MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest


Destination: Mackinaw City

On the south shore of the Mackinac Straits, the year is 1775.

At the top of the Michigan mitten, a little village has seen a lot of action over the centuries.

Iroquois war parties, French explorers and British soldiers passed by on the Mackinac Straits, which link Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. American traders, lighthouse-builders, ore boats and tourist ferries followed.

Then the continent's longest suspension bridge went up, a link to the Upper Peninsula and an attraction in itself.

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Lake Michigan's greatest hits

A nine-day Circle Tour itinerary takes in the highlights of this ultra-scenic drive.

Smack in the middle of the Upper Midwest, Lake Michigan is irresistible in summer.

It's America's freshwater Riviera, and everyone competes for a little piece of that beautiful sand: beach bums, lighthouse buffs, campers on a budget. 

A road trip around its shores is one of the world's most scenic drives, a thousand miles of lakeshore lined by state, county and national parks — and two big cities.

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Following the tall ships

Sloops and schooners still sail on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

On the Great Lakes, everyone loves to see a multi-masted schooner, white sails flapping in the breeze.

They're always the favorite guests at festivals, especially on Lake Superior, which usually sees only freighters.

On Lake Michigan, these magnificent replicas of 19th-century schooners and sloops are more common, offering tours and day sails from their homes when they're not appearing at festivals.

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Ironwood the reliable

When most of the Upper Midwest is brown, cross-country skiers know where to find snow.

In Ironwood, there’s one thing people can count on besides death and taxes.

Snow, and lots of it, is a sure thing in this former ore-mining town just over the Wisconsin-Michigan border.

Blown in over Lake Superior, the snow starts falling as soon as days cool down in late autumn and keeps falling until spring sun turns the pink-tinted piles into slush.

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Ski the UP

At snow-blessed Michigan resorts, skiers and boarders get the drift.

The snow appeared on cue, just as Wisconsin faded into the Upper Peninsula. One minute there was a dusting, and the next a whole layer, white and inviting.

It seemed too perfect, as if there must be snowguns hidden behind the "Welcome to Michigan'' sign. But there was snow beyond that, too, right up to the doors of the three ski resorts that line U.S. 2 just inside the state line.

That's why they call this Big Snow Country. Winds from the west whip across Lake Superior, picking up warmth and moisture, and dump it as snow — more than 17 feet annually, on average — when they hit the cold inland air of the U.P.

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White gold in the Porkies

In the Upper Peninsula, a wilderness park rewards those who love snow.

On the far end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park always rewards those who make the effort to get there.

When 12 of us did, steering through a blizzard in cars heaped with snowshoes and skis, our prize was even more snow — falling every day from the sky, swirling in stiff winds and piled high on the earth.

Luckily, we retain a child-like love of the white stuff. So we had ourselves a snowpalooza, gliding through snow-draped forests, making snow angels and taking countless photos of snow mushrooms, snow arches and snow slabs on Lake Superior.

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Michigan's Pictured Rocks

There's a lot of scenery crammed into one stretch of Lake Superior around Munising.

Along Michigan's Pictured Rocks, there's no such thing as a bad view.

White sandstone cliffs line nearly 40 miles of national lakeshore, the nation's first when it was created in 1966. Named for the colorful swishes and whorls painted by mineral-laden water oozing through cracks, Pictured Rocks draws tourists from around the world.

This part of Michigan is inconveniently distant for tourists from big cities; Detroit is closer to Charleston, W.V., than Munising.

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Tales of Tahquamenon

On Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a big state park is a playground for waterfall-lovers.

At most waterfalls, people mainly sit, look and take pictures.

Not at Tahquamenon Falls.

Here, people duck under the falls, wade through them, row out to them and hike between them on a five-mile riverside path that's part of the North Country National Scenic Trail.

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Graveyard of the Great Lakes

For 200 years, a bottleneck on the east end of Lake Superior has claimed ships and lives.

In 1816, the first schooner built for Lake Superior shipping also became first to sink. It was called the Invincible, but it was no match for winds whipping off the east end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The Invincible wreck was the first of hundreds along what become known as the Shipwreck Coast. The last — we hope — was the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in 1975 with 29 lives lost.

At Whitefish Point, not far from the Soo Locks, the lake narrows into a funnel where shipping lanes converge, visibility is poor and northwesters reach full fury, building up over 200 miles of open water.

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Digging the Keweenaw

On Lake Superior, an isolated peninsula yields up all sorts of riches.

On Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, distance is both curse and blessing.

Jutting deep into Lake Superior, it's far from big cities — for Detroit residents, Nashville and Washington, D.C., are closer than the Keweenaw (pronounced KEY-win-awe).

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Marquette's double appeal

This college town on Lake Superior is both sophisticated and outdoorsy.

The first time I visited Marquette, I saw mostly Yooper Land.

I chuckled at a 10-foot mosquito, giant chainsaw and packages of Roadkill Helper. I noted the best-sellers in the bookstore window: "A Look at Life From a Deer Stand'' and "Leap of Faith 2: God Loves Packer Fans.''

This is the Marquette that's sports-crazy, hunting-happy and tough as nails, with a population descended from Cornish, Finnish and Italian immigrants who could put up with the rigors of iron mines and, later, their closings.

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Touring Mackinac Island

On a scenic web of trails, visitors see another side of a celebrated spot.

In the straits between lakes Michigan and Huron, you can find more than one Mackinac Island.

The best-known first was advertised as "the Fairy Isle of Mackinac," and it's not quite rooted in reality. It has a tuxedo shop but no hardware store, a Victorian house called Brigadoon and a fan club that gathers every October in vintage clothing to revere the year 1912.

You get to that island in a horse-drawn surrey, driven by a liveryman in a top hat.

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The good life in Traverse City

On Lake Michigan, this beach town has a high IQ and refined appetites.

At first glance, Traverse City seems like just another Lake Michigan beach town.

It's a truly gorgeous one, for sure. There's sand as far as the eye can see, wrapped around two vast bays. Everybody's playing beach volleyball, paddling kayaks or swimming in water tinted three shades of blue.

The view gets even better beyond the beach, on streets thick with craft-beer taprooms, wineries, epicurean markets and so many fine restaurants that Traverse City now is considered a top foodie town.

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Michigan's great lake cabins

In the only state that borders three Great Lakes, the best places to stay are in state parks.

On a summer day in Holland, Mich., all roads lead to the beach.

When we were there one June, people streamed toward this broad swath of sand until the sun fell low on the horizon, making the fire-engine-red harbor beacon glow like an ember. They ate ice cream, they strolled on the breakwall, they took a last dip in Lake Michigan.

But at 10 p.m. sharp, a police cruiser started flashing its red lights to shepherd everyone out of the park.

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Afoot in the Porkies

On the Upper Peninsula, a splendid wilderness remains unchanged.

Just up north, there’s a vast wilderness of lakes, virgin forest and wild rivers lined by waterfalls and rapids.

It isn’t like other north-woods forests — not as they are in this century, anyway. It’s a wilderness unto itself, and though it’s no farther than the state parks farther up Minnesota’s North Shore, it seems a world away.

It feels a world away, too.

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Cruising to a lighthouse

In summer, excursion boats give visitors a chance to see historic beacons.

By definition, lighthouses aren't easy to visit.

Most are between a rock and a hard place, out of the way and on the edge of a fickle inland sea.

“When the government came here after 1843, they were afraid the Native Americans would be hostile, but they quickly found out the only thing hostile was Lake Superior,'' said our captain on a cruise to the Copper Harbor Lighthouse in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula.

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Bicycling in western Michigan

In the top rail-trails state, everyone loves a ride along Lake Michigan.

The more I travel through the beach towns of west Michigan, the more I want to see.

So I've slowed down and started touring by the seat of my pants — on a bicycle.

Michigan makes that easy with 2,385 miles of rail trails, more than any other state. You can catch a trail all along the Lake Michigan shore, from Traverse City to South Haven.

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Grand sand

Along Lake Michigan, the Sleeping Bear Dunes are a playground for all ages.

One Great Lake east of Superior, there’s another North Shore.

It doesn’t have any craggy points or sheer palisades, and there are no agates waiting to be found. It has no waterfalls, and not a scrap of basalt; in fact, there’s nothing volcanic about it.

But this north shore, on the leeward side of Lake Michigan, has something Minnesota's beautiful North Shore on Lake Superior doesn’t have: Sand, lots and lots of sand.

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Copper Harbor refuge

Fortune-seekers left their mark at the tip of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula.

Copper Harbor, Mich., never has had an easy existence.

Indians and explorers always knew there was copper sitting along the Keweenaw Peninsula. But the desolation of the area made mining difficult.

The earliest expedition, sent by London investors in 1771, gave up in disgust on an area Patrick Henry told Congress was "beyond the most distant wilderness and remote as the moon.''

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Locking through the Soo

In Sault Ste. Marie, heavy traffic thrills boat watchers.

In Sault Ste. Marie, tourists find out what floats their boats.

For most, it’s watching serious machinery moving through the Soo Locks.

What really floats a boat, however, is 22 million gallons of water, which is what it takes to lift a boat through the Poe Lock, a liquid escalator between Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

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Spring in Traverse City

Prowl through the locavore haunts of this Lake Michigan beach town.

In Traverse City, spring is when you get to do all the things you planned in summer before you got seduced away by sand and surf.

I'd seen the enticing shops, theaters and tasting rooms on other visits and planned to check them out “some time.''

Some time arrived Mother's Day weekend, when Traverse City was awash in color. So many pear trees were flowering downtown that the streets look frosted, and magnolia blooms were as big as popcorn balls.

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Chasing cherry blossoms

In spring, Michigan's Old Mission Peninsula is a sight for sore eyes.

After a long winter, the sight of cherry blossoms is tonic for the soul.

In northern Michigan, cherries love the gravelly soil of the Old Mission Peninsula —and so do tourists.

This area has a friendly rivalry with Wisconsin's Door Peninsula, also warmed by the waters of Lake Michigan and known for cherries and vineyards.

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Waterfalls of the Black River

On Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a series of cascades tumble down to Lake Superior.

On the western tip of the Upper Peninsula, snow comes as regularly as mail.

Gusts of wind make the deliveries, picking up moisture and warmth over Lake Superior and then dumping it as snow when they hit the cold inland air around Ironwood and Bessemer.

The two ski towns are just 4½ hours from the Twin Cities, the closest metropolitan area, but they look more like the North Pole in comparison. Snow comes early, piles high and stays late, into April.

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Cheap summer getaways in Michigan

On the Upper Peninsula and Lake Michigan shores, vacation for $100 or less.

With shoreline on three Great Lakes, Michigan is a popular destination in summer.

But it's still one of the best places to go for a budget beach vacation, thanks to the state parks.

They offer a huge array of cabins and lodges as well as campsites, though you have to reserve far in advance for a place in Lower Michigan parks.

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Cruising at Whitecap

In a far corner of Wisconsin, this ski resort has the woodsy charm of the mountains.

Ah, the smell of Coppertone in spring.

Leaning back on a chairlift, basking in sun bounced off acres of snow, I was getting quite a tan — on St. Patrick’s Day.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with its towering stacks of snow, is a good place for skiers to be in the spring.

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Dwelling in the past

Around Lake Superior, overnight guests can try out life at a lighthouse.

When Lake Superior lighthouses had keepers, there was nothing romantic about life there.

The posts were cold, lonely and meagerly furnished on the government dime. The work was physically taxing and repetitive. Through the long nights, keepers had to get up every two hours to wind the mechanism that rotated the lens.

It's no wonder many of the early lighthouse keepers were hermits or grouches.

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Exploring Isle Royale

Famous for its moose and wolves, this Lake Superior wilderness island is beguiling.

When it rains on Isle Royale, you just have to soak it up.

Moisture comes with the territory in Lake Superior's northern reaches. No one comes here for the weather, despite early advertising that called it a "Summertime 'Bermuda' Paradise."

Bermuda it's not. But paradise? It depends on how you look at it.

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Lake Michigan with kids

Following the sandy shores of this great lake, families find many playgrounds.

Not many parents would think that a long road trip would be a perfect vacation to take with young children.

But the shores of Lake Michigan is one big sandbox, and on a drive along its shores, you'll hit one big playground after another.

On the east side, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is spectacular, a Disneyland of sand. But the lake also is lined with lighthouses, fudge shops, fur-trade forts and endless beaches.

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Following the photographers: Lake Superior's south shore

Wish you were there? For people who love the Upper Peninsula and northwoods Wisconsin, online images are the next best thing.

Along the shores of Lake Superior, this winter is making professional photographers really happy.

First came weeks of northern lights. Then, an irruption of snowy owls swept down from the Arctic. And now, the mainland ice caves of the Apostles not only are accessible but magnificently frozen by subzero temperatures.

Amid so much natural beauty, photographers are like kids in a candy store. And they're sharing their booty on Facebook pages and online galleries.

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