A Trip To The Harlow Lake Cabins

We hadn’t received new snow in at least five days, and what was on the ground had settled into a crust, crisscrossed by animal and human tracks, lain to melt among fallen pine needles and deer poop. The sky was overcast and the light so flat it looked like the sun could set at any time, even at two in the afternoon. Temperatures were holding steady at around 32 degrees — no doubt welcomed, despite our over preparation for something a little closer to the UP standard (negative 10 with windchill, anyone?) In short, temperatures and grey skies aside, these weren’t ideal conditions for a weekend ski trip to the Harlow Lake Cabins

I’ve always prided myself on never checking the weather, and usually elect to plan trips like this— a three-day cross-country-ski trip to the Harlow Lake cabins — without so much as a glance at the 10-day weather forecast. I have a weird sense of pride regarding my lack of concern in matters of meteorology, because I will most likely do whatever I had planned on doing regardless of what does or doesn’t fall from the sky.

So here we were, at Harlow Lake, with crusty snow and temperatures hovering into the melt zone. We took off up the trail to our Harlow Lake cabin four, our home away from home for the next two and a half days.

Exterior views of a cabin at Harlow Lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Our quarter-mile ski to the cabin from the trailhead on the west end of the lake had been packed down by bikers and snowshoers past, making it a breeze for us to navigate, and conditions aside, we could barely curb our enthusiasm to slide around on snow, crusty or otherwise.

Harlow Lake cabin (number six) on the banks of Harlow Creek in the Escanaba River State Forest near Marquette Michigan.

After dropping our packs at the cabin, we opted to fit in as much skiing as we could before sunset. We grabbed some water, snacks and a headlamp, and took off up a trail close by.

Trails and dirt roads intersect and weave around the entirety of Harlow Lake, and include such vistas as the Top of the World (west of the lake off of Forestville Road) and Bareback, both of which are within two miles of five of the six Harlow Lake cabins. Both are accessible by roads or trail systems marked by trees with the definitive blue dots or diamonds.

Frozen Harlow Lake and Hogback Mountain in the Escanaba River State Forest near Marquette Michigan Upper Peninsula.

However, almost any loop at Harlow Lake — whether you’re opting for a six-miler to Hogback or just a short jaunt along the lakeshore via the Songbird Trail —  will afford you a view of Lake Superior, as well as many rocky vantage points from which you can check out Harlow Lake. Wetmore Pond and Little Presque Isle are also accessible via the trails surrounding Harlow Lake. (More in-depth snowshoe or ski trip ideas at the bottom of this article.)

A female skier explores the snow covered woods of the Harlow Lake area near Marquette, Michigan in winter.

The point is, you have miles of trails within steps of a very accessible (and woodstove-heated) cabin, and there aren’t many places in the Midwest that can lay claim to that. And really, where else can you substitute a backcountry cabin for a hotel room?.

There are six cabins at Harlow, cabin four being one of the “toughest” to access (though only a quarter-mile hike from the trailhead). Cabins 1, 2, 3 and 6 are within a tenth of a mile from a trailhead, while 4 and 5 are just a bit further (still less than a five-minute walk). Each is equipped with a woodstove, a picnic table and two large bunks, fitting up to six people. Outhouses and water are available, even in the winter. Firewood is stocked, but should only be used for heating the cabin and cooking. An outdoor fire ring gives you a reason to spend a few extra hours outside, under overcast skies or otherwise — we opted to cook all of our meals on the outdoor fire, so we spent a good amount of time walking in circles around this fire ring. And being that we were so close to our car, we were able to take some liberty with the amount of food we brought; the kabobs, brats and breakfast scrambles were plentiful.

On the last day of our stay, under the probable influence of a nap in a real bed and the possibility of not smelling like a woodstove, we packed our stuff out, jammed it all in the car and made it back to town within 25 minutes of locking the door on the cabin.

A female skier explores the snow covered woods of the Harlow Lake area near Marquette, Michigan in winter.

So yes, while the lingering smell of woodstove on our clothes and the proposition for a restorative nap (skiing through crust for three days = sore legs) were enough to beckon us back to civilization, there’s not much else that could have. There’s no comfy bed or mini fridge, but watching a pink sunset under stands of oak or walking on a frozen lake (only a few steps from the cabin) looking up at the moon more than make up for it. It’s not glamorous (well, it actually kind of is), but a game of cribbage in a sleeping bag next to a woodstove after a day of skiing will always provide a certain feeling of contentment that is difficult to find elsewhere.

If hotels are your thing, absolutely more power to you. But Marquette has a way of providing the best of both worlds, and if miles of ski trails, a lack of cell phone signal and a few meals over a fire sound nice, a Harlow cabin might be a good alternative for the next trip north.

Fresh snow or not, there’s nothing better than a a night spent next to a woodstove.

Cabins run at $70 a night and can be rented here.

Trip Ideas: (Most of this won’t make sense without a compass and map — stop by Down Wind Sports or the Travel Marquette office to grab a copy, or print this one off here.

  • For a 4.5-mile out-your-door snowshoe hike — skiing isn’t recommended because of rocky, steep terrain — start at the trailhead leading to Harlow cabins four and five (or just start from the cabins) and continue southeast along the “Potluck Trail” until it nearly reaches the CR 550 Harlow Lake trailhead. At this intersection, start heading northwest towards the Bareback overlook, which will take you up Bareback and continue to the trails hugging the shoreline of Harlow Lake. This particular loop will afford you a great view of Lake Superior from the outlook as well as many rocky outcroppings to sit and view Harlow Lake from. Hogsback, Wetmore Pond and Lake Superior are also accessible via the trails surrounding Harlow Lake.
  • For a mid-range, 3-mile snowshoeing trip, start at the cabin four and five trailhead on the west end of the lake, and continue up the trail across from the parking area (to the left when facing away from the lake) and continue for 1.4 miles to the “Top of the World” overlook. Come back the way you came for a shorter hike, or continue south and then east until the trail t’s, then take a left until you reach the trailhead.
  • An easier hike (or ski) from Harlow Lake is the Songbird trail, which crosses Harlow Creek near its mouth on Lake Superior and then follows the sandy shoreline north of Little Presque. The shoreline can also be followed for 1.6 miles south of Little Presque until you reach Wetmore Landing. To make this hike longer, cross CR 550 at the Wetmore Landing parking lot (one of the two Harlow Lake trailheads is directly across 550 from Wetmore) and hike up to the Bareback overlook before following the Harlow shoreline back to your cabin.

Words by Amanda Monthei