A Few Days In

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Is Not New England. It’s Better.

by Elizabeth Johnson
Lake A view off Brockway Mountain Drive. All photos by Elizabeth Johnson.

For New England charm without the crowds, head north to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a remote but idyllic region of the midwest that locals would like to keep a secret.

THE UPPER PENINSULA, Michigan – From the sky, the colors seemed endless — warm yellows interspersed with orange and red. The palette covered the earth, ending sharply at Lake Superior’s dark shores.

The single-engine prop plane shuddered with the wind as it landed at Marquette’s tiny airport. Not many flights land here, because Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is notoriously difficult to reach. But, like most remote places, its inaccessibility makes it all the more beautiful.

Autumn in the state’s gangly upper arm is a season to behold. While most tourists flock to places like Vermont to witness the trees’ changing colors, the UP — as locals call it, pronouncing each letter — is pristine and untouched. The peninsula makes up one-third of Michigan’s land mass, but only three percent of the state’s population.

Better that way, say Yoopers, the name for locals here. (And yes, it’s a real word — added to the dictionary in 2014.)

Because if you visit once, you’ll want to return again and again. And again. In the UP, everyone is friendly, and they don’t want their identity to change. They don’t want lumbering buses and hordes of visitors. In other words, they don’t want to be like New England, where you get stuck behind a row of buses on the country lanes or taking a selfie in front of a red birch tree with a dozen others.

They want to keep their visceral warmth and friendliness — the siren song that calls natives home again even after they've spent decades in more exotic places. They want visitors who really want to see the peninsula. Those are the people they want to return.

They want their pristine nature to remain an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. There’s actually a town here called Paradise, as Yoopers are quick to point out — adding that mainland Michigan has a town named Hell . They want you to visit because they love it here, because you can go surfing in Lake Michigan, mountain biking in Keweenaw, and skiing at Mount Bohemia. All in one day.

And they want you to know them, too. Julie Sprenger, who helped design the wireless mouse for a Silicon Valley tech company, then moved back to Laurium and opened the Laurium Manor Inn with her husband, Dave. They’ve been in business nearly 30 years, and you can still find her pickling odd-sounding vegetables in the inn’s kitchen.

And then there’s Lonie Glieberman, who at 23-years-old was the president of a Canadian football team, then moved to Mohawk to open the Mount Bohemia Ski Lodge. Yes, he knows that’s a little paradoxical: Most people would think Canada offers better skiing, but he loves Michigan. He’s built a lot of yurts at the resort, because millennials like yurts, and he wants them to ski here. That includes extreme skiers, as Mount Bohemia claims the highest verticals and the deepest powder in the Midwest. Glieberman lives on the property and goes hot tubbing with his guests, because he likes sharing his stories, and he has a lot of them.

Or the staff of Fitzgerald’s, probably the only restaurant in the Upper Peninsula that requires reservations. That the BBQ spot serves poutine with French fries that maintain their integrity says more about the Michiganders making them than the potatoes. They know their whiskey here, too.

Yoopers are the kind of people who can survive a winter that brings 390.4 inches of snow. So much that there’s a measuring stick on the side of the highway in Keweenaw County marking the drift height. It’s taller than the trees. All of them: They want you to come to the Upper Peninsula for the fall foliage. It’s special, and they know that. But there’s more to this remote part of Michigan than just leaves.

Lake Superior’s freezing waters crash against the shoreline at Presque Isle Park.
Grab brunch at Suomi, a Finnish restaurant in the Upper Peninsula.

In one day, you can feel every season: rain, sunshine, and snow. You can hike the Porcupine Mountains or careen down a mountain slope on a bike. You can visit Isle Royale, the least-visited national park in the entire system, Alaska included. 

The Upper Peninsula is beautiful, the people are warm, and the scenery is so remote you’ll forget you’re still in the United States. You’ll come for the leaves, and stay for the people.  

But remember this: The Upper Peninsula is not New England. It’s better here, Yoopers say. Come and see for yourself. But be respectful. Don’t expect luxury. And don’t forget your scarves and mittens. Even in October.

Here's how to do it.

Jampot, a small shop owned by area monks, sells a delicious array of jams, jellies and baked good mixes, like pancakes.

Day 1: Begin in Marquette

Begin the day at Presque Isle Park, a 323-acre peninsular open space designed by Frederick Olstead, who also planned New York City’s Central Park. Make sure to check out the black rocks, where Yoopers jump into Lake Superior’s freezing cold waters in the summertime. Finish the afternoon at Barrel + Beam, a local microbrewery with a huge selection. The spooky kriek, made of aged Traverse City cherries, is one of their best.

Eat dinner at the Marq, a farm-to-table restaurant with warm decor and the friendliest staff, largely composed of students from the nearby university. Be sure to sample the homemade pasta. Walk a few blocks and spend the night at the Landmark Inn, where fireplaces in most rooms make for an extra cozy stay.

Barrel and Beam, a local brewery in Marquette, offers a wide range of beer options.

Day Two: Calumet

Nab a bagel and a hot coffee from Third Street Bagel — you’ll need to fuel up for an active day. Drive to Sugarloaf Mountain, about six miles north of downtown Marquette. The half-mile trek is easy and offers sweeping views of Lake Superior and fall foliage.

Then drive two hours to Calumet, stopping for lunch at the Michigan House Cafe and Red Jacket Brewing Company. On cold days, the chili is the perfect way to warm up. Drop by the Keweenaw Adventure Company in Copper Harbor to rent bikes and spend the rest of the afternoon wheeling around the community’s lake-front paths.

There’s no need for reservations when dining in the Upper Peninsula — normally. Except when you’re eating at Fitzgerald’s. The lakeside restaurant has a sprawling whiskey collection and entrees like curry lentils and whitefish, a Michigan special. Don’t skimp on dessert: Key lime pie and raspberry cheesecake are heavenly. Spend the night at Mount Bohemia, a ski resort with beautiful trails that cut across the mountain, offering panoramic views of the colors below.

The view from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, an easy half-mile hike outside Marquette.

Day Three: The Views 

Another grueling day calls for another hearty breakfast. Order fish — protein! protein! — or a scone at Jamsen’s Fish Market & Bakery in Copper Harbor. You’ll definitely run into the locals, so be prepared to chat. Then drive down Brockway Mountain Drive, a stretch of road famous in the Upper Peninsula for its views. Make sure to pull out on the side of the highway to snap a few photos. The most important pit stop: Jampot, a small store run by local monks. They sell wild berry preserves and baked goods, and there’s always a line out the door.

Balance the sugar with lunch at Suomi. The Finnish restaurant is cheap, fast, and delicious. Be sure to finish the stop-over with a pint at the Keweenaw Brewing Company, owned by Paul Boussevain, a Colorado native who brought the first real brewery to Houghton.

Last activity of the day: hiking in the Porcupine Mountains. Butting up to the shores of Lake Michigan, the 60,000-acre state park has incredible views of old-growth hardwood forests. Hike to the Lake of the Clouds to see stunning panoramas of the entire park. The water is so clear you’ll be able to see the sky reflected in the streams slicing through the valleys.

Spend the night at the Konteka Black Bear Resort. Allegedly, you can see black bears outdoors, though this journalist did not. For a tamer pursuit, hit their bowling alley.

Day Four: Home from Houghton

The last day! Nab breakfast at Kaleva Cafe, then depart for the airport. If you’re doing an open-ended trip, fly out of Houghton County Memorial Airport, otherwise it’ll be another two-hour drive back to Marquette.

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