It was almost dark when we pulled into our campsite on Lake Superior. A flat tire on our trailer added hours to the journey from St. Ignace, but we were finally here. I swung the truck door open, jumped down as soon as it stopped rolling and ran to the beach. Setting up the camper could wait. I was eager to have my first look at Lake Superior before daylight faded and turned everything black.
The sun was almost set, sinking over the bay, lined up perfectly between Grand Island and the mainland. The warm oranges and yellows painted across the sky contrasted with the cold wind stirring up waves, wild and brown, foaming and beating on the sand. I knew Canada was on the other side somewhere, but with the vastness of Lake Superior before me, it felt like standing on the edge of the world.
It’s hard to describe Michigan’s Upper Peninsula because no words are enough to explain the rugged, pristine beauty. Along the northern coast are deserted beaches covered with rocks in every color of the rainbow. Lake Superior constantly laps the shore with a cadence like the heartbeat of the region. In the interior, thick forests are dotted with rushing waterfalls and teaming with wildlife. Small towns are filled with friendly people who make you feel at home, even though they know you’re a wide-eyed tourist. Their love for this place is deep, and they’ll tell all about it if you have five minutes. Or an hour. Or two.
The only way to truly appreciate the Upper Peninsula is to see it for yourself. This is my bucket list of must-do and see things in the U.P.
1. Drive over the Mackinac Bridge – If you’re coming up from the south, you’ll have to drive over the Mackinac Bridge. The world’s fifth largest suspension bridge connects the Lower and Upper Peninsulas and crosses The Straits of Mackinac where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet. The view is spectacular, and you’ll be even more amazed when you look down and all you see are waves churning below.
2. Visit Mackinac Island – Catch the ferry from St. Ignace or Mackinaw City to this little island in The Straits. The only transportation is by horse, bike or foot since cars aren’t allowed. You’ll find historic homes, boutique shopping, relaxing resorts and beautiful natural sights. There’s so much to do on this tiny island that it gets its own bucket list.
3. Tahquamenon Falls – You’ll find Tahquamenon Falls tucked away in a state park near Paradise. It’s one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi. It’s fed by the Tahquamenon river. Tannin leaching into the river from swamps along its path give the water an amber color as it goes over the falls. The fall’s rugged beauty defines the allure of the Upper Peninsula.
4. Oswald’s Bear Ranch – For more than 20 years Oswald’s has been taking in bears that can’t survive in the wild. Some are cubs who lost their mother too soon. Some are bears people kept as pets until they realized how big an adult bear gets. The bears live in large, fenced-in enclosures that are as close to their natural habitat as possible. Visitors walk through the ranch, viewing the bears and taking pictures. The 4p.m. feeding is a favorite time for guests to visit. You can even have your photo taken while you feed and pet a cub.
5. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – The Pictured Rocks are soaring limestone cliffs along the shores of Lake Superior, carved and painted different colors by centuries of water, wind and waves. You’ll also find lush forests, beaches, sand dunes, and waterfalls. The beach towns of Munising and Grand Maris bookend the national park. By the way, there are no fees to visit this national park!
6. Soo Locks – This amazing feat of engineering has helped ships travel between Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes for more than 160 years. Learn all about the locks at the visitor’s center. If you’re there at the right time, you can watch a freighter pass through the locks. You can also ride a boat through the locks yourself. There’s even more to do in Sault Ste. Marie, so be sure to check out the rest of the town while your’re there.
7. Ship Wreck Tour – Lake Superior’s unpredictability claimed many ships during the height of its shipping industry. Near Munising board a glass bottom ship and sail out into Munising Bay where you’ll view two underwater ship wrecks through the boat’s glass. Grand Island and a historic lighthouse are also on the tour.
8. Copper Harbor – At the top of the Keweenaw Peninsula, Copper Harbor is the northernmost town in Michigan. The quaint town is full of history. Learn about the area’s copper mining past, visit Fort Wilkins, an 1844 military outpost, and take a boat ride on Lake Superior to tour an 1860s lighthouse. You’ll also find shops and restaurants in Copper Harbor. But the real appeal of this town is the fresh air, remote trails and untouched forests that line the sparkling shores of Lake Superior.
9. Isle Royale – From Copper Harbor you can catch a ferry to Isle Royale National Park. The island situated in Lake Superior is the least visited and one of the most remote parks in the system. You’ll find more untainted forests, miles of trail and rustic camping. A moose may even cross your path. There is a single lodge in the park if a tent isn’t your style. This is a place to truly get away from it all.
10. Sleep in a lighthouse – If you’ve ever dreamed of living in a lighthouse, your wish can come true for a night or two. Three lighthouses in the Upper Peninsula offer bed and breakfast accommodations: Big Bay Point, Jacobsville and Sand Hills. At Whitefish Point you can stay in the old Coast Guard crew quarters next to the lighthouse.
11. Lake of the Clouds – Situated in a valley between slopes in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Lake of the Clouds shines blue against the bright green of the forests. Prepare to have your breath taken away. The lake draws visitors from all over who simply want to experience the amazing vista.
Photo Credit – Rachel Kramer
12. Brockaway Mountain Drive – The road up Brockaway Mountain on the Keweenaw Peninsula is an 8.8 mile scenic highway that climbs 1,320 feet to the summit. Along the way are incredible views of the peninsula, Lake Superior and the forests. If it’s a clear day, you’ll be able to see all the way to Isle Royal, 50 miles away.
13. Take an underground mine tour – The mining industry has a rich history in the Upper Peninsula, first copper then iron. The industry once supported many of the residents in remote Upper Peninsula towns. Today the mines are no longer in operation, but many are available for tours. Delaware Copper Mine, just outside of Copper Harbor, lets visitors take a self-guided tour of the mine shaft. At the Iron Mountain Iron Mine tour, you ride a train into the mine. At The Adventure Mining Company, outside of Greenland, if you want to see the second level of the copper mine, you’ll have to rappel down on a rope. Near Manistique, you can tour Fayette Historic Site, a ghost town that was the site of a large iron smelting operation.
Photo Credit – Dale Musselman
14. Kitch-iti-kipi Spring – Outside of Manistque you’ll find one of the most beautiful sites in all of Michigan tucked away in Palms Brooke State Park. Kitch-iti-kipi is the largest freshwater spring in Michigan at 40 feet deep and 200 feet across. Every minute, 10,000 gallons of cold water rush up from limestone fissures. The water is perfectly clear, but the bottom of the spring is emerald-green, giving the water an unusual Technicolor hue. A self-operated raft takes visitors onto the water to look down where you’ll see fish and ancient trees covered in algae. Water flows so swiftly from the cracks that it stirs up sand, creating an ever-changing kaleidoscope underwater.
Photo Credit – Sara Hattie
15. Visit the Stormy Kromer Flagship store – The iconic, Michigan-made Stormy Kromer hat is a must-have for any outdoor enthusiast on a cold day. Its unique design is recognized all over the state and around the country. I can’t go out wearing mine without at least one person stopping me and saying, “Stormy Kromer, eh?” Visit their flagship store in Ironwood where you’ll find a complete line of their hats, coats and other outerwear.
16. Eat a pasty – A pasty is a hand pie filled with savory meat and vegetables, and it’s the official sandwich of Michigan. British copper miners introduced the pasty to the Mitten State, because it was easy for them to bring to work and eat on their lunch break. Traditional pastys are filled with beef, onion, potato and rutabaga. Today you’ll find pasty shops all over the UP peddling this hardy all-in-one meal in a variety of options, including chicken and even vegan.
17. Estivant Pines – This stand of pines south of Copper Harbor is over 600 years old. The trees are some of the very last old-growth white pines left in the midwest. They reach heights of 130 to 150 feet, and it takes three people holding hands to reach around the trunk of one. The peace and beauty you’ll find in this unspoiled forest is rare and inspiring.
18. Trenary Toast – It’s basically just cinnamon toast, but it’s an Upper Peninsula staple. Finnish families who settled in the U.P. brought rusk, twice-baked toast dusted in cinnamon, to the region. First, women sold Trenary Toast from their homes to other locals. Then in 1928, a family opened a bakery just to make the toast. Today you can find the toast sold in brown paper bags in grocery stores throughout the U.P., or you can visit Trenary Home Bakery where it’s made.
Have you been to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula? What would you add to this bucket list?