While we are volunteering at Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge I was finally able to summarize our summer road trip through parts of Michigan. We did a lot of preparation for this adventure and so I thought it might be advantageous for the reader to give a lot of recommendations for RV and non RV travelers to prepare for a trip to “pure Michigan”.
Our trip had a late start and we were so happy when we rolled out of Fort Clinch State Park, FL, heading north; but before I go into more details about our journey, I would like to address the “big elephant” first. End of June, when we departed, COVID was front and center and many friends asked us “why are you heading out now”? We felt, like so many seasoned and new RVers, that being on the road will allow us to reduce our infection risk, spend most of the time outside, make new friends while social distancing and see new places that we have never seen before. . . and our experience proved our point.
We headed to the Upper Peninsula (UP) going through Wisconsin. If you choose a similar route make sure that you plan some time in Door County. Baileys Grove Campground at Baileys Harbor is a great place to stay and a good location to make a day trip to Egg Harbor, Fish Creek (which can be very busy during the main season) and Sister Bay. Make sure you cruise around Peninsula State Park and to visit Eagle Bluff Lighthouse. “Roots Inn and Kitchen” at Sister Bay is off the main road but an excellent place for lunch.
Marquette is a great launch pad for explorations of the UP. It is centrally located and the largest city in the UP. Being the home of Northern Michigan University (NMU), it is young and modern. We stayed at the Marquette Tourist Park Campground, which is located near the NMU campus and close to the city. By the way, the city is very bike friendly, but be prepared for some hilly terrain. The loop around Presque Island is picturesque and shows the rough side of the Lake Superior Shore. Lake Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes and it takes a drop of water 190 years to make it through from west to east.
While heading for Presque Isle Park you may get a chance to watch the loading of a freighter at the Ore Dock. Tons of Taconite fill the belly of the ship and it is quite an operation.
The Maritime and the Marquette Regional History Center are great places to spend a rainy day. The History Museum is housed in a wonderfully designed building next to the County Court House and covers the time from the early settlers (which were Canadian Indians) to the industrial drivers of the prosperity of the region.
One of the highlights of our stay in the UP was a boat ride to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We selected Pictured Rocks Cruises for our trip, since they offer a free kennel service on site. Going along the cliff is like going along the longest canvas one can imagine. Colors of white, green, yellow, tan and brown competing against each other and are framed by a cloud streaked sky and the crystal blue waters of Lake Superior. The camera lens cannot picture the outstanding beauty of the colors and the rock formations with names such as Lover’s Leap, Battleship Rock and Chapel Cave.
On the way back to Marquette we stopped at Lakenenland, an outdoor museum with giant sculptures mainly made out of scrap metal. A nice walk and an awesome contrast to Pictured Rocks.
Saturday is a great day to make a downtown excursion especially since the Farmers Market is open. Many vendors with food, produce and art. We were even able to find chanterelle mushrooms, which we have not had since we lived in Germany. Stroll along Washington and Main Street towards the Cider Pond Marina. You will enjoy the fantastic waterfront. It features one of the old and by now inactive ore terminals that reminded me of a cathedral.
The UP is known for its waterfalls. Some of them are accessible on paved roads some via gravel roads (and off road cars are recommended). Canyon Falls is about 45 minutes west of Marquette. It is easy to access and offers a nice hike. The water of the Sturgeon River gushes down the multiple falls and creates a picturesque scenery.
Another nice day trip is to head out to Big Bay. Stop at the trailhead of Sugarloaf Mountain and hike up to the summit. The observation platforms offer magnificent views of Lake Superior and the wooded country around Marquette. Continue heading northwest and enjoy the sight of Big Bay Point Lighthouse. It is now a Bed and Breakfast and the Lake Superior panorama is just amazing. By the way, we have encountered that Michigan has the most photogenic clouds.
Our next stay was south of the Mackinac Bridge at Aloha State Park. It is a great location to experience the area around Mackinaw City. The park has close to 300 sites, is located on Mullett Lake, and is a paradise for boaters. If you are looking for a quiet campground this one should not be your top choice. Crossing the Mackinac Bridge the first time in our motorhome was thrilling. This bridge is an engineering marvel. The suspension design spans close to 5 miles across the Straits of Mackinac and has a clearance of 155 ft. It connects the UP with the Lower Peninsula (LP). We have learned that the “Yoopers” call the LP people either “flat-landers” (since the LP topography is less hilly) or “Trolls” (since they live under the bridge).
Bring enough time with you to visit Colonial Michilimackinac near Mackinaw City. At Fort Mackinac you will step 240 years back in time, enjoying a marvelous history walk. Have chats with the blacksmith, the seamstress, and the master gardener, all dressed in historic costumes, and learn about how things were done “back then”. Experience the soldiers and officers quarters and look over the shoulders of an archeologist, being involved in one of the longest ongoing excavations of its kind in the nation. Bring your camera; your lens will be in for a treat.
Just east of the Fort is Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse. It helped passing ships to navigate through the treacherous waters of the Straits of Mackinac and is one of the many “cool” lighthouses of the Great Lakes. If you enjoy micro brews you should consider stopping at the Rusted Spoke Brewing Co. in Mackinaw City. Great wheat beer and excellent Reuben Sandwiches.
Take the ferry over to Mackinac Island and either bring your own bike or rent one. The island is quaint and car free. Horse carriages are the only means of transportation. If you can, be there in pre or post season, otherwise you have to deal with a lot of other visitors that enjoy this fascinating place. We started out biking the Lakeshore Road, which takes you along the entire shoreline of the island including Arch Rock. It offers scenic vistas with only a few challenging hills. In less than two hours you will complete the ride and arrive back at the busy area near the boat docks.
Fort Mackinac, the Governor’s Residence and especially the Grand Hotel are other highlights you should not miss.
The historic Mill Creek Discovery Park was a nice surprise. The mill was constructed in 1790 and a lot of the building material for Mackinac Island was cut here. It operated through 1830 and was rediscovered in 1972. Today it features the reconstruction of an old sawmill. Demos are taking place during the day and it is fascinating to watch how the water of Mill Creek is harnessed to move the saw blade up and down and the log forward. The park also offers hiking trails (bring bug spray) and an observation tower overlooking the Straits.
Due to the availability of sites we moved back to the UP for a few days and enjoyed the Straits State Park. It is right on the north side of the “Big Mac” and a great place to discover the east side of the UP.
St. Ignace, close to the state park, is a charming small town and does not have the hustle and bustle of Mackinac Island or Mackinaw City. Walk along State Street, climb Castle Rock, stop at the Museum of Ojibwa Tribe and learn about their culture and the influence of Father Marquette to the development of the area, get smoked white fish at Manley’s and Pasties at Lahto’s. A pasty is a baked pastry with chicken or beef, potato, turnip and onion. It was spread around the world by Cornish miners. Delicious!
Head north from St. Ignace to Paradise and turn towards Tahquamenon Falls. The falls are striking. The tannin from the swamps upstream colors the water and tints the falls in a palette of yellow, brown, white and ocher. The upper falls are more breathtaking. The lower falls surround a small island and you can rent boats to get to it and to hike the short island trail. This is a place for the entire family. The trails, boardwalks, platforms and stairs are well designed and give visitors of all ages different but always magnificent views of the falls. Don’t miss to head north of Paradise to Whitefish Point Lighthouse. A shipwreck museum is close by.
If you plan to drive up to the Sault-Ste Marie area you may consider to take the long way towards Whitefish Bay and to stop at Point Iroquois Lighthouse, one of our favorites. Head up to Mission Hill and take in the view over the lake and the bay. Stop at Pickles Bar and Grill near Brimley and order the Whitefish Tacos. Yummy! Unfortunately, the visitor platform at Sault-Ste Marie was closed so that we could not have a close look at this genius engineering design.
If you are looking for a nice place to experience the upper western shore of Lake Michigan, Elk Rapids will be a good choice. It is located on the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay and has access to Elk Lake, which connects to a chain of lakes. The Main Street has a nice flair and many inviting stores. Have a look at some of the superbly restored downtown villas and do not miss the art walk along the shore line. Luckily we had friends which were not only excellent tour guides but also offered us to stay at the house of a family member and to park the motorhome for a few days.
The Grass River Natural Area nearby is worth a stop. Many well designed trails and boardwalks will guide you through swamp, forrest and marsh and will increase your knowledge about the flora and fauna of the area. Make sure to go into the fairly new visitors center with an excellent exhibit adding to your knowledge gain of the walk.
It is just 15 miles from Elk Rapids to Traverse City, which has a lively Main Street without any car traffic. Many restaurants have outside seating, offer good food and people watching opportunities. From there enjoy the drive to Northport, stop at one of the local wineries and visit the scenic Grand Traverse Lighthouse.
Mission Point Lighthouse is located on the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula, which can be reached from Traverse City. It was built in 1870 and is an exact copy of the Mama Juda Light, which was built on the Detroit River in 1866. The drive through the rolling hills is striking and many cider orchards and wineries have their tasting rooms open. We stopped at 2 Lads Winery and purchased excellent dry rose and Pinot Noir wines. Cheers!
Another nice day trip is to head to Sleeping Bear Dunes. Since we had our dog with us we had a limited choice of trails to take, but Empire Bluff Trail was a winner with breathtaking views of the dunes and Lake Michigan. Glen Haven Historic Village and the Maritime Museum at Sleeping Bear Point are worth a stop. Glen Arbor is somewhat touristy and busy but offers The Cherry Republic, a restaurant and gift store where all is around cherries. Even cherry flavored wheat beer is on tap. On your way back from Glen Arbor test your fitness by climbing up the dunes. A great family fun.
Chief Seattle once said “Take only memories, leave only footprints.”. We had a fantastic time in Michigan and wishing you great travels through a state where the lake waters are clean and colorful and the clouds are eye catching. If you look closely you may find some of our footprints.