Marvellous Michigan: a road trip through Michigan's wilderness
By Kari Herbert, Sep 15 2016 02:43PM
"The way I see it, the further north you go, the better it gets," the old timer tells us as we fill up with fuel at Grand Marais, an end-of-the-road town in northern Michigan, on the shore of Lake Superior. A brutal cold wind whips in off the lake, direct from the Canadian wilderness. Among the huddle of buildings is a small brewery and an outfitting store (We Welcome Hunters and Trappers). Further up, a clapboard house is, appropriately, called End of the Trail.
We have driven more than 1,000 miles to get here, to the very edge of the US. To give our two-year-old daughter, Nell, the experience of being in the wilds, my husband and I have brought her on a road trip through Michigan, to its remote Upper Peninsula, on a route rated one of North America's best for autumn colour. We are in effect circumnavigating Lake Michigan, with a few detours.
The name Michigan comes from the Native American word michigama, meaning great lake. With 3,288 miles of shoreline, Michigan has more coast than the US's entire eastern seaboard. Our journey takes us through scenic inland waterways, giant dunes, old-growth forests, and vast inland seas.
With Chicago behind us, we head up the eastern shore of Lake Michigan in a rented motorhome, our passport to the wilds when travelling with a young child. We cover many miles in the first couple of days, cruising up Route 31. Beyond the highway and strip malls are small, genteel towns with immaculate harbours, catering for well-heeled tourists and second-home owners.
In the warm autumn light we pass farmers' markets and fruit farms. In tented shelters by the road, trestle tables are piled high with wooden boxes of blueberries, apples and raspberries. Michigan is well-known as a fruit-growing state, and Traverse City is famed as the cherry capital of the US. The state is also home to around 100 vineyards and wineries, producing particularly good rieslings. We dine well as we travel north.
At night, we opt for rustic state forest campsites, often in areas of outstanding natural beauty. We cook over a fire, reading and talking by candlelight. In the darkness, we can see the glow of other campfires and hear nothing but the distant murmur of voices and the wind in the trees. We're alone, but with others nearby; there is comfort in these woods. In the mornings, Nell plays on the golden beaches by the clear waters of Lake Michigan, and dances through piles of leaves and pine cones in the forests.
Our first major destination is Sleeping Bear Dunes national park, named after a Chippewa legend which tells how a forest fire on the lake's western shore drove a mother bear and her two cubs into the lake. After many miles of swimming, the mother bear reached safety and waited on a high bluff for her cubs to join her. Too tired to continue, the cubs drowned within sight of the shore. The great spirit Manitou created two islands to mark where the cubs disappeared and a solitary dune to represent the mother.
Wind and erosion have greatly reduced the size of the "bear" over the years; nevertheless, this 35-mile stretch of towering dunes, forests and beaches is consistently voted as one of the most beautiful places in the US. We pay $10 to take the seven-mile Pierce Stocking scenic drive – a gentle loop through woodland with spectacular viewpoints over forests and lake.
Down on the lakeshore the dune climb is also popular, particularly for kids. On top of the giant dune, we are 150m above the lake, which stretches almost 60 miles west towards Wisconsin, hidden by the curve of the Earth. We continue north, passing Traverse City and Elk Rapids and a sign announcing the 45th parallel – halfway between the equator and the North Pole. Cheered by this unexpected landmark, we pull over for a cup of tea and a slice of apple pie.
Miles of blueberry and corn fields and acres of vines are punctuated by immaculate tall red barns and stands of pine, aspen and maple. Halloween is fast approaching. Pick-ups at roadside stalls are filled with pumpkins and dark-skinned gourds.
The leaves are beginning to deepen: golds of the trembling aspen and white birch, burnished copper of white ash, and russets and deep blood-reds of sugar maple and black gum trees. We'd been told many times that the autumn colours get better the further north you go. This is true of many things in Michigan: fewer bugs, fewer tourists, cleaner air. We want to get to the wilds, to big country, to solitude.
Ernest Hemingway figures large in this landscape. His lazy childhood days beside Walloon Lake and in the nearby streams and woods fundamentally influenced his writing. Many of his short stories were based here.
We take a short detour to Horton Bay on Lake Charlevoix, a favourite spot for those following a Hemingway trail. Beside the General Store is the Red Fox Inn, where Hemingway stayed as a young man, and whose owner, Vollie Fox, taught him to fish. Handpainted signs tell the story. The wonderful store, too, is full of memorabilia. The store owner, Chip Lorenger, spreads a well-used map on the bar and directs us to some of his favourite places.
Taking his advice we head out on the backroads following a route taken by Hemingway and his first wife after their wedding in 1921. "See all that," Hemingway told his bride. "Talk about the beauty of the Bay of Naples! I've seen them both, and no place is more beautiful than Little Traverse in its autumn colours." We cannot help but agree as we swing round the bay and make our way on route 119 towards the great Mackinac Bridge, gateway to the Upper Peninsula and roughly the halfway point of our journey. To mark this – and to enjoy a hot bath and good food – we leave the motorhome and catch a ferry to Mackinac Island.
Cars are prohibited here, so residents and visitors use bicycles or horse-drawn carriages. It is a slightly unreal but enjoyable escape into nostalgia. Numerous fudge shops pump their sweet, chocolatey fumes into the street as day trippers pour off the ferry. We spend a night at the impressive Grand Hotel, built colonial-style in Michigan white pine. Opened in 1887, it is the grand dame of American hotels.
Back on the mainland, we head towards the famed Tahquamenon Falls on the northern side of the peninsula, setting for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem The Song of Hiawatha. At the village of Paradise we turn west and enter wilderness territory – 1,000 square miles of old-growth forest. At its heart is the Tahquamenon, the "dark river" or "golden river" of the poem. The upper falls are the largest waterfall east of the Mississippi river, after Niagara.
Snow is beginning to fall as we rent a small boat and row to the island between the five smaller cascades that form the Lower Falls. We have the place to ourselves. Chipmunks scurry across our path as we step over logs half-gnawed by beavers. We watch the play of colours across the falling water – the crimson, gold and russet forest framing the brown, churning torrents.
The warmth of the previous week is gone. The thermometer has dropped by 20 degrees overnight. Days before, a man in flip-flops and T-shirt had said, "Enjoying the weather, are ya? Make the most of it. Winter is coming."
As the cold bites, we begin to see why many of the local residents head south, like birds, to warmer climes. Many places in the Upper Peninsula can expect between four and five metres of snow during the winter.
We reach the far north of Michigan. At Muskallonge Lake state park the tarmac ends. On a rutted track we grope our way slowly along the shores of Lake Superior, as white-tailed deer cross our path. This is a seasonal route, accessible in winter only by snowmobile. It's dark by the time we arrive at the Hurricane River campsite. A sign pinned to the small registration hut warns of black bears. Our motorhome is shaken through the night by growling winds. We wake to find the skylights covered in snow and a carapace of ice.
We are on the fringes of the 40-mile Pictured Rocks shoreline, a sandstone escarpment that runs from Laughing Whitefish Falls to Tahquamenon in the east. This dramatic exposure of rocks is Michigan's top tourist attraction – and best viewed from a boat on the water in milder weather.
As the storm clouds pass, we walk to the shoreline and find one of the most beautiful, and the most treacherous, beaches I have ever seen. This northern shore of Michigan on Lake Superior is known as the Shipwreck Coast. Waves crash on the bone-white sand. We walk through spray towards the Au Sable lighthouse, our daughter gathering up sand-polished stones – agate, jasper, quartz, basalt and hematite – and rolling them into the surf.
We can just spot the teeth of the infamous sandstone reef appearing through the waves. We weave our way along the beach and over jutting platforms of marbled rocks, to cut back on to the trail through fir and aspen.
As we near the lighthouse, we begin to see the shipwrecks. Black ribs jut out of the sand, the remains of the hull of a boat. Farther on lies another nautical skeleton. There is beauty here, but desolation too, and we feel that particularly now, as winter approaches.
We reach Au Sable Point and watch the darkening sky. We cannot go any farther north. This is the edge of the US, and the Canadian wilderness lies beyond these perilous waters. That will be another journey.
It's often the road to nowhere that brings you to exactly the place you need to be. Many of the roads we have taken to get here were glorious. For the most part, the delight was in the driving: each turn of the road providing a different display of indescribable autumnal colour.
We didn't know it when we started out, but this place is our turning point. With wind-stung cheeks, we sing our way back down the trail to ward off black bears. We have the storm at our backs and something of the wilderness in our hearts. This is what we came for.
Published by the Guardian - 12 October 2012
I think your daughter is adorable!
OMFG so many comments at the same time!