We spent nearly a month in Minnesota, swimming, fishing, turtle racing (seriously), and generally relaxing, living the stationary and indoor plumbing lifestyle at Jackie’s parents’ place. We didn’t plan to stay as long as we did, but the comfort and hospitality level were just too tempting. Like all good things our lake cabin time had to come to an end, and so we headed east to the Lake Superior port city of Duluth.
We hadn’t made any reservations and were unfortunately punished for our spontaneity. Our first choice of campgrounds, a city park in Cloquette turned out to be a bust. It was full up with seasonal campers, who park for the entire summer. Disappointed but undeterred we headed for the familiar surroundings of a casino parking lot, this time the Black Bear Casino in Cloquette. While it was nice to be able to stay, our neighbors were a little creepy so we packed up the next morning and moved to another familiar bailout spot, Walmart.
Our goal was to explore downtown Duluth so we left the camper at Walmart and headed into the city. We parked close to the harbor and started exploring, first heading to the public beach to check out Lake Superior. After some rock-throwing, we headed over to the mouth of the harbor where we were lucky enough to see the 767-foot cargo ship Philip R. Clark pass under the lift bridge on her way to the harbor.
After checking out the lighthouse at the end of the canal, we headed back towards the lift bridge where we visited the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor’s Center, a great free museum with exhibits all about Great Lakes shipping history. The boys seemed generally interested in the museum that featured model boats, maps, and a full-scale pilot house where they could ‘steer’ their own ship. Afterward, we ate lunch and walked around the downtown area which was teaming with tourists. We rode the free local trolley over to a playground where the kids enjoyed some playtime. Nearby they were setting up for the Tall Ships Festival, part of the reason for the busyness and our lack of camping options.
Duluth was great and we would have liked to stay in Duluth to see the tall ships come in, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Our next destination was Herbster Wisconsin on Lake Superior’s South Shore. We were able to snag a spot at the Town of Clover campground right on the lake. Herbster is tiny and there wasn’t too much ‘town stuff’ to do, but we were content to sit on the beach where the boys played and made sandcastles for days on end. The weather was nice every day, with the only downside being a proliferation of black flies in the campground area. Luckily the beach didn’t have the same problem so we tried to stay there as much as possible.
After Herbster, we continued along the South Shore to our next stop in Bayfield Wisconsin, the gateway to the Apostle Islands. We stayed at Dalrymple Park, a primitive campground right on the lake, but with no real beach. Dalrymple Park was conveniently located, just a mile or so from Bayfield.
While in Bayfield we visited the Bayfield Maritime Museum, which featured many interesting exhibits similar to the Maritime Museum in Duluth but focusing a bit more on Great Lakes fishing history. While in town the boys played at the local playground and we boat watched at the marina. I mountain biked at the nice trails on the ski hill maintained by the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA). I fell twice and broke a chain. It seems I’m losing my edge.
One day we picked blueberries at a local farm in the morning, then later that afternoon enjoyed swimming at the local rec center. Jackie made some delicious blueberry jam with our crop. The next day we headed over to Meyers Beach, part of the National Lakeshore and were disappointed to find was a federal fee area not included in our interagency pass. After dutifully paying, we were further disappointed to find rough seas down on the beach. We weren’t comfortable with the boys swimming in the choppy waters so we moved on to Little Sand Bay, which was free and a little bit more sheltered. The boys played all afternoon.
On our final day in Bayfield, we hiked the Houghton Falls trail out to Lake Superior where we saw some extraordinary rock formations, although no waterfalls due to the time of year. After the hike, we went back to town where the boys played on one of the public beaches and I ran the Brownstone Trail, where large portions were closed due to cliff erosion from high lake levels.
Bayfield was our last stop in Wisconsin. The remainder of our Great Lakes blitz would be conducted from the unique state of Michigan. We started in the Upper Penninsula, also known as the UP. Its residents are called Yoopers, and nearly every car is adorned with some sort of Yooper paraphernalia. Our first stop was Baraga where we stayed at the Ojibwa Casino. This casino had designated camp spots with full hookups and provided a nice base camp to explore Michigan’s Keweenaw Penninsula also known as Copper Country.
We only had one day to explore the Keweenaw. We started close to Baraga where we stopped for a quick picture at the Sand Point Lighthouse located in L’Anse Bay. The lighthouse had seen better days but still had heart in a Charlie Brown Christmas tree sort of way. From there we headed up the peninsula through the lovely town of Houghton, home of Michigan Tech (go Huskies!). We crossed another lift bridge in the middle of town where Portage Lake flows out to Lake Superior. On the return trip, we were excited to see the bridge in action, making way for a sailboat. Our main destination for the day was the town of Calumet just north of Houghton, home of the newly created Keweenaw National Historic Park.
Our visit was well-timed to coincide with the biggest day of the year in Calumet, Pasty Fest! Not to be confused with ‘Pastie Fest’, Pasty Fest is a celebration of all things Pasty. For those not in the know, the Pasty is like a calzone but with boring stuff inside like potatoes, onions, carrots, and ground beef. Originally a convenient lunch for copper miners, the pasty is now the official comfort food of the Upper Penninsula. I was lukewarm on them, but for Jackie, they hit the spot.
Our first stop in Calumet was the Keweenaw National Historic Park Visitor’s Center, a nicely remodeled Masonic Temple. The peninsula is home to an ancient lava flow, featuring some of the purest copper on the face of the earth. Copper from the Keweenaw was mined for about 7000 years ending in the 20th century and is the only known site of prehistoric copper mining on the continent. There were various interesting exhibits detailing the daily life of 19th-century copper miners. In its heyday, Calumet was a melting pot of poor European people trying to make a better life in the mining biz. These people had grit.
Pasty Fest filled the main drag with live music, a classic car show, and even a foam machine. The boys got foamy, we voted for our favorite cars, and we marinated in all things pasty. We ate a hearty lunch of Pastys, Juggalo style with a side of Faygo. Before leaving town, we checked out the old St. Anne’s Catholic Church saved and restored by historically minded Yoopers. The former church is now the Keweenaw Heritage Center. On our way out of town, the route was blocked by the Pasty Fest Parade. We decided to cool our heels, marveling at life-sized Pastys, local politicians, and marching bands. While we waited for parade traffic to subside we visited the Coppertown Mining Museum where we found yet more exhibits all about copper mining. Before leaving the peninsula, we stopped at a beautiful sandy beach on Lake Superior where we all swam in the icy cold water.
Our next stop was the picturesque port city of Marquette, known for its ore docks and scenic shoreline. We camped at the Rippling River Resort, conveniently located adjacent to the local mountain bike trail system. It was a bit spendy but in addition to its convenient location, had a pool, hot tub, playground, and hot showers. Marquette is the biggest town in the UP and we were excited to visit since it’s one of those ‘best places to retire’ towns. I’m not so sure spending my retirement winters in Michigan’s UP, but the summers are pretty great.
On the first day, we hiked to the scenic overlook atop Sugarloaf Mountain. From the viewing platform, we caught glimpses of the rocky shoreline, as well as the surrounding forested hills. The boys both hiked the entire hole trail without assistance so we’re making progress on that front. That afternoon we toured downtown until Tommy melted down, at which point we headed over to the park.
The next day Jackie took the boys to the children’s museum while I mountain biked at the Noquemanon trail system just behind our campsite. The mountain biking was excellent, and the boys loved the children’s museum. After lunch, we headed over to Ore Dock Brewing Company for some tasty microbrews. The beer was delectable and reasonably priced at $4 per pint, something you’d never see in Colorado. The vibe was cool and kid-friendly, something that varies wildly from state to state.
For our final full day in Marquette, we brought the boys to a playground while Jackie toured a lighthouse (shocker!!), specifically the Marquette Harbor Light. Afterward, we headed over to the beach at Clark Lambros Beach Park to fly some kites, followed by some more playgrounding at Presque Isle Park where we could also watch ore being loaded onto the cargo barge Ashtabula from the nearby LSI Ore Dock.
After leaving Marquette, we headed towards the popular Pictured Rocks area near Munising. On the way, we stopped at the popular roadside sculpture park Lakenenland. The genre is best described as ‘junkyard art’, but talented artists put some serious time into these funky creations. The park consists of over 80 sculptures spread across 37 acres. We drove the auto tour route and ate a quick lunch before hitting the road again.
Our first camping choice for Munising was the national forest campground at Furnace Bay. Unfortunately, the campground was full when we arrived. Fortunately, there was the Kewadin Casino right across the street that offered free camping with electric hookups. We planned on just staying at the Casino, but when we got up the next day decided to take a peek at the campground. To our surprise, there was a recently vacated spot available, one of the best in the whole campground to boot. We snatched it up then headed out for a day trip.
The purpose of this day’s trip was to see the sights of the UP between Munising and Grand Marais, including the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. First up on the tour was a quick stop at the Munising Falls Visitor’s Center, where we stamped our passports. We also made the quick hike to the overlook at Munising Falls, not the most spectacular waterfall but still pretty. From there we made a bee-line to the actual lakeshore where we hiked around the weathered Miners Castle rock formations. Just East of Miners Castle was Miners Beach where we took a short walk before piling back into the Jeep and heading further up the lakeshore.
The Log Slide Overlook was our next destination. On the way, we made a pit stop at Bear Trap Pasty Shop where Jackie grabbed a pasty for lunch. The pasty was more pie crusty and less doughy, it takes all kinds. As its name implies, the 175-foot log slide is a sharp drop down a tall sand dune. It was used for sliding logs from the forest above to cargo ships at lake level below. This is apparently a place where people run down the sand dunes without consideration of how they’ll get back up. Signs warn that a rescue may run into the thousands of dollars. Needless to say, we stayed away from the edge. There were some interesting interpretive signs and even some old log sliding equipment. The day’s journey ended at Grand Marais, a cute touristy village with a recreational harbor and a small but bustling downtown.
Besides the picturesque rocks, Munising is known for lake superior boat tours, so when in Rome… We had choices of Pictured Rocks Tour, Jetboat Ride, Pirate Cruise, Pontoon Booze Cruise, or Glass Bottom Shipwreck Tour. We opted for Glass Bottom Shipwreck and were quite happy with our choice. Reasonably short tour length: check! Interesting content: check! Bathrooms onboard: double-check!
We visited two shipwrecks. The first was The Bermuda, a 150-foot wooden schooner which sank in 1870 and lies just 12 feet below the water’s surface. The shallow depth provides for some pretty amazing viewing. The boys enjoyed the view from the glass bottom as well as the view from the top deck. The second shipwreck was the Herman H. Hettler, a great lakes lumber hooker that ran aground on shallow rocks. We lucked out with the weather, and the calm water enhanced viewing of the slightly deeper shipwreck. Inbetween shipwrecks, we drove past some scenic rock cliffs as well as an old lighthouse. After returning from the cruise, we grabbed a chocolate desert pasty and headed home for an afternoon of swimming and playing in Lake Superior. After dinner, we had the first bonfire of our entire trip (someone had left firewood in our campsite), and the boys loved it.
Our last day in Furnace Bay was spent on the beach once again. We tried fishing for the first time since Minnesota in a nearby creek. As expected we got skunked, but we did briefly see a mink running along the river bank. That night we attended an astronomy program put on by the forest service. We were able to look through a huge telescope (needed its own trailer huge) to view distant planets and star clusters. John enjoyed looking through the telescope, while the experience was lost on Tommy who just wanted to wrestle in the grass.
The next day we headed out for our last stop in the Upper Peninsula, the Mackinaw City area. On the way, we stopped at The Big Spring at Kitch-iti-kipi, Michigan’s largest natural freshwater spring. The Big Spring features a cool self-operated raft and viewing platform. From inside the raft, we could view the crystal clear water and the lunker lake trout that call this spring home. The water is a constant 45 degrees Fahrenheit and gives off a ghostly green glow.
After leaving the Big Spring we made our way to the town of St. Ignace, where we would ride out the busy Labor Day weekend. The UP is separated from Michigan’s Lower Peninsula by the Mackinac Bridge, a nearly 5-mile long suspension bridge spanning the straights of Mackinac. The bridge also happens to be the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere. On the Upper Peninsula side is the town of St. Ignace, and on the Lower Peninsula side is Mackinaw City. We stayed at another Kewadin Casino, this time for a nominal rate of $15 per night which included water and electric, as well as the use of their swimming pool and workout room. Did I mention the prime location right on Lake Huron? Such a bargain!
Day one in St. Ignace started off right with the breakfast special at the casino ($3.95 for two eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast). The boys shared a pancake plate. We spent most of the rest of the day at American Legion Park in downtown St. Ignace. The park, located right on the shore of Lake Huron, would be our regular hangout while staying in St. Ignace.
The next day we drove across the Mackinac Bridge to explore Mackinaw City, our first foray into ‘the mitten’ as the Lower Peninsula is known. The bridge itself was an adventure. I was a bit nervous to drive over it, but my apprehension was unwarranted and the drive was easy and uneventful. Upon reaching the other side we made our way to a lighthouse (of course). While Jackie and John toured the McGulpin Point Lighthouse, Thomas and his old man hiked down to roiling waters of the Straights of Mackinac where we could see the mighty bridge we had just crossed.
Near the lighthouse was the Headlands International Dark Sky Park so we drove over to check it out. Not being nighttime I can’t comment on how dark it gets. I assume very dark. It was a very windy day and we watched ocean-like waves roll in before eventually moving on. We stopped at a playground, then headed over to the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse where Jackie and John looked around. This lighthouse is very near the bridge so Thomas and I enjoyed the view. The boys played on the beach for a while before we headed back over the bridge to St. Ignace.
The whole reason for staying in the area in the first place was to visit touristy Mackinac Island. Yes, we visited over Labor Day weekend, maybe not the best choice but we made the most of it. Mackinac Island is only reachable by plane or ferry in the summer months. Winter adds the option of a snow machine ice highway. We opted for Shepler’s Ferry which brought us and our bikes over. The only allowed modes of transportation are bikes and horses, and a network of paved paths intersect the island. One big loop circumscribes the perimeter of the island.
On the way over to the island, our captain took us on a quick detour under the Mackinac Bridge where we got a good look at her underbelly. Upon arrival, we were greeted by thousands of other like-minded tourists. We were a bit overwhelmed. We packed the boys into the bike trailer, put on our helmets and proceeded in a counter-clockwise direction around the island. Speaking of helmets, it seems they haven’t been introduced to Michigan yet. I thought I’d seen everything until I spotted a dad speed by while wearing a tiny baby ‘The Hangover’ style. No helmets. Not to be outdone, Jackie spotted a helmetless mother-child combo performing the acrobatic act of riding while breastfeeding… free handed! Add frightened Indian (from India) women being trampled by horses and you’ve got a real highlight reel.
Luckily there were no serious injuries that day (as far as we know), and though a little congested, our island bike tour went off without a hitch. We hiked to Arch Rock. We ate a hearty lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the beach. The kids played at the elementary school playground. We ate fudge from Murdicks. We visited the opulent Grand Hotel. It was a good day.
We spent most of the rest of the weekend swimming at the pool, soaking in the hot tub, and using the casino’s exercise facilities. We squeezed in plenty of playground time and took care of some chores like grocery shopping and laundry. On Labor Day, while the men slept, Jackie woke up early and participated in the 62nd annual bridge walk. This annual tradition, held every labor day, closes the bridge to automobile traffic and opens it to foot traffic. Walkers can start from either side and are allowed to walk the entirety of the bridge. Jackie made it a little past halfway before turning back towards St. Ignace to avoid being stranded on the opposite side. While walking she spotted the Ashtabula crossing the straights of Mackinac. This was the same ship we watched loading ore at Marquette.
We had some great times along the Straights of Mackinac, but once again had to be moving on. We would make our next base camp in Barnes Park, a nicely appointed county park campground located on Lake Michigan, about halfway between Petoskey and Traverse City. While walking the beach on our first night’s stay, Jackie found her first Petoskey Stone. She was obsessed from that point on. Petoskey Stones are pieces of fossilized coral. They aren’t worth a whole lot, but when polished they are quite striking.
Barnes Park is also where John learned to ride a pedal bike for the first time. We’d been trying to decide when to attach pedals to his Strider 14x, and since Barnes Park was flat and quiet we decided to pull the trigger. It only took about 5 minutes for him to catch on. The rest is history.
While in the area we spent a day visiting the town of Charlevoix. Charlevoix lies in between Lake Michigan and Lake Charlevoix, considered the best natural harbor on Lake Michigan. Charlevoix is probably most famous for its ‘Hobbit Houses’, built by architect Earl Young in the early to the mid-20th century. The houses are distinctive for their stone walls, and oddly shaped roofs. We took the self-guided ‘Hobbit House’ tour before heading downtown where we stopped near the draw bridge for lunch.
We’d seen lift bridges earlier in our journey at Duluth Minnesota and Houghton Michigan, but this was our first draw bridge. After lunch, we walked around the nearby town harbor admiring the boats. The boys fed trout at a fish pond. As we walked back towards our car we heard clanging bells, the unmistakable call of the draw bridge rising. Fortunately, we got back just in time to see the bridge lift to make way for passing boats. Afterward, we made our way back to the mouth of the channel where we’d parked. The boys played at the playground and Jackie searched the beach for Petoskey Stones. There was also a lighthouse… On our way home we stopped at the worlds largest cherry pie monument, as well as a fruit farm. Go figure.
‘Attack Each Day’ is coach Harbaugh’s mantra so, in the spirit of Michigan pride, we woke up early the next day and made our way towards another adventure: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The park is comprised of hardwood forest and tall dunes, similar to the Lake Superior Log Slide. First was the obligatory stop at the park service visitor’s center to stamp our passports and take in the exhibits. We did a quick driveby of yet another lighthouse, and from there we wound our way through Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. We ate lunch at the aptly named Picnic Mountain and stopped at several scenic overlooks along the way. Again we saw warning signs about the cost of dune rescue. Interestingly, some enterprising souls had made it down to the water for swimming. Not sure if they ever made it back up, but good for them.
After the scenic drive, we stopped at the Dune Climb, where we could climb and play on the dunes to our heart’s content. The boys liked it although clearly not as much as white sands. It was late in the day and Tommy had just about enough exploring for one day. Before we left the park we stopped by Glen Haven, a ghost town which now houses some cool historical exhibits and a nautical museum. We toured the museum, ate a snack, and then called it a day.
Our final stop in Michigan was the town of Holland, just west of Grand Rapids. We stayed at the county fairgrounds, always a gamble but usually the cheapest option. Ever since crossing the Missouri, camping has become a larger part of our budget so we are trying to cut corners when possible. Pretty much the only reason for visiting Holland was to visit Nelis’ Dutch Village, a theme park celebrating all things Dutch.
We arrived early for crowd avoidance, probably unnecessary since we had the park to ourselves for the morning. Our first stop was at the wooden shoe making demonstration, followed up by the Klompen dance (traditional Dutch wood shoe dance). We passed the day riding rides, feeding animals, sampling food, making stroopwafels, and playing games. The boys rode their first Ferris wheel and both loved it. A building that was under construction collapsed. Judging by the look on the workers’ faces it was unintentional, but apparently no one was hurt. Later we drove by the only working Dutch windmill in America and took a quick tour of the lakeshore near town.
So there. We didn’t see them all, but Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and Lake Huron were pretty great. At almost every stop I was surprised at how much I enjoyed what the great lakes had to offer. Duluth was industrial and gritty, but also tourist-friendly. Wisconsin was a sparsely populated pastoral paradise. Michigan was wild and diverse. From here we’re heading south. After a short layover to visit friends in Ohio, we’ll explore the states of Kentucky and Tennesse where we’ll try to finally answer the question: Who’s on top?