Down Home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

The area is gorgeous, remote, and quirky--where the people prefer ATVs to cars, and menus feature meat pockets and Paul Bunyan-size cinnamon rolls.

By Grainger David, Monday, Mar 19, 2007, 8:00 PM

Michigan's Lake Superior

Michigan's Lake Superior

(Michigannut / Dreamstime.com)

Agate Beach, near Copper Harbor

(Amanda Friedman)

Day 1: Marquette to Copper Harbor
The Upper Peninsula is the part of Michigan that shares no borders with the mitten-shaped rest of the state. On a map, the peninsula looks like it should be in Wisconsin--it extends from that state and divides the waters of Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron. But while researching our trip, I learned that in fact the U.P. used to belong to Ohio. It was traded to Michigan in 1837 for a piece of land that would become part of Toledo.

Remote, quiet, and mostly raw wilderness, the U.P. is about the size of Denmark--far too big to explore in its entirety during a long weekend. My girlfriend, Lydia, and I board our connecting flight from Milwaukee to Marquette, the peninsula's biggest town, on a rattletrap prop plane so small that the airline doesn't bother with a flight attendant. Before the plane takes off, a recording comes on and tells us to fasten our seat belts.

As the plane bumps along above Lake Michigan, Lydia and I are discussing our plans when a young man named Luke chimes in. "Oh, I go fish camp there," says Luke, referring to one of our intended stops. Fish camping, he explains, entails a week or so of little more than fishing and drinking beer with your best buddies; it's a tradition among Yoopers, as U.P. locals are proudly known. Luke recommends we pick up some bug dope (bug spray, naturally).

Our goal for the first day of this early-summer trip is to make it to the U.P.'s northernmost tip, a smaller peninsula called the Keweenaw, for a swim in Lake Superior. First, though: lunch. Marquette is a tidy lakeside town with wide, clean streets, sturdy brick buildings, and a glittering marina. Luke recommended theSweet Water Café, which turns out to be excellent. It's a hippieish spot with lots of vegetarian options that uses "cooking techniques derived from the diversity of Earth's cultures." We have a killer falafel platter served by a waitress with dreadlocks.

Almost as soon as we get outside of Marquette, it's apparent that visiting the U.P. is a little bit like traveling to a foreign country that has only recently been colonized by the U.S.: Nordic flags fly, and accents are a strange blend of Canadian and Scandinavian. Then there are the ATVs, which seem to be a far more popular mode of transportation than cars. Four-wheelers are everywhere: at drive-throughs, at grocery stores, at churches. It's not unusual to see an entire family of Yoopers, including grandparents and young children, following each other astride thundering Kawasakis. Begoggled posses scream down the highway shoulder, peel off onto overgrown dirt paths in clouds of billowing dust, and disappear into the woods.

The road to the Keweenaw is lined with tempting stops. First is Canyon Falls, with its churning water the color of a Coke Slurpee. Next we pop into the freeIron Industry Museumfor a primer on the area's mining history. A few miles down the road, we can't pass up seeing the world's largest working chain saw atDa Yooper's Tourist Trap & Museum. The place lives up to its billing, selling lots of useless but amusing stuff like a "U.P. wind chime," which is a bunch of empty Bud Light cans hanging from a stick. We also get our first taste of a local obsession at theHilltop Restaurant. All over the U.P., restaurants and bakeries specialize in cinnamon rolls--or rather, giant sweet rolls, as the Hilltop calls them--that are roughly the size of a toddler's head.

Eventually, we make it to the Keweenaw. We first drive up the peninsula's eastern side to Bete Grise Beach. What a gem! The afternoon light is perfect, and as this is early season, the sandy cove is empty except for a couple with a Subaru, a tent, and plans to camp out for the night. I politely ignore their warnings about the water temperature and charge in. My heart skips several beats, but the sensation is great anyway. I'm thrilled the trip is getting off to such a promising start.

Back in the car, we meander up and over Brockway Mountain on a wooded road that is dappled in sunlight and ends with a postcard-perfect view of the tiny town of Copper Harbor. I can't argue with the sign outside theHarbor Hausrestaurant that proclaims: YOU ARE NOW BREATHING THE BEST AND MOST VITALIZING AIR ON EARTH.

Inside the restaurant, waitresses are dressed in dirndls. A terrific wall of windows looks out onto Lake Superior, and hearty German food is served in enormous portions. The whitefish wrapped in bacon, the potato pancake with feta cheese and apples, and the bison sausage with peppers, mushrooms, and cheese are all wonderful. Lydia and I share a raspberry cobbler with bourbon-cream sauce, and it's good enough to inspire something of a race between us.

I don't know if it was the swim, the beer, the sunset view, or all the fantastic food, but I'm in a full-on state of first-day-of-vacation rapture. After dinner, we are directed to the nearby Bella Vista Motel, where an employee tells us to look out for the northern lights in a little while; they have been appearing of late. But Lydia and I are too exhausted and go to sleep, fast.

Lodging

Food

Activities

Day 2. Copper Harbor to Houghton
The sun creeps through the curtains early, and we awake to find ourselves possibly the only tourists in town. Like the water, the real tourist season doesn't warm up until after the Fourth of July.

Copper Harbor is small enough that it has only one traffic light. On a quiet day like today, even that seems like overkill. We drive the entire length of the town in about a minute and a half and then have a pleasant breakfast atThe Pines.The restaurant is made completely from white pine, and the walls are decorated with paintings of black Labs and moose.

Afterward, we browse at an elegant gift shop,The Swedes,which sells little gnome statues, polished rocks, and pamphlets of local lore like "A Brief History of Ahmeek, Michigan." I had enjoyed the lilting Finnish music on local radio the day before, and, seeing a stack of CDs behind the counter, I ask the proprietress, Mary, if she has any recommendations. Looking aghast, she flings her arms out and exclaims, "Does it look like I have time to listen to the radio, sir? I run a business!"

The morning is so sparklingly clear that it seems a waste to spend any more of it inside. The walking path to Hunter's Point leaves from the marina and runs for 1.6 miles along the lake. But in less than 10 minutes we turn off at Agate Beach, which is gorgeous and totally empty. For an hour we crunch up and down the red-rocked cove, marveling at our luck in having the spot to ourselves.

Of course, there are a few trade-offs to coming in early season. Jamsen's Fish Market, a charming-looking seafood spot right at the ferry dock, isn't open. The ferry that operates sunset cruises isn't running yet, either.

Still, we can't complain. With the car windows down, we head west on the Lakeshore Drive part of Route 26 toward Eagle Harbor. Even cuter, smaller, and less ready for business than Copper Harbor, Eagle Harbor looks like a delightful place to spend an afternoon, or an entire summer. We stand on the beach, snap a few photos, and watch for a while as a young girl steers a remote-control car down the center of the road.

The nearbyJampot--a bakery and jam store run by monks from the Holy Transfiguration Skete--is closed not because of the season but because we are silly enough to come on a Sunday. My sour mood changes after chili dogs and beer at theMichigan House Cafe.

The buildings at theQuincy Mineare creepy. They sit on a hill above the town of Hancock like the husks of giant locusts that have gorged themselves on the land and departed. It's 43 degrees inside the mine, and before our tour we're supplied with heavy jackets and hard hats. We board a tram to the mine entrance and then climb into a trailer pulled by a small John Deere. As dripping water echoes through the dark tunnel, our guides, Eli and Jennifer, tell us about accidents--253 workers died between 1846 and 1945, when the mine was in operation--as well as escape tunnels, children who started work as young as age 11, and a drill called the Widowmaker. We're seven levels deep in the mine, and I'm amazed there are 88 floors below us.

By the time we emerge squinty-eyed into the light, it's late in the afternoon. We head to an uninspired town called Houghton. We wander into a strange pizza joint called theAmbassador,where extensive gnome-based murals cover the walls. Fortunately, the restaurant has a great view of the Houghton-Hancock bridge, along with decent food.

Food

Activities

Shopping

Day 3. Houghton to Manistique
On the mine tour we learned about pasties: meat-pocket snacks that miners warmed over their candles. Pasties are still fairly popular around the U.P., though I have a hunch that it's nostalgia rather than tastiness that keeps them on restaurant menus. Either way, I haven't worked up the courage to try one yet. In a fit of coffee-fueled brashness and journalistic duty, I order a pasty for breakfast atSuomi, a diner with logging gear on the walls. Check pasties off the list: I can now officially say that I'm not a fan of the miner's meat pocket. But the cinnamon toast at Suomi is perfect, and the service is friendly.

We hightail it east with the idea of spending the night in Munising, home of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. But the vibe is all wrong in Munising, which sits in the shadow of a working paper mill, so we take a sharp turn south and head for the Garden Peninsula. The drive is beautiful: We leave the wooded coastline of Lake Superior and cross acres of farmland dotted with cows and the occasional barn. By the time we arrive in Fayette, the sun is shining.

Fayette Ghost Town is a former smelting-factory village that is now preserved in its entirety as a museum insideFayette State Park.The ghost town is in a gorgeous spot: midway down the Garden Peninsula, on a perfect little grassy knoll next to a cove of dramatic limestone cliffs. We wander nearly alone through a rickety old butcher shop and homes with meticulously restored bedrooms. It's like we've been allowed to lollygag through the set ofThe Village.

Our next stop isIndian Lake State Park,home of the 40-foot-deep Big Springs, which is also known as Kitch-iti-Kipi. We board a raft--free with the car permit fee--and float over the crystal-clear waters while gazing at the enormous trout and swirling sands way down at the bottom. Once again, we get to enjoy a popular attraction completely by ourselves, and what may otherwise have seemed cramped and touristy feels magical.

Providence leads us to the '50s-styleStar Motel,where our mint-green bathroom is so perfectly retro, I'm driven to take a picture. The Star has been run since 1975 by the precise and personable Dorothy McNamara, who knows Manistique well and provides guests with gift certificates to local restaurants.

In downtown Manistique, home to one of the more impressive Paul Bunyan statues, we stop in for a drink at a good-looking bar calledMarley's.Beers are $1.25 each. In a back room, a pool table and a jukebox sit unused, as if waiting for us. We play a few games, put on an oddball mix of songs--Patsy Cline, U2, Ray Charles, Whitesnake--and make a night of it.

Lodging

Food

Activities

Nightlife

Day 4. Manistique to Marquette
After a quick breakfast, we start back toward the Lake Superior side of the U.P. We don't get very far, asBlaney Park Lodge seems interesting enough to warrant a stop. A lodge and resort that dates to early 1895, Blaney Park apparently aspired to be a grand family retreat but wound up as an inexpensive inn and restaurant. A "dude ranch" lies in ruins out back, and the property has an airstrip that's supposedly still in use. I find the strangeness of it all endearing, though I also can't help thinking the location would be a great set for a horror movie.

We detour for a seven-mile loop through theSeney National Wildlife Refuge, where birds have the run of the place. Seems like it would be nice on a bike, but we have to get going back to Munising for a tour of thePictured Rocks.

We board a crowded boat for an up-close look at the colorful cliffs--which are astounding, though the guide's loudspeaker is nearly inaudible. In any event, we have fun on the deck, playing 20 Questions in the sunny ocean breeze.

A little worn out from sightseeing, we stumble into theFalling Rock Café. It turns out to be just the right spot at just the right time. After a hot pastrami sandwich, a bowl of tomato soup, and a couple of big scoops of ice cream, I feel like a new man. We consider jumping in the car and speeding headlong to Marquette before heading home. After all, before zipping off on the road at the beginning of our trip, we barely saw the town.

But it's raining, and the Falling Rock is so welcoming. Also, the adjoining bookstore has couches. We browse the aisles, sip hot chocolates, and settle into the cavernous softness. I set the alarm on my watch and take a nap.

Food

Activities

Finding Your Way
There's no shortage of pretty drives in the U.P., where you're almost always within a few minutes of thick forests and pristine lake views. The scenery toward the end of the Keweenaw Peninsula is particularly beautiful. On the way to Copper Harbor, take the inland road over Brockway Mountain, so the lake will be in front when you arrive. On the way back west, try scenic Route 26, Lakeshore Drive, for the best views of Lake Superior.