Bad Times on Lake Mine Hills
Mining ruins are not my normal hiking destinations. It's not that I don't find the old sites interesting or that I'm not drawn to the Copper Country's rich mining history, it's just that I find the natural beauty of the Upper Peninsula more appealing. Well, that and ruins are more difficult to explore. Barely anything remains from the vast industrial network that once covered the Keweenaw area, only crumbling rock foundations and the occasional depression marking a covered shaft. To find the remains, or even just the shafts, takes hours of careful research.
On this snowy day I was drawn to an old mine by a bit of curiosity but also a sense of completionist responsibility. There are a few rugged hills near the junction of M-38 and M-26 that I've passed by dozens of times on my way between Houghton and Ontonagon. Their bald outcroppings mark an end to the otherwise rolling, forested hills of Trimountain and South Range. Every time I drove past them I thought about stopping and going for a quick climb, if only to see the views the outcroppings would offer, and every time I continued past. After learning that there was an old mine in the area I decided to finally stop and explore the Lake Mine Hills.
A large parking spot was available right at the intersection and I left my car there, heading northeast to the first hill. There are three main hills here, two north of M-38 and one south, and the middle one would be my first climb of the day. The climb was steep and sudden over snow-slick crumbling rocks. I climbed carefully, testing each step, eventually making my way to the first slippery outcropping.
The view was modest but unobstructed. I spent little time here, annoyed by the cars and semis roaring past below, and continued uphill. I had been hoping to eventual gain enough elevation to see over the rises to the west, maybe even a glimpse of Lake Superior. Eventually the slope leveled and I made it over a saddle, surrounded by odd boulders.
The moss and ferns were still bright green, even under inches of snow. I found myself half wondering if there was an old shaft up here, supplying cool, damp air throughout the year to give the plants this lushness, but a hole on top of a hill would have been wasteful. Passing the rocks I headed east to the other side of the hill.
M-38 was not nearly as busy as M-26 had been, which gave me a brief break from the traffic noise. Walking along the eastern cliff, which was very pronounced but not tall enough to peer over the trees below, I looked south and east over the hills and trees. There wasn't much to see. While the middle hill of Lake Mine was relatively tall the land in the distance rose higher, hiding most features after a mile or two.
My current route would soon take me up a steep rise and I chose to head downhill instead. The traffic from M-26 floatd occasionally through the background, disrupting me from my usual peaceful wandering, and the views were nowhere close to what I had hoped for. I crept and slid down a narrow rock chute to the base of the cliff and turned north. I wanted to stay close to the sharp rock in hopes of finding an open shaft in the rock, even if it meant walking along the crumbling loose rock at the base.
This dangerous route didn't last long. After several hard tumbles on the slick, unsteady slope I gave up and headed down to level ground. If the hill would not cooperate with this adventure than maybe the mining ruins would. The forest started to close around me, transitioning from the open, older trees of the hill to a scraggly pine forest. Ducking and weaving I tried to stick to a straight path when I bumped into a straight, even path perpendicular to my path, what could only be a railroad grade.
Thankful for the break I turned and followed the old grade. The main tracks would have been further to the east, what is now the Bill Nichols snowmobile trail, so this must have been a short spur that led to the mine. Sure enough, after a short distance my path bumped into the wider, graded snowmobile trail.
By now I had given up on the Lake Mine Hills and decided to search for the remains on level ground. The first item to check out would be the trestle to the north, retrofitted with a wide wooden bridge for ATVs and snowmobiles. According to some photos I found online the trestle should only be short distance north along the trail, so I followed the easy path towards an unnamed creek. I found the creek but not the trestle.
Instead of a towering trestle crossing the creek the trail used poor rock and a few culverts to level the path. Disappointed I turned around. The trestle must be farther down the trail but I wasn't willing to hike the distance. My knee, aggravated from the climb's slips and tumbles, was starting to send little warnings up my leg. I backtracked to my spur and made my way back into the woods through the small pines towards the second item, one that was on my way back to the car. Marked on a topo map and now lying before me was the tailings pile of Lake Mine.
Expecting more from the tailings of Lake Mine I stopped and just looked. The piles were maybe a dozen feet high and not that large across, covered in brush and snow. There may be other piles in the woods, towering above the trees, but these weren't worth the hike. Again disappointed I passed by, now making steady progress to my car.
The third item I wanted to check out was a shaft that I had seen in a photograph. The shaft was large but did not indicate where exactly it was taken. I had checked out the eastern face and the tailings, two suspected locations, and had written off finding it when I started circling around the southern end of the hill. Opening up in front of me was a large clearing, obviously once containing a massive amount of poor rock, with suspicious gaps near the top. This very well may be the shafts that I had given up on.
It took a few seconds to decide whether or not I wanted to climb the snowy piles of loose rock. I tackled the left side, scrambling up the rocky dirt, and reached the first opening with little problem. While it looked more like a shaft up close it was efficiently filled in by the poor rock. I'm guessing that someone had just pushed the rocks up to and back down the holes it had originally came down.
To get back to the parking lot I still had to make my way around the last spur of the hill. I could either circle it to the south, which would take me onto M-38, or go over. Since I was already on the poor rock pile I decided to maintain my elevation and climb the spur. The bare top offered a few more views southwest but nothing new, and I quickly headed down to my car.
And then it was over. I was back at my car after a short hike covering several miles, a hike that had been pretty full of disappointment and poor planning. At least I had finally visited a spot that had been on the back of my mind of years, but it wasn't worth the drive or hike or my reawakened knee injury.