What’s Up in the U.P.? Discovering Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

June 01, 2019  •  Leave a Comment
Unless you are a “Yooper” – a congenial name referring to residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you cannot appreciate the area’s scenic beauty and its natural resources without visiting this state’s northernmost section. Because the Upper Peninsula contains almost one-third of the land area of the state of Michigan with just three percent of the total population, it is an excellent recipe for great recreation away from the crowds. 
The Upper Peninsula is composed of 16,452 square miles. The maximum east-west distance in the Upper Peninsula is about 320 miles with the maximum north-south distance being about 125 miles. It is bounded on the north by Lake Superior and on the south by Lake Michigan and a small eastern portion by Lake Huron. It has about 1700 miles of continuous shoreline with the Great Lakes. There are about 4300 inland lakes and 12,000 miles of streams. About one third of the peninsula is government owned recreational forest land, including the Ottawa and Hiawatha National Forests, and the Lake Superior State Forest. All that adds up to fantastic opportunities for outdoor recreation. The outdoorsperson will find a mecca if they enjoy hiking, biking, fishing, canoeing and kayaking, wildlife watching, hunting, outdoor photography, wildflower seeking, snowmobiling, or cross-country skiing. The history buff can appreciate the colorful mining and Native American background of the Upper Peninsula. The naturalist will also be in pure heaven with the abundant forests and the wide variety of flora and fauna. In addition, there are lighthouses, waterfalls, state parks, and an extensive list of things to do and places to visit in this unique region.
 
Another reason for the large variety of activities and attractions of the UP, as it is most often called, is its diverse landscape. It is divided between the flat, swampy areas in the east and the steeper, more rugged land in the western part. The northern Lake Superior coastline has a distinctive rough and rocky appearance. The southern Lake Michigan coastline is less rugged and noted for its beaches. The land and climate of the UP are not suitable for much agriculture. The economy has been based on logging and mining. Most mines have closed since their heydays from 1890 to 1920, and now the land is heavily forested with logging still a major industry, as is tourism.
 
The Keweenaw Peninsula
 
At the northernmost part of the UP is the Keweenaw Peninsula. It projects into Lake Superior and was the site of the first copper boom in the United States. Called “Copper Country,” it has a colorful history of hardworking immigrants who carved themselves a place in this wild country. Immigrants were mainly Finnish, Swedish, Cornish (Cornwall, England), and German.
 
Copper Harbor is a small town at the extreme point of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The town's name gives evidence to the former use of its harbor as a port for shipping copper mined from local deposits during the mid-19th century. That economic activity no longer exists, and the town's harbor is mostly used for recreational endeavors such as snowmobiling and sightseeing. There is a ferry that connects Isle Royale National Park to northern Michigan.
 
The town is in an area of scenic beauty. It is the northern terminus of US Highway 41 and the eastern terminus of State Route 26. Both approaches to Copper Harbor, the shore hugging  State Route 26 from Eagle Harbor and the more inland, rugged US 41, offer excellent views of the countryside, as does the 8.5-mile Brockway Mountain Drive off M 26, which has several pullouts that also afford scenic views. At the top of Brockway Mountain (1328 feet) visitors can enjoy a panoramic view of Lake Superior and some of the inland lakes of the Keweenaw.
 
Near Copper Harbor is Fort Wilkins State Historic Site, which a restored 1844 frontier army base originally built to protect the port in the early years of the copper mining boom. Also, one can follow Manganese Road from the town's center to Manganese Falls and Lake, and the Estivant Pines, among the oldest and tallest remaining strands of virgin white pines located in Michigan. The name comes from the Frenchman Edouard Estivant who originally purchased the tract in 1870. The Estivant Pines Wilderness Nature Sanctuary includes 350 acres of virgin northern hardwoods, interspersed with groves of eastern white pine. Three loop trail combinations give the hiker a choice of one mile to two and a half mile loops over rugged terrain. Besides the old growth pines, there are at least 256 plant species with ten species of orchids, and some eighty five bird species and large mammals. The trail is a part of the Michigan Nature Association Sanctuary.
 
Estivant Pines is two and a half miles south of the Copper Harbor town center on the Manganese Road. Other points of interest of the Keweenaw Peninsula include the Eagle Harbor Lighthouse, the Delaware Copper Mine, and the Great Sand Bay. The Copper Harbor Lighthouse is a definite must-see, but can only be visited via boat. Tours leave from the Copper Harbor Marina daily and are inexpensive. 
Lighthouses are very popular destinations whether accessible by foot, car, or boat. The Upper Peninsula has over fifty lighthouses and range lights waiting to be discovered. Of course, many are not opened to the public and many are only accessible by boat, but that is half the fun in discovering lighthouses – getting to them. Range lights differ from lighthouses in that range lights are in pairs. Range lights are used to precisely align a vessel within a narrow channel such as in a river or entrance into a bay. The one closer to the vessel is named the beacon or front range; the furthest away is called the rear range. The rear range light is always taller than the front range light.
 
The largest cities of the Keweenaw are Houghton (pronounced Hoe’-ton) and Hancock, and they happen to be separated only by the Keweenaw Waterway and connected by the unique Portage Lift Bridge. Remnants of the once thriving warehouses line the waterway, but the waterfront is seeing new life with restorations.
 
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
 
Along Lake Superior from Munising to Grand Marais the thirty-five miles stretch of coastline has a designation of a national lakeshore – one of only four with that distinction. The other three are the Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan, the Indiana Dunes in Indiana on southern Lake Michigan, and the Apostle Island National Lakeshore on southern Lake Superior in Wisconsin. The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is one of the outstanding natural attractions of the Upper Peninsula. The sandstone cliffs tower up to two hundred feet above Lake Superior’s surface. The cliffs are “painted” by the mineral deposits in the rocks. Because of the weather, the erosion, and the pounding of the water, the cliffs have been molded and carved to take on a variety of shapes, most of which have names, like Miner’s Castle, Lovers Leap, Indian Head, Grand Portal, Chapel Rock, Battleship Rock, and Indian Drum. A three-hour boat cruise leaving from the Munising harbor is an excellent way to see the Pictured Rocks up close and from the water.
Many of the features of Pictured Rocks are accessible by a short hike or can be driven to get a different perspective. Miner’s Castle, for instance, has a picnic area, interpretive center, and trails leading to overlooks, and is the most photographed of the Pictured Rocks formations. Most of the beaches, waterfalls, and other formations require hiking longer distances. But any endeavor is worth the effort.
 
The Hiawatha National Forest is another of the choice destinations for visitors enjoying the outdoors adventure available in the Upper Peninsula. There are actually two large units of the national forest – the West Unit is located between Munising, Manistique, and Rapid River; the East Unit is between St Ignace and Sault Ste Marie. With over one million acres there are six wilderness areas and five National Wild and Scenic Rivers within its borders and provides a playground for year round outdoor activity. Hiawatha touches all of the three Great Lakes of the UP and contains a 26-mile scenic byway along Lake Superior’s south shore.
 
Whitefish Point
 
On a piece of land jutting out into Lake Superior separating it from Whitefish Bay is Whitefish Point and another of the interesting destinations of the UP. At Whitefish Point, or the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes”, as it is dubiously dubbed, is the site of the first lighthouse on Lake Superior and also, appropriately, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. Within the museum are interesting artifacts of various shipping disasters, including the Edmund Fitzgerald, about which a song was written. Incidentally, the cause of its sinking is still a mystery.
 
Getting around the UP is mostly via two-lane highways. The only interstate in the UP is I-75 connecting Sault Ste Marie on the Canadian border with the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Of course, I-75 continues southward to the Everglades of Florida. The main east-west routes are US 41 in the north and midsection and US 2 in the southern part. US 41 ends in Copper Harbor and extends southward through Menominee on the border with Wisconsin.

Cuisine in the UP has as many flavors as its founding nationalities, and then some. While in Copper Harbor try the Harbor Haus with its great views of Lake Superior and it offers excellent German dishes in addition to the standard fare. One item all visitors must try when in the UP is the pasty (pronounced pass’-tee). The pasty is a simple food. It originated in Cornwall, England, an area still known for its pasties. The pasty started life as a working lunch for tin miners to take underground with them. Easy to carry, the pasty could be eaten even with dirty fingers. While it does not do justice to its taste, the pasty can be described as a “pot pie without the pot”, or a smaller, more portable meat pie. Basically, a pasty consists of vegetables and meat wrapped in a crust.

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan covers a large area with many things to do and places to see. The Keweenaw Peninsula, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Hiawatha National Forest, the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, and Whitefish Point are some of the prime destinations of the UP for visitors that enjoy outdoor recreation. But, there are many other opportunities and attractions too many to list. Several museums give insight to the UP’s mining and shipping heritage, like the Iron Mountain Iron Mine and Museum, the Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee, and the Marquette Maritime Museum. And then there is the U.S National Ski Hall of Fame. Where else but in the UP? Other notable attractions include the incredible Mackinac Bridge and the Soo Locks, the town of Calumet, headquarters for the Keweenaw Historical Park, the Bays de Noc, which are numerous bays clustered near the southeastern UP cities of Escanaba, Gladstone, and Rapid River. The Bays de Noc has 211 miles of shoreline with beautiful sand beaches, marinas, and campsites. There are golf courses and thousands of acres of water to enjoy all types of nautical activities.

With all the possibilities for recreation and discovery, the Upper Peninsula is a surefire destination for the active and inquisitive traveler. Explore the UP. You might even like it so much, you would become a Yooper.
 
 
 
 
 

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