Whether viewing Lake Superior’s clear turquoise waters from a sandstone cliff or its rocky shores, Michigan’s northernmost shoreline is known for its awe-inspiring scenery, quaint towns and growing culinary scene.
Home to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and other protected state and national forests, Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula is a great place to escape from the rat race. Visitors come for the waterfalls, the woods and the call of the wild — for unique, mineral-painted sandstone cliffs and sea caves, hiking and biking trails, sea kayaking adventures and maritime history.
“There are only four national lakeshores in the whole country, it is an amazing place,” said Cori Ann Cearley, president of Munising Visitors Bureau. “It’s a singular experience; you can’t get it anywhere else.”
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore’s Chief of Interpretation Susan Reece moved from south Florida’s Everglades National Park four years ago and has watched the region grow from a sleepy, out-of-the-way destination to an area overflowing with tourists. “We’ve been setting records for visitation since 2015,” Reece said, noting that visitor numbers increased from 398,000 in 2008 to 815,000 in 2018. “It really is a beautiful shoreline and a beautiful park. Even though we have all of those visitors, there is still room.”
Spotty cell service, first-come, first-served campgrounds, and mom-and-pop gas stations are the norm in the region, but the slower pace and natural beauty make it a great place to vacation.
“I think it’s a great way to unplug and just kind of enjoy the outdoors, the views and the town,” said Susan Estler, who joined Travel Marquette as executive director about a year ago.
She started her tourism career in Florida and then Pennsylvania. Looking out at Marquette’s ore docks and Lake Superior, even in January, sold her.
“It’s a nice way to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life; it sounds cliché, but it’s really true.”
Grand Marais to Munising
The idyllic harbor town of Grand Marais with its waterfront campground, brewery, tavern, hardware and lodging opportunities, hosts a variety of events throughout the summer. It is the eastern gateway to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, offering picturesque views, scenic stops and access to the Grand Sable Visitor Center, Sable Falls and Log Slide Overlook within the lakeshore boundaries.
The town and region saw a boost in visitors once paving of H-58 to Grand Marais was complete in 2010, according to Reece. Among the town’s attractions, the Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum highlights the area’s geology and history. Several state forest campgrounds are found nearby along with inland lakes for fishing. The famous Seney National Wildlife Refuge, with its popular auto-tour route, is located a quick 25 miles south of the harbor.
Twelve miles west of Grand Marais, within the national lakeshore, lighthouse buffs can visit Au Sable Light Station. Getting there requires a 1.5-mile (one-way) walk, but visitors can tour the working tower. Just 7 miles west of Grand Marais, the Log Slide Overlook offers stunning views of the Grand Sable Dunes, a perched dune system towering 300 feet high with dramatic banks.
On the western end of Pictured Rocks, Munising, with its restaurants and waterfront lodging, is often a home base for vacationers looking to take day trips. They may choose a scenic Pictured Rocks boat cruise, a driving tour of national lakeshore attractions or to kayak in the protected harbor or open waters.
The boat cruises offer the best vantage point for seeing the dramatic, colorful namesake cliffs for the national lakeshore. More adventurous types can rent a pontoon boat and do a self-guided tour or sign up for a guided kayak tour or a glass-bottom boat cruise of nearby shipwrecks.
“Kayaking has grown just as visitation has grown,” Reece said. “People should go with a guided tour unless they are experienced sea kayakers; they need the right kind of boat and equipment.”
Hikers and cyclists also have choices.
Munising Bay Trail Network, a local trail-building club, has been working to expand bicycle trails and parks around the city. Visitors also can take the ferry to Grand Island and ride or hike the trails with a view of the bay. The island has historic sites, a bike trail around the perimeter and a few primitive camping sites. There also are nearby trails on the mainland in the Hiawatha National Forest.
“This area lends itself very well to almost any outdoor recreation interest,” Cearley said, noting that people love the bicycle trails.
The area’s 17 waterfalls are a big draw, along with 100 miles of hiking trail in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Backpackers can camp in designated spots with a backcountry permit, and there are trails for all ages and skill levels, including 42 miles of The North Country National Scenic Trail.
“It’s a great beginning park for backpackers,” Reece said. “There are lots of access points, so it’s easy to try it for a weekend without necessarily having to hike 20 miles.”
The national lakeshore also has drive-in campgrounds that offer rustic sites along Lake Superior. This summer, Little Beaver Lake, Twelvemile Beach and Hurricane River campgrounds moved to an online reservation system after years of being first come, first served.
When it comes to food and drink in Munising, those in the know recommend the following: East Channel Brewing Company, Upper Peninsula Inspired Winery and Tracey’s at Roam Inn. Another is The Brownstone Inn in Au Train. And Camel Riders is a rustic log cabin restaurant in the Hiawatha National Forest. “The food there is absolutely phenomenal,” Cearley said. “It’s off the beaten path.”
Munising to Marquette
Marquette is the Upper Peninsula’s largest city, and it has a growing foodie and brewery scene. Northern Michigan University brings in 8,000 college students every year, making this the region’s hippest and most urban area. It also serves as a four-season playground for outdoor adventure types.
“Lake Superior is the underpinning of everything we have here in the city of Marquette and Marquette County,” Estler said. “Marquette is just a very special place. The people are wonderful, and there are great shops and events and things to do.”
The city has a lakefront path where visitors can take a leisurely walk or bicycle ride, yet just outside of town, there are more rigorous hiking and mountain biking trails for hardcore athletes.
Marquette is just a very special place. The people are wonderful, and there are great shops and events and things to do.
— Susan Estler
The region’s NTN and RAMBA trail systems are some of the best in the Midwest, and water-based excursions range from sea kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding to leisurely kayak and canoe trips on inland rivers.
A lesser-known fact is Marquette County has the most unnamed waterfalls in Michigan, and Travel Marquette has a map with different coordinates to find them.
Presque Isle Park is another hot spot, where people often swim and jump off the cliffs at Black Rocks. The 323-acre peninsula park features wooded trails, picnic areas, boat launch, nature center and a concert bandshell.
Further west toward Big Bay, Sugarloaf Mountain Natural Area, owned by Marquette County, has one of the most popular overlooks on the central U.P. shoreline. The park has easy and advanced trails through a lush forest canopy and ancient rock outcroppings. The short hike to the summit ends with panoramic views of Lake Superior and the surrounding landscape.
Several public parks, beaches and historic sites, including Marquette Harbor Lighthouse and Marquette Maritime Museum, also dot the waterfront. Washington Street dead ends into Mattson Lower Harbor Park, another quaint place to walk along the water, attend a festival or view the marina and ore dock. From there, it’s an easy walk to locally owned shops, restaurants and breweries downtown.
People come expecting starry skies and fresh blue water, but serious foodies can find a top-shelf martini and farm-to-table dining. Visitors often enjoy dinner and a movie at the Delft Bistro, serving locally sourced American fare and a nightly feature in Marquette’s historic theater. Next door, the century-old Donckers candy store caters to candy and ice cream lovers yet maintains historic character with an original soda fountain and lunch counter. Or, if they prefer, they may grab a homemade pasty and sit at the lake and watch an ore freighter come in.
Whatever way visitors enjoy nature, the region has it covered.
Marla Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Norton Shores where she enjoys the lakeshore lifestyle.