MINNESOTA TO MACKINAC
"A Superior Story"
by E. Nolan
Lake Superior is the largest of America's Great Lakes and the third-largest freshwater lake in the world behind only Lake Baikal in Russia and Tanganyika in Africa. Superior has a shore length of 1,729 miles in the United States and Canada, with at least half of those shoreline miles "ours"--American--the portion you can travel by car, from Grand Portage in Minnesota to Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan.
Strictly sticking to Lake Superior, we'll take you down 937 miles of highways and backroads that you could easily cover in a baker's week (eight days), though two would better do the round trip justice. (Yes, I made up "baker's week.") For the purposes of this piece, we won't deviate from the "freshwater ocean" - not for the Gunflint Trail or for anything else we'd need a daily extension for, not until we reach the end and add an exclamation point to the trip. This is a journey full of notable highlights, emphasized in bold at the mile marks (from the beginning) that you'll find them. So, let's start at that beginning--Mile 0.0--at the Pigeon River and Grand Portage State Park, at the furthest northeast point of Minnesota.
DAY ONE (Mile 0.0) Mere footsteps from Canada's Ontario border, Grand Portage State Park contains an 8.5 mile walking path, with a portion of it in well-maintained wood leading to Minnesota's tallest waterfall--the 120-foot Pigeon Falls. Technically, the waterfall is both American and Canadian--like Niagara Falls--and yet unlike Niagara Falls, the American side of Pigeon Falls is prettier... a sublime victory. (Mile 7.0) The Hat Point Marina offers a ferry service back and forth between Minnesota's mainland and Isle Royale National Park--aka "Moose Island"--the best kept secret in the US National Park System. As promised, we won't sidetrack the story...not for anything. You just need to know it's there. (Mile 44.0) Grand Marais is the sole municipality in Cook County, and the gateway to the famed Gunflint Trail. Cook County is known for its many northern lights displays and for its own moose population, though that population has sadly dwindled from 8,000 to just 2,500 in the past decade. Keep your eyes open... you never know. Just because you don't see them doesn't mean they're not watching you!
Grand Marais is a special place, recognized by USA Today in 2017 as "America's Best Midwestern Small Town." It's Minnesota Nice in the nicest way. From the Grand MaraisLight at the end of the pier to one of the world's most unique zoos at Putt n Pets Mini Golf and some pretty great restaurants: Dockside Fish Market, Angry Trout Café, and My Sister's Place. (Yes, that's the name.) You need to spend some time here, ideally even a night at East Bay Suites on the water.
DAY TWO (Mile 45.0) Get up early and have breakfast at World's Best Donuts. "If you don't like Cake Donuts, you haven't had theirs." Don't be surprised to find a line at the door 30 minutes before they open. Absolutely legit. (Mile 66.0) If you can see Lake Superior, you're still "on the lake," right? Yes. Lutsen Mountains has an Alpine Slide that flies down Eagle Mountain (kind of crazy) and a Summit Express Gondola that gives a panoramic perspective from the North Shore's most spectacular dining venue--the Summit Chalet at the top of Moose Mountain, with its 100-mile views.
(Mile 68.0) Lutsen Resort is a family-favorite getaway, with its signature wooden bridge, great beach, and remarkable setting, across the street from the newly renovated Superior National Golf Course--27 holes of unbelievably fun golf and great views. Don't golf? Tofte Charters launches its charter fishing service out of Taconite Harbor just south of Lutsen. Stay, play, have dinner, and spend the night at Lutsen Resort. (Then send someone back up to Grand Marais for donuts the next morning.)
DAY THREE (Mile 100.0) Tettegouche State Park is 9,346 acres of lakes (six), waterfalls (four), and a great Lake Superior beach. The 70-foot High Falls on the Baptism River is the highest waterfall completely in Minnesota, and Tettegouche is one of only four state parks in Minnesota to offer rock climbing. (Though we do rock in plenty of other ways.) Shovel Point and Palisade Head are the most popular climbing spots. (Mile 112.5) Split Rock Lighthouse is Minnesota's most famous and picturesque beacon, perched out on the edge of a 133-foot Superior cliff. Especially beautiful in the fall, take the Lighthouse Tour (May 15-October 31), walk the trails, and take hundreds of pictures. (Mile 118.5) Gooseberry Falls State Park is one of the state's most popular, scenic, and accessible parks. Kids in particular love exploring Gooseberry's Upper, Middle, and Lower falls, each set providing plenty of thrill-soaking opportunities throughout the summer. All this play will make you hungry. Fortunately, Betty's Pies (Mile 130.0) is there to help. The edible "must stop" on Minnesota's North Shore, choose from 30 or so different pie flavors each day (until they run out) and then take a pie with you. Personal favorites: Apple Strawberry Crunch and Five-Layer Chocolate. (Mile 133.0) If you've had too much pie, as many do, Two Harbors Light overlooks Agate Bay. Take a walk through the park and out to the end of the pier. Get your picture taken next to "Atlantis Train Tracks"... if you can find them. Continue on to Duluth (Mile 161.5) for the night with no less than six great overnight choices to choose from: Fitger's Inn, Canal Park Lodge, Inn on Lake Superior, Pier B Resort, the Park Point Marina Inn, and/or the South Pier Inn, literally adjacent Duluth's famed Aerial Lift Bridge. Fitger's guests can double dip on the awesome (and on daily desserts) by walking next door to the Portland Malt Shoppe--one of Minnesota's "coolest" stops.
DAY FOUR Grab breakfast and/or coffee to go at Johnson's Bakery in Lincoln Park and drive across the state line into Wisconsin (Mile 164.0). If you have a dog along, it might be fun to take him to Bark Point (Mile 224.0) since you drive past there anyway (and he'll probably be barking), then check out Lost Creek Falls (Mile 233.0) on your way to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore which essentially begin at the Bayfield Peninsula Sea Caves (Mile 241.0). To access the Ice and Sea Caves, park at Meyers Beach (4 miles east of Cornucopia) and take the walking trail, though the best way to see the caves sans ice is definitely by kayak. In general, the Apostle Islands are one of America's greatest kayak zones. Most will launch out of Bayfield (Mile 258.0) and scatter from there, paying particular interest to the myriad of caves and to the lighthouses on Outer, Sand, Michigan, Devil, and Raspberry islands. There are 22 Apostle Islands with only the biggest--Madeline Island--being populated and not part of the national park. You might be interested to know that one of North America's greatest black bear colonies is on the 10,000-acre Stockton Island. It's generally recommended that kayakers not pet them.
Madeline Island is accessible by ferry nearly nine months a year, and by Christmas Tree Highway the other months--an official extension of County Highway H. With a population of 300 that multiplies infinitely in summer, Madeline Island has one school (K-5) and great beaches, though the water temperature just offshore seldom rises above 50. There's also the 18-hole Madeline Island Golf Club, built by Robert Trent Jones Sr. If you'd like to spend a night out there, The Inn on Madeline Island is a great stay with a pool on the water, a Pub Restaurant, and some pretty stunning sunsets. Or you have two fabulous overnight options to choose from on the mainland, between the Bayfield Inn and the Old Rittenhouse Inn (with its stellar Landmark Restaurant).
DAY FIVE Drive through Ashland (Mile 284.0) to Potato River Falls (Mile 309.0), just south of Cedar and Gurney--a great splash zone during summer months that becomes a stellar natural arena of colors in the fall. From here you're close to the Michigan state line (Mile 319.0) and Ironwood Visitor's Center, which is 30 minutes from more great cascades--the Potawatomi and Gorge Waterfalls (Mile 347.5)--and 45 more minutes from "The Porkies"--the 60,000-acre Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (Mile 384.5). There are many "must sees" in The Porkies, three of them being the Lake of the Clouds (best seen from the parking lot at the western terminus of Highway 107), Summit Peak (at the end of Summit Peak Road), and the Presque Isle River Falls (specifically Manabezho at the west entrance). Silver City (Mile 412.0) sits on the eastern outskirts of The Porkies with a superb AmericInn Lodge & Suites for those who want something more than camping and/or yurts. If only there were good food nearby. Curbside Kitchen Restaurant on Wheels is your best bet, if it's open.
DAY SIX Lighthouse "collectors" will appreciate the Ontonagon Lighthouse (Mile 425.0) and the Fourteen Mile Point Lighthouse on Sleeping Bay (Mile 445.0) though be forewarned..."14M" is a bit off the paved path. Your next stop is Houghton (Mile 486.0) either for a late breakfast at Suomi (finish your Finnish French Toast) or for a pizza lunch at Ambassador. Houghton is one of Michigan's launching points for ferries (not the little kind with wings) heading to Isle Royale, while drivers can continue up to Copper Harbor (Mile 535.0) for another ferry launching point, more great kayaking through Keweenaw Adventure Company, a sweet little miniature golf course called Into the Woods, and yet another Superior lighthouse--the Copper Harbor Light. It's 83 miles to L'Anse (Mile 618.0) where I would tell you to stop if you weren't so close to all the better lodging options in Marquette. Even if you get in late, it's worth stretching to stay at a place like the Landmark Inn (Mile 686.5). Alternatively, there are plenty of good chain hotels nearby. Whether or not you've ever heard of pasties (or like them), they are a "signature food" in Michigan and Marquette has two great pastie places--Lawry's and Jean Kay's for a low-cost supper.
DAY SEVEN Just over two miles from the Landmark Inn is a landmark golf course--Greywalls at Marquette Golf Club (Mile 689.0). The Mike Devries design is considered one of Michigan's best, and one of the country's wildest. It is an absolute must play for avid golfers. Non-golfers can take a walk out to Marquette Harbor Lighthouse and grab breakfast at Donckers. For a couple good walks/parks to explore, drive north on Lake Shore Boulevard to the incredible Presque Isle Park and/or follow 41 south out of town to 28 and take it east to Lakenenland's Sculpture Garden (Mile 705.0). If you golfed, you've lost 5 hours already today, so you might as well get on to Munising (Mile 733.5) for one of the Upper Peninsula's most memorable trips--a national park boat ride through Pictured Rocks Cruises. Each cruise is 2.5 to 3 hours and covers "the most stunning 40 miles of coastline on the Great Lakes!" These cruises will save you TONS of driving time, taking you to memorable spots like the East Channel Lighthouse, Grand Island, the incredible Miner's Castle, the Painted Coves, Caves of All Colors, Lover's Leap, Rainbow Cave, Indian Head, Gull Rookery, Grand Portal, Battleship Rocks, Flower Vase, Indian Drum, Chapel Cove, Chapel Rock, and Spray Falls. Like I said, you can drive to many of these, if you'd like to run up and down exhaustive backroads for several hours, or you can take one of these amazing cruises (especially the Sunset Cruise), relax, and get the best views of these viewpoints imaginable. Warning: These cruises often sell out so book ahead! After the cruise, drive to The Voyageurs Motel (Mile 782.5) in Grand Marais (Michigan not Minnesota). It's not fancy, but comfortable, and the rooms have stellar water views. Sticking with the "not fancy, but comfortable" theme, the West Bay Diner is where you have dinner. It's hit or miss, to be honest, but fortunately more hit than miss.
DAY EIGHT Get up and go. Have a "Gas Station Breakfast" if you don't mind and hit the road for Tahquamenon Falls State Park. If you don't cheat and stay along the water it's Mile 847.0. There are two gorgeous sets of waterfalls here, with the Upper Falls being the more popular--with wide, clean paths, stairs, restrooms, a visitor's shop, and restaurant. The Upper Falls are often called "Root Beer Falls" in the fall, because of their maple-mixed color. The Lower Falls are also worth a stop for the panoramic perspectives but if you only have time for one... eat lunch at the Upper Falls and "order the Root Beer." Whitefish Point (Mile 868.5) has the oldest operating Lighthouse on Lake Superior. Whitefish Point is known as the Graveyard of Ships (from when the light bulbs burned out) and is home to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. Head from Whitefish Point to Brown Fisheries Fish House in Paradise (Mile 879.0), assuming they're open, for the best fried fish a person can have. (Note: They close when they run out of fish!) If The Fish House is closed, move on to the USDA Iroquois Lighthouse (Mile 915.0) and then on to Sault Ste. Marie (Mile 937.0). Sault Ste. Marie is officially where Lake Superior ends, where it becomes the St. Mary's River. The Soo Locks on that river are a marquee attraction on the Great Lakes, a remarkable "living museum" of sorts for children, across the street from great shops, fun at Lockside Mini Golf, and food at the West Pier Drive-In or (my kids favorite) Oh Crepe. Don't want to leave the locks? Spend the night at one of America's better (value) motels--the Adoba Lockview Hotel & Cottages.
The "Superior Summer Vacation" is one packed trip--fantastic enough as it is. But this is where I add the exclamation point, where I push the Superior entirety of this trip just a little bit further. 50 miles south of Sault Ste Marie is the city of St. Ignace (no matter how you say it, you'll say it wrong). From St. Ignace you can take a 20-minute Star Line or Shepler's Ferry ride to the Midwest's Best Island--the pot of gold at the end of every Michigan rainbow.
Welcome to Mackinac Island.
"Strait U.P. Awesome"
Believe it or not, this 3.8 square mile Lake Huron isle was recently recognized as a "Top 10 Island in the World" by Conde Nast Traveler. (Believe) The year-round population of 499 (which surges to a daily mass of over 15,000 throughout the summer) gets around on foot, bicycle, and horse, as cars have been outlawed there since 1898. There is one road on the island, the eight-mile loop--M-185--the only official highway in the United States without motorized vehicles. Mackinac Island famously was the site of two battles in the War of 1812 and today remains famous for Fort Mackinac (1780), the horse drawn carriages, Little Stone Church, Round Island Lighthouse, Arch Rock, fudge wars, and signature lodges like The Grand Hotel and Mission Point Resort.
1,500 guest rooms blanket the island, with three golf courses (The Jewel at The Grand, the Scottish Golf Links at Wawashkamo, and the 18-hole bent grass putting course--The Greens of Mackinac at Mission Point Resort), great restaurants like the Pink Pony Bar & Grill, and fudge shops like Murdick's that have been here since 1887 (now competing with others like May's, Ryba's, and Joann's).
Family Feature: Mission Point Resort
There are many places you can make "home" on a Michigan vacation. Families will be most impressed with Mission Point Resort. As you pull into the harbor, note a 108-foot red and white tower to your right. A 10-minute carriage ride will take you and your luggage to that landmark's front door, past the fabulous mini-golf course and the resort's majestic front lawn--loaded with Adirondack chairs for taking in the sunrise and sunset (you see both clearly). Mission Point Resort offers everything a family could want in one spot, from spacious rooms and suites to great food at the Round Island Bar & Grill and three other restaurants, bicycle rentals of all styles and sizes, the sensational Lakeside Spa & Salon, and aforementioned acres of lawn space on the banks of the beautiful clear, blue water. MPR is just around the corner from the island's signature archeological formation, Arch Rock, and the thousand steps leading up to it... a literal high-light on a trip full of highlights.