I suppose it is due to proximity and the fact we take it for granted, but we had never done much in the way of exploring Michigan. Sure we’ve passed through a chunk of the state on multiple trips to Toronto, checked out the Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, and even went to a Detroit Tigers’ game ages ago. When it came to planning an extensive trip, we always chose something a bit more far-flung. After years of more intense travels, we finally decided on a slower, more localized adventure. So, in the summer of 2016 we packed up and headed north by way of the of the eastern Lake Michigan coastline.
Though we researched some of the things we wanted to see/ do, we took the trip at a leisurely pace, and chose not to book hotel stays ahead of time. We wanted to just wander so we booked along the way and had no problems doing so during mid-July.
Up the Coast
We hit the road just after morning rush-hour, and made our way east on I-94 around the Lake Michigan bend, up to 196 N, which took us right into Holland, MI for lunch. Holland is a college town, known for their Spring Tulip Festival. We spent enough time there to grab lunch and wander around the town by foot, checking out a few resale shops and sweets stores. This was only about 2.5 hours into the trip, so after stretching our legs just a bit, we headed North up the coast on HGWY 31.
Friends had told us the coastal town of Ludington was worth a stop, and we arrived on the coast near the lighthouse shortly before dinner time. The town was having a summer fest which brought out the right vibe for the warm July afternoon. We spent some time at an enormous Library book sale and grabbed ice cream at the highly recommended House of Flavors, which did not disappoint. We strolled through the town fair, snacking on all of the standard fest food, before hitting one or two antique shops. Though Ludington is a bit further north than what would be considered a typical weekend getaway from Chicago, it certainly appeared to hit all of the check boxes for a town worth revisiting.
Given our sugar highs, we felt good about continuing our trek with the goal of getting to Mackinac Island the next day. We made the decision to bypass the Sleeping Bear Dunes until our return ride and continued north to the town of Gaylord, a short morning drive from Mackinac. Having read that Gaylord had an old country vibe, it seemed like the right sleepy town to spend a few hours in. After a night’s stay, and a Jet’s Pizza for dinner (when it comes to fast-food pizza, Jet’s is easily our first choice!) we awoke the next morning and headed into town. Given the time of the year, I suppose we should have expected the summer festival taking place, which closed down the few arteries leading into the town square. We still gave it a go, and true to what we had read, the buildings had a Bavarian vibe to them. We strolled for a while, delighted to make a quick stop at Geniehobbies Game Store, a 2 floor emporium of games, where we picked up a game for evening play during our trip. While Gaylord was the right place and right time for this particular stop, there would be no outstanding reason to return.
Continuing north, we arrived in Mackinaw City just as the crowds were swelling. We made our way immediately to the satellite shuttle parking lot in order to catch a ferry over to the well-known Mackinac Island. Shepler’s Ferry offers hourly rides to the island for $24.00 a person. Though there are a few other options, we had no complaints – we had to wait a little while to catch both the outbound and inbound rides, but given the size of the crowds, it was not unreasonable.
The ferry itself was a great experience – beautiful views of the lake, Mackinac Bridge, and the local lighthouse while traversing the open waters were worth the price of admission. After about 40 minutes, we arrived on the main port of the island, smack in the middle of the historic town. Though beautiful, with lots of options for snacks, food, and drinks, the first several blocks of the town were congested like a Chicago expressway at 5:00 pm on a Friday. Pedestrians frustratingly tangled with bicycles (no autos though) on the main thoroughfare.
Our desire to get away from the crowds led us walking Main Street east out of the town, hugging the lakeshore. After a coffee stop at the Mission Point Resort, we continued north on the island’s Lake Shore Drive. The road/ path brought us into the state park, and the stunning views of the lake and rock formations were unbelievable. The crystal blue waters were a color I have never seen outside of the Caribbean and we slowed our pace to take in the miles of shoreline.
We eventually found a path that led steeply uphill, providing a gorgeous view of the rock formation known as The Arch. Though the crowds in town initially made us question whether Mackinac was worth the stop, all doubts had been erased by the views here. We continued on the path, through Fort Mackinac, deeper into the forest, simply wandering, only distracted by an occasional horse carriage. An hour or two later, we saw the main town below, and gradually descended toward the Grand Hotel. What is probably THE landmark of the island, this historic lodge is definitely a sight to behold – though it will cost you money to get anywhere past the perimeter of the grounds if you are not a registered guest. Our disappointment with not being able to get closer to the lodge was quickly assuaged by additional views of the lake and its manicured shores. We slowly made our way back to the port, grabbing a ferry to the mainland. Overall, Mackinac was a mixed bag. There is no way to overstate the beauty – and I would love to revisit the state park. The cruise to the island was also wonderful. That said, the crowds were really intense.
The Upper Peninsula
Sault St. Marie (pronounced: Soo Saint Marie), on the northeastern point of the Upper Peninsula, bordering Canada, had also been recommended for a visit and would be our final destination for the day. This leg of the trip started right off with an ascent of the Mackinac Bridge, which connects mainland Michigan with the UP. This was a stunning, almost scary, 5 mile trek over the Straits of Mackinac. Travelers are left with no choice but making the trip over the bridge if headed to the UP from the Michigan side.
We arrived at Sault Ste. Marie shortly before sundown, and after wandering aimlessly through the rust-belt U.S. side of the town, we made our way over to the Canadian side to find a hotel and a quick bite to eat. The town/s themselves had certainly seen better days – both the U.S. and Canadian sides felt very run down, though not unsafe to walk around. We wandered a bit in the evening, questioning why the area was recommended.
This destination, and more precisely the St. Mary’s river, which divides the two countries are known for the Soo Locks. The locks, located within the St. Mary River are what allow boats, freighters, and barges to make the connection between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, by adjusting water levels to allow the carriers to make the 21 foot drop between the Great Lakes.
Our morning began with trekking to the river and visiting a museum on the Canadian side which provided a clearer explanation of this maritime marvel. After a quick visit, we made our way to the nature path which allowed us to view the locks and hop around to a few of the little islands in the river. While I probably would not go out of the way to recommend a stop to everyone, Maritime enthusiasts would appreciate the visit, and the area made for launchpad to the UP – one much less crowded than starting off from Mackinaw City.
We made our way westward, along the southern coast of Lake Superior. The next several days included many stops along the coast, and we did not spend much time in the interior of the UP. We had a desire to see lighthouses – an unexplainable, yet popular fixation, and as always to take some great hikes. Heavy rains quickly greeted us as we made our first stop at the Point Iroquois Lighthouse, not a far distance from the Soo Locks. This was a brief stop, lasting only long enough to snap a few pictures.
The rains fell harder as the drive west continued. For the next hour, I do not believe another car passed us – our only neighbors were trees towering overhead. Whitefish Point was the next stop in the UP. With the weather still volatile, it seemed appropriate to spend time at the lighthouse and museum. Known for the number of shipwrecks (due to horrid winter weather) in it’s proximity, the museum provided an ample overview of the maritime history of Lake Superior. Though I’ve never had much of an interest in seafaring, this stop provided a break from the weather and helped to contextualize much of what we would be seeing and doing over the next few days.
The car ride provided time to discuss what we wanted to do and where we wanted to end. Our trip began with the intention of making it to the Porcupine Mountains on the far western end of the UP, and coming back home by way of Wisconsin, hitting all the points in between along the way. However, with the rains making outside adventures at the Pictured Rocks National Shoreline inaccessible for now, we made the decision to make our turnaround point the city of Marquette a few hours farther down the coast. The rains finally began to let up about an hour west of Munising (the home base for Pictured Rocks) and we took some time to stretch along the shoreline to observe the turbulent clouds pass over the greatest of the Great Lakes.
Marquette provided an opportunity to get out and walk a bit. A day driving through perpetual downpours was taxing, and after a quick bite at a local Mexican restaurant, we crashed for the evening. The next morning we deliberated whether to head out to Sugarloaf Mountain, a local trail, or Presque Isle, a small peninsula jutting out into the Lake Superior. While choosing both was a reasonable option, the drastic change to perfect weather left us choosing only the latter in order to backtrack to Munising a bit later.
Presque Isle had a few trails along the perimeter of the point. From the point we could see the city in the distance broken up by a port which housed some larger carrier ships. We wandered for a few hours along the rocky cliffs hovering above the now calm Superior waters below. The docks for the large ships intrigued us, and eventually we made our way to the lengthy pier jutting out into the Lake. The cobalt blue skies, reflected by the lake surrounding us, were quite a difference from the dark skies of the day before. After a bit of daydreaming on the pier, the excitement of the Painted Rocks got the better of us, and our car was soon on its way back east.
Munising and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Just outside of Munising is the teeniest town of Christmas, MI, which made use of the name by having a few large roadside Santas inviting travelers to stop. We wandered though one enormously cluttered antique store before quickly making the last few miles of the trip to our destination.
Munising is a home base for both the Pictured Rocks as well as the Hiawatha National Forest. A small but pleasant town, it provides all of the right amenities without feeling like a tourist trap. One town stop worthy of extra attention was the Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore. Quick sandwiches, an opportunity to sift through books, and the nicest folks in the UP brought us back twice during our stay.
With our schedule free-form, we ended up in a hotel a few miles outside the town, the Boarder’s Inn. The inn provided a pleasant stay and a reasonable price ($140) given the popularity of the location, though the location meant we were tied to our car to access the town. At the end of the day, the location worked well – we made our way to nearby waterfalls, before starting out to some of the paths within the Pictured Rocks park. The afternoon was really used to make some decisions of the hikes we’d embark on the next day and to get a lay of the land. We also took the time to schedule a sunset cruise out to see the colorful rock formations from the water.
At $38/ ticket, the 2.5 hour trip was a highlight. Launched from a port near the town center and beginning shortly before sunset, the limited narration on the ride provided the right dosage of information, allowing the passengers to simply appreciate the surroundings. Through the cruise was at full-capacity, passengers had unobstructed 360 degree views of everything. Drifting along the shoreline, and occasionally moving into the nooks and crannies carved by the tides of Superior, the shoreline was otherworldly especially as the sun began to fall below the horizon. The return toward Munising remained serene as twilight blanketed the lake and a full moon rose in the east. Though the days were warm, it was quite chilly on the water at night. If you choose to do the sunset cruise, definitely layer on some warmer clothes.
Though the cruise offered one side of the experience of the National Lakeshore, there are about 40 miles of lakeshore, along with forests, waterfalls, and other hiking to do. The morning following the cruise we took advantage of a few the shorter hikes in the area, checking out a few of the numerous local waterfalls. One of the sites which had piqued our interest was word that shipwrecks were visible off of the coastline. Though fairly morbid, we grew intent on seeing these remains.
After a little research of where we may catch a glimpse of the wrecks, we drove to the trail head at Hurricane River to hike 3 miles of shoreline to the Au Sable lighthouse. We started on the sandy shores and a short bit into the hike a sign notified us a wreck was nearby. Straining our eyesight looking out from the coast, we thought we were able to make out the silhouette of boat remains – if one believes it has to be real, right? Though a mild disappointment, we continued on to the light house.
About a mile into the walk, the sands shifted into large rocks/ small boulders. We were happy to be wearing decent hiking boots – without them, our progress would likely have been obstructed by these rocks, or by the twisted ankles we would have had from climbing over them. Though never having to literally climb high on the rocks, we used our mountain goat skills to hop over several hundred yards of the rocks. Concentrating on our footing, we may have easily missed the first skeletal remains of an extensive shipwreck cemetery.
Out in the water, mere feet from the shoreline, the first of the sunken ships first appeared. To be clear, what we were seeing were not enormous barges but the wood and metal remains of large boats nestled in the grasp of the rocky shores. We saw several of the wrecks – some just out in the waters, others strewn about on the shore. This was an experience which far exceeded what we had heard about and one of the more unique experiences we have had. A friend recently made this trip and she opted for the Shipwreck Cruise which sounds like a morbidly delightful way of viewing the final resting spots of the boats.
Moving east along the shore, we caught our first glimpse of the Au Sable light house – and at this point, standing amongst the ruins of multiple ships, one wonders how much of an impact the lighthouse had on the area.
Finding stairs that guided us up the rocky cliffs, we ascended a few hundred feet to the lighthouse grounds. Though not able to enter the lighthouse, we were offered new views of the shoreline from high above. We spent a good deal of time on the grounds, where for the first time this trip temperatures began to spike. After quite bit of time near the lighthouse, we began the trek back, this time using a crushed gravel path canopied by the surrounding forest. Once to our car, we drove on a bit longer to catch a glimpse of the Log Slide overlook, giving us our highest altitude perspective of Like Superior below.
The Road Home
Having been saturated with a number of incredible experiences over the last 2 days, we finally began our trip back to mainland Michigan. We decided to make one more stop along the way, at Tahquamenon Falls State Park. Despite some issues with navigation (little to no cellular signal in many parts of the UP), we found our way to one of the entrances. We arrived exhausted yet intent on catching a glimpse or two of the falls.
There are two separate falls areas we chose to visit, and from either of the lots, neither were a far walk – a mile at most. Each set of falls were impressive, outshining the others we had seen on the trip. Though considerably more crowded than any of the other stops we had made in the UP, this park was 100% worth the stop, and of all of the places we had visited on this trip, it is probably the most deserving of another visit – if for no other reason than the paucity of time we spent here. After stopping at the concessions for what was literally the best ice cream I have ever had (locally made blueberry ice cream), we began the trip back south. Late afternoon hit as we crossed back over the Straits of Mackinac, and we arrived in Traverse City for a nights stay before our final day’s worth of outings.
Traverse City was much larger than I would have suspected – it definitely reminded us that the sparse surroundings of the UP are a treasure and we desperately departed the summer tour season of the town after visiting a few small shops and wandering the downtown area.
For our last formal nature adventure, we made our way to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, another national lakeshore. Unsure of whether or not we would make the entire 5 hour drive home later in the day, we began moving intently through the park. The drive itself is pretty, but mildly confusing – unlike many other national parks, is stretched and segmented along a thin 100 mile strip of coastline. We made our way to the northern end of the park, ready to hike the Pyramid Point Trail. Promising vistas from the tops of the large dunes, we were treated to spectacular views, achieved through a fairly strenuous but short climb uphill. For our descent, we took the long route and the found ourselves in a large meadow at the base of the dunes. This unexpected treat was one of our favorite moments from the trip. From the meadow, we completed the 3 mile hike ascending through a forest of maples and pines.
We made our way south for a few more views, using the 7-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive loop as a way to take in a bit more of what Sleeping Bear had to offer. The drive offered up a number of overlooks and a few trailheads, which we made use of before our long drive home. Our final views of the lake were from the tops of the enormous dunes, leaving us in awe and with loads of sand in our shoes.