without or build a pan fire. We used a previously made fire ring when we camped there, but later dispersed the rock and cleaned out the fire ring area before leaving. It looked as though nobody was ever there.
Go prepared to day hike or backpack by bringing necessary gear for your endeavor. In your first-aid kit be sure to pack ace bandages, a "Sam splint" and moleskin since the terrain welcomes strains, sprains, breaks and blisters. Bring bug spray in the spring and summer, and bring cold weather gear for fall since weather conditions can change drastically as my friends and I discovered.
Trap Hills trips
From roughly State Highway 64 north of Bergland over to U.S. Highway 45 near Rockland, the Trap Hills covers about 34 miles. Hansen refers to 28.3 miles of that stretch on NCT as the "Trap Hills Traverse." Along this stretch are trail segment options to explore without having to hike the entire traverse. Be sure to carefully reference quality maps if you decide to go on any of these hikes.
• At the west end of the traverse there is a six-mile circular hike Hansen calls the Trap Hills Loop. It begins on NCT off Old M-64, four miles north of Bergland, where it intersects with Forest Road 326. The circle includes a stretch of about a mile on Forest 326 and then turns into the Hack Site Trail - marked with vertical white paint - which heads southeast for about another mile. The trail leads toward the Hack Site, a high cliff location where peregrine falcons have been transitioned back into the wild.
At this juncture, you intersect NCT and head southwest, eventually curving north back to the trailhead. Another point of entry can be found where the Gogebic Ridge Trail intersects NCT on the circle - from Old M-64 about 0.8 of a mile east, the trails intersect; the intersection is south of the Forest 326 entrance. Take the circle at either of the two entry points and travel in either direction.
• If you come onto NCT from the Gogebic Ridge Trail, you can begin Hansen's Trap Hills Traverse heading south at first, then hike eastbound along the Trap Hills. Consider ending at Forest Road 400. This is about 8.5 miles from the trailhead, passing scenic overlooks, crossing Bush Creek and ending where you can park a second car. For the eager hiker, go another 3.5 miles - a total of 12 miles from the trailhead - where you could park the second car at Forest Road 630. Or, for a loop option, park at either Forest 400 or 630 where NCT intersects. Hike 3.3 miles on NCT and conclude the 5.5-mile loop by hiking 2.2 miles on Forest 630 and a small section of Forest 400.
• Driving in and parking at the Norwich Road trailhead is an easy access - north off State Highway 28 in Matchwood. From the trailhead, NCT goes south for over 1.5 miles before it heads east. This area offers some great views, especially at Norwich Bluff. The Norwich Mine Interpretive Trail is at the Forest Road 642 and NCT intersection before getting to the bluff area. A circle option would involve turning off NCT onto Forest 642 and hiking north to Victoria Road and then west back to Norwich Road.
• Whiskey Hollow Trail is about another mile or so as you continue east from the Norwich Bluff area on NCT near the bottom of a hollow. To make a 6.5-mile loop back to the Norwich Road trailhead, turn north onto Whiskey Hallow Trail - with white trail markings. It will intersect with Victoria Road in a little over a mile. Then hike west on Victoria Road for 1.5 miles until you reach Norwich Road. Hike south on Norwich to the trailhead parking area, which is about a half mile away.
• Park a car on Norwich Road and a car at the NCT intersection on the Victoria Dam Road - comes out of Rockland heading south. The hike is almost 13 miles ending slightly east of Lookout Mountain. For the one-car adventurer and short hiker, you can park on the Victoria Dam Road at the NCT intersection by driving in about 3.5 miles from Rockland. It is not quite a half-mile hike up to Lookout Mountain from there, where the view takes in the scenic Victoria Reservoir below. While in the neighborhood, visit the historic Old Victoria - remnants from an 1800s copper mining town. For a $5 donation, you can take a guided tour and hike the one-mile Old Victoria Loop that takes you through the ghost town and past many historic landmarks.
History abounds in the Trap Hills, not only from the mining days, but also from a geological standpoint. According to the NCT Peter Wolfe chapter, a basaltic lava flow about 1.1 billion years ago contributed to the development of these hills. A basaltic lava flow is also called "trap rock" or "trap," thus the name Trap Hills.
Reflecting on that fall trip a few years ago, I had a renewed sense of appreciation for these Upper Michigan hills. I thought back. As I lay in my sleeping bag, I heard the sound of wet snow tapping on the rain fly of my tent. At one point during the night I heard a wolf howl in the distance. Once the snow stopped, all that I could hear then was that the Trap Hills were alive with only the sound of silence.
Jim Joque is the coordinator of disability services for the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He is also an adjunct adventure education instructor at UWSP, teaching courses on camping, backpacking, snowshoeing, adventure leadership and Leave No Trace concepts.