The Trap Hills: 40 Miles of Pure Gold in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

The North Country Trail (NCT) stretches more than 500 miles across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but the 40 miles of it that cross the Trap Hills pack in more sweeping vistas and rugged terrain than all the rest of it combined. Located in the Ottawa National Forest and adjacent to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, the Trap Hills offer some of the best hiking in the Upper Midwest. Whether you’re the day hiker looking for instant gratification or the itinerant section-hiker looking forward to a pay-off involving clifftop photo ops, the Trap Hills area has something for everyone.

The Trap Hills Section of the NCT At-a-Glance

  • Length: 40 miles, although this can easily be extended or shortened
  • Expected completion time: 2-3 days; 15-20 miles per day
  • Location: The Northwest Corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
  • Best season to hike: Fall, especially early October during peak colors
  • Trail type: Out and back, or shuttle
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Scenery, Terrain, and Navigation

The trail winds through heavily wooded hills and alongside precipitous, rocky cliffs where the trees give way to sweeping views of the undulating forest and sparkling lakes below. There are gurgling streams with small, idyllic waterfalls along the way, and the occasional glimpse of majestic Lake Superior yawning on the distant horizon.

There are several 200-foot ascents and descents that can be fatiguing as well as a few short stretches over scree. However, the trail is quite forgiving with well-packed tread. It is not so rocky or steep that it would be considered dangerous. The forest canopy offers shade and water sources are frequent.

There is a ford at the West Branch Ontonagon River near the eastern terminus that can be intimidating and even dangerous to the inexperienced or careless. Caution and patience are advised while making the crossing. Be aware that the river is near a dam and therefore water levels may change rapidly. Those hiking westbound are able to skip this crossing if they so choose (see Getting There for further details.)

The NCT is well-marked with blue blazes and the occasional emblem, and it’s easy to stay on the trail. There are adjoining side trails that are clearly marked. Free maps of the NCT are available on its website, and PDF files specific to the Trap Hills section are found under Michigan Western Upper Peninsula, pages 13 to 18 (MI 76.0 to MI 116.0 ).

Getting There

There are several places to park throughout the Trap Hills, and therefore it’s possible to day hike the entire stretch over the course of several days. The guidelines below detail how to section hike the entire stretch in one go, but if you’re looking to shorten your hike, refer to the maps provided by the North Country Trail Association (NCTA) on alternate places to park within the Trap Hills area. Part of the beauty of this stretch is the flexibility in distance afforded by the numerous parking locations along the way.

Hiking point-to-point in the Trap Hills will require a shuttle. There are not many shuttle services in the Upper Peninsula, and I recommend reaching out to the local chapters of the NCTA (Peter Wolfe Chapter or No-Miikanaake Chapter). Their volunteers are friendly and eager to help hikers. Just be sure to offer generous and fair compensation to any volunteer willing to provide a shuttle, and be sure to make a donation to their chapter if you can.

For a westbound hike, park at the trailhead at M-64 and take a shuttle to the trailhead at Forest Hwy 733. Google directions here. If you want to bypass the Ontonagon River ford, you can skip straight to the Old Victoria where there is no parking, but a road crossing. Google directions for the Ontonagon River bypass here.

For an eastbound hike, you’ll park at the trailhead at Forest Hwy 733 and take a shuttle to the trailhead at M-64. Google directions here. The only limitation in going this direction is that you must ford the Ontonagon River as there is no parking before it at Old Victoria.

trap hills fall colors

Direction

Hiking the NCT through the Trap Hills can be done in either direction without any major advantage or disadvantage to whichever direction you choose to go. Going westbound will allow you to hike all of the Trap Hills and bypass the Ontonagon River ford if you so choose. Going eastbound means you need to the ford the river if you want to hike the entire Trap Hills area due to lack of parking between the river and the beginning of the hills.

Why Hike The Trap Hills

The Trap Hills section of the NCT is short and sweet. Its challenge is the constant ascents and descents that serve up vistas of the rolling, forested hills of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The hilltop vistas of the Trap Hills are all the reason you’ll want to go. Old Victoria provides some historical interest as well as the very unique trail feature of hiking right through the ruins of an old stone building. The Ontonagon River ford offers a water challenge for those looking for it.

old victoria trap hills

One of the log houses in Old Victoria.

Climate and Weather

The climate in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is humid continental, which means hot, humid summers and cold, wet winters. Severe winter weather can occur as early as mid-October and as late as May, and hiking the trail in this time period is recommended only for experienced hikers prepared for extremely cold temperatures and heavy snow. Spring is cold, wet, and muddy and often stretches into late June. Summer can be hot and humid with frequent rainstorms in addition to swarms of mosquitoes and ticks.

The most comfortable and safest time of year is fall, especially late September to mid-October, where daytime temperatures typically range from cool to warm, humidity is lower and overnight temperatures are comfortably cool. Expect more traffic on the trail on weekends, especially around peak fall color, which generally happens around the first week of October. If you can hike the trail midweek, you’ll get a lot more privacy and solitude.Trap Hills

Gear Suggestions

Make sure to have rain protection, which is highly recommended no matter where you hike or what time of year you hike in the Upper Midwest. Dress appropriately for the season, and if you’re hiking before October, bring bug protection and sunscreen. Good ankle support is recommended in your footwear for climbing up and especially coming down the hills.

Trekking poles or a walking stick is highly recommended for the Ontonagon River ford as the water can be rather opaque, and the crossing is very rocky. Not being able to see where your next step will land can be dangerous with the strong possibility of twisting an ankle, cutting one’s foot, or even falling down.

Camping

There are not any designated, developed campsites along the NCT in the Trap Hills. However, most of it is in the Ottawa National Forest and a permit is not required for dispersed camping. There are plenty of great places to camp along the way. You’ll know when you see one, and you shouldn’t have to hike too long before finding a nice spot. Note: Camping is not allowed within Old Victoria Historical Site, but there is a shelter right outside the area where campers can find a night of refuge.

The Old Victoria shelter.

Trap Hills Highlights

Remote and lightly trafficked: The Trap Hills are quiet, especially compared to the neighboring Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, where hikers abound.

Old Victoria Historical Site: Near the eastern end of the Trap Hills is Old Victoria Historical Site, an old mining settlement built in 1899. The trail passes by restored log houses and literally cuts right through the ruins of an old stone house, which is one of the most unique experiences found on any long-distance trail.

Ontonagon River ford: The crossing at Ontonagon River is by far the most expansive and difficult ford on the NCT in the Upper Peninsula. While not dangerous compared to what one can experience in the mountains, it’s certainly a challenge.

The trail goes straight through the doorway of this ruined house near Old Victoria.

Water Sources in the Trap Hills

The stream crossings in the Trap Hills provide ample and reliable water sources along the way.  You won’t have to go very long between sources with the longest dry stretch being no more than five or six miles.

READ NEXT – Trekking the North Country Trail.

Ontonagon River Trap Hills

The Ontonagon River ford.

Resupply Options

The Trap Hills area isn’t long enough to require a resupply. The trail crosses several roads, but most of them are lightly-trafficked forest roads and therefore hitching out may be difficult if you decide to end your trip early. The nearest towns are pretty small and may not offer much for last-minute supplies or a celebratory meal. If you’re heading west, Ironwood is your best bet for last-minute supplies and a hot meal. To the east (but significantly farther away) is the city of Marquette, which has all the stores and restaurants you’ll need.

Closing Thoughts

The Upper Midwest doesn’t get enough credit when it comes to long-distance backpacking. Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail gets more and more acclaim these days, and places like Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park have long been a backpacker’s playground. The Trap Hills section of the NCT has flown under the radar and rewarded those lucky enough to have found it with physically challenging terrain, spectacular vistas, and historical relics. A hidden gem in the truest sense of the word, the Trap Hills is a must-hike in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

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Comments 2

  • scott a hepler : Nov 11th

    Nicely written and a marvelous layout of his hiking journey’s in the NCT trails of the Upper Midwest.

    Keep up the tremendous articles on your future hiking journey’s.

    Reply
  • Brandon Hawker : Nov 13th

    Great write up! Looks like the Trapp Hills are in my near future. The Porkies are great but would love fewer crowds and dispersed camping.

    Reply

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