Life has a languid quality in the stunning landscapes of the Upper Peninsula (called the UP by visitors, and its residents are known as Yoopers). Americans first started vacationing here at the turn of the last century, with barons of Midwest industry like Thomas Edison and Detroit’s Henry Ford leading the weekend migration to the region.
The frenetic nature of modern times seems to have been kept at bay in this gorgeous part of the world. Don’t let the leisurely pace fool you – the opportunities for nail-biting adventure, outdoor exploration and snow and water sports are endless in the UP in all seasons.
Plenty of room to breathe
Perhaps life isn't so harried in the UP because there are simply fewer people here. Around 320,000 residents (three percent of the Mitten State’s population) live among the region's 16,500 square miles – making up 28 percent of Michigan’s landmass. That’s a lot of elbow room. All this bodes well for visitors who want to explore the 4,000 inland lakes, some 40 picturesque lighthouses and 300 waterfalls, sunken shipwrecks, colonial forts and more than a thousand years of Native American history.
Stop in at Steinhaus Market (steinhausmarket.com) in the adorable and bustling downtown Marquette for charcuterie, pretzels and a bottle or three of beer. Lagniappe (marquettecajun.com) serves Cajun fare, and it’s a lively spot, even on the grayest winter day. For locally-sourced, modern small plates and craft cocktails, duck in to The Marq (marqrestaurant.com) for deep fried Wisconsin cheese curds with romesco and giardiniera or smoked whitefish salad with currants, zucchini, almonds and mint. Their sassy Hipster cocktail (Campari, lemon, PBR and fresh lemon balm) may make you want to grow a beard and cuff your jeans.
The very hip and hardworking team at Blackrocks Brewery (blackrocksbrewery.com) nearby will regale you with fat bike stories over one of their beers. Each can has a story, many honoring the area’s seafaring history or showing local love, including the Hiawatha Wheat, brewed just for the three-day Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival (hiawathamusic.org) that takes place the last full weekend of July each year. The bash was founded in 1978 and features bluegrass, Cajun, Celtic, acoustic blues, folk and dance music with a trophy for the best decorated campsite.
Michigan's winter wonderland
With 17-plus feet of natural snowfall on the slopes, Big Powderhorn Mountain (bigpowderhorn.net) in Bessemer offers up 33 runs from 10 lifts. One of 14 ski resorts in the UP, it shares lift tickets with nearby Indianhead Ski Area (indianheadmtn.com) in Wakefield. These Huron and Porcupine mountain ranges once towered over today’s Rocky Mountains. Successive glacial shifts have brought them down to a still skiable 2,000 feet, Michigan’s highest.
Off piste, fat tire biking is tearing up snowy trails, like the 10.58 miles groomed trail at the Noquemanon trail Network in Marquette. An annual race there is among the 45NRTH Great Lakes Fat Bike Series (greatlakesfatbikeseries.com), the country’s biggest series, which runs between December and March every year.
There are also more traditional Nordic ski trails available throughout Marquette South Trails. The country’s largest ski jump (one of only six in the world) is 80 miles south in Iron Mountain and is set to reopen in 2017. The man-made “sky flying” hill is a 35-degree, 469-foot structure that sits 26 stories high and saw its last official run in 1994. Check the local calendar for events, or just stand underneath it in a brisk breeze to witness the Copper Peak (copperpeak.com) swaying as much as 18 inches by design.
Explore ice caves (mightymac.org/ebenicecaves) by clamoring over a snowy Lake Superior beach to see where waves, melting ice, wind and extreme temperatures combine to form translucent blue caverns. The tiny town of Eben Junction is just outside Marquette and is the gateway to these fantastical formations. Depending on recent snowfall, snowshoes may be handy for the near mile hike from the well-marked parking lot to the ice caves. Caves start to form as early as December.
May temperatures in the UP will reach the mid-60s and dip back to the low 40s at night, perfect for hiking or exploring. Whitefish Point is located in the northeastern UP and is best spot in the upper Midwest for viewing bird migrations. In the spring, huge flocks of raptors and waterfowl pass by here. Rarities such as the Boreal Owl and Jaegers are occasionally seen. The Whitefish Point Bird Observatory (wpbo.org) has recorded more than 340 bird species on their books. During the last week of April, their Spring Fling is an ornithological riot of workshops and birding.
More of a history hound than a bird buff? The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (shipwreckmuseum.com) opens each year on May 1, and tells visitors about the lake's shipwrecks, including the wreck of the famous Edmund Fitzgerald. At 729 feet and 13,632 gross tons, it was the largest ship on the Great Lakes until her demise, which was immortalized in popular culture by the eponymous Gordon Lightfoot song.
Walking the sandy beach along Michigan’s endless Lake Superior shoreline will remind you of being in the Caribbean. Winding stretches of soft white sand slips into clear turquoise water, perfect for lazy swims on a warm day, adventurous fishing offshore, smooth SUP boarding or exploring by kayak.
The 40 miles of sandstone cliffs – with streaks of mineral stain and layers of ochre, tan, brown, white and green – make up Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (nps.gov/piro). It was authorized as the country’s first national lakeshore in 1966, with dunes, beaches, trails, lighthouses and views of the great lake. Roadside stands beckon, with local offerings of thimbleberry jam and cherry pies.
Be sure to look up, as Monarch butterflies populate Michigan’s Delta County (visitescanaba.com) in late summer and early fall, resting in Peninsula Point’s cedar trees for protection before their near 2,000 mile journey to Mexico City. Pitch in and tag monarchs or help clear non-native plants so the butterfly-friendly milkweed and windflowers can happily grow.
Fall is a magical time to travel the UP. Drives around the area promise miles of vivid reds, yellows and orange against an endless blue sky. The 10-mile Brockway Mountain Drive near Copper Harbor (copperharbor.org) is the highest paved roadway between the Rocky and Allegheny Mountains. It climbs to over 700 feet with a 360° view of Lake Superior, the world’s largest fresh water lake and one of the three great lakes cradling the UP.
The state of Michigan designates a half dozen Scenic Heritage Routes, including the 11-mile stretch of US-41, which winds through a tunnel of trees from historic Copper Harbor. (michiganhighways.org) Continue south on this byway and you'll eventually end up in Florida. Stick around though and find the Tahquamenon Scenic Byway, a 62-mile route leading to the Tahquamenon Falls State Park, which features the Upper Tahquamenon Falls. With a 50-foot drop, the falls are second only to Niagara Falls as the most voluminous vertical waterfall east of the Mississippi River. Plus, it’s just fun to say: Ta-qwa’-ma-non.
The shaded road winds through Paradise (pop. 500) where the Hiawatha National Forest stuns with an autumnal show of vibrant leaves in hues ranging from bright yellow to deep crimson. Float, kayak or canoe the Seney National Wildlife Refuge’s Manistique River for a reflective view (fws.gov). Rent water craft from local outfitters like Northland Outfitters (northoutfitters.com). They can put you up in a riverside cabin, too.