Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is quite unlike any other place in the world: vast, wild, and untamed from the modern civilization that encompasses most of the eastern United States; a place with more campgrounds than hotels, and more motels than actual hotels. In fact, if the Upper Peninsula decided to become its own state, it would be the least populous state in the U.S., even though it is twice the size of New Jersey.
For a child growing up in the Lower Peninsula, a trip to the U.P. always proved one thing: an adventure. Whether trekking through the dense pine forests, jumping off cliffs into frigid Lake Superior, or climbing monstrous sand dunes, it is a playground for both adults and kids alike. To this day, a drive across the Mackinac Bridge, which connects the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, still gives me the same butterflies as it did years ago.
The Grand Island Ice Caves
Upper Peninsula winters are brutal, but with brutality comes beauty. I first experienced the Grand Island Ice Caves about four years ago, and each year, if the winters are cold enough to freeze the bay between Munising and Grand Island, I make a journey to the shores of Lake Superior. During every visit, the temperatures have plummeted to 10 to 20 degrees below zero, thanks to the wind chill, making the reward of the three-quarter-mile trek over ice and through the elements that much sweeter.
In the summer, Grand Island is a backcountry camping haven, accessible by a ferry from Munising. Expect to be a true camper and rough it. There are few designated campsites, no electrical hook ups, and zero stores or medical facilities. Although the island isn’t huge, bring navigational equipment other than your phone. If you get split up from your group and lost, it might turn into a rough night alone in the woods. And don’t be surprised if you see a bear, as there are many within the five-mile long island.
The Porcupine Mountains
Michigan’s only mountain range sits in the far northwest corner of the state. It’s so isolated from the majority of Michigan’s major cities that most Michiganders who wish to visit the secluded area face a nine to 10-hour drive. However, the beauty (especially in the fall) proves that the long drive, which boasts many waterfall pit stops along the way, is completely worth the unfiltered, off-the-grid mountain experience tucked just off the banks of Lake Superior.
Someone once told me that the spring of Kitch-iti-kipi was clearer than the waters of the Caribbean — I had a hard time believing it. However, it is, in fact, the most pristine water I’ve ever witnessed. As you maneuver across the lake in a non-motorized boat, you can see the 40-foot depths perfectly, along with the massive fish that swim far below. It is an incredible spectacle, but I recommend going in the fall to avoid summer crowds.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is quickly gaining national attention, and for good reason. Each time I visit the area I am left in awe. Ditch the Pictured Rocks Boat Tours (which will be crowded), and instead hike the Chapel Loop Trail that brings you to the edges of two-hundred foot cliffs, through hidden sea caves, and alongside beautiful waterfalls. If you’ve got a few days, hike the 40-mile backcountry trail, but be sure to hang your food at night as bears are prevalent in the area.
Cliff Jumping at Presque Isle Park
A popular summer activity near Marquette is heading to the “Black Rocks” at Presque Isle Park. The first time I jumped off these 10 to 25-foot cliffs, I was 12 years old. Each summer, if I make it up to the Marquette area, a jump off the rocks is tradition. The hardest part isn’t jumping — it’s preparing for the impact of the 45 to 55-degree water, which, even in the midst of summer, will take your breath away.
If you aren’t into cliff jumping, the surrounding area boasts incredible black rocks and cliffs lined with northern pine trees. It’s one of my favorite spots to sit and take in the beauty of the Lake Superior shoreline.
The Abandoned Town of Fayette
Fayette, a once booming industrial community, now stands shelled, empty, and ghostly along the banks of the Great Lakes. It overlooks a unique feature of the Lake Michigan coastline: tall white cliffs.
Lake Michigan is famous for its miles of sandy beaches, while Lake Superior tends to feature a rocky shoreline. I had heard many rumors of a historic abandoned town in the Upper Peninsula, but it took me years to make it to the site — and it did not disappoint. If you’re feeling adventurous, take a hike out to the point along the cliffs. But beware, arachnophobes! Although stunning from afar, the cliffs will bring you face-to-face with thousands of some of Michigan’s biggest spiders that call the rock face home.
Showering in Miners Falls
Part of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Miners Falls is a gorgeous and serene waterfall far beyond cell service and worries. In the summer months, expect to see a few other hikers at the viewing platform, but don’t stop where the wooden trail ends. A small dirt path leads around the platform with a short, but steep scramble to the base of the waterfall. After a long weekend camping, dancing, and adventuring around the U.P., a shower in this waterfall is the closest thing to pure bliss. There are few things better than bathing in a beautiful cascade of water surrounded by the lush green forests of Northern Michigan.
The best part of all the adventures listed above is their remoteness. Don’t expect to rely on Google Maps, as any destination outside of a town will prove a 50/50 shot for cell phone service. Make sure to keep an eye on gas, as you don’t want to end up cruising down a middle-of-nowhere road with no service, below E, hoping you’ll somehow coast into a gas station. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us (and yes, I made it to a gas station aptly named “The Oasis”).