Keweenaw Adventure Company
Keweenaw Adventure Company

Swoop Around the Southern Coast of Lake Superior on This Road Trip That’s All About Adventure

If there’s an ideal summer road trip, this is it: A tri-state soiree from Minnesota to Michigan that is centered around the pristine Lake Superior, one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. Its vibrant, blue-green waters are always close by, and the shady trails along its banks offer respite from the sun (though with average temperatures in the mid-70s, you likely won’t need it). The lake and its islands have almost 3,000 miles of shoreline and border five national parks. Road trippers will be treated to pretty drives, sweeping views, sand dunes and sandy beaches, chilly lake dips, sea kayaking, camping, and beautiful trails. What else could better break up a summer drive?

Distance: 683 miles
States: 3
Time it would take to drive without stopping: 12 hours and 43 minutes one-way (return from Munising, Michigan, to Minneapolis is 7.5 hours)
Best time to go: Spring and summer are the best seasons on Lake Superior, though late summer is ideal for avoiding black flies

Bent Paddle Brewing Co.

Day 1: Minneapolis to Duluth

Miles: 155
Chances are high that you flew into Minneapolis-St. Paul. Luckily it’s only a two-hour drive from the capital up to the port city of Duluth. Just head north on Interstate 35 until you run into Lake Superior and spend the rest of the day exploring around town. Track down the roaming taco truck, Oasis Del Norte, and fuel up before making your way to Canal Park, the home of a historic lift bridge. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a ship coming into harbor (here’s the ship schedule if you’d rather rely on fact). Stroll along the Lake Walk, a flat paved path that hugs the water. Grab dinner at Bent Paddle Brewing Company and get some much-needed rest at Beacon Pointe, a hotel right on Lake Superior.

Big Top Chautauqua

Day 2: Duluth to Bayfield

Miles: 84
Grab an early coffee at Duluth Coffee Company and make the two-hour drive to Bayfield, Wisconsin, the gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The town was carved out of the forest in 1856 and hit its peak around 1900 when its fishing and lumber industries were booming. The local architecture speaks to the wealth of those boom times, when Queen Anne mansions and Victorians were en vogue. Take the 25-minute ferry (vehicles are welcome) over to Madeline Island, the spiritual center of the Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe) and Anishinaabe people, and visit Big Bay State Park or check out the various shops in town. Back on the mainland, check the schedule at Big Top Chautauqua, a local gem that hosts over 60 concerts during the summer season under a big blue tent. Eat at the family-owned Pier Plaza Restaurant before turning in at the historic Pinehurst Inn Bed & Breakfast.

Pinehurst Inn Bed & Breakfast

Day 3: Bayfield to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Miles: 133
Wake up early for a half-day sea kayak tour of the biggest of the 22 sea caves in the Apostle Islands. Tours with Lost Creek Adventures start at $70 per person and last about 3.5 hours. From there, take another two-hour drive to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park — the largest state park in Michigan, which is affectionately known as “the Porkies” — and make sure not to miss the 11-mile Black River National Forest Scenic Byway on the way. Stop and check out one of the five easy-to-access waterfalls, like Gorge and Potawatomi Falls, which are the most scenic and only require a 700-foot walk from the car. If you’ve got more gas in the metaphorical tank, take a hike on some of the 90 miles of trails in the park. The 8.2-mile Escarpment Trail that hugs the hillside above the tranquil Lake of the Clouds is unbeatable, but there’s also a shorter 1.8-mile round trip jaunt to the banks of the lake itself. Refuel by grabbing dinner at Syl’s Cafe, before heading to your room at one of the area’s many motels and cabins (from the Little Union Yurt to the Silver Sands Hotel or the Porcupine Lodge). Or, you could always pitch a tent for the night at one of the dozens of campgrounds, like Union River’s Bear Bear Campground.

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Keweenaw Adventure Company

Day 4: Porcupine State Park to Copper Harbor

Miles: 118
If you didn’t have time for a hike yesterday, sneak one in today before driving a little over two hours up to the Keweenaw Peninsula’s Copper Harbor. Just before hitting town, stop at the Eagle Harbor Lighthouse, which was built on a cliffside in 1851 just as the copper mining industry took off on the peninsula. There’s a museum ($8 for adults) and a nearby swimming beach to extend your visit. Copper Harbor, a former mining town, is now known for its nearly 40 miles of buttery trails that are a godsend for mountain biking aficionados. Rent a full-suspension rig at Keweenaw Adventure Company and, if you know your way around a bike, take it for a spin on The Flow trail, which boasts one of the area's longest descents. Refuel at Harbor Haus (try the lake trout!) and retire for the night at one of the log cabins of the charming Keweenaw Mountain Lodge. If you have an extra day (and love backpacking and camping), making a trip to Isle Royale is a must. The 900-square mile forested island in the middle of Lake Superior is the least-visited national park in the contiguous U.S. — it’s only accessible by boat or seaplane from the middle of May until September (3.5 hours by ferry).

Eagle Harbor Lighthouse | Shutterstock

Day 5: Copper Harbor to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Cue up a good podcast for the four-hour drive to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore where 40 miles of shoreline await. The options for an afternoon activity run the gamut: take a two-hour glass-bottom shipwreck tour (runs seven days a week), sea kayak along the lakeshore’s dunes and cliffs, or go for a hike. The standout gem in the area is the 10-mile Chapel Loop, which winds through a shady forest and past two waterfalls before joining the Lakeshore Trail for a four-mile section right along the cliff, which offers stunning views of the lake, Chapel Beach, and Chapel Rock. The adjacent million-acre Hiawatha National Forest offers camping and hiking, as well as some higher-octane adventure, like whitewater rafting on the Menominee River (two hours away), which has both flat water and rowdy Class IV rapids. Stay at the lakeside Sunset Motel in the tiny town of Munising or set up camp at one of Twelvemile Beach Campground’s 37 sites located on a bluff above the lake. Grab a slice at Pictured Rocks Pizza, which opens for the spring and summer every year.

If you have more time, it’s easy to spend an extra day or two in any of these locations (like by adding in some miles on Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail or the North Country National Scenic Trail). When you’re done, take a 7.5-hour cruise back to Minneapolis and drop off your trusty adventure mobile before heading home.