What do you picture when you hear the word Michigan? Past industrial powerhouse of America? Car industry? Decaying Detroit? Rust belt? All of the above connotations are at least partially true, but they don’t really give the full picture of this very diverse state. There is another side of Michigan: vast forests, amazing coastline, countless lighthouses, sand dunes, cliffs, clean lakes, small charming towns and much, much more. That was the side of Michigan I was about to experience when I crossed its border driving north on the remote stretch of US Hwy 45.
This part of Michigan, physically separated from the rest of the state by the strait of Mackinac, is called the Upper Peninsula, Upper Michigan, or in short, the U.P. It is a land virtually surrounded by the waters of lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron and its only land border is with the remote northern part of Wisconsin. Containing quarter of the land area of Michigan but home to only 3 percent of its population, it is effectively a vast and sparsely populated wilderness.
My first destination was the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park located on the coast of Lake Superior, right next to the Wisconsin border. However, before getting there I had to stop somewhere for the night and I chose the small town of Ontonagon. It was in fact much smaller than I expected, but it still took me a while driving around before I spotted a small, hand painted road sign pointing to the only motel in town. It was a tiny place, with no more than 10 rooms, squeezed in the middle of a residential neighbourhood and it was also the only motel during my trip without broadband. The following morning I had a proper American breakfast in a local place called Syl’s Caffe where the food was great and the ambience even better. The whole place felt like time had stopped sometime in the eighties and the average age of customers was probably approaching seventy. Apart from the waitress and another pair of lost tourists, I was by far the youngest person there, and I’m not a teenager any more. It was a bit of a surreal morning but I loved it.
Pictures of the Porcupine Mountains, specifically a view from the point overlooking the Lake of the Clouds, can be found in most of the guidebooks and websites about Michigan. Justifiably so. It is a great panorama even on a rainy, misty and foggy (in other words shitty) day like the day when I got there. For me, the grey, heavy clouds and the delicate mist actually made the whole place even more interesting. Sure, it must be stunning on a nice sunny day, but somehow the “bad” weather makes sense in these remote parts of Michigan. It adds mystery and magic to this already enchanted landscape. Still, you can only spend so much time in a horizontal drizzle, so I moved on.
My next destination was the Keweenaw Peninsula, which is the northernmost part of the state. Almost completely cut off from the mainland of the U.P. (the only connection is via a bridge in Hancock), it is a place full of heritage. In the 19th century, the copper mines of the peninsula produced more wealth than the famous Californian gold rush and were swarmed with migrants, especially from Cornwall, Finland and Sweden. Nowadays this rural region is littered with abandoned mines and ghost towns. One of the most popular attractions is Quincy Mine in Hancokck where you can tour some underground tunnels of what was once the deepest mine in the world. However, I decided to skip it and headed straight north to the more remote parts of the peninsula. My first stop, the town of Central. Well, “town” is a bit of an overstatement as it is actually a ghost town. Once a thriving home to 1200 people (mostly Cornish miners), it was abandoned at the beginning of the 20th century and was slowly decaying until it was bought by the local historical society in 1996. There are a dozen or so buildings still standing and you can walk freely between them. Many houses were surrounded by orchards and you can still see plenty of apple trees even if many of the buildings are long gone. I found it probably one of the strangest sights of the peninsula, trees full of fruit now growing in what is practically a forest.
Further north, US Hwy 41 becomes one of the best drives in the US. Especially scenic are the last 18 miles before Copper Harbor, where the road becomes narrow and starts twisting, and the trees, some as close as three feet from the pavement, form a complete canopy over most of the entire length of the route. Outside the summer tourist season it becomes quite a deserted stretch of highway and it is damn great fun to drive it. One more thing, fall colours here are absolutely breathtaking. Copper Harbour itself is the end of the road. Literally. That’s where US Hwy 41 terminates after running 1990 miles all the way from Miami. This small community (not even incorporated as a town) survives mainly as a tourist service center. There are quite few restaurants, lodging options and gift shops (partcularly interesting is the one selling items connected to the area’s rich Scandinavian heritage). For me, the most interesting attraction in town was Fort Wilkins Historic State Park. Built in 1844, the fort was intended to help with local law enforcement and to keep the peace between miners and the local Ojibwas. However, the fort proved to be completely unnecessary, never witnessed any military activity and it was finally abandoned in 1870. Fort Wilkins became a State Park in 1923. Extensive restoration work and development began in the 1930s under the Work Project Administration and today it is an excellent display of a frontier military outpost. There are several reconstructed buildings open to visitors, including soldiers’ barracks, officers’ quarters, a fort store and a hospital. On a quiet day you will have the place practically to yourself, which makes the whole experience excellent. However, if you want some fun it’s better to visit the fort during the summer season when costumed interpreters demonstrate its history.
From Copper Harbour it was time to head back south, and this time I chose another excellent scenic road, the Brockway Scenic Drive. It takes you 220 meters above the town and offers fantastic views of the settlement and its surrounding hills as well as Lake Superior, but be warned that the road is in very poor shape. It is theoretically paved but full of potholes and in places it seems like most of the surface is gone. It was a very tricky drive to undertake in a heavy storm which happened when I was there. The following night I spent in another family run motel in the middle of nowhere. It was, however, a very clean and cosy place with very friendly service and located right opposite a small local restaurant serving simple but tasty American dishes. I had a quiet but great evening indeed and fell asleep listening to the rain. One more thing I can definitely recommend while you are in the peninsula is the beer produced by the Keweenaw Brewing Company, referred to by locals simply as the KBC. It is a small local brewery located in Houghton and it produces excellent brews. My favourites are Widow Maker Black Ale and Lift Bridge Brown Ale. Where else can you find a great-tasting beer named after piece of infrastructure?
From the peninsula I drove south and east passing small towns and vast forests all the way towards the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. US Hwy 41 and Michigan Hwy 28 offer a mix of spectacular coastal road as well as some pretty remote and boring stretches across the forest. The only large place in this region is Marquette, where you can get all the supplies you need as it has all the major retail chains. In the harbour you should check out the enormous old ore docks. They were once used to ship iron ore and look like a cross between an aircraft carrier, a bunker and a space ship. I personally love this type of photogenic decaying structure. Apart from that there is not much to do in Marquette.
Administered by the National Park Service, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore stretches for over 42 miles and offers some truly amazing scenery. The most spectacular feature of the park is colorful sandstone cliffs, reaching in some places over 200 feet (60 meters), but there are also excellent wild beaches and vast coastal dunes. Most of the coast is quite remote and difficult to reach as the only road connecting both ends of the park is only partially paved and runs mostly well clear of the coast. That makes it a great destination for people looking for solitude. However, there are places to access the lake if you don’t have much time. The Miners Castle formation, located around 10 miles from the town of Munsing, is one of them. There you can find an overlook offering a great vista of Lake Superior and Grand Island as well as a close up look of the sandstone cliffs and arches. There is also a short drive leading down to lake level a and nice beach so you can experience this spectacular coast from the top as well as from the bottom.
Upper Michigan offers so many coastal attractions that I could easily spend a few weeks driving from cove to cove, from lighthouse to lighthouse, from dunes to cliffs, etc. Unfortunately, my time was limited so I headed south-east towards the straits of Mackinac which connects lakes Michigan and Huron and separates the U.P. from the rest of the state. Nowadays both parts are connected by the huge Mackinac Bridge. Built in 1957 and often called simply “Big Mac”, it is an over 8km long suspension bridge with a main span measuring over 1,1 km. There are good viewing points at both ends offering some great photo opportunities. Even if you are not a bridge enthusiast like me, I strongly recommend to stop for a few minutes and admire this marvel of engineering. On a clear and sunny day it is just a fantastic sight.
After crossing the bridge I entered mainland Michigan. Specifically the Mackinaw City which is, rather confusingly, spelled differently than the aforementioned straits (don’t ask me why) and is actually a village, not a city at all. Its economy is totally tourism-driven with a large number of hotels, restaurants, shops and tourist attractions. The best attraction here (and one of the best I experienced during my entire trip) is Fort Michilimackinac. Built in 1715 by the French, it was relinquished, along with their territory in Canada, to the British in 1761. In 1763 the Ojibwa took it for a year and finally, in 1781, its wooden buildings were dismantled and moved to a better protected location on Mackinac Island. Today it is considered one of the most extensively excavated early French archaeological sites in the United States. The site has numerous reconstructed historical wooden structures, including the perimeter stockade, and interpreters, both paid and voluntary, help bring the history to life, with music, live demonstrations and reenactments. It is really good fun to wonder inside and around the fort for a few hours, popping into the buildings, chatting with the redcoats, and watch them fire muskets or even a cannon.Up here in the north of mainland Michigan it is not much different from the Upper Peninsula. It is still a land of lakes, forest and spectacular coast, but just a bit more densely populated. I continued my journey south on the western side of the state, which is the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Michigan Hwy 119 hugs the coast between the tiny community of Cross Village and the town of Harbour Springs and is designated as the Tunnel of Trees Scenic Heritage Route. It is another narrow, twisty and fun-to-drive road. Even if it stays no more than few feet from the bluffs overlooking the lake, you can rarely see glimmers of water through the trees as the roadway meanders through oaks, maples, birch and cedars. It is this dense foliage, often completely covering the narrow ribbon of tarmac, which lends beauty to the winding road. Harbour Spring, Petoskey and Charlevoix all offer lots of small-town charm, including interesting independent shops, nice restaurants and B&Bs.
After a few days of travelling through the sparsely populated forests and lakes, arriving at Traverse City is a bit of a shock. It’s not even that large a place, but it is a major tourist and service center for this part of the state. Driving from the north on the US Hwy 31, I passed hundreds of motels, hotels and fast food restaurants. All the major chains as well as plenty of independent businesses are trying to get hold of some of your cash and that means a blur of neon signs, huge billboards, fancy lighting as well as some pretty weird statues. At times it looked and felt a bit like a cheap, miniature version of Las Vegas, especially when I was driving after dark. Consider for example the name of the place where I was staying, the Sierra Motel. As far as I’m aware, the nearest sierra must be a good few thousand miles away. However kitsch the place might look and feel, somehow I really like this sort of classic Americana experience.
Before leaving the north and reaching the densely populated south of Michigan (including the infamous Detroit), there was one more place I wanted to see: the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Located 25 miles west of Traverse City, it consists primarily of a 35-mile (60km) stretch of the Lake Michigan shoreline, featuring huge sand dunes rising as high as 460 feet (140m) above the lake. The park also includes or borders several small inland lakes as well as North and South Manitou Islands, each about 6-7 miles from the shore. A great way of exploring the highlights of this park is to drive the 7-mile long Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive loop, which offers easy access to the observation deck at the Lake Michigan Overlook. It is located about 450 feet above lake level, and the descent to the lake is very steep as dunes are perched on top of a moraine bluff made of a mixture of sand and rocks deposited by the glacier when it melted. On a sunny day views from the deck are absolutely stunning as the clear turquoise waters of Lake Michigan look more like somewhere in Caribbean than the Midwest. Travelling on the coast of Lake Michigan, you can also experience amazing sunsets on one of its beaches.
In general, the north of Michigan is fantastic and a very diverse place for a holiday. Lake Superior is cold and wild and might resemble the North Sea a little, while Lake Michigan offers warmer waters (at least in summer) and some busy beach resorts which might resemble the Mediterranean (admittedly, you have to stretch your imagination a bit). Small towns guarantee some genuine American attractions, the sort of places taken over a long time ago by suburbs and strip malls in other parts of the country. Add wast forests, inland lakes, wild rivers, waterfalls and a long and interesting history (long by American standards at least), and you can understand why I rate Michigan as one of my favourite states. So don’t let stereotypes fool you and visit the beautiful Wolverine State if you get the slightest chance.