Off the beaten path

Houghton and Hancock mix outdoor adventures and historic attractions with tasty dining and college-town appeal
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Houghton, Michigan
Houghton is a thriving college town; its twin-city neighbor, Hancock, is just across Portage Lake.
Photo courtesy of Visit Keweenaw

Separated by only the Keweenaw Waterway, which slices across the Keweenaw Peninsula, the twin towns of Houghton and Hancock sit perched on opposite shores of the scenic Portage Canal. The towns are just 46 miles south of Copper Harbor, which is the farthest point from an interstate highway anywhere in the lower 48 states. 

“These beautiful Upper Peninsula waterfront towns are connected via the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, which serves as the only land crossing point into the rugged Keweenaw Peninsula,” explains Jesse Wiederhold, public relations coordinator at Visit Keweenaw. “It’s a unique escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and you can check out everything from outdoor adventures to the historic attractions the Copper Country has to offer.”

Houghton-Hancock Bridge
The unique Houghton-Hancock Bridge, known as the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, is the only double-deck-designed lift bridge in Michigan.
Photo courtesy of Visit Keweenaw

Thousands of years before European settlers arrived in the area, Native Americans mined the region for copper. Later, Cornish and Finnish immigrants arrived looking for work in the mines, which were scattered throughout the landscape. Today, long after the last copper mine closed, these sister towns still proudly showcase the cultural influences early groups had on the region, which still attracts visitors from around the world.

Houghton, an energetic college town with more than 7,700 students at Michigan Technological University, has about 8,300 residents. Hancock is home to around 4,500.

Even with their mostly college-age population, the towns’ proud mining history is preserved in photos hanging on the walls of local establishments, and the past is celebrated everywhere you look. In fact, MTU owes its existence to mining. Back in 1885, the Michigan Mining School was established with 23 students and four faculty members, who held classes in the basement of a local fire station. Today, the university stretches across 925 acres and consists of 36 buildings. MTU offers 140 degree programs in its five colleges and schools.

Quincy Mine
Both full tours and above-ground-only tours of the No. 2 Hoist House and the seventh level of the Quincy Mine are available year-round.
Photo courtesy of Visit Keweenaw

MINING MEMORIES

You can’t talk about mining without mentioning the legendary Quincy Mine, which was known as “Old Reliable,” as it paid dividends for its investors for 50 consecutive years. When this engineering marvel ceased production in 1945, the Quincy No. 2 Shaft was the world’s longest at 9,260 feet, and the operation used the world’s largest steam engine mine hoist to lower and raise workers and ore.

Both full tours and above-ground-only tours of the No. 2 Hoist House and the seventh level of the mine are available year-round.

“When visitors tour this historic shaft house, they’ll take the same tram tracks miners took to the seventh-level mine entrance,” Wiederhold says. “They’ll see the equipment the miners used and the working conditions they had to endure daily. Proudly overlooking the cities of Houghton and Hancock, it’s important to understand the role this mine played in making the Keweenaw what it is today.”

For a more in-depth look into local history, the Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw offers exhibits, community events, a self-guided walking tour, and virtual programs including a video seminar hosted by MTU Professor Emeritus Susan Martin, who explores early Native American cultures in the region. The museum is open year-round and admission is free.

The Massto Hiihto/Churning Rapids Loop
The Massto Hiihto/Churning Rapids Loop offers a prized backcountry hiking adventure.
Photo courtesy of Visit Keweenaw

HOCKEY AND MORE

Copper isn’t the only claim to fame for Houghton. It’s also recognized as the birthplace of professional hockey; the Portage Lakes Hockey Club was established in 1904. Historic Dee Stadium still stands on the waterfront in downtown Houghton, and you can visit its History of Hockey exhibit.

Since those early days, the towns’ love for the sport has skyrocketed, and 4,200 fans regularly pack the John Macinnes Student Ice Arena to watch the MTU Huskies compete in NCAA Division I men’s hockey. With three national championships and seven Western Collegiate Hockey Association championships to their name, there’s a good chance the Huskies may still be playing games through the end of March.

A number of noteworthy hiking and biking trails snake through Copper Country. The Nara Nature Park in Houghton, for example, includes a 50-mile network of trails on the south end of the MTU campus, offering a range of scenery, from urban to heavily wooded. For a more out-of-the-way excursion, the Massto Hiihto/Churning Rapids Loop in Hancock is an intimate backcountry experience where outdoor lovers can hike their way to the prized jewel of this wildlife preserve: the Swedetown Creek Gorge.

The Nara Boardwalk
The Nara Boardwalk features a 4,500-foot-long, ADA-accessible pathway along the banks of the Pilgrim River.
Photo courtesy of Visit Keweenaw

TASTY OPTIONS

Cities don’t attract a world-renowned chef like Gordon Ramsay to town unless the local fare is either irresistibly delicious or off-the-wall unique. Since Houghton-Hancock delivers on both, Chef Ramsay visited in 2019 to sample what Keweenaw restaurants have to offer.

One sure bet is The Den on Shelden Avenue in downtown Houghton. With its wood-fire grill and creative cocktails, this casual dining spot serves up insanely scrumptious and original plates like maple syrup butter-glazed salmon, pork schnitzel in mushroom sauce, and its signature Beast Burger, consisting of bison, elk, wild boar, and wagyu beef.

“They recently added a new outdoor patio that offers gorgeous views of neighboring Hancock and Portage Lake,” Wiederhold explains, “so whether you dine inside or out, it’s an absolutely amazing experience with exquisite dishes in a modern, upscale environment.”

A mainstay of the twin cities is the historic Ambassador restaurant, where stained glass, chandeliers, and signature painted murals adorn the interior and help maintain the establishment’s proud history. Family-owned since 1965, its menu includes salads, sandwiches, pasta, and, of course, its award-winning pizza, which earned a spot in Pizza Magazine’s Pizza Hall of Fame.

A handful of original recipes on the Ambassador menu were served when the restaurant opened 58 years ago, and all are made from scratch.

Croissants and cinnamon rolls aren’t just for breakfast in Copper Country. The newly opened NISU Bakery & Cafe deals in authentic Nordic region recipes, including Finnish rhubarb pie, Swedish spinach soup, the Nordic Spruce sandwich, and its delectable centerpiece, cardamom NISU, a Finnish sweet bread.

The Den restaurant
The Den restaurant features a variety of wood-fired, grilled, and original plates at its casual dining room in downtown Houghton.
Photo courtesy of The Den restaurant

“NISU arguably has the best baked goods in Keweenaw,” Wiederhold says. “Everyone loves the chocolate cardamom croissant or the cardamom cinnamon roll with a Finn brewed coffee.”

Looking for authentic Mexican food this far north? Try La Cantina of Hancock — which also has locations in Iron Mountain and Madison, Wis. — for traditional Mexican plates and drinks.

As miners from Cornwall, England, arrived in the Upper Peninsula to apply their trade, they brought with them the U.P.’s most beloved, iconic food — the pastie. There’s no shortage of places that sell these folded beef, potato, onion, and rutabaga (or carrot) delights. Here are a few worth sampling:

  • Suomi — This Houghton favorite and authentic Finnish eatery serves delicious, beefy pasties in mini and regular sizes.
  • Slim’s Café, Mohawk — These pasties are as delicious as they are beautiful, with the shape of the U.P. carved atop the golden-brown crust. 
  • Roy’s Pasties & Bakery — Roy’s is known for a wide variety of delicious pasties, including turkey cranberry, chicken broccoli, and bacon cheeseburger.
  • Toni’s Country Kitchen — Twenty minutes north of Hancock in Laurium, Toni’s award-winning Cornish pasties are worth the drive.
The Vault Hotel
The Vault Hotel was created inside a refurbished former bank building.
Photo courtesy of the Vault Hotel

SETTLING IN

There are a good variety of places to stay in Houghton-Hancock, from the moderately priced Hampton Inn & Suites, Ramada by Wyndham, and Holiday Inn Express to The Vault Hotel, named for its location inside of an old bank.

“The Vault is a luxe boutique hotel with three uniquely designed floors of guest rooms, making it the most distinctive lodging experience in the Upper Peninsula,” owner Jen Julien asserts.

The Vault Hotel’s doors almost never opened. Julian and her husband, Jon, were looking for the right building to bring their unique lodging experience to downtown Houghton. The couple put in an offer on the Houghton National Bank Building, but the Chicago broker handling the listing basically laughed them out of the room and the deal fell through. Two years later, the couple received a phone call from that same broker.

The Vault Hotel
Each guest room on the three floors of The Vault Hotel showcases a different look.
Photo courtesy of the Vault Hotel

“He asked if our offer was still on the table,” Jen says. “At that point we were living in California with our first child and another on the way, but we decided to take the jump and acquire the historic bank building, in turn creating The Vault Hotel.”

The Richardson Romanesque-style building was the first stone and masonry structure in Houghton and features iconic Jacobsville sandstone. Inside, a modern design meshes perfectly with the building’s classic architecture. There’s even a craft cocktail speakeasy that’s exclusive to guests and members — The Counting Room — located in the hotel’s basement level. 

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Visit Keweenaw
visitkeweenaw.com

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