For over a century in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it was wilderness vs. industry. Mining, logging, and shipping dominated through the 1960s, but the UP has reemerged as the beautiful place it was meant to be and with battle scars that make it even cooler. The ruins of copper smelters crumble with the rocky shorelines, overgrown railroads appear deep in the forest, and shipwrecks add a sense of mystery to its Great Lakes. The world’s largest freshwater lake by volume, Superior whips up some wild wind and waves, carving gorgeous cliffs and churning up gemstones. Agates are everywhere and florescent sodalite had us hunting the beaches until 3am. Going snorkeling, we weren’t looking for fish; the lake has rocks as colorful as coral and even sunken treasure to be found. And maybe what we loved most about the UP is the people’s pride for this place. When we told our Facebook fans we were going on an Upper Peninsula road trip, comments poured in like we announced a trip to the moon. Anyone vaguely from the Midwest and beyond, chimed in with favorite hikes, must-try sandwiches, secret camping spots, and unforgettable moments…and now were just as proud to share our own UP stories and tips with you.
Our Upper Peninsula Road Trip Route
St Ignace>Mackinac Island>Sault Ste. Marie>Whitefish Point> Tahquamenon Falls > Muskallonge Lake State Park >Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore>Marquette>Houghton>Calumet>Gay>Copper Harbor>Sylvania Wilderness
St. Ignace & Meeting Our UP Angel
Driving over the five-mile Mackinac (pronounced Mack-in-awe) Bridge that connects Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsula, with Lake Michigan and Huron colliding below, set the stage for the dramatic UP. We could barely see either landmass as the fog swirled between the green and cream cables of this suspension bridge, then St. Ignace, The Gateway City, appeared. The tourist office was closed, but we had the inside track. When a woman we housesat for in Utah saw that we were visiting her home state, she said, “You’ve gotta connect with Mike—he is kind of the expert on the UP.” A lineage of sailors, lumberjacks, butchers, and postmasters, Mike’s family is in its 7th generation on the peninsula. We texted him for a few must-sees and his reply was “Here’s my address, come on over.” We went down a dirt road of warehouses, thinking we were lost, then an old ferry storehouse (now his home) appeared with the most magnificent view of the bridge. Mike, in his 60s with a thick head of salt and pepper hair and horseshoe mustache to match, welcomed us in. He had regional maps and books all laid out, and a million ideas for our journey. He took us to local treasures, like the inland seastack of Castle Rock, “The Mystery Spot” of National Lampoon fame, and the return of the “Gateway City Garage.” Mike’s turning his dad’s 1920s Studebaker & Packard car dealership into a brewpub and music venue with big nods to Michigan’s old auto industry and Yooper (the loving nickname for people from the UP) culture. It’s opening in 2021 and we can’t wait to come back to share another pint with Mike.
A 20-minute ferry ride from St. Ignace is the National Historic Site and State Park, Mackinac Island. Originally a British fort in the 1700s, Mackinac became a US military base and later a national park when the Victorians discovered its natural and historic charm. The 4.3-square-mile island has never had cars; horse carriage, bicycle, and your own two feet are the still the only way to get around. We walked the endearing Main Street with its dozens of restaurants, fudge shops, old-time grocers, and string of mansions…all mostly unchanged since the 19th century. For the true history of the island, visiting the Fort Mackinac is a must. With costumed guides, military re-enactments, and period music, the fort paints a picture of life in the 1800s as you explore the 14 original buildings (including the oldest structure in Michigan). Eighty-percent of the island is state park land, thick with forests, rolling hills, dramatic cliffs and surrounded by the turquoise blue Lake Huron. We rented a pair of bikes from the Bike Barn and rode the well-kept loop around the island, making stops at the stunning Arch Rock, the iconic Grand Hotel, and the highest point, Fort Holmes. While this is certainly a touristy place, its charm will not be lost on you. Hop on the 9:30 am Star Line ferry (that departure does a scenic loop under the Mackinac Bridge) and make a full day of it. And if you’ve got the time, spend the night and you’ll have half the crowds and the full romance of this place.
RV Hack: For an extra $5, your ferry parking spot can become an overnight campsite with views to the water and live music on Tuesday nights!
The Soo Locks
Hugging the east side of the peninsula, we motored up to Sault Ste. Marie. While it’s the oldest city in Michigan, you don’t visit for its French heritage…you go to see the Soo Locks! The busiest lock system in the world by tonnage, this 19th-century engineering marvel is what connects the Midwest to the Atlantic Ocean and trade around the world. Smoothing the transition between Lake Huron and Lake Superior for each freighter, the locks transfer 22 million gallons of water to adjust for the 21-foot height difference between the lakes. Everything from tug boats to 1000-footers come through here. To make sure you catch the big dogs, follow the website MarineTraffic.com to scout which ships are en route, including fun facts like their average speed, cargo, final destination, and most importantly, length. We saw a one from Amsterdam carrying massive windmill blades enter the locks and then caught the 729-foot Frontanac go through the whole transition process into Lake Huron. Sure, we’ve seen freighters out at sea, but we’ve never been so close and felt so small as looking at ship that’s 2.5 football-fields long. Call us boat nerds, but come to the Soo Locks and you’ll likely become one too.
Whitefish Point & Shipwreck Museum
Just because big boats could make it across the Great Lakes, didn’t mean it was the safest thing to do in the 1800s. There was barely a semblance of light houses, rescue boats, or lines of communication and hence we have the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. This narrow stretch has seen at least 240 shipwrecks, including the famed Edmund Fitzgerald. It’s a grim but fascinating topic for a museum, and particularly interesting if you’re into scuba diving, maritime history, and unsolved mysteries. In addition to the exhibit on the various wrecks, you can see the early lighthouse keeper quarters, surfboat house, and coast guard crew quarters. It’s crazy to think of the risks these sailors took to deliver goods but even crazier to think of the rowboat rescue crews that paddled into the storms to get them! After a walk around the museum grounds, don’t miss the nature trail out to the beach and birdwatching lookouts above the dunes.
Heading west from Paradise (yes, that’s the name of the not very exciting town where you can get gas), the landscape turned to a boggy, misty marshland—prime for moose watching! This area is said to be the moose capital of Michigan, so keep your eyes peeled. It’s also home to Tahquamenon State Park. Stop by the Lower Falls if you have time or, if you’re in a rush, motor on to the main event. Fifty-feet tall and 200 feet across, Tahquamenon Upper Falls is the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi. And unlike its big brother Niagara, it’s in a lovely wooded setting. In fact, the original owners of this former logging camp passed it to the state with the stipulation that they’d build the parking lot 3/4-mile away and create a trail for people to the appreciate the natural area as a whole. We’d recommend approaching it from the trail to the far left to see it from various angles downstream, then end on top of the falls to feel the power of 50,000 gallons per second crashing below you. From the picture above, you might think that brown water isn’t the prettiest, but all the tannins give this waterfall an extra dimension, as if we were watching each opaque droplet in free-fall. And there’s an added reward at the end of this hike—an awesome brewery! A bar wouldn’t normally fly with the state park system but the other stipulation of the original land owners…let there be beer! The grandkids still run Camp 33 and have maintained the rustic, cozy feel of the original 1950s logging camp and the food is pretty darn good too.
Tip: All Michigan State Parks and dozens of the recreation areas have an entrance fee, so rather than paying $9 a day, get the annual “Passport” for $34 and explore without limits!
Hunting for Yooperlite
Most road trippers continue west along the highway, but rockhounds go north! The Lake Superior stretch between Whitefish Point and Grand Marais (along with the west side of the Keweenaw Peninsula) has recently become famous for its “Yooperlite.” These seemingly boring grey rocks speckled with sodalite go back to the Ice Age, but were “discovered” in 2017 when a young guy was roaming the beaches at night with a blacklight. Erik Rintamaki was looking for agate (also abundant in the UP), because they have bit of fluorescence, and he stumbled across a rock that glowed like lava. He kept digging and found more rocks flashing flecks and swirls of neon orange. Turns out it was the first documented sodalite rocks in Michigan so he got to name it…”Yooperlite” for his UP homies. So after a great day on the Superior side of Muskallonge Lake State Park snorkeling for colorful rocks and sunken treasure (we think we found decorative hardware from a 19th-century shipwreck!), we bumped our way down the rutted road towards “Blind Sucker” beach. It felt like the road was leading to nowhere, then we saw flashes of violet light. About a dozen other Yooperlite hunters were scouring the beach at 11pm! One gave us the tip to dig, and low and behold we got our first piece of neon gold. We definitely got the Yooper fever and Mike started carrying his blacklight with him every time we hit the beach and had us staying up until 2am on multiple nights, but it paid off. We found nine in total!
Rockhound Tip: The best time to hunt is in early spring as the ice thaws or after a big storm when the lake kicks up new rocks.
Pictured Rocks Hike + Cruise
There are only three National Lakeshores in the US and the Great Lakes has all of them! While Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is lovely, we think Pictured Rocks shoreline is among the prettiest in North America. The 200-foot sandstone cliffs that drop into Lake Superior, with splashes of colored minerals, was on the level of Abel Tasman National Park in New Zealand and Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher. The park has dunes to the east and cliffs to the west, making the central section a fantastic convergence of the two. We hiked to “The Coves,” which runs along a bit of the Great Northern Trail (a hike that stretches from North Dakota to New York), over boardwalks, under gnarly rock outcroppings, and onto the sandy beach. Hiking along the lake cliffs presents a series of dramatic coves. If you’re looking for a shorter hike, this is the ticket. Though if you can handle a 10-miler opt for the Chapel-Mosquito Loop Trail; it showcases the best of the cliffs, arches, and coastal lookouts. Get up early to hit this trail (it took us snap-happy hikers around seven hours), then kick back on Pictured Rocks Cruises to see the cliffs from eye-level. Whatever you do, make sure you see the the cliffs from both the trail and the water—they’re such different experiences and equally jaw-dropping.
Camping Tip: Just south of the park is the Hiawatha National Forest and endless boondocking spots. We camped along McNeil Lake and had it to ourselves for a night under the stars and a morning of delightful kayaking.
With 20,000 people, the big city of Marquette is not exactly a metropolis, but it does have a charming two-block Main Street, major grocery stores to restock, and a fun college vibe courtesy of Northern Michigan University. After a stroll past their cute cafes, breweries, and gift shops sporting souvenirs emblazoned with “The Upper Peninsula: Social Distancing Since 1837,” we drove toward their beloved Presque Isle Park. At its entrance, we saw an elevated train line terminate above a steel-framed fortress. It looked like something out of Star Wars but it was the 110-year-old ore dock and it’s still in use. A freighter was parked below it and had its hatches open to receive a shipment of iron ore (among the 10 million tons delivered from this port each year). One of the dock’s metal shoots came down and out slid 200 tons of iron ore. When it emptied, the next one opened, dumped more, and down the line it went. It was like seeing a flashback from the industrial revolution. Apparently iron ore ships are loaded here on the daily, so try and catch this spectacle. Either way, Presque Isle is sure to delight. It’s actually a peninsula you can drive or hike around, with the main attraction being the the famed “Black Rocks” where locals go to cliff jump. All summer we had been itching for some live music, and hoped a university town might have the cure. Heck yea, we caught two bands (Everything Under the Sun and Not Quite Canada) perform at the open-air Shoreline Theatre. With reserved seating spaced six-feet apart and hand sanitizer at every entrance, it wasn’t exactly a “normal” summer concert, but it felt good to tap our feet again.
West on Highway 41
Leaving Marquette, the roads along Lake Superior become frayed and fizzle out, and the inland Highway 41 is the only way to the Keweenaw Peninsula without an ATV. On the map, it looks like a boring stretch, but keep an eye out for the Canyon Falls Roadside Park and take the trail to a gorgeous cavern with powerful falls (we liked it as much as Tahquemenon!). For added roadside thrills, stop at the National Ski Hall of Fame (not sure how this mountain-less area got the bid), “Da Yoopers Tourist Trap,” or the Michigan Iron Industry Museum to prime yourself for Copper Country.
Forget the California Gold Rush, the Keweenaw Peninsula is where the US had its first mineral boom and remains home to the largest deposit of pure metal copper in the world. Even though Native Americans have been extracting copper here for 7,000 years, it wasn’t until the 1840s that the area’s riches became renowned and miners tunneled their way into the hills. Success brought Victorian mansions, opera houses, Gothic Revival churches, and European culture to the region. And while mining here is largely a thing of the past, the Keweenaw National Historic Park and its 21 sites preserve the best of what remains. We strolled the refined mining town of Calumet, went deep underground at the Quincy Mine, and learned about the geology behind it all at the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum—a fascinating, fun and educational trifecta!
The Locals Tour of Houghton
We kicked off our time in Copper Country on the right foot with a locals’ tour by our friends Caitlin & Tom. We met these full-time RVers and vloggers of Mortons on the Move in Alaska last summer and were lucky enough to catch them in Houghton—Cait’s hometown and where Tom went to college. They brought us to a signless pull-out, where a short scramble took us to the largest remaining steel dam in the world. The backside of this rusty relic was a graffitied retaining wall, with fresh entries like “Good Vibes Only” and “2020 is F*cked,” and some tell tale signs that this dam and its elevated railway wouldn’t be around too much longer. Down the road there was a sweeping vista to Lake Superior and ruins of the 120-year-old Freda Smelter, where trains would pull into the mill and dump their loads of copper-rich rocks for processing. We weaved our way around the rubble, stepped inside the sky-high chimney, and headed out to the beach. Being far out of town and tricky to access, this rocky shoreline made us think it could be prime for Yooperlite hunting. We spent the rest of the day working on RV solar projects together, ate Cait’s delish curry for dinner, and when night fell we headed back to Freda beach, armed with blacklights. Within 20 minutes we found a glowing hunk of Yooperlite and the energy to hunt all night. With a bonfire and s’mores break in the middle, we combed the beach for four hours and came away with 11 of these magical rocks (see video above). In the morning, our friends tipped us off to two last Houghton treasures: Roy’s veggie pasties (basically a gourmet Hot Pocket) and a mixed-six from the Keweenaw Brewing Company, and with that we were ready to take on the rest of the peninsula.
Road Tripping the Keweenaw
The Keweenaw Peninsula is only 541-square miles, but every bit is gorgeous and worth taking the long way around. Doing a counter-clockwise loop from Calumet, we went out towards the lost mining town of Gay and Beta Gris beach. Just north is a great three-mile hike called Bare Cliffs that gives you views up and down the rugged shoreline. We boondocked at the trailhead, had breakfast at the historic Eagle Harbor, then worked our way up the backside of Brockway Mountain for the eight-mile scenic drive and panoramic views to Lake Superior and the rolling hardwood forest (said to be unreal for fall foliage.) Cruising down the mountain, Copper Harbor’s jagged coastline and islands came into sight. We went to Astor Shipwreck Park for views to the historic lighthouse, then to culminate such a journey in the UP, we hit the end of Highway 41—a trail originally blazed by Native Americans that still zigzags 1,190 miles all the way to Miami!
Mountain Biking Copper Harbor
Whenever we’re in a place truly known for a certain type of adventure (bungee jumping in New Zealand, River Rafting in Nepal, Scuba Diving in Australia, etc), we say…challenge accepted! Mountain biking in Copper Harbor is in the same category. The Copper Harbor Trails Club is a nonprofit that maintains 37 miles of trails, perfectly sculpted with burms, jumps, and bridges around Brockway Mountain and its foothills on Lake Superior. We rented bikes from the pros at Keweenaw Adventure Company; they lead guided mountain biking trips and offer shuttles up the mountain, but with their awesome staff’s tips we plotted a route we could crush on our own. We took the Flow trail up Brockway Mountain, and though it’s never easy peddling uphill, the route zigzagged with rolling features and sick lake views that made us forget the burn. The trail connected to Raptor Ridge which had a kicky blend of ups and downs, followed by Whoopty Woo’s tighter trees and turns, to Garden Brook for a gradual ride back to town. Conveniently, the KAC offices are right next to the Brickside Brewery, because you need to raise glass to a ride like this.
Driving down the westside of the Keweenaw, where the rocky coastline is arguably the prettiest in the Upper Peninsula, we thought about ending our UP adventures on that high note. But the inland paddler’s paradise of Sylvania Wilderness was calling. Said to be a mini version of Minnesota’s legendary Boundary Waters, here 30+ lakes are knit together by short portage trails in the old growth forest for an excellent paddling and hiking journey–be it for a week or the afternoon. We put in at Crooked Lake, portaged to the lily pad-covered Corey, circled up to High to splash around the islands and took a hike to Kerr to bag our fourth lake of the day. While we didn’t sleep at any of those beauties, we found the perfect base on Paulding Lake for secluded waterfront camping, cooking over the fire, and sealing in the serenity of the UP.
Which of these places would you like to visit? Taking an Upper Peninsula road trip was a true highlight in our USA journey and we hope you make it to see the Yoopers! To see more of our photos and videos from the UP, check out this Instagram highlight reel..