Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
The historic harbour town of Marquette
Photo by Jennifer Merrick
The Porkies? Is that really what Yoopers call this state park?
It was clear when we drove into the UP (pronounced “you pea”) that we’d entered a place with its own character, spirit, and even language. The UP is short for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a 16, 500-square-mile rugged landmass, surrounded by the beautiful shorelines of Lake Huron, Michigan, and Superior. Its 312,000 residents are affectionately known as “Yoopers.” And “The Porkies” are the Porcupine Mountains, where a 60,000-acre wilderness park boasts the largest tract of virgin northern hardwoods in North America and is home to threatened species, such as the gray wolf, wood turtle, peregrine falcon, and bald eagle.
The Porkies were our first stop in the UP as we circled Lake Superior this summer, and we were immediately struck not only by the grandness of the towering pines and the stunning Superior shoreline, but also by the sheer size of the park. We could have easily spent our entire vacation here and barely scratched the surface of its ninety miles of hiking trails and twenty-one miles of beaches. We only had a day, but we made the most of it by visiting Presque Isle Falls, the second largest falls in Michigan. A suspension bridge provided a view of the first of three cascades; after admiring the powerful carving skills of the rushing water, we walked along the river’s edge to once again take in the awe-inspiring Lake Superior, whose shores we’d been following for ten days.
Another sight to remember was at Lake of the Clouds, where fully accessible trails led up to a 180-degree panoramic lookout of the thick forest that surrounded the sky-blue lake so appropriately named. We were reluctant to leave such a place; but we were on a road trip, after all, and it was time for our next stop on our circumnavigation tour.
Located in a natural harbour midway across the state’s Superior shore, this attractive town has the UP’s largest population. And by large, we’re talking approximately 20,000 folks who are lucky enough to call Marquette home. But, the population grows substantially in the summer when visitors are drawn here to explore the historic architecture, stroll its waterfront, browse the distinctive shops, and dine in one of the many eateries.
Our family loved the sweet ambience and flavors of Donckers Restaurant with its candy counter and old-fashioned soda fountain downstairs and deli counter serving up local fare upstairs. Deliciously fueled, we had the energy to explore Presque Isle Park, a 323-acre wilderness area, featuring pebbled beaches, dramatic bluffs and towering pines.
Later, back in town, we sampled some of the microbrews on offer at the Ore Dock Brewing Company, one of several burgeoning craft beer distilleries in the area. We finished the evening with a stroll along the scenic waterfront before heading back to the Hampton Inn Waterfront, whose views of Lake Superior and fine amenities provided a lovely base for our stay in Marquette. The next morning, we climbed nearby Sugarloaf Mountain for one final panoramic view of Marquette before making our way to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Stretching forty-two miles along Lake Superior from Munising to Marais in the UP, the Pictured Rocks was established as the first National Lakeshore in 1966. The colorful sandstone cliffs and the mineral-painted rocks showcased the best of Mother Nature’s considerable artistic talent.
Our first glimpse of this natural treasure was from above at Miners Castle. The rock formation rose out of the turquoise water exposing layers of Precambrian and Paleozoic sandstone. The view was impressive, but an even better vantage point to appreciate it turned out to be on the water. A Pictured Rocks Sunset Cruise treated us to a close-up view of the intricate and colourful designs formed from the minerals that seep through the porous rocks.
Other highlights of the evening’s excursion included squeezing into a narrow passageway, where we could almost reach out and touch the rock walls on either side, and Chapel Rock, where a miraculous large pine sat atop a sculpted rock formation with its roots go down the sides of rock. As the sun set, the colors continued to change, putting on a show to end the day in spectacular fashion.
Our next excursion took us along the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore to the town of Grand Marais. We had to exercise some self control not to pull over at every point of interest, but then it would have taken days to explore the area’s extensive trails, beaches, and waterfalls. The highlight en route was Sable Falls, where we hiked the paths along the chutes until we reached the base of the Grand Sable Dunes, whose white banks spanned five miles.
From the moment we stepped foot into the town of Grand Marais, we could sense that this was a town full of character, and our short visit confirmed this. One of its quirkiest attractions is the Pickle Barrel House, impossible to miss, as it’s a sixteen-foot-tall barrel! Originally built as a summer cottage for cartoonist William Donahay, who created the characters “The Teeny Weenies,” it is now a most unusual museum. If your curiosity is piqued as mine certainly was, you can enter the barrel to learn all about the comic strip, which first appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1914 and ran for over fifty years.
After being educated about the Teeny Weenie world and some of the town’s history at the Old Post Office Museum, we once again ventured out onto the waters of Lake Superior, this time for deep-sea (or deep-lake in this case) fishing with Rainbow Charters, arranged through the Grand Marais Outfitting Company. The lake trout were biting; and once we had caught our fill, the captain steered us toward the dunes for some sightseeing.
Grand Marais was a fittingly gorgeous final last night for us in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and our entire Lake Superior circle tour, which took us 1,200 miles around the largest fresh-water lake in the world.
One question we’re often asked about the trip is what our favorite part was. It’s a difficult question. The two-week journey encompassed so much natural wonder, and we experienced some truly Superior adventures; but the personality and beauty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula hold a special place in our memories.
And a bumper sticker from Da Yoopers Tourist Trap (a souvenir shop/attraction filled with tongue-in-cheek displays like the world’s largest chainsaw) declaring, “Say ‘yah’ to da UP, eh!” has a special place on our fridge.
Jennifer Merrick is a freelance writer and avid traveler based in Toronto.