Might exploring Ironwood, the state’s westernmost city, near the northern border with Wisconsin, be on your discover Pure Michigan bucket list?
It’s a surprisingly long haul from the lower mitten to the distant end of the Upper Peninsula, clocking in at more than nine hours from Detroit — or about 40 minutes less than driving the roughly 640-plus miles to New York City. The destination of about 5,000 residents is a mere 8.5 hours and 546 miles from Grand Rapids.
As the Upper Peninsula’s western gateway, it’s far from almost everywhere else in Michigan. But it’s “the perfect jumping-off point from which to sample all the natural wonders that make the U.P. such an amazing place,” says Ironwood Chamber of Commerce director Michael Meyer. “This is a great region to savor nature, enjoy slow-down time for relaxation, and discover numerous entertainment and local culture opportunities.”
Locals say there’s plenty to do around town and at neighboring locales, including historical attractions highlighting the area’s mining heritage, cozy parks, a thriving art scene, and inviting shopping and dining.
Ironwood rates as a fun base camp from which to experience the waterfalls on two rivers as they descend to Lake Superior, pay a visit to North America’s only ski-jumping hill, or enjoy kayaking, Great Lakes beaches, picturesque inland lakes, and hiking and mountain biking on miles of trails with incredible scenic overlooks.
Read on for a sampling of western U.P. experiences most Michiganians don’t yet know about. These suggestions will help make planning your adventurous trek well worth the effort to get there.
The Black River features five of the Upper Peninsula’s most jaw-dropping waterfalls, as it descends steadily through a canyon-like setting in the final four miles of its journey to Lake Superior. All five can be reached from four parking lots along the Black River Scenic Byway, which runs for about 11 miles from Bessemer north to Lake Superior.
• Great Conglomerate Falls, about a 3/4-mile hike from the parking lot, divides the river into two sections around a huge chunk of conglomerate rock before dropping 40 feet. Old-growth hemlock and hardwoods along the riverbanks make this spot especially scenic.
• Potawatomi and Gorge Falls can be accessed from the same parking lot. Potawatomi, which tumbles 30 feet, is reached by a 600-foot paved trail. It also rushes over rock, which splits the flow — but not evenly, as most of the water is pushed toward the eastern bank. The other side is a steeper plunge.
• A short distance downstream is Gorge Falls, a 25-foot drop through a narrow rock passage into a swirling pool.
• Sandstone Falls spills through varied rock formations. At 15 feet, it’s the smallest of the five, but visitors can get close enough to feel its spray by venturing onto the rock after descending a series of steps.
• Rainbow Falls, a 35-foot drop, is aptly named for the rainbows created by its mist. A viewing platform almost directly atop the falls can be reached via a half-mile walk to a wooden stairway.
“The Black River’s falls are just incredible because of how they’re set deep into a canyon, which you don’t usually see in the state,” says Ironwood Community Development Assistant Tim Erickson. “All the greenery surrounding the falls, provided by hemlock and pines, sometimes makes you wonder if you’re in Michigan or somewhere out West.”
Also on the Black River, but farther from Lake Superior, is Gabbro Falls, a secluded, three-tiered cascade totaling 40 feet. The route there travels over a wooden bridge and past Blackjack Ski Resort, to where the trail begins.
Superior Falls, a series of drops totaling more than 100 feet, is on the Montreal River, which separates Ironwood from Wisconsin. The falls can be viewed from the top or by taking a steep path to the base. The path also takes visitors to Lake Superior, where you’ll find impressive views of cliffs rising above the water.
The journey to reach the top of Copper Peak, North America’s only — and the world’s largest — ski-jumping hill, founded in 1970, is an adventure in itself. It requires an 800-foot chairlift ride to the crest of the hill — a 360-foot, copper-bearing volcanic outcrop — plus an 18-story elevator ride to the observation deck and, finally, an eight-story walk up metal-grate stairs.
On clear days, those brave enough to make the climb are rewarded with a 360-degree view covering more than 2,500 square miles. Parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, including the Porcupine Mountains and the distant Isle Royale National Park and Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, are usually visible. It’s stunning.
“Copper Peak is so unique,” says its marketing and communications director, Kassi Huotari. “Taking the Adventure Ride (ticket required) to the top is such an amazing experience, and the views are top-notch. You definitely appreciate the sport of ski-jumping/flying more when you get to the top of this massive structure.”
The Peak recently received $20 million in state funding to redevelop the facilities and coordinate ski-jumping and training activities year-round.
HIKING & BIKING
The terrain around Ironwood is ideal for both activities. If you like these, there are plenty of other fun possibilities throughout the region.
• A breathtaking 4.5-mile stretch of the North Country Trail begins off Copper Peak Road just south of the Black River Scenic Byway, and passes six waterfalls before reaching a gorgeous Lake Superior beach. From there, the trail continues south and then east for 5.8 miles to the edge of Porcupine Mountains State Park.
• Ironwood is the northern terminus of the Iron Belle Trail, which will eventually connect with Detroit. The area’s section currently runs from Depot Park in Ironwood for about 10 miles to Bessemer and overlooks rivers and bluffs, multiple railroad bridges, and historic sites, and cuts through deep forests. “Our section of the Iron Belle, through the woods, is a tremendous outdoor adventure that really allows the quiet beauty of the U.P. to enter one’s spirit,” Meyer adds.
• Miners Memorial Heritage Park offers roughly six miles of hiking and biking trails (an additional 10 miles are being installed by the end of summer) on the site of former iron ore mining locations. Interpretive signs and works of art inform visitors about buildings and mine shafts.
• For those ready for a challenge, the 5.5 miles of mountain bike trails at Copper Peak are a thrilling ride featuring 600 feet of elevation gain from the Black River to the base of the ski-flying structure.
• Big Powderhorn Mountain Resort, one of Michigan’s top skiing destinations, offers summer fun via its mountain bike trails, which climb the ski hill. The trails flow into the 15-mile Wolverine Nordic Trail system, which features technical single tracks and wide, grassy paths.
• The Split Rock hike/bike trails in Wakefield, to the east, are on the site of an iron ore mine. Visitors will find sweeping overlooks, rock formations, and mining remnants.
• Bessemer’s Bluff Valley Park features a pond surrounded by a walking path that connects to a steep, wooded trail leading to a high bluff with views of the town below and Copper Peak Ski Jump.
More daring paddlers can experience whitewater kayaking on the Black and Montreal rivers. Whitecap Kayak (whitecapkayak.com) offers day and overnight guided tours.
Another paddling option is McDonald Lake, southeast of Ironwood. There are six free rustic campsites, including three on an island in the lake. All are available on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Little Girls Point and the Black River Harbor Area are two of the U.P.’s premier spots for Lake Superior swimming, kayaking, stand-up paddling, rock-picking, agate-hunting, and stunning sunsets.
Little Girls Point, 17 miles north of town, has a half-mile-long beach and views of the Apostle Islands and Porcupine Mountains from a bluff overlooking Lake Superior. The beach at Black River Harbor is at the northern end of the Black River Scenic Byway. The fun part is crossing a suspension bridge and following a trail to reach it.
After the outdoor adventures, plan on relaxing downtown. “The town has really experienced a revival and has an eclectic mix of things to see and do with history, art, and family activities,” Erickson says. “The newer parks, like City Square, are great places to hang out on a summer night, take in the downtown atmosphere, and enjoy a live performance.”
Erickson suggests rounding out your day with a stop at Joe’s Pasty Shop, which has been serving the U.P.’s signature treat since 1946, or by browsing the Downtown Art Place’s more than 20 individual artist studios to find a U.P.-inspired treasure.
City of Ironwood
By Mark Spezia & Photos Courtesy of Travel Ironwood