What if I told you there was a place where green met blue, with forests extending all the way to beautiful shores? What if I told you that this place of immense natural beauty also had a fascinating history? Finally, what if I told you that this place was right here in the United States, waiting for you to explore it?
It sounds a bit like a fantasy land, but Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has those things, and more, and yet, few Americans make it a priority destination. So let’s explore why the UP might make the perfect summer getaway.
Nestled between Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron, the Upper Peninsula is a wonderland of cold blue waters, and few places are more than a short drive from one of these Great Lakes, and the vistas that come with them, not to mention the aquatic activities. However, this was not originally part of the Michigan Territory, and when added, it wasn’t even desired.
From 1835-36, a small armed conflict broke out between Michigan and Ohio over a strip of land containing what is now Toledo and its surroundings. The federal government stepped in and offered a solution. If Michigan would cede the Toledo Strip to Ohio, it would receive the Upper Peninsula and be admitted as a state. In 1837, the proposal was accepted and Michigan was admitted to the Union.
At the time, the Upper Peninsula was simply distant wilderness; short summers and deep frozen winters made full exploration seem unlikely, let alone true habitation. That all changed when huge deposits of iron and copper were discovered in the 1840s. By the 1860s, the Upper Peninsula was the largest producer of copper in the US, and by the 1890s, the largest supplier of iron ore as well. In fact, these mines provided more wealth than the California gold rush!
While the first half of the twentieth century brought a steep decline to mineral production – and today there is nearly none – it was the mining industry that attracted a booming full-time population to the area, many of whose descendants still live here to this day. Likewise, some of the mineral history is easy for visitors to explore. Anyone arriving in Marquette, Michigan (home of Northern Michigan University) will immediately notice the huge structure sticking out into Lake Superior. This is the sole remaining iron ore dock from the area’s vast industry. Marquette is the point from which ore was shipped down the Great Lakes to industrial cities like Detroit and Cleveland, from there to power the country.
One of the iron ore docks built in Marquette.
Copper production on the Keweenaw Peninsula (pronounced KEY-win-aw despite the spelling) single handedly built cities like Houghton and Calumet, and the Keweenaw National Historical Park explores that history. Visitors can enjoy a number of sites, like the Quincy Mine, spread out all over the peninsula, although the Calumet Visitors Center is the best introduction to the entire industry. A short video traces the history of the region and the mining communities.
Calumet was built entirely for miners.
History lessons finished, tourists can turn their attention to the incredible surroundings. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, about an hour southeast of Marquette, protects a varied and beautiful section of Lake Superior shoreline. Waterfalls, sand dunes, and the rock formations from which the area gets its name can all be explored by foot and car, though for the best views, take a boat tour from the nearby town of Munising.
Miners’ Castle in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
For an even more remote look at Lake Superior, you can also take a ferry or seaplane from a couple different places on the Keweenaw Peninsula to Isle Royale National Park. While not technically part of the Upper Peninsula, it is geologically connected. Think of Isle Royale as one side of a very shallow U, with the Keweenaw Peninsula as the other. These two points stick up, while Lake Superior filled the area between.
Is it any wonder Isle Royale is called America’s Emerald Isle?
Want more? How about the fact that there are hundreds of shipwrecks in Lake Superior, many of which can be explored by intrepid scuba divers? If that sounds a bit dangerous and cold, stop into one of any number of places for residents’ (those who live in the UP are called Yoopers) iconic meal, the pasty. Puff pastry surrounds a center of beef, potato, and rutabaga. Or go sailing, kayaking, or lighthouse hunting. There really is something for everyone.
This is a pasty. Quite delicious!
The Upper Peninsula can fairly easily be accessed from either Michigan’s Lower Peninsula via the impressive Mackinac (pronounced MACK-in-aw) Bridge, or overland from Wisconsin. Just be careful with speed limits, as I got a ticket for going 70 in a 65 zone.
The Mackinac Bridge on a gorgeous summer day!
If you find yourself wishing that you could go somewhere both interesting and beautiful, perhaps Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is for you. Just make sure to go in summer, as winters harken back reminders to why many believed this area would never amount to anything.
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