One of the Best American Road Trips Is Hiding Out in Michigan

They don’t call ‘em the Great Lakes for nothing!

Spread across 30,000 square miles, 14 counties, and two time zones, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is as wonderfully backwoods as one can still get in America. 

You may spot wolves, bears, and moose while making your way to the nearest one-block Main Street for a meat-and-veggie-filled pasty. There are funky ghost towns, old shipwrecks, and utterly surreal roadside stops galore. You can hunt for glow-in-the-dark Yooperlite stones, or hike through bat caves and old-growth maple forests. The world’s largest mushroom—known locally as Humongous fungus—even has its own festival in Crystal Falls. The possibilities are endless, and also weird as hell.

Bring a tent and a cooler, make sure you fill up the gas tank every chance you get, and get ready to return for some Great Lakes-goodness summer after summer. Starting in Mackinac and ending in St. Ignace, here’s how to road trip Michigan’s beloved Upper Peninsula.

Look out for crab apples | ALEXEY STIOP/SHUTTERSTOCK

Mackinac to Sault Ste. Marie

To start, do the touristy thing on Mackinac Island—the excessively whimsical, tiny, car-free island just 4.5 hours from Detroit or four hours from Grand Rapids. Bike, shop, eat fudge, gawk at the old Victorian homes, then head to the five-mile long Mackinac Bridge, which connects the Lower and the Upper Peninsulas. If driving over the windy road freaks you out, there’s a bridge escort service

Stop at the kitschy, cringeworthy Mystery Spot—not an uncommon roadside attraction, sure, but one that’s absolutely vital to the full UP experience. Water runs uphill! A chair balances in mid-air! You’ll be simultaneously embarrassed and secretly glad you went.  

Next, go feed deer at Deer Ranch in St. Ignace and stock up on Lehto's Pasties for the road before heading north up I-75 to Sault Ste. Marie (known locally as “The Soo”).  Enjoy a delicious-albeit-creepy dinner at The Antlers: Taxidermy Restaurant. They have 200 mounted animals for you to gaze upon (or do they gaze upon you?) while you eat.

Tahquamenon Falls
Tahquamenon Falls | Weidman Photography/Shutterstock

Tahquamenon Falls to Whitefish Point 

Leaving The Soo, head west on Lakeshore Drive for a scenic trip to the town of Paradise, where you can get some traditional UP fare: whitefish, smoked BBQ, and of course, more pasties at places like Brown Fisheries, the Inn Gastropub and Smokehouse, and the Berry Patch Bakery

It’s just a short drive to Tahquamenon Falls, the most recognizable waterfalls in Michigan. (Truly, every grandma in the state has a calendar hanging in the kitchen featuring Tahquamenon in autumn.) There are two, at the upper and lower regions of the river—if you only have time for one, pick the upper. The park also has a campground and gorgeous hiking trails if you want to stay the night. 

Up the road is Whitefish Point, with one of the oldest operating lighthouses on Lake Superior, and you can climb to the top for some stunning views across the water. The 80-mile stretch from here to Munising is known as "shipwreck alley," with around  200 shipwrecks spread throughout the area. If you’re into that sort of thing, head over to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum or try diving into the depths of Lake Superior.

Beware, the water is freezing | genesisgraphics/ E+/ Getty Images

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore 

Twisting and turning along the coast, you’ll pass through tiny Grand Marais about two hours west of Whitefish Point. This is the eastern gateway to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore’s 70,000 acres of trails, waterfalls, forests, rivers, and sand dunes, all of which back up to the Lake Superior shoreline. 

Go see the Pickle Barrel House Museum, a larger-than-life pickle barrel that was built in 1926 as a summer home for cartoonist William Donahey (of the cultishly popular "Teenie Weenie" cartoon strip). Grab a beer at the Dune Saloon Brewing Co. before setting out on a cruise to see landmarks from the water, including Lovers Leap, Indian Head, Miners Castle, and Chapel Rock. You can also kayak with a guide, but be prepared: even in mid-summer, the water is freezing cold.

If you prefer to stay on dry land, hike to Chapel Rock and enjoy the bonus view of Chapel Falls along the way. The beaches near the Grand Marais area, as well as in the Keweenaw Peninsula, are popular destinations for those searching for glow-in-the-dark Yooperlite stones on the shore. Just head out at night with a UV light to try to spot them. 

Munising is the next “big” town you’ll pass through, so fill the tank and stop in at Muldoon’s for, yup, yet another pasty. 

Brockway Mountain
Views from Brockway Mountain. | Gary R Ennis Photos/Shutterstock

Marquette, Houghton, and Copper Harbor

From Munising, take the M-28 along Lake Superior’s beautiful shoreline for just under an hour until you arrive at the hippest town in the Upper Peninsula: Marquette. Home to Northern Michigan University, this college town is pretty much NYC for locals—but, you know, with a population of 21,000. Stop by Lagniappes for live zydeco music and New Orleans cajun grub, down a beer over at Blackrocks Brewery, or check out world's largest piece of float copper in Presque Isle Park.  

Travel up the Keweenaw Peninsula to Houghton—where you can hike up 1300 feet to Michigan’s highest point of elevation at Mount Arvon, or embrace the rock collector’s paradise that is the Mineral Museum—before heading northeast up the peninsula to Copper Harbor. Once the heart of the UP’s massive copper industry, it’s now all about outdoor adventures. 

For an easy hike, Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary mixes boardwalk trails with steep, rocky pathways. It’s a 510-acre park of the last old-growth white pine stands in Michigan, and home to bears, moose, and eagles. If you have a bike or are a distance runner, try the 10-mile Brockway Mountain Drive—the highest paved road between the Rockies and the Alleghenies—for what might be the best view in the whole UP. From the 735-foot summit, you get 360-degree views of Lake Superior and the surrounding forests. You might be able to spot Isle Royale off in the distance, and on a really lucky evening, the Northern Lights. 

crystal cove
Crystal Cove at Isle Royale National Park | Carl TerHaar/ Moment Open/Getty Images

Isle Royale National Park

Speaking of which: Copper Harbor is the jump-off point for the ferry ride to rugged Isle Royale. If you want to go into the wild for a few days (or weeks), this island 3.5 hours off the coast should quench that thirst nicely for you.  There are no cars allowed, which means you explore the island’s 165 miles of relatively rustic trails and 30 different campgrounds by hiking, boating, canoeing, and kayaking.  Serious divers can check out Lake Superior’s infamous shipwrecks near the island; the historical vessels are protected by the NPS, so all dives must be guided.

Lake of the Clouds
Lake of the Clouds | PQK/Shutterstock

Porcupine Mountains

Driving back down the Keweenaw Peninsula, you’ll want to stock up on gas and snacks in Ontonagon before heading into Michigan’s largest state park, Porcupine Mountains (also known as the Porkies). The sweeping parklands have over 90 miles of hiking trails and 26 miles of cross country trails for visitors to trek, but don’t leave before checking out the overlook at picturesque Lake of the Clouds.

From there, pass through Iron Mountain, where you can watch over one million bats coming and going from their cave at the Old Millie Iron Mine. They’re most active from April to May and again from September to October, taking a break in the summer months. The area is also home to the impressive Pine Mountain Jump, one of the largest man-made ski jumps in the world. You can climb its 500 steps—which’ll take you 600 feet into the air, the equivalent of standing on the top floor of a 60-story skyscraper—any time of year to enjoy birds-eye views of the surrounding forest.

Michigan Natural Spring
Kitch-Iti-Kipi aka “The Big Spring” | Adventures On Wheels/Shutterstock

Kitch-Iti-Kipi Springs

Heading back east from the Porkies to Manistique takes about three and half hours, but you’ll have the very Instagrammable Kitch-Iti-Kipi (“The Big Spring”) waiting for you. It’s a 40-foot deep active freshwater spring that remains an icy 45 degrees year round and pumps 10,000 gallons of water a minute. There’s a hand-cranked, slightly-precarious raft you can take across the near-transparent water to check out the scores of fish and underwater trees that lie just beneath the surface. 

Once you’ve gotten your fill, head to the Big Spring Inn about a half-mile away to try UP beers. They have Blackrocks, Ore Dock, Keweenaw Brewing, Upper Hand, and Cognition on hand.

King's Fish Market Retail
Don’t go home without visiting King’s | King's Fish Market Retail

Manistique, finishing up in St. Ignace

The last leg of the trip winds along US-2, perched between Lake Michigan’s northern shoreline and the UP’s sweeping forests. Refill your tank in Naubinway, and be sure to stop in King's Fish Market. Along with tasty local food—they carry every kind of smoked fish you can imagine, as well as hand-parched wild rice and cheese curds—King’s is essentially an enormous garage sale. There are souvenirs, crazy cookie jars, camo wear, weird mugs—you could spend hours digging through the goodies. The joint is pretty much the UP in a nutshell: great food and kitsch in a gorgeous location.

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Cathy Brown splits her time between traveling the globe writing for Lonely Planet and CNN, working with Indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon, and hanging out at home in her garden and hosting permaculture and medicinal plant retreats.