Up The U.P.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Offers Unspoiled Wilderness Touring…And More
American Motorcyclist, February 1983
Story By Greg Harrison
This is a new series on the Garage, a look back at articles from motorcycle magazines from twenty-plus years ago. While magazines are quickly becoming a relic from the past, there’s a lot of good information that has been produced that nobody notices anymore. These articles will probably never see reprints, but they’re presented here for you to enjoy and appreciate!
Rugged beauty,pastel skies, azure waters and lots of green trees..few people, fewer freeways and an utterly relaxed feeling…these are the sights and feelings of touring Michigan’s Upper Peninsula by motorcycle. And while it’s far off the beaten path, the “U.P.” is a worthy candidate for your touring attention.
Although attached to the rest of the country via Wisconsin to the southwest, the U.P. seems like a huge island, as well is should with over 1,100 miles of shoreline along Great Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior. Other than the land route through Wisconsin,, the U.P.’s only links with the rest of us are the bridge to Canada at Sault Ste. Marie and “Mighty Mac,” the incredible Mackinac Bridge that connects the Upper and Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Debbie and I began our tour there.
My notes mention a phenomenon that I barely remember, but it was a long, hot ride through Ohio and lower Michigan in mid-July last year to get to the U.P. But the cooling fog that often shrouds “Mighty Mac” felt good as we left the Lower Peninsula and the heat and humidity were suddenly left behind. A good fish dinner, a short stroll through the funky old downtown section of St. Ignace and a good night’s sleep with cooling breezes to obliterate the memory of a sticky day’s ride had us in fine shape to begin exploring the following morning.
We didn’t have far to go to experience one of the major highlights of this tour, but unfortunately our KZ1100 had to sit this one out. Debbie and I boarded an early-morning ferry for a foggy but invigorating 35-minute cruise to Mackinac Island, while the Kawasaki sat forlornly at the parking lot near the dock.
Based on what little knowledge we’d gleaned about the island from some schmaltzy tourist brochures, we expected Mackinac to be a false-fronted tourist trap. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
In fact, Mackinac Island is a delightful step back in time to a turn-of-the-century New England-like resort town. Beautiful Victorian hotels, shops and homes abound here, as well as the placid lifestyle of a lazy summer afternoon that’s complemented by a total ban of all motorized vehicles. If you want to get around this spacious island, your choices are shoe leather, horseback, horse-drawn carriage or you can opt for bicycle transportation as we did. But believe me, those hilly roads look like paths up Mt. Everest when you try to pedal up them! I knew we’d miss having the motorcycle, but only my legs knew how much we’d miss it!
Mackinac is the site of many of the state’s oldest buildings and we spent some time exploring Fort Mackinac, built in 1780 and administered in turn by the French, British and Americans over the years it has stood guard over the Straits of Mackinac. We also bicycled to the magnificent Grand Hotel, largest summer resort in the world, and viewed the opulent buildings and grounds.
We could have spent several days on the island exploring and relaxing, but we had an entire peninsula to see. We caught a return ferry just as the sun cut through the fog and passed boa after boat loaded with tourists headed where we’d just been. I’m glad we visited in the quiet, early morning hours.
U.S. Route 2 does its best to hug the Lake Michigan shoreline as it runs due west from St. Ignace, and when it succeeds it’s a great road. Endless beaches, sand dunes and nice campgrounds are the theme for the first 50 miles and it’s a pleasure to ride.
But when the road turns inland at Naubinway it becomes decidedly less interesting. The farther we went, the blacker the sky became, and finally I was certain it was storming everywhere but on us. I reached a mental conviction that we’d become impervious to rain. “No wimpy rainsuits for us,” I shouted to Debbie, just before the first big raindrop hit the windshield. I started to downshift with the third drop, but by the time I reached neutral and rolled to a stop on the berm we were as wet as if we’d jumped in the lake. So much for divine intervention that day.
Sunshine, warmer temperatures and a return to the shoreline brightened our spirits at Escanaba, but Route 2 quickly resumed it’s rather ordinary existence by cutting back inland. Trees, logging trucks and straight stretches of pavement accompanied us to Crystal Falls, where we decided to veer off our planned route to Ironwood on the western border and instead set our sights on Lake Superior to the north. U.S. Route 141 headed in that direction, so we hung a right turn. Schedules, like records, are made to be broken.
A combination of U.S. 141, State Route 28 and U.S. Route 45 saw us through some heavily wooded countryside broken by crystal-clear rivers and creeks that demanded a stop or two for some serious wading in the warmth of the late afternoon. Speaking of serious, the entire state of Michigan is dead serious about providing public recreation areas ranging from hundreds of fishing, boating and camping sites to the best roadside park system we’ve encountered. If you’re looking to get away from it all for a little camping and fly fishing in the wilderness, the U.P. is for you.
We located an inexpensive rental cabin on the shores of Superior near the town of Ontonagon just as twilight crept over the beach. Then we treated ourselves to a four-course supper at a small diner in town for the princely sum of $6.95 for two. And finally, we put an end to a bad joke I’d been perpetuating since we’d entered the area.
Throughout the trip we ha seen advertisements for “Hot Pasties,” and while Debbie figured it was an abbreviation for pastries, I had different ideas, noting that “I’ll take two of those to go-go.” (I couldn’t for the life of me understand why that line didn’t stay funny after the first two or three times, but my wife always had had a dreadful sense of humor.)
In any event, “Hot Pasties” turned out to be meat pies made of beef, onions, carrots and potatoes, all wrapped in a pastry shell. The early Scottish copper miners who introduced the recipe to the U.P. claimed it’s a dish that really sticks to your ribs. The one I ate that night must have been the exception, for it barely had time to nod at my ribs before plummeting like a pickaxe to the bottom of my stomach, where it remained a vocal resident for the remainder of the night.
Dan found us on the shore road headed for the Porcupine Mountain State Park in the northwest corner of the peninsula. The north shore differs greatly from the south; here jagged mountains and rocky, remote shorelines are the rule. Lake Superior is so overwhelmingly huge that I continually caught myself calling it the ocean.
Cool, crisp temperatures in the low 60s made us even more alert to the sunny morning and scenic surroundings as we rode through the park. We parked and hiked the short distance to an overlook at Lake of the Clouds, where we were afforded a panoramic view of virgin lake and timberland on one side and endlessly blue Superior on the other. This is gorgeous country,
Sate Routes 33 and 28 took us back inland, but the road got progressively better the farther north we traveled. Past the cities of Hancock and Houghton both the terrain and the towns became more scenic and remote as we headed for the northernmost tip of the peninsula. Twisty roads, hilly-to-mountainous terrain and a number of detours in order to follow the shore made this part of the tour our favorite.
The Brockway Mountain Drive deserves special mention. Honest mountain/lakeshore overlooks from hundreds of feet up, tight switchbacks and dozens of hawks soaring overhead in the stiff breezes remind us of Nova Scotia’s revered Cabot Trail. This is a very special 10-mile ride.
Copper Harbor is the town that literally marks the end of the road, and it has a definite outpost feel to it. After a late lunch we toured another restored historic area, Fort Wilkins, where costumed guides actually live the roles of people who lived at the fort in the 19th century. They welcome questions and conversation, but they will only answer in character. Ask about Michigan in the 1800s and you’ll get an education. Ask where the nearest gas station is and you’ll get a blank stare in return!
We retraced part of our route to Houghton, then it was a pleasant ride south and east on U.S. Route 41 to a night’s stay in Marquette.
Another picture-perfect morning found us headed due east on State Route 28 for a few hours’ worth of saddle time before detouring onto Michigan Route 123 at Newberry. Our destination was a different type of water scene--the kind that cascades off a sheer rock face into a deep river below.
The Tahquamenon Falls are often called Michigan’s Niagara, since they are the largest waterfall east of the Mississippi save the New York/Canada version. More than 200 feet wide, the falls feature a 50-foot drop. They are located in a remote state park, some 60 miles off the beaten track. Low-lying marshlands blend into an almost alpine setting on the road leading here, and the trip back through the frontier town of Paradise is worth the journey alone, especially if you stop to munch on a “Yukon Burger” under the totem pole at the town restaurant!
Sault Ste. Marie marks the northeastern tip of the U.P. and the terminus of out trip. The town has a number of tourist attractions that vie for your dollar, but the best attraction by far is free. The Soo Locks are the only gateway to Lake Superior for all Great Lakes and ocean shipping, so the massive freighters—some longer than three football fields—pass almost within arm’s length as they are raised or lowered 21 feet in one of the five giant locks. Featuring an informative museum and beautiful park, the Soo Locks are a fascinating place to visit.
We also decided to tour “Valley Camp”, a 550-foot freighter that was retired from service several years ago and now is open to the public as a museum. We explored every nook and cranny on the ship, including a Great Lakes shipping museum, located in one of her cavernous holds, that contains several articles from the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald that sank in Lake Superior several years ago.
It’s interesting to note that in our 750 miles of travel in the U.P. we touched only nine miles of interstate highway! St. Ignace to Sault Ste. Marie is 52 miles via I-75, the one and only freeway on the U.P. But for miles and miles of solitude and some unusually beautiful scenery, I suggest that when you cross “Mighty Mac,” you should take a hard look at those 52 miles to the Soo and then consider the longest detour your schedule will allow.