Pam Hales and her family often return to Drummond Island’s Maxton Plains Preserve Alvar in the Upper Peninsula to explore its rare ecosystem, which is rich in flora and fauna.
With thin or no soil cover, alvars are dry grasslands with hardy plants growing on exposed, glacier-scraped slabs of flat bedrock, sometimes called limestone pavement. They’re found only in parts of the European Baltic states, western Ireland, and the Great Lakes basin, where Drummond Island’s large alvars are regarded as being among the world’s best.
“My favorite thing is to find as many flowering plants as possible to photograph,” says Hales, a Saginaw-area resident who has vacationed on Drummond most of her life. “Our family goal this time was to find 15 different blooming plants, and we actually came up with more than 25” that day, she says, including Prairie Smoke, a feathery pinkish plume that’s listed among the island’s rare plant species.
Beyond stalking plants and some 160 species of birds on the Maxton Alvar, there’s plenty more to do on this remote island off the far eastern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Located in Lake Huron, some 70 miles east of the Mackinac Bridge, it’s accessible by the Drummond Island ferry, which runs multiple times daily year-round from DeTour Village. Other options include private boats or planes, or an ice-bridge in winter from nearby Canada.
On the island, outdoor recreation reigns supreme. With 150 miles of rugged shoreline, 36 inland lakes, and 58 neighboring islands, Drummond is a popular destination for kayaking, fishing, hunting, boating, snowmobiling, and, especially, off-roading.
The island boasts Michigan’s largest closed-loop trail system, with more than 100 miles of ATV and ORV trails. Its rugged terrain often serves as a backdrop for automakers such as Jeep, Ford, and Chevrolet, which film commercials and other promotional materials there, according to Sara Reed, of the Drummond Island Tourism Association.
The island is a favorite of birdwatchers, cyclists, rock-hunters, stargazers, and cabin-renting vacationers, like the Hales, who return year after year to relax amid its rustic natural beauty. At 87,000 acres, it’s regarded as the second-largest freshwater island in the U.S. — only Isle Royale in Lake Superior is bigger — and is home to about 1,000 year-round residents plus deer, bear, eagles, and other wildlife.
It was Tom Monaghan, the former Domino’s pizza magnate and Detroit Tigers owner, who put Drummond Island on Michigan’s tourist map when he chose it as the location for his $30-million, headline-grabbing resort and golf course, The Rock, in the late 1980s.
The Drummond Island Resort & Conference Center’s sprawling, well-maintained golf course features a long, winding 1.2-mile cart ride to the first tee. It’s a conversation piece.
Today, with 40 lodge-style hotel rooms and 16 rental cabins, the resort is a bit stuck in time, but it’s undergoing ambitious changes with new private ownership and management by Hotel Investment Services (HIS).
“They put a lot of money into it,” says Nicole Robinson, the resort’s general manager, citing the addition of a new paintball course, an indoor mini-golf course, and a convenience store, plus improvements to the Rock course and Pins Bar & Grill, where the bar-top is made from the wooden lanes of the resort’s former bowling alley. While there, try the tasty cauliflower crust pizza and the brisket, pork, or ribs smoked on-site.
The resort also has added a dozen new kayaks and canoes, and three paddleboards, according to Robinson, who says the offshore islands make for flat, protected waters and easy paddling.
Winter activities include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, and tubing, as well as the resort’s Turtle Ridge Off Road Park, part of which is open year-round. The upper section has mixed terrain, while the lower section is described as “difficult to extreme,” offering thrill-seekers routes up steep hillsides and over huge limestone rock ledges. A day pass is $30 per vehicle.
A prime island destination for those with serious four-wheel-drive vehicles is Marblehead — gray limestone cliffs that rise nearly 100 feet above the North Channel of Lake Huron. Part of the Niagara Escarpment, the bluffs can be reached via steps or ledges on two trails, one more rugged than the other. Be forewarned: This isn’t a trip for the faint-of-heart.
Another challenging four-wheel-drive route winds through the Maxton Plains north to the shoreside Fossil Ledges, the remains of a saltwater coral bed. Hales, whose family visited the site recently in a friend’s SUV, described the ledges as “ not easily accessible” and says navigating big puddles after a rainstorm was “nerve-wracking,” but she still deemed it worth the drive.
All that outdoor activity no doubt works up an appetite, and Drummond’s eateries don’t disappoint, from the locally caught whitefish dinner at Northwood Restaurant & Bar to the loaded olive burgers at Chuck’s Place Bar & Grill, the easternmost bar in the U.P.
Foodie Treats: Esther’s Authentic Mexican Cuisine, a colorful café with lines out the door for Thursday night Korean tacos, and the whitefish spread and homemade pies at the Gourmet Galley.
Drummond Island Tourism Association
Check visitdrummundisland.com for details on the island’s annual fall festival, the 2023 Jeep The Mac to Drummond Island classic May 12-14, and other special events.