Michigan may not be the first place you think of when planning your next vacation. But there is one remote section of the state I just returned from and you should seriously add it to your travel wish list.
But it’s a secret…
…so don’t tell anyone.
When you tell your friends and family you are taking a vacation to Michigan, be prepared to answer a flurry of text messages that follow this general format: “Huh? Michigan?? WTH???”
That is either the annoying part of planning your trip — or part of the fun — depending upon your personality type, I guess.
Your friends and family will envision images of crime, industrial ruin, and burned out city blocks in Detroit, and lead contaminated water in Flint.
Um, we’re not going to THAT part of Michigan.
We’re going to THIS part of Michigan:
This isn’t REALLY Michigan, is it?
You can forgive people for not thinking of the wild, remote, sparsely populated Upper Peninsula when they hear “vacation to Michigan.”
The U.P., as Michiganders call it, is far removed from the rest of Michigan — quite literally.
Geographically, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is an extension of Wisconsin — and completely unattached to the lower peninsula of Michigan except for the engineering marvel of the Mackinac Bridge.
“We’ll trade you Toledo and a Player to be Named Later”
In a fluke surveying dispute in the 1800s, Michigan was granted the U.P. as compensation for Ohio getting Toledo.
While they weren’t happy about it at the time, every proud Michigander will tell you today that they got the better end of that deal.
And you really need at least a week to explore Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Of course I tried to do the entire thing in just four days.
We started in Wisconsin on the far western end of the peninsula and worked our way east.
Eat Like a Miner
No trip to the Upper Peninsula is complete without trying their unique culinary specialty called a pasty (pronounced pass-tee).
So just ten miles after crossing the Michigan state line, our first stop was at the Pasty Corner in the old mining town of Iron River.
Like the name of this small town, the pasty is a remnant from the iron ore boom of the late 19th century.
More than $48 billion worth of iron ore was mined in the U.P., more than 50 times the value of the more-celebrated California Gold Rush.
To man the mines, immigrants from all over Europe flooded into small towns like Iron River.
Experienced miners from Cornwall, England brought the pasty, a handy pastry filled with beef and diced potatoes, onion, and rutabaga. Miners would carry them in their lunch pails and heat these hearty one-handed meals over their lanterns deep underground.
Nobody goes underground anymore in the U.P., but you can still get a tasty example of Cornish miners’ fare at the Pasty Corner.
So with our stomachs full for a day of either scraping iron ore out of the ground — or driving our Toyota 4-Runner rental through the rolling hills of the western U.P. — we set out for one of the area’s top attractions.
Beauty No Man Can Make
The Upper Peninsula is a waterfall lover’s paradise with over 300 waterfalls adorning the rugged landscape.
Bond Falls is so beautifully constructed you might think it’s manmade, like a set from a Disney theme park or designed by a Roman Renaissance architect.
Framed by yellow, orange and red foliage, the last day of September turned out to be the perfect day to visit.
Explore the World’s Greatest Lake
Lake Superior dominates the landscape and geography of the U.P., shaping over 900 miles of the peninsula’s northern coastline if you include all the islands and inlets.
Superior is the biggest and baddest, coldest and roughest of all the Great Lakes. In fact, Lake Superior contains 10% of the entire Earth’s supply of fresh water – more than the other four Great Lakes combined!
On the far western edge of the U.P., hugging the Lake Superior coastline, you will find the Porcupine Mountains, a state wilderness area of dense forest, rugged beaches and yes, the occasional porcupine.
What you won’t find in the Porcupine Mountains are, well, mountains — at least not the type of mountains you might find in Colorado or New Hampshire. The Porcupine Mountains are more like “Porcupine Hills.”
But the “Porkies” offer plenty of rugged autumn beauty, no matter what you call them.
Our first stop was Presque Isle Scenic Area where the Presque Isle River flows into Lake Superior after traversing a series of scenic rapids and falls.
Get High in the Porkies
Head to Summit Peak where a half-mile hike straight up a 400-foot elevation gain will reward you with a spectacular view of the Porcupine Mountain fall foliage and Lake Superior — and not a single sign of humanity from one horizon to the other.
Finish with a Superior Sunset
We capped off the day at Union Bay just in time to catch the last glow of the sun setting into Lake Superior.
The most convenient place to spend the night is Silver Lake, a “town” (if you can call it that) consisting of exactly one motel and one restaurant — and absolutely zero internet service or Wi-Fi, transforming my phone into an expensive paperweight.
But then again, isn’t that part of the attraction of traveling to the middle of nowhere?
Get Your Head in the Clouds
I woke up early the next morning ready to explore one of my most anticipated sights on my itinerary.
I first laid eyes on Lake of the Clouds on my laptop months ago. It was one of those spectacular Microsoft screen savers that randomly pop-up when I boot up my computer every morning.
Yes. I was about to travel to a computer screen saver.
I am happy to report that Lake of the Clouds is even more spectacular in person, especially on a crisp fall morning with the surrounding trees dressed in autumn colors.
The next stop was the Sturgeon River and Canyon Falls a few miles south of L’Anse, conveniently sited in a roadside park right off U.S. 41.
The Sturgeon River carves a gorge deep in the U.P. woods after tumbling over a 20-foot waterfall that’s easily accessible on a well-marked trail.
Forget Rome. When in the U.P., Do as the Yoopers Do
For another quintessential Upper Peninsula lunch, I had to stop in for a cudighi at Ralph’s Italian Deli in Isheming.
A cudighi is a weird Italian Sausage sandwich covered in mozzarella cheese, onions, mustard and ketchup. There’s nothing gourmet about it, but a cudighi is a tasty and uniquely U.P. sandwich.
Even though it was created by Italian immigrants, you won’t find a cudighi on any menus in Rome, Sicily, or New York’s Little Italy. You have to come to the Upper Peninsula.
After lunch we spent a few hours at the nearby Michigan Iron Industry Museum which is located at the site of Michigan’s very first iron ore quarry.
Learn how iron was first discovered in Michigan’s Iron Range and all the challenges the early entrepreneurs had transporting it from this rugged wilderness to the steel mills of Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo.
“…When the Gales of November Come Early.”
We ended our day in Marquette, the only real city in the Upper Peninsula.
At Presque Isle Park, north of downtown, we marveled at violent Lake Superior waves crashing against the breakwater.
As the autumn winds whip Lake Superior into a churning frenzy, I couldn’t help but hear in my head the line from the famous Gordon Lightfoot song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which went down in a 1975 storm not far from here:
“Superior they said never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early.”
And I couldn’t visit Marquette without sampling at least one beer from the city’s best brewery, Blackrocks. A small, but fun two-level bar with a live local band entertaining the crowd, it was the ideal place to enjoy my Reductor, a dark rye beer just tapped that afternoon.
You also can’t go wrong with a dinner of fresh local whitefish and the famous breadsticks at Portside Inn downtown.
On our way out of Marquette the next day we stopped for lunch at a local favorite, the Crossroads Lounge, where we feasted upon smoked whitefish dip and a couple of jumbo pasties loaded with beef and pork.
Risk Hypothermia for a Picture of the Pictured Rocks
The highlight of any Upper Peninsula vacation is a boat tour out of Munising to view the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Unfortunately the day we chose was not ideal sailing weather. But on and off rain, wind, and choppy seas couldn’t diminish the beauty of the sculpted sandstone cliffs colorfully “painted” by minerals from the local ground water.
Just be sure to dress warmly. Even in August, the deep waters of Lake Superior never get above 45 degrees. On a windy, wet fall day, the air was colder than that.
An old mariner’s saying is no one has ever drowned in Lake Superior…
…everyone dies of hypothermia first.
Nevertheless we braved the outdoor deck of the Pictured Rocks Express to take pictures that I could share with our Proud American Traveler readers.
Afterwards, we warmed up at the best restaurant in Munising, a chef-owned place called Tracey’s where encrusted whitefish and beer-battered walleye tingled the tastebuds — and helped bring feeling back to the extremities.
See the Niagara of the Midwest
On the fourth and final day of our journey across the U.P., we concluded with the most popular tourist spot in Michigan, Tahquamenon Falls – the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi. Only Niagara is bigger.
The state park is divided into two separate sections, the more spectacular Upper Falls and the more subdued, but still beautiful, Lower Falls. If you are feeling particularly adventurous (and have plenty of time) you can take a fairly strenuous eight mile round trip hike between the two sections.
Or you can drive it in ten minutes.
Don’t judge. Those hours I saved by driving versus hiking allowed time for sandwiches and a freshly brewed Black Bear Stout at the on-site Tahquamenon Falls Brewery.
As we drove south toward the mighty Mackinac Bridge and prepared to leave the Upper Peninsula, I couldn’t help but think about how distant this place is from the rest of Michigan.
Yeah, I’ll go home and tell my friends and family we chose to take our annual vacation to Michigan.
Let them be confused.
With memory cards loaded with four days’ worth of waterfalls, rugged shoreline and fall foliage, I think maybe we should keep this secret to ourselves.
So, shhhhh…don’t tell anyone.