The -15ºF air hit me like a brick wall as I stepped outside of my car at Mulligan Plains. Unaccustomed to the cold Upper Peninsula mornings I quickly covered my nose and mouth with a warm scarf before heading down the plowed two-track. The sun's early rays had only just begun showing over the eastern cliffs and I didn't have time to wait for the valley to warm up; there was a long, hard hike before me.
Last summer marked the first time I visited Mulligan Plains without stopping by Mulligan Falls. I had always known that there were other attractions in the narrow valley but had never made a direct effort to see them until then. The main goal of today's trip was to revisit one of these sights: Rocking Chair Lakes. My route wouldn't be an easy one but did a promise some awesome views of the plains. I planned to start near the bridge over lower Mulligan Creek, follow the top of eastern cliffs to Rocking Chair Lakes before looping back to the car, resulting in a 6 mile hike with plenty of vertical distance change.
The first climb of the day was a familiar rock cliff directly southeast of the bridge over Mulligan Creek. Having seen this hill on every one of my visits to Mulligan, I had often thought about climbing it and the potential views it would offer of the Dead River valley. Cutting off the two-track several hundred yards south of the bridge, I climbed the steep incline rather quickly before standing at the base of the towering rock cliff. The deep snow helped out quite a bit here, as I was able to climb a good deal of the way by digging into the snow instead of clambering around this cliff. After a good workout, I reached the top and was awarded with some great views of the Dead River near Mulligan Creek's convergence.
I had imagined that the hard part of the hike was now over - after all, I was now around 250' above the plains. I soon realized that I was wrong... The eastern cliffs of Mulligan are created by a rolling series of hills with western-facing cliffs. The snow in the valleys between these hills was more protected than the plains, resulting in deeper, fluffier snow. Sinking several feet with each step, I continued northwards up the side of Mulligan Plains.
The next climb took me to the top of a bald knob, offering views in all directions. There were another set of cliffs, up to 50' taller, behind the set I was climbing. It's hard to say if they would offer a better view since they would have to be high enough to make it over some tall trees before seeing anything on Mulligan Plains. Some of these cliffs hold back lakes similar to the Rocking Chair Lakes (Hills Lake, Lake 8, etc), and I hope to make my way over to them on future visits.
After a few more climbs, which gave me great views of the southern end of Mulligan Plains as well as a straight view down to Mulligan Creek, I decided to head eastwards away from the steep edges into a valley. Curious (and getting tired of the constant elevation changes), I found myself in a small valley surrounded by old growth trees. There was a tiny frozen waterfalls here, making this detour a rather calming and surreal experience after being on the edge of a cliff.
The last cliffs I climbed before reaching the southern Rocking Chair Lakes offered some awesome views over to the frosty Silver Lake Basin. This was a pleasant surprise: I was not sure if I could find the right combination of angle and elevation to see across Mulligan Plains and over the western hills. The cliffs on the edge of the southern Rocking Chair Lakes might also offer a limited view of the basin but I didn't climb them to find out, sticking to the shore of the lake instead. My legs had decided to start cramping at this point and I was mostly interested on heading back to my car.
After viewing both of the snowy Rocking Chair Lakes, which were beautifully barren in the winter landscape, I headed back down to Mulligan Plains. A misjudged angle forced me to do a bit of bushwhacking through the thick swamps of the plains before finding the path out. I could hear the waterfall from the lakes rushing through the woods but was far too tired to check it out. The original plan was to follow the eastern overgrown road back to my car and get some great views of the cliffs I had climbed over, but the snow was deep and my legs ached, so I changed my path to the plowed western road. I'm still unsure why this road was plowed (it only has a few small cabins along the length) but it made my walk back incredibly easy.
This hike was one of the most ambitious routes I've attempted during the winter. Hiking through deep snow without snowshoes is similar to climbing deep stairs, and the steep inclines and repeated climbs only amplified the workout. I was pretty happy to have finally reach these cliffs, which had been in the back of my mind for a long time. The views were incredible and the wild, untouched land of the Peshekee Highlands never disappoints me. There are a few cliffs north of the Rocking Chair Lakes, but nothing like the long line of cliffs on the southeastern end. I highly recommend this hike to anyone looking for a good workout, though it might be easier to accomplish without snow.