Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (June 15 – July 19, 2021)

On Tuesday, June 15th, we drove 63 miles north to Sault Ste. Marie, MI.  The beginning of the drive took us over the 5-mile Mackinac Bridge.  The height of the bridge and the metal grating on the road bed is reportedly terrifying for some drivers.  Until COVID hit, the bridge authority used to make employees available to drive your vehicle across the bridge if you were too scared to drive it yourself.  Despite a number of lane changes due to bridge repairs, neither of us found driving across the bridge to be very scary.

Sault (pronounced “soo”) Ste. Marie, the oldest city in the Midwest, was founded in 1668.  It lies on the banks of the St. Mary’s River, which connects Lake Superior and Lake Huron.  The city of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario is right across the river and is connected by the International Bridge (now closed to us due to COVID).

We stayed at Aune-Osborn Campground for three nights.  All the sites are back-ins but, using Google Earth and the campground map, Phil had selected a site that was very easy to back into.  Our site only had a 30-amp electrical hookup but the weather was mild enough that we could get by with only one air conditioner.  We were only one row away from the St. Mary’s River and, since the site behind us was not occupied for the first two days, we had a clear view of the river, and Canada, from our living room windows.

After getting set up, we sat outside and watched soldiers of the Michigan National Guard erect several sections of a pontoon bridge on the river.  Our neighbor told us they do this exercise every year, to prepare for the possibility of the International Bridge being destroyed in a wartime attack.

Our site also provided us with a great view of the large vessels transporting cargo between the two Great Lakes and, in some cases, on to the Atlantic.  The Soo Locks, through which these large ships travel, is a short distance up the river from us.  Jan enjoyed shooting pictures of the many cargo ships as they sailed by us. 

On Wednesday, we visited the Soo Locks, which are managed by the US Army Corp of Engineers.  There are four locks: the MacArthur, Poe, Davis and Sabin (closed).  The Poe Lock, the largest of the four, was rebuilt in 1968 to accommodate 1,000-foot vessels.  Plans are underway to replace the Davis and Sabin locks with another lock that can handle 1,000-foot vessels. 

More than 11,000 vessels pass through these locks every year, transporting iron ore, coal, limestone and grain. Upon our arrival, we went up on the observation platform.  We watched a large cargo ship pass through the Poe Lock and two tour boats pass through the MacArthur Lock.

We then spent time in the Visitors Center where we examined numerous informational displays and watched several videos dealing with the history and operation of the locks.  We learned that, before the canals and locks were built, rapids dropping 21 feet in less than a mile, stopped all boat traffic at this point.  Locks have been used for thousands of years and use gravity to raise or lower boats between two elevations.  Although there have been major improvements in machinery, the Soo Locks still use gravity, not pumps, to move millions of gallons of water to help boats bypass the rapids.  We also learned that the 75-mile-long St. Mary’s River is technically not a river, but a strait, a series of lakes and connecting waterways.  It takes freighters about nine hours to pass through the St. Mary’s River, navigating a series of tight turns.

We then had an early dinner at Muloney’s Irish Pub, before returning to the observation platform to watch another large cargo ship pass through the Poe Lock on its way to Lake Superior.

After returning to the campground, we went for a walk along the river and discovered a local park and a ferry that transports cars to Sugar Island, a 14-mile-long island known for bird-watching.

On Thursday, we drove to Brimley, MI and hiked the Mission Hill trail.  This 4-mile hike was lollipop-shaped.  The first half-mile had a very steep descent and, since we returned on the same path, a steep ascent on the return.  The rest of the hike was a loop that paralleled a lovely lake.  The outbound trail was near the banks of the lake, while the return was on a ridge high above the lake.  The trailhead was at an observation point that provided a beautiful view of the lakes, with Lake Superior in the distance.

On Friday, June 18th, we left Sault Ste. Marie and drove 77 miles west to Newberry, MI, where we spent five nights at Kritter’s Northcountry Campground. 

We spent Saturday exploring Tahquamenon Falls State Park.  The Tahquamenon Falls consist of two sets of waterfalls on the Tahquamenon River.  As much as 50,000 gallons of water per second flow over these falls, making them the third most voluminous waterfalls east of the Mississippi.  Adding to Tahquamenon’s majesty is its distinctive colors: bronze water from the tannic acid of decaying cedars and hemlocks along its banks, and bright white foam from the water’s high salt content.

Our first stop was at the Lower Falls, a series of five waterfalls flowing around an island.  We hiked a 2.9-mile trail that wound through the state park before bringing us to the edge of the falls.  At the gift shop, we bought some FROG jam, consisting of fig, raspberry, orange and ginger.

We then drove four miles upstream to the Upper Falls.  The Upper Falls are more than 200 feet across and have a drop of approximately 48 feet.  We hiked a 1.9-mile path that took us first to the brim of the falls and then to the gorge.  Accessing the platform by the falls’ brim required going down 94 steps; the viewing platform at the gorge required going down 116 steps.  In both cases, the return up the steps was much more challenging than the descent.

We finished our day with a late-afternoon meal at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub.  It seemed unusual to find a microbrewery in a state park but the food and beer were both good.

We spent Sunday in Paradise.  Paradise, Michigan, that is.  We visited the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point.  Whitefish Point has been called “the graveyard of Lake Superior.”  Since navigation began on Lake Superior, there have been approximately 550 wrecks.  More vessels were lost in the Whitefish Point area than any other part of Lake Superior.  This compact museum traces the history of Great Lakes commerce and the disasters that sometimes accompanied it.  Several shipwrecks were chronicled, each with a scale model, photos or drawings, artifacts from the wreck, and a description of how and why the ship went down.  Most compelling is the Edmund Fitzgerald display, with a life preserver, the ship’s bell and a videotape showing pictures of the 29 crewmen who perished in the 1975 wreck, as well as film footage of the ship prior to the wreck.

We next visited the Whitefish Point Light, the oldest active light on Lake Superior, constructed in 1861.  We toured the Keepers Quarters Dwelling attached to the light.  The dwelling has been fully restored to reflect the life of the lightkeeper and his family at the turn of the century, circa 1890-1920.  Although the dwelling looked very attractive, life for the keeper and his family was quite difficult.  The pay was very low and they had almost no contact with civilization away from the light.  Since 1971, the light, fog signal, and radio beacon have been automated and controlled from Sault. Ste. Marie.

We also visited the U.S. Coast Guard Lifeboat Station.  Established in 1923, this was the first station of what was then known as the U.S. Life-Saving Service.  We saw a restored surfboat, as well as a hoist that was used to rescue crew from ships that ran aground.  Between 1871 and 1889, Service-wide, surfboats were launched 6,730 times, rescuing 6,735 victims of shipwreck.

Our remaining two days in Newberry were rainy and quite a bit cooler.  The daytime highs never got above 61 degrees and the nighttime lows were in the upper 30s.  We spent most of these days reading and were able to take advantage of the campground’s book exchange to get three new books.

On Wednesday, June 23rd, as Phil was sweeping branches off the top of our slides in preparation for our travel, he discovered that one of the cables on our bedroom slide had snapped.  Fortunately, we were able to get the slide closed, using the remaining cables and with Phil and the campground owner pushing the slide in from the outside.  The slide remained in place as we drove 77 miles to Christmas, MI, where we spent the next week at Pictured Rocks RV Park.  Unfortunately, there were no mobile RV techs in either the Newberry or Christmas areas.  Phil called the service department at a large RV dealership near Marquette, MI (our next stop) but learned that they were already booked out until late July.  Fortunately, Jan was able to find a mobile RV tech in Baraga, MI and we set up an appointment for the repair to be done on July 8th, while we’re in Iron Mountain, MI.

Thursday’s forecast called for rain most of the day so we decided to use the day to get oriented to the area.  The weather turned out to be much nicer than expected. Our first stop was at Munising Falls.  There was a half-mile boardwalk to the falls.  The pathway split and each way took us up steep stairways that led to either side of the falls.

We next stopped at the Wagner Falls Lookout.  This time, the path to the falls was only .2-mile. 

We then stopped at Muldoons Pasties so Phil could dine on the Michigan Upper Peninsula’s signature dish, the pasty (rhymes with “nasty”).  Muldoons was just one of several pasty shops we saw as we drove through Munising. The pasty originated in Cornwall, England.  In the 1840s, many miners left the UK to work in the copper mines in the UP of Michigan.  The pasty, which is a pastry shell that contains beef, potatoes, carrots and rutabegas, was the ideal meal for a miner.  Since the miner’s hands were dirty, they would hold the pasty in one hand by the crimped crusty edge, eat the middle, and then toss the edges aside.  Phil thought the pasty tasted OK but Jan decided to pass on trying it.  At one pound, the pasty left Phil feeling overly full for the rest of the afternoon.  Jan made a new friend with Sasquatch.

After Muldoons, we drove to the Grand Island Scenic Overlook.  Grand Island, roughly the size of Manhattan, lies on the other side of Munising Bay.  While there are some private landowners, most of the island is part of the Hiawatha National Forest and is largely wooded. Automobiles are not allowed, except by special permit and by island landowners.  A ferry connects the island with the mainland.

On Friday, we explored the Miners Creek section of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  Our first stop was at the upper and lower overlooks at Miners Castle.  The sandstone cliffs are known as Miners Castle due to the nine-story high rock formation with turret-like shapes formed by wind and wave erosion.  Unfortunately, thick fog limited our visibility. 

Next, we attempted to hike the Miners Castle to Miners Beach trail.  Although the trail was unmarked, the first mile was fairly simple to follow.  However, after we crossed a bridge, the trails began to split and head off in multiple directions.  We tried multiple paths, each leading to a dead-end, but, with no cell service to enable the use of the Alltrails map, we finally gave up and found our way back to the starting point. 

After getting back to our car, we decided to drive to Miners Beach.  Since the temperature was only 60 degrees, we were surprised to see a lot of people relaxing on the beach and some children in the water.  We also saw a large number of kayakers returning from their tour on the bay. 

Our final stop was at nearby Miners Falls.  We hiked down a .6-mile path to reach these falls, which have a 40-foot drop.

On Sunday, we headed to Autrain Falls and hiked a .8-mile trail that first took us to the lower falls and then, back up the river, to the upper falls.  On our way back to Christmas, we stopped at a scenic area that overlooked Lake Superior.

What would Christmas be without Santa’s workshop?  Unfortunately, we discovered that Santa’s Workshop is now permanently closed, so we were unable to visit Santa.  However, we were still able to see what is supposedly the world’s largest Santa and the largest concrete Frosty the Snowman.  Next, we visited the Kewadin Casino.  We were each given $13 credit on our player’s cards and, after playing the slot machines for an hour, left with more money than we had risked.

On Monday, we did a 2.5-hour Pictured Rocks cruise.  We arrived an hour early and were first in line, so we were able to get very good seats. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a 40-mile stretch of Lake Superior shoreline, was authorized as the first national lakeshore in 1966.  Sandstone cliffs tower 50 – 200 feet above the water.  Streaks on the cliffs occur when groundwater oozes out of cracks in the rock.  The dripping water contains minerals that leave behind a colorful stain as the water trickles down the cliff face (iron – red; manganese – black/white; limonite – yellow/brown; copper – pink/green).  Near the turnaround point of the cruise, the ship captain pulls the boat into Chapel Cove so we were within a few feet of the rocks.  On our return, we passed the decommissioned East Channel Lighthouse on Grand Island. 

Boat backing out of Chapel Cove

On Wednesday, June 30th, we moved 38 miles to Rippling River RV Resort in Marquette, MI.  Checkout time at Pictured Rocks RV Park was 11 am and the official check-in time at Rippling Rivers RV Resort wasn’t until 3 pm so we needed to kill some time.  We stopped at the Michigan Welcome Center and took a short hike along Lake Superior.  Despite this, we still arrived at Rippling Rivers around 1 pm.  We needed the extra time, since we were in a back-in site.  We quickly remembered why we almost always book pull-through sites, as we had a lot of difficulty getting into our site.  Although the site was plenty wide, the road was narrow and was lined with decorative boulders and small trees that served as challenges.  Jan tried to give guidance over our cell phones but we kept losing connections.  We finally got into our site but not before providing quite a lot of entertainment for the other campers.  Marquette, with a population of 20,000, is the largest town in the Upper Peninsula and is home to the only Wal-Mart in the U.P. so, after getting set up, we headed there and stocked up on staples.

On Thursday, we visited Marquette’s historic downtown district and explored some of the shops.  We then headed to Presque Isle Park, a peninsula about four miles north of downtown.  The park provides a microcosm of the area’s beauty: rocky bluffs, tall pines, and lovely Lake Superior vistas.  We hiked the 2.5-mile loop trail around the circumference of the park.  We stopped at Blackrocks, an ancient rock formation on the upper end of the peninsula, and watched a father and daughter leap from the 10 to 15-foot cliffs into the crystal water below.  After completing the loop trail, we walked out on the breakwater toward the Presque Isle Lighthouse.  The final approach to the lighthouse would have involved climbing over a long stretch of boulders but we opted to call it a day instead.  From the breakwater, we were able to view the Marquette Ore Dock.  This huge structure, which extends .25-mile out into Lake Superior, is designed to load 600-foot-long ships with taconite pellets deposited by overhead railroad cars.  Unfortunately, no ships were being loaded at the time.

On Friday, we drove 59 miles west of Marquette and hiked the 4.5-mile out-and-back Canyon Gorge Trail.  The first 2/3 of this trail took beside the roaring rapids of the Sturgeon River as it passed through a gorge carved out of black rocks.  As we had seen at Tahquamenon Falls, the tannic acid derived from decaying cedars caused the water to be a deep bronze.  There were numerous waterfalls along the way, although the highest only had a 30’ drop.

Sunday was July 4th and was an unusually hot day for the U.P., with a high of 91.  We planned to take it easy, due to the heat.  We drove to view the Warner Falls, which our guide book described as “among the most scenic of the Marquette region’s waterfalls.”  Unfortunately, the falls were not easily accessible so we did not get a very good view.  Next, we headed north of Marquette to Sugarloaf Mountain.  We hiked an easy 1.4-mile loop trail.  Although the trail was easy, there were a large number of stairs that needed to be scaled to reach the overlook and this was quite strenuous in the heat.  We had planned to attend some of Marquette’s July Fourth festivities that evening but the heat changed our minds.

Monday was about 10 degrees cooler so we decided to hike the 2.4-mile out-and-back Dead River Falls trail.  It was a beautiful trail that took us along the Dead River to numerous waterfalls and rapids.  The hike turned out to be considerably more strenuous than we had anticipated, with lots of ascents and descents as well as numerous rock scrambles.  When we reached the furthest point, we removed our boots and socks and cooled our feet in the river.      

When we had arrived at Rippling Rivers on June 30th, the truck had flashed the message that our DEF system issue had returned and, in 120 miles, we would be limited to 5 mph.  After disconnecting, Phil drove the truck a couple of times and the message never returned.  However, on July 7th, we drove 79 miles to Iron Mountain, MI, where we stayed at Summer Breeze Campground for three days, and the message returned almost immediately.  By the time we got parked at Summer Breeze, we only had about 40 miles left before we would be in limp mode.  We found a Dodge dealer in Iron Mountain and we were fortunate to be able to get in that afternoon.  That was the good news; the bad news was that we need a new DEF pump and that part had a three-month back order.  The service manager told Phil he could reset the counter on the truck so we could go about 500-600 miles before it would shut us down.  He did say it could possibly be less if we were towing.  We would need to find Dodge dealers along the way to reset the counter each time we ran low on miles.  The following day, Jan made several phone calls and was able to find the DEF pump we need at a Dodge dealer in Sauk City, WI (near Madison).  We scheduled the repair job for July 27th.  With 500 miles before we would face the DEF issue again, we figured we could continue with our travel plans, although we would need one counter reset along the way, in Sturgeon Bay, WI. 

In addition to the truck problem, we discovered that the motor on our electric power cord reel had apparently burnt out.  More significantly, we also discovered, upon arriving at Summer Breeze, that we had an issue with our hydraulic lines on our fifth wheel.  After getting set up, our front legs sank somewhat.  Jan re-leveled the rig and, fortunately, the legs remained extended this time.  However, we discovered hydraulic fluid was leaking and pooling up on one of the landing pads.  After evaluating possible options, we decided to return to our dealer in Knoxville, TN for repairs.  Phil scheduled a service appointment for August 3rd, after getting the truck repaired on July 27th.  Unfortunately, this will require us to cancel a month of reservations that had been booked months ago.

On Thursday, July 8th, we had two service techs from Superior Mobile RV Repairs come to our campsite to repair the broken cable on our bedroom slide-out.  The repair job went surprisingly quickly.

On Friday, we drove to Norway, MI and hiked the 3.5-mile out-and-back Piers Gorge Trail.  The Menominee River runs from near Iron Mountain to Green Bay, WI, forming nearly half of the Michigan-Wisconsin border.  It narrows through Piers Gorge, a run of whitewater rapids and waterfalls.  In the mid-1800s, loggers relied on the Menominee to float logs to the river’s mouth.  This stretch of rivers created major logjams so they built a series of wooden piers to slow the current and channel the flow – hence the name.  This was a beautiful hike, as it kept us close to the river most of the way.  We saw a number of whitewater raft tours on the river but, unfortunately, did not get to see any of them pass through the wildest rapids.

On Saturday, we drove 115 miles to Manistique, MI where we had reserved nine nights at Manistique Lakeshore Campground.  Manistique is on the northern edge of Lake Michigan.  We had a long pull-through site and were positioned so our living room window gave us a view of Lake Michigan.

The drive to Manistique was far from uneventful.  The dreaded DEF system issue returned almost immediately and, by the time we reached our campground, we were down to 92 miles before we would be limited to 5 mph.  So much for being able to go 500-600 miles before having this issue again!  In addition, Jan noticed part way through the trip that our front legs had dropped.  We stopped and retracted the legs again.  Fortunately, they remained retracted for the remainder of our drive.

On Sunday, we attempted to forget our troubles and got out to explore the area.  First, we spent some time in downtown Manistique and did some shopping at the Mustard Seed, a local gift shop.  We then visited the East Breakwater Lighthouse.  The light, standing 35’ tall, was built in 1916 and automated in 1969.  After scrambling over a lot of boulders, we managed to reach the concrete breakwater and walked out to the lighthouse.

We next drove about 22 miles to the Seul Choix Point Lighthouse.  Pronounced “sis-shwa” – French for “only choice” – it sits at the end of a finger of land that offers boaters the only choice for hiding from storms along this stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline.  The lighthouse, built 1892-1895, is still operational but is no longer manned.  The Historical Society from the neighboring town of Gulliver has done an excellent job of filling the two-story keeper’s residence, boat house and fog horn building with tons of memorabilia.  We watched a video documentary that told the history of the lighthouse and included interviews with people who had worked or lived at the lighthouse.  Toward the end, we climbed the 97 steps to the top of the lighthouse and were able to see far out into Lake Michigan.

We dined at Clyde’s Drive-In.  Although car hop service was available, we opted to go inside and eat at the counter.  This restaurant was a throwback to the 1950s and was clearly popular, based on the number of cars in the parking lot.  We each had burgers and shakes, and split an order of sweet potato fries.

On Monday, we walked the 3.2-mile down-and-back Manistique Boardwalk.  This paved path, with occasional sections of wooden boardwalk, wound its way along the Lake Michigan shoreline and took us past the Manistique Light.  We watched the dredging operation in the harbor and discovered a large frog.

On Tuesday, we drove to the Big Springs known as Kitch-iti-kipi.  This spring is on the western side of Indian Lake and is 45 feet deep and 200 feet across.  Beneath the Big Spring, the rock formation is cracked, allowing the pressurized water to squirt into the pool through a dancing layer of sand.  The water bubbles up from the earth at a rate of 10,000 to 16,000 gallons per minute and flows continuously throughout the year at a constant 45 degrees.  The state park provides a glass-bottom raft that is propelled by passengers along a cable tethered to either shore.  The crystal-clear water allowed us to watch the gushing springs, skeletons of downed trees and many large trout.

On Wednesday, Phil took the truck 54 miles back to Escanaba, MI to get the Performance Control Module (PCM) reset.  This appeared to have been successful in getting us up to another 200 miles before we will need to get it reset again.  Assuming this process continues to work, we will need to have the PCM reset three more times to get us to Sauk City, WI, where we will have the DEF pump replaced. It’s annoying and expensive but, if it works, we will be greatly relieved.

On Friday, we drove to the Seney National Wildlife Refuge.  First, we hiked 4 miles on a couple of trails along the Upper Goose Pen Pool that are primarily used by cross-country skiers.  The scenery was beautiful but we were bothered by huge flies.  We finally had to resort to wearing our mosquito nets on our heads and dousing ourselves in bug spray.  Next, we did the seven-mile wilderness wildlife drive in our car.  We saw lots of swans and turtles.

On Saturday, July 17, we spent the afternoon sitting in our chairs on the campground beach, overlooking Lake Michigan.  We broke out our beach umbrella for the first time.  The water was fairly warm.  We watched quite a few of our fellow campers swimming but we only waded in a short distance.