The Keweenaw is full of wild spots, from the rugged shoreline of High Rock Bay to the scenic views from Cliff Drive. Nowhere is this more true than in places classified as Wilderness Areas. The Keweenaw is well-known for Isle Royale National Park, one of the least-visited national parks in the country. But did you know there’s another Wilderness Area right here in our backyard that sees even fewer visitors?
The Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness Area in southern Houghton County is a paradise for adventure seekers. Featuring old growth forests, challenging terrain, scenic vistas, and a beautiful waterfall, this wilderness has something for everyone. Read on for an in-depth guide on what to see and do in this uncharted place!
What is Wilderness?
The term wilderness has two general definitions. In layman’s terms, calling an area wilderness means it’s wild, undeveloped, and free from most human influence. Many people (including us here at the KCVB!) like to call the Keweenaw’s backcountry wilderness because it fits these characteristics well.
However, there is a more technical definition that carries actual weight. Wilderness Areas with a capital ‘W’ are designated by Congress and among the wildest places in the entire nation. Established under the Wilderness Act of 1964, places designated as Wilderness exemplify the very best of what our world looked like before mankind started making a mess of things. There are typically very few signs of human influence on the landscape. Motorized uses are banned to protect the quiet nature of the landscape. Rivers run free, plants and animals dominate, and the environment is allowed to continue as it always has. Strict laws protect true Wilderness Areas to keep them wild forever. Only 4.5% of the nation’s land area is designated Wilderness (most of it in Alaska), including 16 areas here in Michigan!
Why Protect the Sturgeon River Gorge?
Created in 1987, the 14,729 acre Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness Area protects some of the most rugged forests in the Western U.P. The Sturgeon River and its tributaries cut deep valleys through the landscape, making logging very difficult and road development nearly impossible. This helped prevent most human influence throughout its wild interior. Although it was logged generations ago, small pockets remained untouched while the rest has regrown to massive size.
The following are some of my favorite places to explore within the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness Area. Some of these are relatively well marked and findable, while others require adequate experience and preparation to visit. If you are comfortable with bushwhacking off-trail into the Keweenaw’s wildest forests, you’re in for a treat. I've added GPS coordinates to plug in and find these locations. Just remember, you're likely to lose cell service so map your routes and return ahead of time. And always recreate responsibly.
Points of Interest
Sturgeon River Falls
This is the most visited place in the Wilderness, and for good reason. For one, it’s the easiest to find! A small parking area is located off of Forest Road 2270 along with a trailhead with plenty of information to get you started. The trail to the waterfall is about a mile in length but drops a few hundred feet as you descend the steep gorge to the river below. Fortunately, the trail makes many switchbacks down the hill and is easy to follow. It helps that as you get closer the thunderous waterfall draws you in! The waterfall is very impressive, funneling the entire Sturgeon River into a tight rocky chasm. The final part of the trail down to the river can be treacherous so be very careful if conditions are slippery. Nearby, huge craggy cliffs hang over the river and provide you with excellent vantage points over the river below. This is a great afternoon adventure and will take 2-3 hours to complete.
Bear’s Den Overlook
Although you may not have the elevation gain of the nearby Silver Mountain, the Bear’s Den Overlook puts on quite the show. The forest drops away in front of you, opening up a 180° view out over the entire Sturgeon River Gorge. Rugged and furrowed valleys stretch off into the distance, making this a must-visit spot during fall color season. The hike to this location is short and a small pull-off along Forest Road 2200 provides easy access.
Pine Bluff Overlook
Similar to the Bear’s Den Overlook, except even more wild! The hike into this spot is around 0.9 miles through mature pine forests. This is the far western extent of the Baraga Plains ecosystem and a great spot to see a type of forest that is relatively rare at this size. The view isn’t quite as great as the Bear’s Den but is far from the road so noise and other visitors will not be a concern.
The Sturgeon River
The main attraction! If you’re a paddler, this is about as wild as it gets in the U.P. Steep valleys line the river along its entire length, occasionally slumping in massive landscapes to the river below. On top of being within the Wilderness Area, this stretch of the Sturgeon is classified as a Wild & Scenic River, one of just 16 in Michigan. Class II rapids are common and not usually a problem for the initiated. Keep in mind that there’s a massive waterfall about halfway through that is definitely not runnable (Class V+ anyone?). Aside from that short portage, this is an excellent experience. You can put in at the rustic campground at the southern end of the gorge and take out at the FR2270 bridge or Prickett Dam boat launch much further downstream.