A Superior & Nearly Free Adventure in
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
For the most part, all of the fun things to do in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are free. It’s free to cliff dive from the Black Rocks at Presque Isle Park near Marquette. It’s free to watch the sunsets and sunrises from the cobble-filled beaches that surround Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. Sometimes the sunsets last beyond 11 o’clock at night and the orange, red and yellow glow of the sky seems to stretch endlessly on the horizon. The Upper Peninsula is so far north and Lake Superior so big, that it feels like the edge of the world.
Because of this, another free and cherished experience is seeing the Northern Lights. It’s not guaranteed, but if the conditions are right, it’ll be there. A place called Brockway Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the best places in the lower 48 states to see the colorful display. There are also Dark Sky zones in the area that have some of the clearest views of the night sky in the eastern United States. In the summer, you can see the Milky Way arching over Lake Superior and more stars than you ever realized were there, all for free.
It’s free to hike next to the bright blue waters that crash upon the famous and tropical-looking Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The beaches are free to swim at and sunbathe on, and there’s enough space for everyone to have their own private getaway. The lakeshore contains 42 miles of beaches and 73,236 acres of natural beauty.
Beach-goers can set up camp along a sandy beach or find a rocky cove hidden from the view of the shore. An entire day can be spent at these secluded spots. The soft, hypnotic waves of Lake Superior and the overall beauty of the area make it easy to fully relax. Bring a book, a towel, snacks, and even a fishing pole. Kids enjoy swimming, flying kites, building sandcastles and using the flat, lake-weathered rocks to make forts.
The endless miles of mountain biking and hiking trails are also free, as are visiting the 77 waterfalls located in the area of Marquette, which is a city that can act as a base-camp when visiting the “U.P.,” as the locals call it.
Even lodging options can be whittled down to free or nearly free. There are rugged backcountry campsites that cost nothing to use. Many are located right next to the lake and in pine forests that drop a bed of soft needles on the ground. This makes for comfortable tent camping. Other people use the pine trees to hoist sleeping pods. They build small fires on the beach, and wait for the sun to set and the stars to come out. Most campsites are located near designated parking areas and not too far from civilization. There are also traditional campgrounds and RV parks with affordable prices and fun amenities located throughout the Upper Peninsula.
Above photo used with permission and by Phil Stagg
All of these freebies can make the fun stuff that costs a little bit of money worth it. This includes kayaking or paddle boarding along the Pictured Rocks lakeshore (unless you bring your own boat), or taking the famous Pictured Rock cruises. The cruises pass directly next to the castle-like rock formations and natural arches on the water. It looks like a scene from Treasure Island.
There’s also the local cuisine. You have to try the pasties and the locally sourced white fish and smoked fish. All can be found pretty much everywhere you go, and many restaurants have different takes on the three meals.
A pasty (pronounced like nasty), is a baked pastry that is traditionally filled with beef, diced potatoes, onion and rutabaga. They are inexpensive, taste great and fill you up for a day of adventure.
Kayaking trips run about $100 per person, while the cruises are $38 for adults and $10 for children. If camping isn’t your thing, Marquette has all kinds of lodging, from bed and breakfasts to traditional hotels and cabins. The elegant Landmark Inn in downtown Marquette is a popular destination. Prices run the gamut.
Two other places along the shore that have lodging options are Grand Marais and Munising. Munising is especially charming and centrally located between many points of interest in the area. Grand Marais has a sandy, cobble-filled beach with wooden shelters and swings that are made from driftwood collected on the beach.
Visitors also enjoy using the black, blue, red and white cobble stones to make pictures and geometrical shapes in the sand.
Munising has a mountain biking park, lighthouses and is a central place to enjoy miles of hiking and cycling trails, as well as water activities.
Some of the hikes in Munising transverse massive sand dunes that can reach about 250-feet-high! Other trails go inland, often into deep forests where it is rumored that Big Foot lives. There are even Big Foot excursions offered by local outfits, taking visitors in search of the creature.
There are many other types of adventure to be had. Believe it or not, surfing is popular at a place called The Zoo near Marquette. Waves can range from 3- to 12-feet-high on Lake Superior, depending on the wind. There’s also rock climbing, charter fishing, and many people say the fall foliage in the Upper Peninsula is far superior to that of New England, and much wilder and vast.
The area is filled with a variety of unique wildlife. This includes moose, wolves, elk, bobcats and bears. Possibly the most striking and most common animal to be seen is the sandhill crane. According to the Michigan Audubon Society, they are believed to be the oldest living bird species on earth, having existed for more than 2.5 million years in their present form. They can measure up to five-feet-tall and have wings that span six to seven feet. They are often spotted along the rural highways in the Upper Peninsula and are hard to miss!
Along with lots of wildlife, Marquette also has plenty of nightlife. The hip and trendy downtown contains breweries, restaurants, pubs, shops and tourist attractions. It also has grocery stores to stock up on camping supplies (including a co-op grocery store), and everything else needed to enjoy a great vacation in the area.
By car, the Upper Peninsula is located about seven hours from most of the Miami Valley. Interstate 75 is used for most of the drive.
Upon reaching the Upper Peninsula and crossing the impressive Mackinac Bridge, it’s about another two hours to Marquette. However, there are many places to see between Mackinac and Marquette. This makes Mackinac City or Mackinac Island a good place to stop before starting fresh in the U.P. the next day. Both of these towns are filled with restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions to break up the drive.
Other attractions in the Upper Peninsula include the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point, the Lake of the Clouds area, and the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, which is Michigan’s largest state park. There’s also the Keeweenaw Mines and Christmas Casino (among other small casinos that dot the region).
If you’re up for the trip, Isle Royale National Park is located north of Marquette. This is one of the most secluded and least visited national parks in the United States, yet possibly one of the most striking and wild. It’s also one of the best places in the lower 48 states to see the Northern Lights and the clear night sky.
Overall, the U.P. is a place that should probably be visited during two times of the year; once in the summer to enjoy all of the free water recreation and sunbathing, and again in the fall to see the amazing foliage and scenery. Either way, it’s a great place to have an awesome adventure.