Michigan’s Wild North Woods: Upper Peninsula Drive

Route Details Length: About 395 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Best in spring, summer, and fall. Ferry: Service

Route Details

Length: About 395 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Best in spring, summer, and fall.

Ferry: Service to Mackinac Island from St. Ignace and Mackinaw City begins in spring and continues to December or January, weather permitting.

Not to be missed: If you are anywhere near the Mackinac Bridge on Labor Day, join the crowd of 50,000 who hike the span between St. Ignace and Mackinaw City.

Nearby attractions: City of Marquette. Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, Whitefish Point. Museum of Ojibwa Culture, St. Ignace.

Further information: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association, P.O. Box 400, Iron Mountain, MI 49801; tel. 800-562-7134, www.uptravel.com.

The Chippewa Indians told haunting tales of spirits of the wilderness that roamed this vast northern swath of land and water. As this multifaceted journey unfolds, you may find yourself, if not in the company of spirits, at least entranced by the natural beauty of the Upper Peninsula—as were such notables as Longfellow and Ernest Hemingway, who once traversed the woods of this unspoiled Eden, a setting the former chose for Hiawatha.

1. Menominee
An Algonquian word meaning “wild-rice men” gave this town its name, but it was timber, harvested from virgin forests, that spelled out the destiny not only of Menominee but of the entire Upper Peninsula. Nestled on the west coast of Green Bay, the city mushroomed into one of the largest pine-shipping ports in the world in the last decade of the 19th century.

White pines towering to 150 feet were the glory of these forests. A single tree in those days could furnish enough wood to build a five-room house. Although timber barons savaged the pine woods in just a few decades, they left behind an unforeseen legacy: among the remaining evergreens grew oaks, aspens, and other hardwood trees that blaze with color in autumn.

Pushing north on Rte. 35, which traces the Green Bay shoreline, the drive breezes past J. W. Wells State Park, about halfway between Menominee and Escanaba. Here are many cedars and some of the last virgin hemlocks in the area. You can enjoy their aroma overnight, if you like, from one of the rustic cabins fronting Green Bay. Across the water lies Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, pointing northeast like a great green finger. Its tip, the ominously named Porte des Morts (“Death’s Door”), is a treacherous channel whose unusual wave action and turbulent currents have sunk hundreds of ships. The bay is much kinder to anglers; the 300-pound sturgeon that Indians used to catch are long gone, but smallmouth bass, walleye, and brown trout still can fill the average creel.

2. Hiawatha National Forest
Once past the bayside towns of Escanaba and Gladstone, the drive eases into the western unit of Hiawatha National Forest. (The eastern unit lies north of the Mackinac Bridge.) The forest, extending across the peninsula from Lake Superior to Lake Michigan, was named for the Indian leader in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha.

In its verses Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, is called “Gitche Gumee, the shining Big-Sea-Water.” And water—not just the biggest kind—is a recurring theme in this national forest. It is dotted with tiny lakes, gorgeous waterfalls, and canoe trails such as the AuTrain, where paddlers can spy on snapping turtles, muskrats, mink, and an assortment of waterfowl and songbirds. From the trails that weave through Hiawatha’s woodlands, hikers may catch a glimpse of such creatures as black bears, white-tailed deer, ruffed grouse, the occasional moose, and wild turkeys.

3. Fayette Historic State Park
Veering east on Rte. 2 at Rapid River, the drive pushes through the southern reaches of Hiawatha National Forest, skirting the tips of Little Bay de Noc and Big Bay de Noc. For an intriguing change of pace—a look at Michigan’s industrial past—head south on Rte. 183 along the shore of the Garden Peninsula to historic Fayette townsite. Here, being restored to its 19th-century ambience, you’ll find a fascinating iron-industry community. About a hundred years ago Fayette was a bustling company town where barges delivered ore and ships took away tons of pig iron—the product of Fayette’s gigantic smelting furnaces. The furnaces and many of the town’s original buildings are still here, including a hotel, several houses, the town hall, and the remains of a company store. Tours of the village begin at the town site’s visitor center.

Fayette Historic State Park is a fine spot for a picnic, and some seven miles of hiking trails wind through beech and maple forest, along sandy beaches, and atop 90-foot-high limestone cliffs that overlook Green Bay.

4. Palms Book State Park
Doubling back to Rte. 2, the drive jogs east to the village of Thompson and then turns north to Palms Book State Park. Here, at a 45-foot-deep natural spring known as Kitch-iti-kipi (meaning “Mirror of Heaven”), you can board a wooden raft and, using a guide cord, pull yourself across the 200-foot-wide pond. The raft has observation windows that allow you to look deep into the crystal-clear depths, where oversize trout glide among the limestone-coated trunks and branches of fallen trees. The underground aquifer below maintains the water temperature at a constant 45°F, even in the subzero winter.

At nearby Indian Lake State Park, an 8,000-acre body of water was named for the Indians who lived there more than a century ago. Today its pristine beaches attract swimmers and sunbathers, and its whitecapped waters are a lure for anglers.

After rejoining Rte. 2, head east into Manistique and cross the unique Siphon Bridge. Designed to float like the hull of a boat, this remarkable road lies four feet below the surface level of the Manistique River.

5. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
From the Manistique area the drive pushes north on Rte. 94, crossing the peninsula and arriving at the little town of Munising, the gateway to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Extending for some 40 miles along the shore of Lake Superior from Munising to Grand Marais, this arresting wilderness area contains a wealth of multihued sandstone cliffs, fortresslike rock formations, windblown forest, bright, sandy beaches, and impressive dunes. Hiking trails abound in this stretch of lakeshore paradise, the most traveled being the Lakeshore–North Country Trail, which hugs the coast for the entire length of the park. Two spots along the trail are as rewarding as they are accessible (you can drive to each via back roads if you prefer to spare your feet). One is Miners Castle, where a lovely stream, forming a waterfall and an idyllic little lake, empties into Lake Superior; the mouth of the stream is flanked by the nine-story-high “castle” to the west and a very inviting sandy beach to the east. Stand on the cliffs to have the best view. The other choice spot is Chapel Basin, a day-hiker’s dream that invites leisurely exploration of its streams, ponds, waterfalls, beaches, and high cliffs.

For the most dramatic and revealing views of the red, green, blue, and white Pictured Rocks, get out into the lake. Between June and October, excursion boats depart daily from Munising on three-hour tours of the colorful cliffs.

6. Seney National Wildlife Refuge
From Munising the drive sidles east on Rte. 28 across a flat expanse of forestland before turning south on Rte. 77 to Seney National Wildlife Refuge. No avid angler or birdwatcher should miss this wealth of wilderness—nearly 100,000 acres of wetlands dotted with drainage ditches, dikes, and small bridges. Visitors to these wild marshes can hear the cries of more than 200 kinds of birds: the whistled notes of the wood duck, the honk of the Canada goose, the high-pitched screech of the bald eagle, or the rare bray of the trumpeter swan. Motorists can cruise the seven-mile Marshland Wildlife Drive (between mid-May and mid-October), while hikers and bikers have 70 miles of gravel roads from which to choose.

At nearby Seney the drive crosses the Fox River, believed by some to be the setting for Ernest Hemingway’s classic fishing story, Big Two-Hearted River (the real Two-Hearted River is actually many miles away). The celebrated author, a native of Michigan, wrote fondly of the trout stream, “pebbly-bottomed with shallows and big boulders” and the trout “keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins” and changing their positions “by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again.”

7. Tahquamenon Falls State Park
Reached by a turn north on Rte. 123, the caramel-colored Tahquamenon River is none other than “the rushing Tahquamenaw” of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. Beside its waters the poem’s Indian hero builds a birch-bark canoe that “shall float upon the river like a yellow leaf in Autumn.” Even Hiawatha’s skill, though, couldn’t have carried him safely over Upper Tahquamenon Falls, where the river pushes up to 50,000 gallons a second over a sandstone precipice in a wide copper-hued arc. Called the little Niagara, the Upper Falls (as distinguished from the more modest-size, multitiered Lower Falls farther downstream) is second in the volume of water flow only to Niagara itself in the eastern United States. Stairs and observation platforms allow close-up views of the wide, raging cataract, whose waters eventually flow into Lake Superior.

8. Whitefish Bay Scenic Byway

After heading south from the village of Paradise, on Whitefish Bay, the drive turns east onto the well-marked Whitefish Bay Scenic Byway. Here the pines of Hiawatha National Forest (the eastern unit) slope to glistening white beaches along the bay. A number of scenic turnouts dot the byway, which culminates at Point Iroquois Lighthouse, built in 1870. Visitors can climb its spiral staircase for a lofty view of the Canadian shore.

9. Sault Ste. Marie

Canada looms even closer as the drive nears Sault Ste. Marie at the narrow end of Whitefish Bay. Here 1,000-foot-long freighters laden with ore from Minnesota mines or grain from the Canadian prairies point their bows east into the St. Marys River, which flows from Lake Superior into Lake Huron, connecting the two lakes. Some of the longest, busiest canal locks in the world await these giant cargo vessels at “the Soo,” as locals refer to Michigan’s oldest city. Visitors can gawk up at the locks’ concrete walls from a sightseeing boat, or they can peer down from above at the mammoth ships squeezing through. But the best views of all await tourists atop the nearby 21-story Tower of History.

10. Mackinac Bridge

Tooling south on I-75, the drive arrives at St. Ignace, which juts into the Straits of Mackinac. Each summer about a million tourists surge through this historic crossroads of the Great Lakes, where massive chunks of Michigan geography—the Upper Peninsula, the Lower Peninsula, Mackinac Island, Lake Michigan, and Lake Huron—converge like pieces of a colossal jigsaw puzzle. It’s not hard to see why this stunning confluence of land and water played a strategic role for the New World empires of France and England during the French and Indian Wars. A generation before the American Revolution, the blasting guns of hostile forts threatened travelers on this treacherous strait, but times have obviously changed. Today you can vault the straits by car in 10 carefree minutes on the Mackinac Bridge. The “bridge that couldn’t be built” opened in 1957, casting its ribbon of steel across five watery miles. Known locally as Mighty Mac, it is one of the longest suspension bridges ever erected.

11. Mackinac Island
One of the most popular destinations in northern Michigan, lovely Mackinac Island holds an unusual distinction. Its state highway is the only one in the country where there has never been an automobile accident. For good reason: Mackinac Island has outlawed motor vehicles since the 1930s. After you leave your car at one of several parking facilities in St. Ignace (or in Mackinaw City across the bridge), prepare to enter a bygone era. A short ferry ride takes you to the island’s 19th-century harbor village, nestled next to wooded bluffs. Victorian-era storefronts with bright canvas awnings greet visitors, as do horse-and-buggy “taxis” waiting at the docks. At the waterfront you can rent bicycles and hire porters with old-fashioned drays to follow behind, toting your baggage to its destination.

One such destination might be the elegant Grand Hotel or some other island hostelry. Day-trippers, however, can head straight to Fort Mackinac, a restored citadel offering reenactments of local history. Visitors can also explore the island on foot, by bicycle, or in a horse-drawn carriage, stopping off at such rock formations as Skull Cave and Arch Rock. A captivating potpourri of land, water, and history, Mackinac Island seems to embody the essence of the Upper Peninsula.

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