Winter Expedition: Horseshoe Harbor

Posted on March 6th, 2021

Horseshoe Harbor is one of those places you’d think would be totally inaccessible in winter. A remote, rocky beach east of Copper Harbor, this is a summer-time destination for travelers looking for a tranquil spot to take in Lake Superior during adventures in the Keweenaw Peninsula. But if you’re interested in a winter backcountry trek and breathtaking views, grab your skis or snowshoes to check this out.

In the winter, it’s often not on visitors’ radar. And for good reason. US-41 is only plowed until… well, the end of US-41. And that’s still a few miles away from the trailhead!  A few snowmobilers ride the back roads leading to Horseshoe Harbor in search of familiar locations, otherwise, there’s very little traffic of any sort beyond Fort Wilkins.  You’re more likely to see wolf tracks than people!

Fortunately, those few snowmobilers and a dedicated team of groomers in Copper Harbor have kept a few routes open to the key spots in this area.  Horseshoe Harbor is one of them!  A set of ski tracks and a packed trail for snowshoers is maintained on an as-needed basis to get explorers out to Horseshoe and up East Bluff, giving you some backwoods options if you’re not keen on skiing the loops at the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, Swedetown Trails, or Michigan Tech.  It’s definitely worth checking out.

How to Get to Horseshoe Harbor

Brown sign with directions to Horseshoe Harbor

It’s hard to get lost with signs this big. Just remember to head towards Horseshoe Harbor!

Start your journey at the end of US-41.  Skis are quicker on the open roads, but don’t fret if all you’ve got are snowshoes (more on that later).  Stay on Mandan Road for 0.9 miles until you see the big sign pointing you left towards Horseshoe Harbor.  From this intersection, it’s another 1.1 miles to the Horseshoe Harbor parking area.  Stick to the trail/road as it descends towards the lake.  The forest through this area is surprisingly calming, particularly if you’ve got it all to yourself.

Soon you’ll reach the parking area for the Mary MacDonald Preserve at Horseshoe Harbor.  Owned by The Nature Conservancy, this wild place protects five miles of Lake Superior shoreline!  It’s hard to see it all from land even in the summertime.  Lucky for us, they maintain a short quarter-mile foot trail to get you to the best spot on the lake.  Look for the signs for the Beach Trail and head in.

Snowy forest trail

The trail to the lake is ungroomed but by far the most beautiful part of your journey.

Remember the part about needing snowshoes?  The narrow trail to the lake is ungroomed and entirely downhill.  What goes down must come up!  You might have to ditch your skis on the return journey for the steepest parts while those on snowshoes wave as they pass you by.  Slow but steady wins the race.

Once You’re There

Large ice masses on the shores of Lake Superior

The twisted shapes on the barrier islands are created when waves splash up against the rocks, slowly adding layer after layer of ice. No two are alike!

Eventually, the stunning, ice-filled lake comes into view.  The rocky barrier islands just offshore have been transformed into icy battleships, twisted with icicles and wind-sculpted snowdrifts.  It’s quite the sight!

The lake ice is not to be trusted out here, particularly on the far side of the rocky outcrops.  Stick to solid ground and avoid anything that looks to be floating.  It’s hard to tell if the ice underfoot is 12” thick or 12 mm.  You don’t want to take any chances this far from rescue.

Soak in those Lake Superior views for as long as you can handle the chilly breezes before packing it up and heading home the way you came.  Overall the terrain to/from Horseshoe Harbor is easy to moderate in difficulty and doable by anyone with general ski or snowshoe experience.  Best of all, at only 5 miles round trip, it’s the perfect afternoon adventure in Copper Harbor.  Now the hardest choice: the Mariner or Mountain Lodge for dinner?

Views of Lake Superior atop a rocky outcrop

Ice of all shapes and sizes can be viewed from the top of the rocky outcrops. Don’t slip!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nathan (aka Nathan Invincible) is an adventuring conservationist that photographs everything. He’s spent the last 15 years exploring the Western U.P., crisscrossing the region “working” for the likes of the Copper Harbor Trails Club, Finlandia University, and other organizations to improve recreational opportunities for everyone. His favorite season is when you can breathe without inhaling a dozen mosquitoes.

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