Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Road Trip: Where to Stop and Where to Go


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They don’t call them the Great Lakes for nothing!

Spread over 30,000 square miles, 14 counties and two time zones, Michigan’s upper peninsula is as wonderfully forested as any can still be found in America.

You can spot wolves, bears and moose as you make your way to the nearest Main Street one block away for a meat and vegetable pie. There are awesome ghost towns, old wrecks, and utterly surreal road stops galore. You can hunt for glow-in-the-dark Yooperlite stones or hike through bat caves and ancient maple forests. The largest mushroom in the world, known locally as Giant mushroom-even has its own festival in Crystal Falls. The possibilities are endless, and as strange as hell.

Bring a tent and cooler, be sure to fill up the gas tank whenever you get the chance, and get ready to come back to enjoy the Great Lakes summer after summer. Starting in Mackinac and ending in St. Ignace, here’s how to travel by car in Michigan’s beloved Upper Peninsula.

bikers
Watch out for crab apples | ALEXEY STIOP / SHUTTERSTOCK

Mackinac in Sault Ste. Married

To start, do the touristy thing on Mackinac Island—The excessively whimsical, tiny, car-free island just 4.5 hours from Detroit or four hours from Grand Rapids. Cycle, shop, eat fudge, admire old Victorian houses, then make your way to the five mile long Mackinac Bridge, which connects the Lower and Upper Peninsula. If driving on a windy road freaks you out, there is a bridge escort service.

Stop at the kitsch, cringe Mysterious place– not uncommon road attraction, of course, but which is absolutely vital for the full UP experience. Water goes up! A chair swings in the air! You will be both embarrassed and secretly glad you went.

Then go feed the deer at Deer Ranch in St. Ignatius and refuel Lehto pâtés for the road before heading north to I-75 at Sault Ste. Married (known locally as “The Soo”). Enjoy a delicious but spooky dinner at The Antlers: Taxidermy Restaurant. They have 200 mounted animals that you can contemplate (or look at you?) While you eat.

Tahquamenon Falls at Whitefish Point

Leaving The Soo, head west on Lakeshore Drive for a scenic city tour of paradise, where you can taste traditional UP dishes: whitefish, smoked barbecue and, of course, more pâtés in places like Brown peaches, the Gastropub inn and smokehouse, and the Berry bakery.

It’s just a short drive Tahquamenon Falls, Michigan’s most recognizable waterfalls. (Really, every grandmother in the state has a calendar hanging in the kitchen with Tahquamenon in the fall.) There are two, in the upper and lower regions of the river – if you only have time for one. , choose the upper one. The park also has a campground and wonderful hiking trails if you want to spend the night.

Up the road is Whitefish tip, with one of the oldest operating lighthouses on Lake Superior, and you can climb to the top for amazing views of the water. The 80 mile stretch from here to Munising is known as the ‘Alley of Wrecks’, with around 200 wrecks spread across the region. If you like that sort of thing, head over to the Great Lakes Wreck Museum or try dive into the depths from Lake Superior.

kayaker
Be careful, the water is frozen | genesisgraphics / E + / Getty Images

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Twisting and turning along the coast will take you through tiny Grand Marais about two hours west of Whitefish Point. It is the eastern gate of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore70,000 acres of trails, waterfalls, forests, rivers and sand dunes, all stretching to the shore of Lake Superior.

Go see the Pickle Barrel House Museum, a larger than life barrel of pickles that was built in 1926 as a summer residence for designer William Donahey (from the cult comic “Teenie Weenie”). Have a beer at Dune Saloon Brewing Co. before go on a cruise to view landmarks from the water, including Lovers Leap, Indian Head, Miners Castle, and Chapel Rock. You can also go kayaking with a guide, but be prepared: even in the height of summer, the water is freezing cold.

If you’d rather stay on dry land, hike to Chapel Rock and enjoy the bonus views of Chapel Falls along the way. The beaches near the Grand Marais region, as well as in the Keweenaw Peninsula, are popular destinations for those looking for Yooperlite stones that glow in the dark on the shore. Just go out at night with a UV lamp to try and spot them.

Munising is the next ‘big’ city you’ll pass through, so fill up the tank and stop at by Muldoon for, yeah, yet another mushy.

Brockway Mountain
Views of Brockway Mountain. | Gary R Ennis Photos / Shutterstock

Marquette, Houghton and Copper Harbor

From Munising, take the M-28 along the beautiful shore of Lake Superior for just under an hour until you come to the hippest town on the Upper Peninsula: Marquette. Home to Northern Michigan University, this college town is pretty much NYC to the locals, but, you know, with a population of 21,000. Stop Lagniappes for live zydeco music and New Orleans Cajun food, have a beer at Blackrocks Brewery, or consult the largest piece of floated copper in the world Presque Isle Park.

Travel up the Keweenaw Peninsula for Houghton-where you can hike up to 1300 feet to Michigan’s highest elevation point at Mount Arvon, or embrace the rock collectors paradise that is the Minerals Museum– before going up the peninsula to the northeast to Copper port. Once the heart of the UP’s massive copper industry, it’s now about outdoor adventure.

For an easy hike, Natural Sanctuary of the Pins d’Estivant mix of walking trails with steep and rocky trails. This is a 510-acre park of Michigan’s last old-growth white pine stands and home to bears, moose and eagles. If you have a bike or are a distance runner, try the 10-mile Brockway Mountain Walk-the the highest paved road between the Rockies and the Alleghenies-for what might be the best view in the whole UP. From the 735-foot summit, you get a 360-degree view of Lake Superior and the surrounding forests. You may be able to see Isle Royale in the distance and, on a very lucky evening, the Northern Lights.

crystal cove
Crystal Cove at Isle Royale National Park | Carl TerHaar / Moment Open / Getty Images

Isle Royale National Park

Speaking of which: Copper Harbor is the starting point of the ferry ride to robust Isle Royale. If you want to venture out into nature for a few days (or weeks), this 3.5-hour island off the coast should give you a pleasant thirst. There are no cars allowed, which means you explore the island’s 165 miles of relatively rustic trails and 30 different campgrounds while hiking, boating, canoeing, and kayaking. Serious divers can discover the infamous shipwrecks of Lake Superior near the island; historic ships are protected by the NPS, therefore all dives must be guided.

Lake of the Clouds
Lake of the Clouds | PQK / Shutterstock

Porcupine Mountains

As you make your way back down the Keweenaw Peninsula, you’ll want to stock up on gas and snacks at Ontonagon before heading to Michigan’s largest state park, Porcupine Mountains (also known as Porkies). The expansive parks have over 90 miles of hiking trails and 26 miles of cross-country ski trails for visitors to enjoy, but don’t leave until you’ve taken a look at the scenic Lake of the Clouds.

From there go through Iron mountain, where you can watch over a million bats come and go from their cave to the Old Millie Iron Mine. They are most active from April to May and again from September to October, taking a break during the summer months. The region is also home to the impressive Leap from pine mountain, one of the largest artificial ski jumps in the world. You can climb its 500 steps – which will take you 600 feet in the air, the equivalent of standing on the top floor of a 60-story skyscraper – any time of year to enjoy a bird’s-eye view on the surrounding forest.

Michigan natural source
Kitch-Iti-Kipi alias “The great spring” | Adventures on Wheels / Shutterstock

Kitch-Iti-Kipi sources

Heading back east from the Porkies to Manager takes about three and a half hours, but you will have the very Instagrammable Kitch-Iti-Kipi (“The great spring”) awaits you. It is a 40-foot-deep active freshwater source that stays freezing at 45 degrees all year round and pumps 10,000 gallons of water per minute. There’s a slightly precarious cranked raft that you can ride through the nearly transparent water to check out the dozens of underwater fish and trees that lie just below the surface.

Once you’ve refueled, head to the Great Spring Inn about a half mile to try the UP beers. They have Blackrocks, Ore Dock, Keweenaw Brewing, Upper Hand, and Cognition on hand.

King's Retail Fish Market
Don’t come home without visiting King’s | King’s Retail Fish Market

Manager, finishing in Saint-Ignace

The final leg of the trip winds along the US-2, perched between the north shore of Lake Michigan and the vast forests of the UP. Refuel in Naubinway and don’t forget to stop by King’s fish market. Along with the tasty local cuisine – they have all kinds of smoked fish you can imagine, as well as wild rice and hand-dried cheese curds – King’s is basically a huge garage sale. There are memorabilia, crazy cookie jars, camouflage clothing, weird mugs – you could spend hours rummaging through the goodies. The joint is pretty much the UP in a nutshell: great food and kitsch in a beautiful location.

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Cathy Brown divides her time between traveling the world writing for Lonely Planet and CNN, working with indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon, and hanging out at home in her garden and organizing permaculture and herbal retreats.



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