From the largest freshwater lake in the world to endless backcountry campsites, Michigan's Eastern UP is an underrated gem and treasure trove of untouched beauty, adventure, and fun. In addition to spending a week or two in the UP each year, our families have been traveling to the Eastern UP to deer hunt since the early 1900s. Here are the top 5 things we love to see and do in Michigan's Eastern UP.
1. Camping Wherever Your Heart Desires
Call us introverts, but if you can see the neighbor's tent and hear a generator, you're not camping. From the shores of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, AND countless inland lakes, campground options abound in the eastern UP. Even better, in Michigan, you can pitch a tent for free in a state forest anywhere you please as long as it's more than one mile from a state forest campground. Backpack to a secluded spot or car camp and bring all the tasty food, drinks, and gear your heart desires. We're partial to campgrounds found near Lake Superior in Alger and Luce Counties, including Hurricane River Campground, Lake Superior State Forest Campground, and Bodi Lake State Forest Campground. Spend a day reading by the campfire or do some exploring. Hike the North Country Trail, enjoy the 200 miles of ATV/ORV trails, canoe the Two-Hearted River, or walk Lake Superior's secluded beaches. Wildlife is abundant in the area and includes deer, moose, black bear, wolves, bald eagles, otters, coyotes, and foxes, to name a few. Be prepared to hear wolves howling at night if you're camping in Luce County.
Don't miss a stop at the mouth of the Two-Hearted River where it empties into Lake Superior. Visit in the evening to enjoy a sunset over the Lake and possibly catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis. You may recognize the Two-Hearted if you're a fan of Bells Brewery or Ernest Hemingway, but don't be fooled. Hemingway may have written about the Two-Hearted River in his Nick Adam Stories, but his fishing escapades actually took place on the nearby Fox River. Just as Hemingway sought to keep his favorite fishing spot a secret, we'll never tell which backcountry campsites truly top our list...
2. Stroll the Beaches or Kayak the Waters of Lake Superior
Lake Michigan fans will now skim the remaining Top 5 and cause a fuss because frigid Lake Superior is highlighted in place of the "warm enough you can actually swim in it" Lake Michigan. While Lake Michigan would ABSOLUTELY fall into our Top 5 Lower Peninsula list, you can't beat the largest freshwater lake in the world. Yes, Lake Superior's water temperature barely tops 65 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer months, but the unique shoreline and crystal clear waters are truly breathtaking. We'd know, we've accidentally dropped a camera while kayaking and watched it slowly settle on the lakebed 30 feet down. Pro tip: Don't dive down to retrieve your camera on Lake Superior's bottom, it's colder and further down than you think. Be sure to take a walk along the sugar sand beaches, keep your eye out for agates, visit the lighthouses (our favorite is the Crisp Point Lighthouse pictured above), and if you're brave enough, take a dip in the refreshing and clear waters of this immense Lake.
Did you know that 90% of the United States' iron ore is transported over the Great Lakes and moves through the Soo Locks? Ship and boating enthusiasts of all ages can't miss a stop at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste Marie. Here Great Lakes freighters and pleasure crafts can bypass a 21-foot drop in the St. Marys river connecting Lake Superior to Lake Huron. I've watched a grown man clap with glee as he watched a freighter, known as a Laker, slowly lock through this engineering marvel. You can call the Soo Locks Visitor Center hotline at 906-253-9290 for the current schedule and to learn which ships are within three hours of the Soo or download the Marine Traffic app to see the location of ships and yachts around the globe in real-time.
Ok, all you Lake Michigan trolls still simmering, please note that US-2, which runs the southern length of the UP and all the way through the state of Washington, is perhaps our favorite road in Michigan for its amazing views and countless beach stops along Lake Michigan. If you're reaching the UP via the Mighty Mac, be sure to take scenic US-2 before you head north at 117 to reach Newberry or 94 to reach Munising...on your way to Lake Superior.
3. Experience Tahquamenon Falls State Park & Whitefish Point
The jewel of the eastern UP is Tahquamenon Fall State Park, the second largest of Michigan's state parks. The park features both the Tahquamenon River's Upper Falls, which span 200 feet across and tumble 50 feet down, as well as the Lower Falls, a series of 5 falls surrounding an island. If you're short on time, enjoy the leisurely 1.5-mile loop trail to the Upper Falls and its many scenic overlooks. If you have more time and energy, consider hiking from the Upper Falls to the Lower Falls and back along the North Country Trail for a total of 9.6 miles. Once you've marveled at the falls and enjoyed an invigorating hike, enjoy a hot meal and purchase a growler of tasty brew at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub located off the main Upper Falls parking lot. Kids and adults will enjoy identifying the real and fake stuffed critters which line the walls.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point is a must-see if you're in the Paradise and Tahquamenon Fall State Park area. Exceptional exhibits provide information about the history of various shipwrecks and their preservation. The most famous artifact on display is the bell of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the freighter which sank in 1975 with all hands on deck and memorialized in Gordon Lightfoot's famous song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." The adjacent Whitefish Point Light Station is beautifully well-maintained and one to mark off your Lake Superior lighthouse bucket list. It's also been a beacon of hope for many sailors as it shines over the most dangerous section of Lake Superior where more vessels have been lost than any other due to a bottleneck of ship traffic entering and exiting Whitefish Bay and the violent waves caused by the build-up of northwest winds across 160 miles of open water.
4. Take in the Log Slide and Enjoy a Craft Brew in Grand Marais
Are you bringing children on your trip? If so, make sure you visit the Log Slide Scenic Overlook outside of Grand Marais and challenge them to run down and back up the 300-foot dune as fast as they can. It may take 5 minutes to get down, but 45+ minutes to get back up. Loggers once pitched logs down a chute here into Lake Superior before shipping them across the United States. It now serves as the gateway to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and offers arguably the most scenic view of Lake Superior in the UP. If you're driving through Grand Marais to reach Munising via H-58, a stop at the Log Slide is a must.
Now that you've enjoyed some beach time and watched your children climb up the Log Slide for an hour, head into Grand Marais to get a frosty brew at The Dunes Saloon Lake Superior Brewing Company. The brew selection is not always consistent, but if you've stumbled in when they have Sandstone Pale Ale on tap, it's going to be a good day. We highly recommend the Garlic & Parmesan Popcorn, Mozzarella Bread Sticks, and pizza, too. Grand Marais also features lovely beaches, a walkable pier with a light station, and a bay.
5. Drive The Mackinac Bridge (aka The Mighty Mac) or Sail Underneath It
This 5-mile suspension bridge connects Michigan's Lower and Upper Peninsulas and spans the Straits of Mackinac, which divides Lake Michigan to the west and Lake Huron to the east. Stunning views abound, including Mackinac and Bois Blanc Islands. When crossing the bridge, look for the long white blur on Mackinac Island to the east, which is the historic front porch of Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel. Tune your radio to AM 530 when approaching the bridge to hear the latest conditions and tips for crossing.
Anyone with $4 can pay the toll to cross the bridge, but if you want to feel like royalty, then you've got to travel underneath it. In 1959, Queen Elizabeth II of England and her husband Prince Philip did just that in the royal yacht Britannia. Their Great Lakes cruise took place following the grand opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which finally allowed ships to pass from the Atlantic Ocean into the Great Lakes. If you're in the Straits area without your own royal yacht, then be sure to check the Shepler's and Star Line ferry schedules as a handful of departure times from St. Ignace and Mackinaw City to Mackinac Island include a free scenic detour underneath the bridge. For more Mackinac Island ideas see our Top 5 Michigan's Mackinac Island post coming soon!
Now, we've heard through the UP grapevine that Mackinac Island might be great, but the best Yooper islands are actually the Les Cheneaux Islands or Drummond Island. Both have been on our bucket list for years. We hope to visit them soon to see if they can claim a spot on our Top 5!