Michigan's Upper Peninsula: Destination of the week
Nearly surrounded by the Great Lakes, this rural getaway is the perfect place for camping, hiking and getting back to nature.
Wed, Apr 04 2012 at 5:49 PM
RUGGED AND FUN: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore offers sandstone cliffs, beaches, waterfalls, lakes, forest and opportunites for hiking and camping. (Photo: xray10/Flickr)
Michigan's Upper Peninsula is one of the most rural, nature-dominated regions in the Midwest. It is virtually surrounded by Great Lakes, with Lake Superior to its north and Lakes Michigan and Huron sitting to the south and east. Often referred to simply as the UP (or, more affectionately, the Yoop), this section of the state is completely un-urban. This is not the Michigan of Motown or even Lansing. The UP's largest town, Marquette, tops the population ranking with just over 21,000 inhabitants. Federal and state-run parks, trails and forest preserves make the region's natural landscapes easily accessible to visitors, while the waters of the Great Lakes provide another set of options for people who would rather paddle than strap on hiking boots. Perhaps its geography, hanging off of northern Wisconsin and connected to the rest of its own state only by a bridge and ferry service, is the reason why the UP does not draw hordes of nature-seekers. But, for many who do come, the sparseness of tourists ends up being part of the attraction.
Among plugged-in Midwestern outdoor enthusiasts and nature-seekers, the UP has earned a name for itself as a wintertime destination where skiing, snowmobiling and even dog sledding are possible. But the state's rural environments and hiking and paddling infrastructure lend themselves to summertime adventure as well.
Cars are unfortunately a necessity in a place like the Upper Peninsula, where public transportation is largely absent. However, once travelers reach their chosen natural attractions, walking, paddling or, sometimes, pedaling become the best way to get around.
Driving might be a necessity, but it doesn't have to simply be an exercise in getting from Point A to Point B. The Michigan Historic Routes Program lists a full menu of scenic and historic "heritage" routes that crisscross the region, passing some of the most beautiful and historically significant sites in the UP. It is also possible to navigate the entire peninsula passing from scenic byway to state park road to coastal highway, never once putting your tires on a road that lacks picture-worthy surroundings.
The so-called “Water Trails” found along the UP's rivers and in Lakes Huron, Superior and Michigan make this a great region for paddling a canoe or kayak. The Keweenaw Water Trail, for example, runs around the northernmost shoreline of the UP, giving paddlers the ultimate Lake Superior kayak or canoe route. Since the UP is basically surrounded by water on three sides, paddling around most of the region is possible.
Mackinac Island, a car-free paradise just off of the UP's mainland, is a favorite destination because of its historic vibe and quaint appearance. Eco-tourists who want to put nature, and nothing else, on their itinerary, would do better on another island near the Upper Peninsula. Isle Royale sits in Lake Superior off the northern coast of the Yoop. It can be reached from the town of Houghton via ferry. A haven for moose, wolves and other mammal and avian species, the island is known among hard-core hikers and outdoor enthusiasts for its wildness. Day hikes and guided interpretive walks are possible through the National Park Service, though nature-lovers can spend days exploring the island's less visited interior.
On the mainland shore of Lake Superior sit the Porcupine Mountains. Visitors can enjoy these low peaks in the 60,000-acre Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Bordered by the lake and by the huge Ottawa National Forest, this area has a truly remote feel. With over 100 miles of trails, paddling opportunities along the shoreline and in inland lakes and rivers, and plenty of overnight options, the Porkies (as locals like to call the range) are an ideal place for an eco-focused adventure.
The next largest state park in the UP, the nearly 50,000-acre Tahquamenon Falls State Park, is named for its waterfall, which sees the highest volume of water of any falls east of the Mississippi, save, of course, Niagara Falls. Shorter trails make it possible to view the falls and other nature in the park without having to undertake a serious trek. However, Tahquamenon has over 20 miles of trails, with many paths leading through completely undeveloped land. The lengthy North Country Trail, which runs from New York to North Dakota, passes through the park, giving hikers a chance to set foot on a section of one of America's longest hiking trails.
Hiawatha National Forest is a large expanse of land that consists of over 800,000 acres and boasts more than 100 miles of shoreline. Hiking opportunities, from multi-day backcountry treks to short, casual strolls, abound. The forest is divided into separate “units,” with the east unit sitting near Lake Huron and the west unit touching both Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. As with other large parks in the region, the famous North Country Trail passes through Hiawatha.
A rather unusual attraction can be found in the small town of Iron Mountain. Nearly a million bats, one of the largest populations in any one area in the U.S., use an old abandoned mine as a place to hibernate and spend the colder seasons of the year. The mine has become a DNR interpretative site in order to educate people about these often-misunderstood mammals. Bats congregate in the town in late September and use the mine to hibernate in the winter. They emerge in late March or early April and continue their migration pattern.
One of the most scenic sections of Lake Superior's shoreline is protected as part of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The area has accommodations for all types of visitors. Drive-in campgrounds and easily accessible sections of rocky or sandy lakeshore make it possible to get close to the scenic beauty without too much effort. At the same time, backcountry camping, along with a host of trails including a section of the North Country Trail, mean that this is also a great place for serious eco-adventurers with close-to-nature ambitions.
Not all of the Upper Peninsula's attractions are found in the far corners of the region. Marquette is home to the MooseWood Nature Center, a independent, nonprofit organization that provides nature-focused educational experiences and classes for schools, groups and individuals.
Small-scale sleeping options abound in this section of Michigan. In many places, the options consist of pitching a tent or spending the night in a small inn or bed and breakfast. Bed and breakfast choices range from Victorian-era houses to lakeside lodges and converted farmhouses. An especially nature-surrounded option is Sheridan on the Lake, a contemporary B&B in Houghton. The area around this inn features trails and easy access to Lake Superior and the attractions of the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale. The Jacobsville Lighthouse Inn is a unique spot that also sits on the Keweenaw Peninsula. The property includes a classic lighthouse that overlooks the lake. Of course, for a true close-to-nature experience, the best option is camping. Numerous places to pitch a tent exist in the UP. Private campgrounds with a range of facilities cater to road-tripping families and people who want to maintain a certain level of comfort (showers, restrooms and even electricity). Other campgrounds, like the small Search Bay campground, are thoroughly rustic, offering nothing more than a small clearing of flat ground to pitch a tent. People looking for more options can check at state and national nature areas. For example, Hiawatha National Forest features a wide array of camping options, from rental cabins to walk-in campsites.
With its overwhelmingly rural vibe, The UP is not a place to come if you are a foodie looking for cutting-edge cuisine. People who are hitting the road can stock up in Marquette, the UP's main town, before heading out in search of nature. The Sweetwater Cafe, which takes its name from the sap that is used to make maple syrup, features gluten-free and veg-friendly menu options. It is one of the better (and most popular) sit-down spots in Marquette. The Marquette Food Co-op is open to the public and features produce (both local and imported organic) and plenty of naturally made grocery products. There is even a wellness department with vitamins, essential oils and nontoxic bug sprays (a necessity for summer trekking). Those lucky enough to be in town during market days can do some of their stocking up at the Downtown Marquette Farmers and Artists Market. This market features art and craft products in addition to locally grown produce.
The Upper Peninsula is an often-overlooked nature-filled destination. The rustic vibe and abundance of nature, both on land and in the waters of three Great Lakes, make the UP an ideal destination for people looking to get away from mainstream attractions, crowded national parks, and standard zip-line and jungle-walk eco-tourism.
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