I just got back from a two-hour hike at Piers Gorge, and man… what a place. The Gorge is quickly becoming one of my favorite places in the world, not just in the U.P.
I arrived at an empty parking lot. A few weeks ago on a holiday weekend, I counted no less than fifteen cars in the lot. But today, I had it all to myself.
Or so I thought. A Mom with three young daughters pulled up just as I was savoring the solitude. But they bounced out of their little Audi just as quickly as they came and disappeared into the woods, talking and laughing. I was in the process of gathering my camera gear and after a few moments, they were out of earshot.
Hiking Piers Gorge
And that’s one of the best things about the Piers Gorge trail; there are so many offshoots and things to explore that even when there are a few cars in the lot, it’s not uncommon to do the whole hike without seeing anyone. This is a place that handles crowds well.
Camera gear in hand, I set off. I stepped past the trail map, over the first and second footbridge, and then took a left to check out Pier One. (There are four piers total). It’s not huge whitewater, but it’s nice all the same.
Just an FYI, this trail is NOT stroller-friendly.
When my stepson was younger I’d take him to Piers Gorge and he’d say, gazing up toward the tops of towering trees, “This is where the dinosaurs lived.” Indeed, for some reason, everything does seem a little bit bigger here. The gorge is full of big trees, big rocks, and with a big river as the main attraction, I could see where he’d get that.
And Pier One is where you start to get that Land of the Lost feeling. It’s is the end of the “rough and tumble” part of the gorge, where the Menominee River rolls over boulders and then downstream toward the Green Bay.
In fact, if you’re looking for a good place to go tubing down the Menominee, just below Pier One is a good spot to start. At any rate, today, after a few minutes of hanging out at Pier One I decided to move on.
One of the other great things about Piers Gorge is that you’ve got options. The first three (and most impressive) piers are very close together. So if you really wanted to, you could spend twenty minutes here and see most of the rapids.
Or, you can keep walking past Pier Three and spend a few hours here, to each his own. Today I opted for the longer route.
From Pier One I snuck around a rocky corner to the more impressive Pier Two. I gazed into the white water a while and then happened upon a woodchuck…
Pier Two isn’t unimpressive by any means, but Pier Three is where the action is.
Piers Gorge & Misicot Falls
As I approached Pier Three, I heard a sound that’s become very familiar over the last few years, the sound of thundering whitewater. “This is definitely where the dinosaurs lived!” my son would say as we approached Pier Three. Indeed, buddy, indeed.
The mother-daughter clan was playing down by the water’s edge on a big rock outcropping by Pier Three. And if it were a Saturday (a busy day for whitewater rafting on Piers Gorge) between 3 and 5, I probably would have climbed the steep trail down and joined them to watch some rafts launch over Misicot falls, past Volkswagen Rock, and then through the rest of the gorge. Today I let them have that area to themselves and kept walking.
It’s at this point along the Piers Gorge trail that many people turn around and head back. And while it’s true that Pier Three is the most serious whitewater you’ll see here by far, lots of good trail lies ahead and I’d recommend you keep walking if you’ve got the time.
Further upstream, the trail meanders away from the Menominee River and after a minute or two, the sound of frothing whitewater gives way to birds chirping and leaves rustling.
Old-growth trees and giant ferns greeted me around every corner on this part of the trail. And it isn’t as root-ridden here as it is further back. I’m guessing the exposed roots and rocks are kept to a minimum here because this part of the trail is less traveled.
I walked along the water’s edge for a half hour or so before I got to a big rock outcropping that looms over another set of small rapids. This is the spot I hike to when I’m doing the “longer” hike. (Although you can still keep going if you want, all the way to Niagara, Wisconsin). If I’d known about this corner of the world in high school I probably would have come here to contemplate existential stuff and write bad poetry. It’s the sort of big rock where you could decide to sit for a “few minutes” to watch the river run underneath your feet, and before you know it you’ve lost an hour.
But today, I had no bad poetry to write. I just sat, looked at the water, and enjoyed being. Being present isn’t always easy, but a place like this sure makes it a lot easier.
Bottom Line: Piers Gorge is the Iron Mountain area’s best hike (in my opinion) and definitely one of the top things to do in the U.P. This is a must-see.
Time required: 20 minutes to 2 hours
How to get there? Head south from Norway, MI on Highway 8 until you see the big “Piers Gorge” sign, then turn right on Piers Gorge Road and follow it until it dead-ends into the trailhead parking lot. If you hit the river when traveling on US 8 you went too far.