Until a few years ago, the Upper Peninsula town of Manistique, perched along Lake Michigan, was perhaps a fuel and food stop as I traveled the scenic U.S. 2 route on the way to other destinations.
But on a three-day stay there last year, I discovered why this town of about 3,000 residents, and the surrounding region, offers more than just a way station. Here’s what you can see on an action-packed getaway: Three state parks, a stunning beach walk, plus inland and Great Lakes fishing. On top of that, you can explore a haunted lighthouse, spring aboard a raft, and view tens of thousands of sport fish being raised. There’s also the state’s first rail trail, three great campgrounds, and lots more. Ready?
I wasn’t traveling in my RV this time, but if I was, I’d be staying at the city campground on the beach, near where the Manistique River empties into Lake Michigan. The new-ish Manistique Lakeshore Campground borders the big lake, with sites offering rustic camping or full hookup pull-through sites. It’s open through the fall color season.
For this trip, I checked into Gray Wolf Lodge, east of downtown and across U.S. 2 from the lake. The lodge maintains access to the lake for evening bonfires, and star- and lake-gazing. It’s also one of several good locations on the city’s “motel row.”
The Gray Wolf Lodge is only one mile from the Manistique Boardwalk, which is a great way to appreciate the local beach. The boardwalk runs nearly two miles from the east city limit to underneath the U.S. 2 bridge across the Manistique River, and into the business district. It also leads to the harbor fishing pier, the signature red harbor lighthouse, and picnic areas.
After that beachfront stroll, which you’ll likely repeat, perhaps it’s time to turn in after a long road trip because you’ll be more than busy for the next two days.
Ever seen a ghost? Or, in Yooperese, ghoooast? You just may at the Seul Choix (pronounced Sis-chwa for non-French speakers) Pointe Lighthouse, in Gulliver, about 14 miles from your motel.
On the way, you’ll pass several inland lakes near Gulliver, including a cute locally owned cabin resort on McDonald Lake — Jim & Jude’s Cabins — that you may want to check out for a taste of rustic comfort.
But the goal for this day is the light, and the tales of ghosts. As your guide to the main house will tell you, reports of spectral sightings of a former lightkeeper are legendary. Visitors recount hearing voices and footsteps, or smelling the slight odor of tobacco. Employees and volunteers return in the morning to find cabinets opened and contents scattered. It may cause you to wonder if you really want to take the winding staircase up 96 steps to the still-operating light.
It’s a bit of a tight squeeze to enter, but the view of the surrounding area is great, and you can easily imagine what it would have been like to be a keeper, trudging up to clean the lens. Back downstairs, ask about the curious writing scrawled on a nearby lake rock wall. The light is open Memorial Day through the mid-October fall color season.
After the tour, head for the more than 700-acre Fayette Historic State Park, a restored and reclaimed 19th-century town that prospered here by smelting iron ore until the hardwood once used to feed the furnaces played out, and new and larger ore boats brought ore south through the Soo Locks.
The park also has camping and bluff hiking trails with spectacular views. There’s a 61-site campground, bike trails, and a great hike available along the limestone bluff looking over Fayette. If that’s full, check out Portage Bay State Forest Campground.
Your camping choices continue near Manistique at Indian Lake State Park, with more than 200 sites at two locations on Indian Lake. Bring your boat to cruise the lake from the park’s launch. Fish the shallow middle grounds for smallmouth bass, and troll for walleye or muskie.
Hungry? Enjoy a picnic at Indian Lake, Fayette, or Palms Book State Park. You’ll find everything you need at Jack’s Fresh Market, the main grocery in town. There are plenty of spots at any one of the parks to cook up something, including fish fresh from the lake.
If you prefer, you can return to Manistique for a bite at an eastern U.P. drive-in mainstay, Clyde’s. Other locations are in the Soo and St. Ignace. Another option is the seasonally open Three Seasons Café on U.S. 2 near the motel, where pasties are a specialty. No trip to the Upper Peninsula is complete without one. After dinner, it’s time for another beach bonfire or stroll to finish the day.
Head back toward Indian Lake, only this time, spring into fun at Kitch-iti-kipi. This large spring in Palms Book State Park provides a totally different experience than the lake does.
Step onto the waiting large raft and view what the people of the First Nations called the “Mirror of Heaven” or, simply, Big Spring (there have been other names, as well, over the years). Ten-thousand gallons of water a minute boil up from the green-blue bottom, maintaining a constant 45 degrees. Huge rainbow, brown, brook, and lake trout casually swim in the protected water.
Outside the park, stop for lunch or dinner at Big Spring Tavern, with vittles like local cheese curd appetizers, burgers, perch, fish tacos, and more.
Next, take U.S. 2 to nearby Thompson for an educational look at how the Michigan Department of Natural Resources stocks the state’s lakes with salmon, steelhead trout, and walleye at the Thompson State Fish Hatchery. It’s one of six operated around the state by the DNR.
You’ll start at the egg-rearing station, then move to the large, covered ponds that protect the young fish from birds. Automatic feeders keep them fed. The fish are transferred to different raceways as they grow. The hatchery is fed from another natural spring. Watch the fish scurry from one end of the rearing tanks to another as you pass. The hatchery annually releases millions of fish that are transported by tanker trucks across northern Michigan.
Gravel travel fans may want to rent an ATV, side-by-side, or bring a bike or horse along for a jaunt on Michigan’s first rails-to-trails route. The Haywire Grade, with its southern trailhead just outside Manistique, opened in 1970 and today is a mix of gravel, sand, and coarse limestone. The 33-mile, often-remote trail winds through parts of the Hiawatha National Forest on its way to the northern trailhead near Shingleton.
The trail is beautiful year-round, especially when the U.P. blooms with fall color from late September to early October. About halfway down the trail you can stop for lunch at the Jack Pine Lodge, or return to town to enjoy the new riverside district’s eateries and shops on the river near the U.S. 2 bridge, such as the Upper Crust Café. Another option is to walk the city’s compact downtown to pick out another spot before heading back to your motel or home.
Next time you’re tempted to keep driving on U.S. 2 beyond Manistique, stop for a while and enjoy the sights. You’ll learn a lot about the beauty — and the fun — this patch of Pure Michigan offers year-round.
By Bill Semion & Photos Courtesy of Great Sand Bay Productions