I may give the Midwest a hard time, especially since I’ve been trying to escape ever since I landed back here in 2006, but there are some hidden gems worth exploring. One of those is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, also known as the U.P. (Residents are called Yoopers) The U.P. is a 6-8 hour drive from Chicago, which is why I lived in Chicago for years before ever making the journey. I mean, I can fly to Ireland in less than 8 hours. But the Upper Peninsula is worth it, trust me!
Hiawatha National Forest (6 hours from Chicago)
One of my first trips to the UP, one I repeated 3-4 times, is to a forest service cabin north of Escanaba. My friend Randall organizes this annual trip in late April. The cabins are rustic (no electricity or plumbing) but perfect for an outdoors weekend with friends. We have had lovely spring weather with hikes through trillium-filled woods, while other years the snow was so deep we couldn’t drive all the way to the cabin. If rustic “glamping” is your jam, you should definitely check out the cabins operated by the Hiawatha National Forest.
Sylvania Wilderness (6.5 hours from Chicago)
Another scenic destination in the Upper Peninsula is Sylvania Wilderness, near Watersmeet, Michigan. Sylvania has been described as a mini-Boundary Waters, so I always wanted to kayak there, but ended up backpacking instead. Sylvania has 34 named lakes, surrounded by sandy beaches, hiking trails and primitive campgrounds. Now that I’ve experienced portaging, I think backpacking is the way to go! Portaging a kayak packed for multi-day adventure would not be fun. There are plenty of drive-in campgrounds and cabins in the area as well.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (7 hours from Chicago)
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is another gem of the Upper Peninsula. The “Porkies” are nestled along the southern shore of Lake Superior and are a popular destination for camping and backpacking. There are also cabins and yurts available, and winter ski/snowshoe trips are another option. We hiked a bit near Presque Isle campground, following the river trail to Lake Superior.
Somehow, I was able to get a campsite at the Union Bay campground in the park on a holiday weekend with no reservation. (I don’t recommend this approach, though!) The campground was nice, albeit full of RV’s on a holiday weekend, but very clean facilities and walking trails right to Lake Superior. After setting up camp, dinner and a nap, I set out to practice some night photography. Little did I know, it doesn’t actually get dark this far north until almost midnight! I managed a few star shots, but unfortunately, no Northern Lights. I’ll have to go back in the winter when it gets dark earlier!
Lake of the Clouds is another popular spot in the Porkies. There is a short hike to a nice overlook, and trails around the lake that I assume are less crowded than the paved trail Bailey and I took.
Keewinaw Peninsula (7-8 hours from Chicago)
The Keewinaw Peninsula is a rugged strip of land jutting into Lake Superior that will remind you of the Maine coast. The Peninsula starts in the small college town of Houghton and the road ends at Copper Harbor, with few towns in between. I first visited Copper Harbor to catch a ferry to Isle Royale, but wanted to come back and spend some time on my own as we were a bit rushed the previous trip. At Ft Wilkins State Park, I was also able to score a campsite with no reservations, albeit a scruffy patch of dirt next to the bathroom. (I think “beggars can’t be choosers” is applicable here!) There are two roads to Copper Harbor – one is along the water and the other is along a ridge-line. Both are worthy of a drive!
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (6.5 hours from Chicago)
Pictured Rocks Cruising
Pictured Rocks extends along the shore of Lake Superior from the small town of Munising to Grand Marais, approximately 40 miles East. As part of the National Park Service, dogs aren’t allowed on the hiking trails. I was thrilled when I found out that Pictured Rocks Cruises offers on-site kennels for customers! I called from the road and made a cruise reservation. My ticket was $38, which I thought was a good price, given that parking and dog kennel were free! The cruise lasted 2 1/2 hours, and is a great way to see the park from the water. If you are not a backpacker, you should definitely take a boat to see the highlights of Pictured Rocks
Pictured Rocks Backpacking
After a small intro to Pictured Rocks on the boat cruise, I made plans to return in late September for a solo backpacking trip. I submitted a permit application about a month ahead of time, and waited for the confirmation. (I thought I was being overly cautious by getting a permit ahead of time, but saw several folks at the ranger station having a hard time piecing together an itinerary with available campsites.)
Backcountry campsites at Pictured Rocks are spaced about 4-7 miles apart, along the 42 mile Lakeshore Trail (which also is part of the North Country Trail.) One great thing about this hike is that there is a company that runs a shuttle bus up and down the park. Generally, shuttling cars is one of the trickier logistics of planning a backpacking trip, so it’s one less thing to worry about here. Although I had a conservative itinerary and met two great ladies the first day on the trail, I realized by the 2nd night that solo backpacking was not my jam. After a sleepless night of silence in the woods, I bailed out at Twelve Mile Beach campground and took the shuttle back to my car. FAIL. It was still a great trip and I’m glad I tried it. I will give solo backpacking another shot with my guard dog next time!
I do think Pictured Rocks is a great place for a beginner backpacker or first-time solo trip. It’s nearly impossible to get lost, as you follow the lakeshore almost the whole way and if you veer too far south, you’ll hit a road. There are established campsites along the way, all of them have bear boxes and poles, many have a vault toilet and potable water, and there are several “bailout options” as you pass through several day-use areas along the way. I recommend getting a map ahead of time from Michigan Trail Maps – my map had much more detail than what the park provided, and I didn’t see any other map options in town.
Pictured Rocks Car Camping
After my failed backpacking trip, I was able to join my new friends at Twelvemile Beach for some car camping. This campground is the bomb! It’s a small campground that does not take reservations, so getting a spot might be tricky, but it’s worth a shot! Campsites are perched on the bluff above the beach, and you can hear crashing waves all night long. If Twelvemile Beach is full, Hurricane River campground is just a few miles north and has more campsites. (And dogs are allowed, just not on the trails)
Tahquamenon Falls State Park (8 hours from Chicago)
Tahquamenon Falls State Park has one of the largest waterfalls west of the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get a campsite here, even though it was the last night of a holiday weekend. We arrived pretty late, so I didn’t have much time to explore as I now had to worry about where I would sleep that night.
There is a nice short boardwalk hike to the main area of the falls. The campground and state park facilities looked really nice, too. There is a boat rental concession so you can paddle around some of the falls.
Mackinac Bridge (6.5 hours from Chicago)
After striking out at Tahquemenon Falls, I considered getting a hotel, but was now in the pricey tourist zone near Mackinaw Island. I got a campsite at Straits State Park, which is near the famous Mackinac Bridge. I’m now kicking myself for not going to photograph the bridge at night. I had no idea how close I was! First thing in the morning, I drove to a few viewpoints to see the bridge before driving across it. Mackinac Island is a popular tourist destination, but accessible only by ferry as cars aren’t allowed on the island. I think it’s fairly touristy (think lots of fudge and taffy shops!) so I wasn’t disappointed to pass it up.
If you’re doing this all in one trip, it makes a great circle around Lake Michigan. The Lower Peninsula of Michigan has lots to offer as well, including tons of adorable beach towns. However, you’ll find a lot more people here and you will quickly miss the open roads and serenity of the Upper Peninsula.
If you’re looking for a fun itinerary, I saw this UP waterfall itinerary on Facebook, and loosely based one of my trips on this waterfall trail through the Upper Peninsula.
Have you been to the Upper Peninsula? What spots am I missing?
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