On a map, the enormity of the Upper Peninsula can be deceptive. The unique qualities that give the U.P. its appeal are scattered over 30,000 square miles, 14 counties, and two times zones. Rustic hiking trails, breathtaking lake views, and charming small towns are interspersed among miles of two-lane highways and scores of abandoned iron and copper mines. But hours spent behind the wheel on a road trip will pay off handsomely. The route outlined here will offer the most efficient way of limiting your driving time and seeing the best that Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has to offer.
If you only have a week and want to experience a bit of everything—without having to work too hard to do so—stick to the eastern half. If you have more time, add on the 7-day itinerary to explore the western half of the Upper Peninsula, or make it a stop on the larger Great Northern route across the United States.
Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula in 6 Days
Chances are you’ll be arriving in Mackinaw City, the gateway to the U.P., after a very long drive from home. Check into a comfortable hotel room; enjoy a meal at one of the local restaurants, and take a bit of time to explore downtown. A respite like this is the perfect tonic for early vacation fatigue—one you’ll thank yourself later.
Catch an early ferry to Mackinac Island (7:30am is the first). If you plan on spending just one day on the island, it’s best to be a commuter visitor and return to your Mackinaw City lodgings at day’s end. Visit Fort Mackinac, take a captivating carriage ride past the lovely Victorian cottages, and visit the Governor’s Residence and the magnificent veranda at the Grand Hotel. Yes, they charge $15 per person for the veranda privilege, but the experience is truly unforgettable.
After lunch, take in a relaxing round of golf at The Jewel or spend some time at Mackinac Island Butterfly House. If you have a sweet tooth—and who doesn’t?—pick up a wedge or two of world-famous Mackinac Island fudge at either Murdick’s Fudge or Ryba’s. Enjoy dinner on the island at the Woods Restaurant before returning to your lodgings on the mainland.
Get an early breakfast at Darrow’s Family Restaurant; you have a bit of a drive ahead of you. Cross the bridge, turn right and make a brief stop at Straits State Park. Here you can enjoy a breathtaking bridge view on the Upper Peninsula side. Head west along U.S. 2. As you begin your trip from St. Ignace to Naubinway, you’ll be treated with a pleasing panorama of the Lake Michigan shore, with St. Helena Island in the distance. There are many turnouts along this route, and with a good zoom lens and clear weather, you can get a shot of the island’s lighthouse. Continue on toward Manistique and stop for lunch at Clyde’s Drive-In No. 2 for a great burger and malt.
After lunch, turn off onto M-149 and head to Palms Book State Park to see Kitch-Iti-Kipi, better known as “Big Spring.” Continue on U.S. 2, ending your day’s sojourn in Escanaba. Have dinner and stay the night at the historic House of Ludington.
After breakfast in Escanaba at the authentic Swedish Pantry, head up M-35 toward Marquette, the Upper Peninsula’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. Once you arrive, a stroll along the waterfront will be invigorating after time behind the wheel. Bring your camera so you can get some great shots of Marquette Harbor Lighthouse, a photogenic lighthouse on rocks located offshore. Grab lunch and spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the area, perhaps perusing junkyard art at Lakenenland Sculpture Park or viewing the sunset at Presque Isle Park. Choose from one of several excellent downtown dining spots for dinner before spending the night in Marquette.
Grab breakfast at the Sweet Water Café before setting course on M-28 for Munising and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Since the colorful rocks can only be seen from the water, either book a three-hour boat tour with Pictured Rocks Cruises or a six-hour kayak tour (departing at 9am) with Paddling Michigan. Enjoy dinner at Lake Superior Brewing Company and stay the night in Grand Marais; renting one of the Hilltop Cabins will offer a great waterfront view.
Grab a convenient breakfast at West Bay Diner and Deli, then hit the road for Tahquamenon Falls State Park, where you’ll find the most magnificent waterfall in the U.P. You can see the Upper Falls from the observation deck, which is only a short trail walk from the parking area. Four miles downstream, the Lower Falls produce a similar spectacle. The awe-inspiring power of the falls is hard to overstate. As much as 50,000 gallons of water per second cascade over Upper Tahquamenon, the second most powerful waterfall in the eastern United States, exceeded only by Niagara.
Enjoy lunch at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub before setting out for Sault Ste. Marie. Sail through the always fascinating Soo Locks with Soo Locks Boat Tours and marvel at how gargantuan ships can transit though the locks with just inches to spare. Cap off your adventure with a special dinner at Freighters. Check in at the Ojibway Hotel for the night before departing for home the next morning.
Michigan’s Western Upper Peninsula in 7 Days
Adventure awaits in the western half of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Take your time to really examine the scenery—it’s much more rustic than in the east, and nothing like what you’ll find in the big city!
Start your trip on the U.S. 2 going west toward Iron River. Along the way you’ll cross into the central time zone and begin to see some of the rough terrain for which the U.P. is known. This area was the heart of iron country during the heyday of mining. To learn about this historic period, visit the Iron Mountain Iron Mine near Vulcan. Afterward, get back on U.S. 2 and stop in Iron Mountain for lunch; try either Bimbo’s Wine Press on East Main Street if you appreciate good Italian fare (owing to the area’s Italian heritage), or Famers on Pine Mountain Road if you’d prefer a sports bar atmosphere.
Continue west on U.S. 2, taking a brief detour into a corner of Wisconsin on the way to Crystal Falls. You’re entering the Superior Upland, the area of rough beauty known as iron country. Stop in Crystal Falls just long enough to admire the spectacular view looking down Main Street and take a picture of the highlands in the distance.
Continue west along U.S. 2 until you come to Watersmeet. Book a room at the Lac Vieux Desert Resort Casino for a well-deserved rest. After dinner at the Thunderbird Sports Lounge, make the short trek up U.S. 45 to view the baffling Paulding Mystery Light.
The most picturesque wilderness of the Upper Peninsula awaits you! After breakfast at the hotel, take U.S. 45 north toward Ontonagon, where you’ll find the eastern end of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Pick up picnic supplies in town before taking M-107 up the large hill to Lake of the Clouds Overlook. Park your car and make the very short hike up to the top of the cliff to take in the breathtaking view.
Follow M-107 through the park, being careful of the frequent turns in the road. After exiting the park near Union Bay you’ll find a series of scenic turnouts along the Lake Superior shore. Most have tables, so stop here to enjoy your picnic lunch and chat with some of your fellow travelers. After lunch, head to Ontonagon to take in the Ontonagon County Historical Museum, which offers a fascinating look at the community’s past, with an emphasis on the logging and mining industries. The historical society also offers tours of the Ontonagon Lighthouse, an 1853 structure gradually being restored. Grab dinner at Syl’s Cafe and get a cabin for the night at the Mountain View Lodges on M-64, featuring a waterfront view and a sandy beach.
Today you’ll be heading into the Keweenaw Peninsula, as north as you can go and still be in mainland Michigan. From Ontonagon, take U.S. 45 to M-26 and head north. As you progress, you’ll see more pine and spruce trees mixed in with maples and elms. When you come to Houghton, a college town that’s home to Michigan Technological University, stop and take a leisurely break, possibly at Cyberia Café. Stop to view the unusual “lift bridge” linking the city to Hancock across the Keweenaw Waterway.
Continue north on U.S. 41 until you come to Calumet, considered by some to be the capital of the once-dominant copper industry. Take some time to look around at the magnificent if somewhat neglected architecture flanked by abandoned mines. Continue until you get to Copper Harbor and the end of U.S. 41. Take a tour of the Copper Harbor Lighthouse, which involves a fun 15-minute boat ride from the marina. Book a room at the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge.
Shift into nautical mode and board the Isle Royale Queen IV for the three-hour trip to Isle Royale National Park, the least-visited property in the National Park system. Although the park is very rugged and most visitors choose to camp, indoor accommodations are available at the Rock Harbor Lodge at Rock Harbor at the far eastern tip. Either way, you’ll have virtually unlimited opportunities to commune with nature.
Hiking, fishing, observing wildlife, and kayaking are some of the activities you can enjoy. Spend two to three days exploring Isle Royale—a truly unforgettable experience.
Take a few day hikes along some of the shorter trails into the island—Scoville Point and Lookout Louise are good choices, and the view from Ojibway Tower is phenomenal. Look into a National Park Service boat tour or rent a sea kayak and explore the shoreline yourself. Pack lunches and take them with you, but note that dinners at the lodge are satisfying.
Backwoods campers and hikers will have 165 miles of trails to explore. There’s no way to hike it all in a few days, but a well-planned trip will have you walking from campsite to campsite while you keep a lookout for moose.
Make sure you’re back at the ferry dock by 2:45pm for the ride back to Copper Harbor. You’ll get into town a little before 6pm, just in time for dinner at the Harbor Haus. Make your way back home in the morning.