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Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Author: sightseeingsue (More Trip Reviews by sightseeingsue)
Date of Trip: April 2006

A ghost town, casinos, waterfalls, lighthouses, log slides, big lakes and springs, and an abundance of unspoiled land that is full of adventures waiting to be explored.

Who said being called a troll is a bad thing? And folklore tells of trolls being mischievous little creatures who live in caves, logs, or under bridges. Well, I'm rather short, have been known for raising some havoc when I was younger, and yes, I live under the Mackinaw Bridge. So I guess that makes me a Troll...and that's what Upper Peninsula natives call us living in the Lower Peninsula.

We call Michigan's Upper Peninsula the "UP" and its native residents "Yoopers," which is the term they prefer to be called. It's a different world up there, whole different language, and a whole different lifestyle. They are a hardy-breed of folk that can withstand over 300 inches of annual snowfall, and 5 or more months of winter. It's not hard to see why saunas and snowmobiles are hot commodities up there. In the past, lumbering and mining were the bread and butter of this region, but after the virgin pines were cut and mines closed down, the UP fell on some tough times, and some still face those tough times today. Tourism is the main industry today, however, a few mines and lumbering mills are still in operation, but on a much smaller scale then before.

Michigan has two peninsulas which are connected by the Mackinaw Bridge (longest-suspension bridge in the US) and is the link between the two worlds. Our state's population is roughly 9 million, with just 3% of them living in the UP. The UP makes up 1/3 of our state's total land mass, and has some of the most beautiful scenery in the U.S. found here. What will you find on a visit to the UP of Michigan? Three of the Great Lakes, over 200 waterfalls, acres of national forests, oodles of other lakes, rivers and streams, ghost-towns, Indian casinos, mountains, campgrounds, beaches, lighthouses, Soo Locks, log-slide, shipwreck museums, and my favorite...the pastie. What can you do...hit the beaches, fish, hunt, snowmobile, hike, camp, ski, gamble, go four-wheeling, or just plain relax and enjoy all the picturesque sights this unique place has to offer. If you are not afraid of a little solitude, can appreciate exceptional beauty, love water and the great outdoors, don't need the big name restaurants or hotel chains, big city life or big fancy freeways, then a visit to the UP might be your ticket to Paradise. It's not for everyone, but once visited, it is very hard to forget.

Before a visit to the UP it might be wise to brush up on a little of the "Yooper Lingo" you might hear. For instance, a pastie is something you eat, not a dangling item you wear. Lots of words start with "da," and every sentence end with "ah," and a "turd" isn't what you might think it is, but rather just a word that comes after first, second...then "turd!"

Purchase a State Park permit as you will need it to gain entry into any of Michigan States Parks. With over 15 state parks located in the UP, you are bound to stumble across one that is worth checking out. Many of the parks offer camping and some of the favorites are Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Park, Tahquamenon Falls, Laughing Whitefish, Van Riper, or Fayette Historical State Park. Permit fees are $6 daily, or $24 for the year (Michigan residents), or $29 for non-residents. Well worth the cost!

Bring your camera regardless of the season. Autumn is awesome in the UP and arguably one of the best times to visit. Every winding road you travel on will be a picture postcard waiting to be taken. The canopied roads bursting with brilliant reds, orange, and yellow hues are eye candy to any amateur or professional photographer. The winter months hold yet another picture-perfect opportunity, as nature's once gushing waterfalls surrender to frigid temperatures and engage into some of the best breath-taking frozen ice sculptures ever seen in the U.S. Spring is the best time to see the waterfalls, as the winter snow-meltoff intensifies the flows and makes the paths easier to travel on. Summer, with everything in bloom, and the lush green acres of forest, the sparkling waters of the lakes and some of the best pictures are just a snap-shot away.

My best picks for attractions are: Soo Locks, Tahquamenon Falls, Fayette Ghost Town, Kitch-iti-Kipi, Wagner Falls, Pictured Rocks Boat Tour , Log-slide at Grand Marias, Whitefish Point Ship wreck Museum, porcupine Mountains and crossing the 5-mile Mackinaw Bridge. Some cities I think that are worth a visit are: Sault Ste. Marie, Escanaba, Copper Harbor, Marquette, Grand Marias, Brimley, Houghton/Hancock, Eagle Harbor, Newberry and Paradise. Best new experience is to try an UP staple called the pastie. One visit to this peninsula will never be enough!

The Upper Peninsula is home to only one Interstate highway. I-75 runs North to South beginning at Sault Ste. Marie and ending at St. Ignace (60 miles) then continues over the Mackinac Bridge. They have two major east-west highways, US-2 (southern part, Lake Michigan side) and M-28 (northern route, Lake Superior side) yet neither are 4 lanes. Speed limits are only 55mph except for the 60 miles of I-75. There are numerous unpaved roads found in the UP, many easily passable but some better left to the 4-wheel-drives. With thousands of miles of the best groomed snowmobile trails found in the UP, it is understandable why it's known as one of the premier snowmobiling areas in the U.S. State permits are required for operators of sleds. Many cities allow the use of snowmobiles on their roads and sometimes it's a necessity.

With thousands of miles of spectacular scenic back-roads and bike trails to explore, bringing your bike is an excellent way to see some of the most pristine sites the UP has to offer -- especially places too rural for cars or trucks. If winter hiking or exploring is right up your alley, then you better invest in a good pair of snow-shoes as the extreme depths of the snowfall can make it impossible to get around otherwise. Occasionally the Mackinaw Bridge may close due to extreme inclement weather conditions. Believe me, you won't want to be driving on the Mighty Mac with gale force winds or powerful blizzards that can make road travel impossible. On excessive windy days police escorts may be needed to cross.

The UP East/West maximum driving distance is 320 miles; maximum North/South is only 125 miles. It will take you about 11½ hours of driving to make it from the Ohio border (US-23) to near the tip of Copper Harbor. It will take you about a 6½ hours from the bridge to Copper Harbor, or the Wisconsin Border -- take your pick. Couple of important tips: Always gas-up before you enter the UP as it rather rural in spots and gas stations may be few and far between, and always beware and prepared for darting deer racing out from the woods (especially at dusk and early evening). I don't recall ever visiting the UP when I didn't see at least 2 or 3 deer in any given day while driving. Be careful, and do drive safely.

Crossing the Mighty Mac...five miles of panoramic views of the crystal-clear waters of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are there to greet you as you cross over the Straits on the Mackinaw Bridge, which connects the Lower Peninsula of Michigan to the Upper Peninsula. To us Michiganders, it's known as the "Mighty Mac," and is quite a sight to see.

Visible while crossing the bridge (looking east) is the Grand Hotel perched high above the isle it calls its home, Mackinaw Island. At the end of the bridge nearing St. Ignace, numerous sandbars can be seen through the translucent waters below. During the summer months it's neat to see all the catamarans and water spouting ferries race across the waters to transport tourist to Mackinaw Island.

The excitement for me starts about 5 miles south while still on I-75 heading north. Here is where I get my first glimpse of what lies ahead. Though only a peek, it gets your adrenaline flowing. Now is the time to tune into the bridges radio station to get the latest updates on bridge conditions. Once we past the exit sign for Mackinaw City, the last exit located on I-75 before crossing over the straits, speed limits reduced, and within minutes you are on your way heading across the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere.

The length of time it takes you to cross over varies. During normal weather conditions (which is my favorite time to cross) speed limits for passenger vehicles are 45mph, and large trucks or trailers maximum speeds limits of 25mph. Cars have there choice of driving in either of the two lanes, while larger trailer/trucks are only allowed to drive on the outside lane. Once in the middle of the bridge, the inside lane is constructed out of a steel grate that you can actually see the water through. Besides being very noisy, I find it a little scary as well. On windy days you can actually feel the rushing of the air forcing your car to move slightly when driving across it. I know its an engineered necessity to have these exposed areas exist, to allow the swaying action that is required on windy days (at least that's what my father who's a structural engineer always told us), but it's still a little frightening for me.

If you don't like the wind kicking up your car a bit, or the noise, then drive on the outside lane. Here is where, if you aren't uncomfortable with heights, you will get the best bridge crossing experience. The protective railing isn't that high and allows excellent viewing, and some have questioned how safe it actually is. As far as I know, only one very light weight vehicle (Yugo) has been blown off the bridge while driving excessively fast in extremely high winds. That might be why speed limit signs as well as speed recording devises monitor your speed as you enter and again as you cross. On extremely windy days (I believe over 30mph) speed limits drop to a maximum of 25mph, or in rare cases, a police escort is needed for you to cross, or the bridge is totally closed until conditions improve. My husband once, in college, recalls being the last vehicle allowed to cross one night during a blizzard and said he was never happier than to finally make it across into the Lower Peninsula that night. But don't worry, days like this are few and far between.

There is a toll to cross so the bridge can be maintained. Passenger vehicles are $1.25 per axle, $2.00 per axle for motor homes, and commercial rigs $3.00 per axle. Fares are collected on the Upper Peninsula side.

Some facts regarding the bridge are quite impressive. Total length is 26,372 feet (roughly 5 miles), with main towers soaring 552 feet, maximum clearance at mid-span for the many passing ships is 155ft, and the deepest water depths are 295 feet. The bridge took 3 years to build and was open for traffic on Nov. 1, 1957. Before the bridge, ferry boats were used to get over to the other side. During some years, the straits below the bridge freeze solid enough for snowmobiles to drive across and rows of Christmas trees are laid, marking the path to follow. Snowmobiles are not allowed to cross over the bridge.

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