Upper Peninsula, Michigan: Rugged and Full of History

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The vast expanses of Porcupine Mountains in MIchigan's Upper Peninsula. Elina Salmiinen photos.

The vast expanses of Porcupine Mountains in MIchigan’s Upper Peninsula. Elina Salmiinen photos.

Four quirky days in the rugged “UP”

By Elina Salminen

The southern peninsula of Michigan is popular among locals and visitors alike, but far fewer make it across Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula or the “UP”.

Re-enactor Fort Michilimackinac showing how early settlers grew gardens for their families.

Re-enactor Fort Michilimackinac showing how early settlers grew gardens for their families.

I visited the area in search of my Nordic roots – the UP has one of the country’s largest Finnish and Scandinavian populations – but in the process I discovered a rugged peninsula with stunning landscapes, rich history, and true Midwestern Americana.

It’s Big. Really Big

As you plan your trip, understand that the UP is big. This is exacerbated by the fact that even the highways are single-lane and have a speed limit of 55.

This limit is not always observed by pickup trucks swooshing by and overtaking you in curves, but I would recommend being patient and enjoying the scenery.

I chose to stay in Republic, a rural community an hour from Marquette, because of its central position, but I still did a lot of driving.

The UP is best savored slowly: the itinerary below took me four days, but you could easily stretch it into a leisurely week without getting bored.

The quirky Hog Island Country Store welcomes visitors to the UP shortly after crossing Mackinac Bridge.

The quirky Hog Island Country Store welcomes visitors to the UP shortly after crossing Mackinac Bridge.

HomeAway

I found my accommodation through HomeAway.com, which seems to be the cabin rental website of choice for most in the area.

In general, the level of accommodation is a bit lower than in some other places, but you might find the rustic charm and private access to rivers or lakes of many cabins compensates for some of this.

If you arrive across Mackinac Bridge, I recommend a pit stop at Hog Island Country Store in

A natural arch in Mass City Michigan.

A natural arch in Mass City Michigan.

Naubinway.

The little store is stocked with grocery basics, but is worth a visit for the delightful mess of “Yooper” (northern Michigander) paraphernalia and cheeky bumper stickers, as well as the owners whose no-nonsense manner will immediately make it clear Yoopers are a tribe of their own.

Pasties are meat pies that are a staple snack going back to the Cornish miners who once worked in the UP.

Pasties are meat pies that are a staple snack going back to the Cornish miners who once worked in the UP.

While there, pick up a pastie (“pass-ty”). The local delicacy – often misattributed to Finnish immigrants but in reality “invented by the Cornish, perfected by Finns” – is a type of hot pocket filled with rutabaga, potato, and other vegetables or meat.

Keweenaw Peninsula

On my first day on the peninsula, I headed up the Keweenaw Peninsula to Houghton and Hancock, the remote twin towns that host Michigan Tech and Finlandia University, and which boast some of the biggest Finnish-heritage communities.

Finlandia University’s Finnish American Heritage Center has a small exhibit on folk traditions as well as temporary art exhibits such as modern Finnish tapestries.

Even on a gloomy day, the Lake of the Clouds looks stunning.

Even on a gloomy day, the Lake of the Clouds looks stunning.

If you have Finnish roots or are just tickled by the exotic language, you can also admire the bilingual street signs in Hancock, shop for Finnish-American knickknacks in the university bookstore, and visit Kaleva Café which welcomes visitors in both English and Finnish.

Walking through the woods in the Porcupine Mountains, in the UP.

Walking through the woods in the Porcupine Mountains, in the UP.

Those less-enthused about Finnish heritage in particular can continue north to Copper Harbor for hiking in the national park or to visit the Fort Wilkins Historic State Park, a historic fort that was set up in the 19th century to protect mining interests and keep peace between European miners and local Ojibwas.

On the second day, I headed west to the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The main livelihoods for the area for decades were mining and timber, and I was curious to find more about the former.

Adventure Mine

Adventure Mine near Ontonagon organizes tours of an abandoned copper mine to explorers of all levels from families with children to people willing to rappel down shafts and not see daylight for up to six hours.

(I opted for the Prospector’s Tour, their most popular option and suitable for people like me who enjoy exploration and scrambling but blanch at the thought of rappelling in the pitch black.)

The mines are impressive in themselves, but the knowledgeable and enthused guides bring them to life. I learned about the development of mining techniques, the nationalities and lives of the miners, and how to identify and follow copper veins in the conglomerate rock.

Despite known deadly accidents and harsh work conditions, the Ontonagon mine was considered one of the better-run and safer ones until its closure in 1920.

Porcupine Mountains

Pictured Rocks in the UP.

Pictured Rocks in the UP.

Although it made for a very long day, I managed to squeeze in a visit to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, also near Ontonagon.

The park is huge and for outdoors enthusiasts I recommend staying multiple days and staying in one of the cabins or camp sites.

For those less dedicated, there are multiple loops and trails to choose from, as well as the option of driving from one entrance to the other and visiting the viewing platforms to see the Lake of the Clouds, Summit Peak, and the waterfalls in the Presque Isle River Area.

I chose to hike the North Mirror Lake Trail connecting the Lake of the Clouds and Summit Peak, a well-marked and pleasant five-mile hike although with some steep parts.

The scenery is Upper Peninsula at its best: densely forested but broken up by water systems, with some dramatic hills and eerie pockets of dead trees standing quietly in pools of water. But what strikes the visitor on Summit Peak the most is the magnitude: forest stretches out as far as the eye can see in each direction.

Heading for Marquette

To recover from the rigors of hiking, the following day I headed for Marquette. Along the way, I stopped at Hilltop Restaurant in L’Anse for cinnamon rolls that are, without exaggeration and with pictorial evidence plastered on the restaurant’s walls, the size of a child’s head.

My next stop was the shrine to Bishop Baraga, also near L’Anse. While something of a curiosity, the monument and small visitors’ center make for a fun stop. Bishop Baraga was born in Slovenia but was sent to the northern wilderness of the New World in the mid-19th century.

The missionary showed remarkable tenacity in making his way to his flock through the wintry landscape and is commemorated as the “Snowshow Priest” in a colossal sculpture. The visitors’ center is manned by friendly, bubbly nuns who advocate for the bishop’s canonization as well as make delicious home-made ice cream.

Largest Little Town

The Kaleva Cafe in Hancock, Michigan.

The Kaleva Cafe in Hancock, Michigan.

Marquette is the largest city in the UP, which translates into a quaint little town by any regular standard. The town still shows its history as a mining industry harbor, with an ore loading dock looming over it.

Now, however, the town has been mostly taken over by cute cafés, microbreweries, and a relaxed atmosphere as people mosey along the shoreline.

I recommend Donckers, a wonderland for those with a sweet tooth with its countless varieties of chocolates and other sweets, and Blackrocks Brewery, a local microbrewery peddling its produce from a neighborhood house turned into a bar.

There are also events taking place in the park by the harbor: when I was there, two historical ships were docked and open for visitors.

For a beautiful view of the sunset over the harbor and pretty tasty Mexican food, ask for a terrace seat at Sol Azteca.

On my last day, I visited Pictured Rocks near Munising. The only ways to access the wonders of the national lakeshore up close are through an extensive hike or a kayak trip.

I, like most visitors, took a boat tour that skirts along the shore and allows you to admire the vivid colors covering the cliffs, caused by minerals in the water seeping out of the rocks, as well as the rock formations themselves that look like battleships, gods, and everything in between.

Watching the sun set on Lake Superior was the perfect ending to my few days in the northern expanse of Michigan, in places rough around the edges but always majestic.

A traders apartment at Fort Michilimackinac

A traders apartment at Fort Michilimackinac.

Excursion:

If you have an extra day, you can head south towards Mackinaw City, which is mostly a launching spot for ferries to Mackinac Island but has one precious gem: Fort Michilimackinac.

The 18th-century fort, in use first by the French and then the British, is less-visited than its successor on Mackinac Island, but is, in my opinion, by far the superior of the two.

The fort has been reconstructed on top of its burnt remains in pain-staking and loving detail, and allows the visitor to truly feel like she is stepping back in time as she walks through historically-accurate gardens, soldiers’ living quarters, traders’ abodes, and a native settlement outside the walls.

All around the site, one can find guides in period costume giving tours of the site, demonstrating musket-shooting, and with seemingly infinite knowledge of the fort. For those who prefer to learn by reading, there are also extensive information plaques and displays.

 

 

Elina Salminen is a freelance writer, archaeologist and traveler splitting her time between Michigan, Greece, and Finland.

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