As the sun sets over Fayette Historic State Park, it hits the ruins of the old iron smelting town, painting them golden. White, limestone cliffs, crowned with ancient green cedar trees, glitter in day’s last rays of sunshine. In the quiet, all you hear is the chirp of a bird and the gentle lapping of the clear waters of Snail Shell Harbor.
Fayette Historic State Park is on the Garden Peninsula, surrounded by the waters of northern Lake Michigan, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (Yes, Michigan has so much water that its peninsulas have their own peninsulas.)
Coming from the East or South, the journey to Fayette takes you across the Straits of Mackinac, via the Mackinac Bridge, then along U.S. 2. as it heads North, eventually bearing West along Lake Michigan’s Northern shoreline.
U.S. 2 Passes through several small towns and villages, including Manistique, which warrants a stop at the city’s Lakeside Park, right on U.S. 2. A boardwalk and pier lead out to a lighthouse and spectacular lake views. Take some photos. Instagram will go wild.
From Manistique, continue west on U.S. 2 for about 17 miles, until you reach Garden Corners. Stop. Get Gas. It’s your last chance before you turn and travel south. Check your Instagram to see how many likes those Manistique photos earned, because you’re about to drive out of range of 4G, 3G or any kind of cell service. In fact, go back inside the gas station and buy a paper map.
From there, turn off of U.S. 2 onto South M-183. Take a deep breath and exhale. You’re on the tranquil Garden Peninsula and the rest of the world is in your rear view mirror.
It takes another 40 minutes to reach to Fayette Historic State Park from Garden Corners. The lake views disappear for a bit as verdant farm fields, red barns and cattle appear. The Peninsula is also packed with herds of deer. Not five or six deer. Groups of 30, 40 and even more appear in the fields and treelines in the evening. It’s easy to see why it’s called the Garden Peninsula. As far back as when the land was only inhabited by Native Americans, it was a place to grow food, hunt and raise livestock. The unique geographic location makes it ideal for agriculture.
There are no hotels, only a few vacation rentals and three restaurants on the peninsula. Most tourists who stay over night camp at Fayette Historic State Park.
Fayette was once a thriving town that grew up around the iron smelting industry. The town was built in 1867 when the Jackson Iron Company built a blast furnace to turn iron ore into pig iron, so it could be shipped to steel manufactures in other parts of the country. At the town’s peak, about 500 people called it home. However, prosperity was fleeting. In 1891, Jackson Iron ended its smelting operation, and most residents moved on to other places to find work, turning Fayette into a ghost town.
It’s a beautiful setting. The old town site sits right on the tranquil waters of Snail Shell Harbor. In summer, wild flowers bloom all around. Big, fluffy, white clouds hang overhead, and on a sunny day the water and sky display the most magnificent shades of blue.
Today, 20 original structures from the town still stand. They’ve been preserved and partially restored by Michigan State Parks as a museum. It’s an interesting mix of ruins and intact buildings. Empty shells of buildings missing doors and windows almost become works of art against the backdrop of the harbor and surrounding woodlands. There is a solitude about the ghost town that is both peaceful and a bit eerie.
A walking tour of the buildings, artifacts and interpretive signs revel what life was like for the residents of Fayette. It’s a fascinating look back at an important part of Michigan’s history that is unknown to many.
For outdoor enthusiasts, there’s plenty to enjoy also. Five miles of trail run along the beach and through the woods. The harbor has a marina for overnight stays on your boat or you can dock just for the day. Big Bay De Noc, where Snail Shell Harbor leads into, is prime ground for freshwater fishermen.
You can also swim in the calm, warm water at Sand Bay on the south end of the park. The water is crystal clear and looks a bit like the Caribbean when the light is just right. However, with current high water levels there isn’t a lot of beach right now if you just want to sun bathe. The beaches at Fayette are also great spots to catch a sunset.
The other beaches at Fayette have interesting make ups. Many are rockey, covered in broken pieces of white limestone. One beach is covered in slag, left over from the iron smelting days. These are both interesting places to explore, but leave the rocks as they’re part of the park’s scenery.
If camping isn’t your style, you can easily tour the town site in a day, making it a great day trip or stop along the way to other parts of the Upper Peninsula. But if you enjoy camping and really want to unplug, a few nights at Fayette Historic State Park are just what you need. It really is Pure Michigan at its best!
Know Before You Go
Once just a rustic campground, Fayette now offers campsites with electricity. It also has a bathhouse that was brand new the summer of 2018. It features showers and flush toilets.
The Visitor’s Center offers a gift shop and store with limited supplies. The closest grocery store and laundromat are in Manistique, a 45 minutes drive.
Cell service is extremely limited or non-existent. Limited WiFi is available at the Visitor Center.