Traversing the U.P. – Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

A Plethora of Options Makes Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and RVers Heaven.

It’s easy to get lost in the vastness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Stretching for more than 300 miles, encompassing more than 16,000 square miles of land, and boasting more than 1,700 miles of freshwater shoreline, the “U.P.” is a paradise for RV travelers.

Rich in history, the Upper Peninsula provides a breathtaking list of activities, ranging from the relaxing comfort of watching the sunset over Lake Superior to hiking to awe-inspiring vistas that stretch the skyline for miles. It’s hard not to stop at every corner to take in the view, and why not? Activities available to the vacationer abound.

So let your compasses guide you through a diverse and unique landscape.

Upper peninsula cliffA wealth of natural resources

The Upper Peninsula’s history revolves around its abundant natural resources. The first successful copper mine, near the small town of Phoenix in the Keweenaw Peninsula, began its operations in 1844, and for the next two generations a significant portion of the world’s copper was mined in the Keweenaw. Iron ore was discovered and first refined in 1848. This mining boom sprang up towns across the U.P. as people sought their fortunes. That history can still be seen in the museums and roadside information plaques throughout the U.P.

The region was “given” to Michigan in 1837, in exchange for Ohio laying claim to the city of Toledo. But it’s remoteness and harsh living conditions have created a history that’s vastly different from the lower portions of the state.

One example is the pasty, a product that’s unique to the U.P. Traditionally made from beef, potatoes, onion, rutabaga and turnip baked inside a crust, the pastry was brought to the region by Cornish miners who settled the area in the mid-1800s to work the mines. It was easy to carry, easy to eat – a meal on the go. Today, local restaurants serve pasties daily.

Called Yoopers (a takeoff on the U.P. name), residents fiercely identify with the region, and refer to the lower parts of Michigan as “down south.”

The natural beauty of the Upper Peninsula has made it a top tourist destination, even in the winter. With 150 waterfalls, 19 state parks (all but one with campgrounds), 53 state forest campgrounds, more than 40 lighthouses, museums, quaint shops, scenic byways, and numerous county and local campgrounds, the Upper Peninsula has a lot to offer. Here’s a snapshot:

Black River National Scenic Byway

In the western U.P., near the town of Bessemer, lies County Road 513 — the Black River National Scenic Byway. The well-paved road heads north toward Lake Superior for a little over 11 miles through a northern hardwood forest that drapes the roadway.

Coursing along the road is the Black River, which unveils itself into a series of spectacular waterfalls. Ultimately, the Black River spills into Lake Superior.

Five waterfall areas are within a short hike of the road, and are well signed with paved parking lots at the trail head. Be forewarned that while the falls are a short hike from the parking lots, most involve negotiating a series of steep steps (the Potawatomi/Gorge falls offer a paved walking path to a vista point). The sound of rushing water through the forest is enough to get the heart pumping.

At the end of the road, literally, sits a campground with sites on the bluffs overlooking Lake Superior.

Michigan waterfallPorcupine Mountains

Encompassing nearly 60,000 acres, the Porcupine Mountains State Park was established in 1945 to protect the last extensive tract of old-growth hardwood and hemlock forest remaining in the Midwest. Trails course through the “Porkies” offering opportunities to stretch the legs for day hikes, or multi-day hikes for the more adventurous.

The Union Bay Campground, located on the eastern end of the park, has 100 modern sites, with some that closely border the rocky shores of Lake Superior. It’s an unmatched freshwater-ocean view. And although the lake can have its calm days, a northern wind can whip up awesome waves.

Not to be missed is the short drive to the Lake of the Clouds Scenic area. Perhaps one of the more photographed areas in the region, the Lake of the Clouds offers a panoramic view of the Carp Valley and Lake of the Clouds some 300 feet below. It’s a short walk from the parking lot to the vistas.

Lake Gogebic

South of the Porcupine Mountains and 30 miles west of Ironwood sits the largest inland lake in the UP — Lake Gogebic. Located in the Ottawa National Forest, it offers a tremendous point in which to explore the entire western U.P.

In addition to several private campgrounds the Lake Gogebic State Park has 127 campsites, with 30 of those sites directly on the lake.

Ontonagon

The Ontonagon Museum, located in downtown Ontonagon, provides a glimpse into the history of the area in a charming, local setting. The museum features the Ontonagon Boulder, a 3,708-pound copper mass that sparked the copper rush in the Upper Peninsula. The museum also offers tours of the Ontonagon Lighthouse. And, if you’re hungry, just down River Street is Syl’s, where the pasty is a featured menu item. A staple in the area since 1970, Syl’s comes highly recommended for a nice café that offers plenty of local flavor.

The Keweenaw

Angling north into Lake Superior is the Keweenaw Peninsula, an area rich in natural beauty and historical significance. It is here where copper mining helped shape the region, its impact that can still be seen today. More than 11 billion pounds of copper were mined in the area from the 1840s to the late 1960s.

That mining history is being preserved at the Keweenaw National Historic Park. Established in 1992, it is one of the nation’s youngest national parks, and brings to life the history of mining in the area. Numerous sites make up the Park, including two national Historic Landmark Districts and 17 historic sites. You can take a ride deep into the earth at the Quincy Mine and Hoist, just outside Hancock (the building is hard to miss — it towers over the area). Daily tours give you a feeling of what life was like for mine workers. But dress appropriately: Although there’s not much walking involved, you are in a mine. Solid shoes are strongly recommended. And, the mine remains a cool 43 degrees year-round.

Michigan stairs in woodsTo see how the other half lived, tour the Laurium Manor Inn, built in 1908 by a wealthy copper mine owner. The 13,000 square-foot, 45-room mansion shows the grandeur of the past.

In Calumet, the Coppertown mining museum lets you step back into the past of the region, and a walking tour of Calumet gives you a glimpse of the booming era of copper mining. In its heyday, the area was a busy commerce center. Several ornate churches grace the downtown area. The tour also gives you a snapshot of the rich immigrant history of the region. English, Finnish, Swedish, Italian, Greek and Croatian (among others) settled the area to work in the bustling mines and forests.

Driving north on Highway 41 in the Keweenaw, at the historic mining site of Phoenix, you have two travel options. Follow Highway 41 through the heart of the Keweenaw to Copper Harbor, or take M-26, which turns toward Lake Superior. M-26 offers stunning views of the shoreline as it meanders toward Copper Hopper, passing through the small towns of Eagle River and Eagle Harbor. It’s a great tour to take one road up, and follow the other road back.

The drive on Highway 41 leads to Copper Harbor, a small town at the northernmost point of Michigan, and the terminus of Highway 41 (a mileage marker indicates only 1,990 miles to Miami). Here is Ft. Wilkins State Park, with 160 campsites. The park features the restored army outpost, which was built here in 1844.

The Copper Harbor lighthouse keeps watch over the harbor and Lake Superior, just as it’s done since the mid-1800s.

Leaving Copper Harbor, M-26 follows the shoreline, passing through the towns of Eagle Harbor and Eagle River. At Eagle Harbor, a lighthouse has stood since 1851, replaced with the current brick structure in 1871.

A must-stop is the Jampot, a small white building five miles west of Eagle Harbor. It’s hard to miss on busy weekends when vehicles line the road to purchase the preserves, especially wild thimbleberry jam. The Catholic Monastery of the Byzantine Rite operates the Jampot, and their ornate chapel across the road graces the shores of Lake Superior. The Jampot is closed on Sundays.

Looking for a campground with a sunset view? Not many can rival F.J. McLain Sate Park. A fantastic view of Lake Superior, beautiful sunsets, 98 modern sites, and a lighthouse consistently ranks this park by campers as a must-visit place. It’s located just north of Hancock, on the eastern site of the Portage Canal.

Michigan Iron Industry Museum

Just south of the town of Negaunee is the Michigan Iron Industry Museum, a must stop for those who want to delve deeper into the history of mining in the region. The hands-on exhibits bring you back to the early years of mining and give you a glimpse of life as a miner.

The museum overlooks the Carp River and is the site of the first iron forge in the Lake Superior region. This treasure trove is free, although donations are greatly appreciated.

Pictured Rocks

Just outside Munising, sandstone cliffs overlook Lake Superior for 42 miles. The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is 70,000 acres of some of the most stunning views in the entire UP. Travelers from around the world have photographed the cliffs, stained by minerals and weathered by wind and waves.

There are numerous camping opportunities throughout the area, from rustic campgrounds in the lakeshore, to nearby state, national and private campgrounds.

One option to give you a taste of the shores is Miners Castle, east of Munising. Take County Road 58 to County Road 11, and point north. It’s a straight drive of about 6 miles, and ends at Miners Castle. A short walk brings you to an overlook that hangs above Lake Superior and offers tremendous views. There’s plenty of parking, and room to maneuver a rig.

Another option, and one that’s highly recommended, is taking a boat cruise to get up close and personal with the cliffs. Several private boats leave from Munising.

Michigan lighthouseKitch-iti-Kipi

Twelve miles west of Manistique is Kitch-iti-Kipi, a 45-foot deep spring that is 200 feet across and pumps 16,000 gallons of water per minute. The water remains a constant 45 degrees throughout the year and is crystal clear. Nearby, Indian Lake State Park has more than 300 sites.

Tahquamenon Falls

Made famous by Longfellow in his “Song of Hiawatha,” Tahquamenon Falls offers a carefree respite from the road and a setting that is paradise. The Upper Tahquamenon Falls is the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi. The area is in the northeast corner of the U.P., near the town of Paradise.

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

North of Paradise on the shores of Lake Superior stands Whitefish Point and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, a one-of-its-kind museum that brings visitors closer to understanding the perils faced by sailors on the Great Lakes. The cold, deep waters and violent storms throughout time have claimed many ships throughout history, and the museum brings these tales to life.

Mackinac Bridge

First opened to traffic in 1957, the Mackinac Bridge is a sight to behold. It is 950 feet longer than the Golden Gate Bridge. Total length, including approaches, is nearly 5 miles over 34 water piers. Towering over the Straits of Mackinac, the bridge is credited for helping to stimulate tourism in the Upper Peninsula. And at night, the light show is spectacular.

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is truly a traveler’s paradise. Whether you remain self-contained for weeks, or decide to park at a full-service campsite, the options are as endless as the sights.

Take your time; it’s worth the meander.

 

Weather in Michigan upper peninsula

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2 Comments

  • Provincetown seems too lively to me to be the end of the earth . Such a fun party town. I think of end of the earth as being deostale. Funny how people can interpret it differently. But if it was the end of the world , I’d love to be in Provincetown, enjoying some lobster and people watching. Where would the end of the world be for me .I think Bailey’s Island Maine at Lands’ End Point.Can’t wait to see what you come up with!

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