This is the latest in our twice-a-month series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
Head north on I-75 far enough, and you’ll discover that it ends where Canada begins, at the eastern edge of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the UP, for short). The peninsula is punctuated by small cities, populated by “Yoopers”—those who live in the UP—and packed with large swaths of wild spaces that bear, moose, and wolves call home.
Last year, even very rare, stray elk—a bull and possibly a cow—were spotted in the UP. The peninsula’s elk were destroyed in the late nineteenth century, leaving the state’s population limited to the Southern Peninsula and privately owned ranches in the Upper Peninsula.
UP is a unique Michigan experience focused largely on the outdoors. You might think that this means you have to rough it to enjoy it, but as my recent trip to the north made clear, there is a way to enjoy the outdoors up there and still fall into the comfortable bed of a boutique hotel at night—you can (to paraphrase the saying), have your UP whitefish dip and eat it too.
(Also, you should definitely get the whitefish dip when you’re there. It’s addicting.)
It had been a while since I made my way into the UP, with my spouse and I usually stopping to the south in Traverse City and stocking up in the surrounding wine country on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, or in Petoskey, where there is a bar stool said to have once been Hemingway's favorite spot to drink. This summer, the UP was top on my list for a visit.
For this five-day trip, which is just 7 hours from home, I divided the peninsula between two boutique hotels, both of which allow for easier access to many of the UP’s must-sees.
First, the truth about UP hotels.
Many of the hotels on the peninsula are found on its far corners, with Marquette, Michigan to the west or Sault Ste. Marie to the east and St. Ignace to the south. Many of these options are chains—Econo Lodge, Best Western, Comfort Inn, and Holiday Inn—and often with older rooms that need updating. In between those far corners are scattered motels and campsites, a few of them playing fast and loose with the term “resort.”
Where did I stay?
I began my first two days along the northern shore in Munising, Michigan, an anchor city for the stunning beauty of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. There I stayed at Roam Inn, a boutique hotel with spacious rooms, a view of the bay, and easy access to restaurants. Roam Inn has 18 rooms; in the summer, a single king starts around $239 and a bay view king with a balcony is around $340 a night. Spacious and quiet, they are nicely appointed.
Roam’s restaurant, Tracey’s, really stands out and is a must-eat. Its menu offers plenty of choices among shared plates and entrees within a comfortable, but romantic dining experience.
Munising is a small town of 2,200, so dinner options are limited, but there are still places to get a bite. For breakfast, you can’t beat Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore. It frequently has a wait, so order online and walk to the bay for eating with a view. Many people swear by the local Eh! Burger, which offers burgers and fries, and has a nice view in the back, though on my visit, I found its service and food to be average at best. Instead, stop for tacos or sandwiches at Toby’s Dog House, a food truck that shares an eating space with Barge Inn, which has a well-stocked bar for cocktails and a relaxing outdoor seating space.
(And, if you like, Higher Love Cannabis Co. is in town; recreational marijuana, even for out-of-staters, is legal in Michigan.)
From Munising, you can easily divide your time between several stops. Be sure to download your maps to your phone before you go. Data is tricky on the peninsula, but GPS will still work with downloaded maps.
No visit should exclude seeing the sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks. These massive cliffs (and that is an understatement) jut out over the topaz waters of Lake Superior and are stunning. If you are into kayaking, and weather permits, you can join a number of outfitters who take large groups to see the cliffs up close. There are easier options than kayaking, however, especially if the weather isn’t cooperating, like Pictured Rocks Cruises, which offers day trips and sunset trips out to the bay.
The National Lakeshore stretches from Munising to Grand Marais in the East.
You could easily spend your entire time at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The park has access to beaches (like Miners and Twelvemile Beach), dunes (Grand Sable Banks and Dunes), waterfalls (like Munising, Miners, and Sable falls), and land features, like a beautiful outcropping called Miners Castle, and Log Slide Overlook — which was named after “a wooden chute that early logging companies used to slide logs 300 feet down the sand dune to Lake Superior.”
Access to these spots may require short, accessible walks (.5 mile) to short hikes (2-6 miles). Longer hikes are also available, like that of the 10-mile chapel loop. At points, these intersect with the North Country National Scenic Trail, which stretches approximately 4,700 miles across eight states—so you can tell your friends you technically hiked the North Country Trail while you were there.
One important note for hiking, depending on the year, the UP can have a serious problem with both black and stable flies, which swarm and have vicious bites. This year they weren’t bad, but always bring a bottle of picaridin insect repellent — Deet won’t cut it.
To the south of Munising, you can take an easy day trip to Manistique, Michigan, where you’ll find the emerald waters of Kitch-iti-kipi, which is Michigan’s largest freshwater spring. It has a constant temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Visitors self-regulate an observation raft that runs along on a steel cable and has a viewing window to see the spring; it expels 10,000 gallons of water a minute. (Lines can be long in season.)
Maybe this says something about my current view of humanity, but the raft works surprisingly well, given that it requires everyone to limit the number aboard to 40, someone to agree to turn the wheel, and all to be happy with limiting their time for others to try. (Social Contract, for the win.)
After Munising, we made our way to Birch Lodge at Trout Lake, Michigan—our home for the next three days.
Birch Lodge consists of an inn and a motel. An historically restored hospitality retreat, the early 20th-century inn offers boutique luxury rooms along the peaceful Trout Lake. It also includes access to a private beach and kayaks, which are free for guests. Rooms (starting around $239) are beautifully decorated, with elements added to bring out an aspect of the lodge’s history. Mine was a large, luxury king suite, with a sitting room and a lake view ($299).
There is nothing like Birch Lodge on the peninsula.
Next to the Lodge is a vintage motel, which is restored with mid-century modern decor. It consists of 8 rooms (starting around $199), each facing Trout Lake. As the Lodge expands, it will offer cabins and, according to current plans, will have a fully operational restaurant and bar by next Spring.
From Birch Lodge, there are easy drives to several other key stops along the UP. Roughly 50 minutes to the north is the massive, upper and lower Tahquamenon (pronounced like “phenomenon”) Falls of the Tahquamenon Falls State Park, which sits on 50,000 acres and includes hiking trails. The falls are “brown in color,” as a result of the tannins that leach “from the cedar swamps which the river drains.” Upper Falls is the largest, has a 50-foot drop, and stretches 200 feet across.
To the northeast, an hour's drive gets you to Sault Ste. Marie, where you’ll find the mammoth Soo Locks. These are considered a destination in themselves and showcase the impressive engineering it takes for ships to pass through. Entry is free. Check ahead for times to observe ships coming and going. There are also tour boats available for the locks if you want to get close.
For food in Sault Ste. Marie, check out Soo Brewing Company, which has rooftop seating and a view of Canada on the other side of St. Mary’s River.
After five days in the UP, we stopped by St. Ignace on the way home, where we ate at the Mackinac Grille, which has good pub food and waterfront views of Lake Huron. In St. Ignace you’ll also find the Museum of Ojibwa Culture, which tells the story of the Ojibwa/Anishinaabe people stretched across U.S. and Canadian borders, sells art from Ojibwa artists, and has a traditional longhouse on the property, which sometimes allows visitors to watch ceremonies (like naming ceremonies).
Before we made our final goodbyes and headed over the Mackinac Bridge to the lower peninsula of Michigan—more commonly known as “the mitten”—we stopped at Bridge View Park in St. Ignace. The park offers the best views of the bridge, which is the largest suspension bridge between two anchorages in the Western hemisphere.
There really is no place in the Midwest like the Upper Peninsula. It’s a sea of green trees and dazzling cliffs, and its soundtracks are those of crashing waves and powerful waterfalls. It leaves you disengaged, relaxed, and wanting more.
Perhaps, next time that “more” will be with a tent—and a truckload of insect spray.
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to elk living in the Upper Peninsula without qualifying that an appearance last year was rare and that most elk in the UP are limited to privately owned populations.