When it comes to the United States, anyone who's read my blog for a while will know that I'm a big Midwest fangirl. I've spent most of my life in Ohio, and have traveled throughout the region, from Indianapolis to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
But one place I hadn't yet visited in the Midwest until last year was the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
I've traveled around Michigan before, and Elliot even lived in the state for about 10 years when he was a kid; but neither of us had ever crossed over the Mackinac Bridge to “the UP.”
We remedied this in 2020, when we planned a socially distanced fall road trip around Michigan, with an emphasis on the northern half of the state. This meant that we spent nearly a week in the Upper Peninsula, getting to know this unique part of Michigan during one of the most beautiful times of the year.
And let me tell you: it's definitely an underrated part of America!
In case you're curious about the UP and what makes it a place worth adding to your travel bucket list, I've put together a whole list of reasons of why you should visit.
9 Reasons to visit Michigan's Upper Peninsula
1. The Mackinac Bridge
The first thing you need to know about the UP is that it's actually connected by land to the state of Wisconsin. It's connected to the rest of Michigan by the Mackinac Bridge, nicknamed the Mighty Mac.
The Mackinac Bridge is one of the longest suspension bridges in the world, spanning 26,372 feet across the Straits of Mackinac. It connects the towns of Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, and is the quickest way to reach the Upper Peninsula from the rest of Michigan.
The bridge is iconic – but also terrifying for some people with its length and height (200 feet above the water). Add in strong winds or snow, and it's no surprise then that the state of Michigan came up with a solution for people too scared to drive over the bridge. The Mackinac Bridge Authority has employees you can call who will hop in your car and drive you over the bridge (yes, for real!).
2. Great Lakes
The next cool thing about the Upper Peninsula is that it touches not one, not two, but THREE Great Lakes. The UP has long coastlines on Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, and also touches a small part of Lake Huron.
Access to 3 out of 5 Great Lakes is pretty special!
3. The Pictured Rocks
One of my favorite spots along one of those Great Lakes is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which stretches for 42 miles along the shore of Lake Superior. Pictured Rocks was the very first designated National Lakeshore in the United States in 1966, and is a park you can visit in all four seasons.
The Pictured Rocks name refers to the 15 miles of multicolored sandstone cliffs the park is most well-known for.
Popular things to do at Pictured Rocks include taking a boat cruise or booking a kayaking tour to see the cliffs from the water; hiking on the 100+ miles of trails to see waterfalls and lake views; and doing winter activities like ice fishing, snowshoeing, and even ice climbing!
Going to Pictured Rocks (and taking the sightseeing cruise there) was one of the highlights of our Upper Peninsula trip!
4. Incredible parks and natural spaces
Speaking of beautiful parks and natural sites, the Upper Peninsula is full of them. Which makes sense, considering that the UP covers more than 16,000 square miles but only has a population of about 300,000 people.
If you enjoy the great outdoors, then you're going to enjoy the UP.
The Upper Peninsula is home to nearly two dozen state parks, including Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (the largest state park in Michigan, AKA The Porkies) and Tahquamenon Falls State Park (home to probably the most famous waterfall in Upper Michigan).
In the UP, you'll also find many scenic roads, inland lakes, and the largest freshwater natural spring at Kitch-iti-kipi.
The UP is also the jumping-off point for visits to Isle Royale National Park, which is one of the least-visited national parks in the country. To get there, you have to make a camping reservation, and either take a small sea plane, or a ferry from either Houghton or Copper Harbor.
And if that wasn't enough, you can enjoy all sorts of outdoor pursuits around the UP, from kayaking to hiking to rock climbing to mountain biking to fishing to skiing.
5. All the waterfalls
I mentioned Tahquamenon Falls State Park above, which is home to the UP's most famous waterfall. But it's by no means the only spot worth visiting for waterfalls in this part of Michigan.
In fact, the Upper Peninsula is FULL of waterfalls – over 300 of them, to be precise.
Some must-see UP waterfalls include:
- Tahquamenon Falls
- Bond Falls
- Waterfalls at Pictured Rocks like Miners Falls, Munising Falls, Chapel Falls, Sable falls, Spray Falls, and more
- Hungarian Falls
- Potawatomi Falls
- Canyon Falls
And the best part is since there are so many waterfalls and generally a small amount of people in the UP, you can often have some of the lesser-known waterfalls to yourself! When Elliot and I hiked to see Hungarian Falls on a cloudy fall day, we only saw two other people on the trail.
6. Incredible fall colors
I'm going to share a secret with you: Michigan (and especially northern Michigan) is one of the more underrated spots in the US for fall colors!
Everyone always flocks to New England and the Great Smoky Mountains for fall color, but they totally miss out on the incredible fall colors of the Midwest.
On the Upper Peninsula, fall arrives a little earlier than in other parts of the country (and state). Peak color for the upper and western parts of the UP usually happens the last few days of September into the first week of October.
But an interesting thing about fall colors around the Great Lakes? Areas right on the lake stay mild for longer, meaning you can catch great fall color in the UP well into the middle of October.
(For example, Elliot and I missed peak color at Lake of the Clouds in The Porkies, but caught beautiful colors at Pictured Rocks, and at the top of the Keweenaw Peninsula.)
Some great places to go leaf-peeping in the Upper Peninsula include:
- The Porkies (especially around the Lake of the Clouds)
- Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
- Tahquamenon Falls State Park
- Mission Hill near Whitefish Bay
- The Keweenaw Peninsula, especially along the Brockway Mountain Drive and US-41
- Presque Isle Park in Marquette
But the UP is a great destination any time of year. In the summer, you can go camping, take advantage of long sunlight hours for hiking, and kayak on one of the Great Lakes. The UP is also popular in the winter for skiing, ice climbing, snowshoeing, and other outdoor winter sports, thanks to its 250+ inches of annual snowfall.
7. Interesting history
While it's true that the UP is most well-known for its outdoor spaces, this part of Michigan has an interesting history all its own, too.
As with all of the United States, Michigan and its Upper Peninsula were inhabited by indigenous peoples long before Europeans came to the “New World.” In the UP specifically, these were mostly the Chippewa, or Ojibwa people, and some of their place names can still be found throughout the region.
When French explorers and Jesuit missionaries made their way to this part of the world in the 17th century, they interacted with the Ojibwa people (mostly through the fur trade), but the Upper Peninsula developed a lot differently than the lower part of Michigan. In fact, when Michigan was preparing for statehood in 1836, it didn't really want the UP to be part of the state.
But Michigan got the UP, and was eventually happy about it when in the 1840s copper and iron ore deposits were discovered (well, discovered by the white folks, at least; the Ojibwa had been mining and using copper for a long time already!). There was so much copper on the Keweenaw Peninsula that “copper fever” hit, and a population boom followed, not unlike the California Gold Rush that followed a few years later.
Through the early 1900s, people immigrated to the Upper Peninsula from all over Europe, including Cornwall, Germany, Ireland, Scandinavia, Poland, and more. You can still see evidence of this diverse population in town names, food traditions, and more throughout the UP.
To learn more about the Indigenous history of the UP, consider visiting the Museum of Ojibwa Culture in St. Ignace.
To learn more about the copper rush and the “Golden Age” of the Upper Peninsula, you can visit sites that are part of the Keweenaw National Historic Park, including several old copper mines like Quincy Mine that you can tour.
And there's plenty of Great Lakes history in the UP, too. If you're into this sort of history, you can visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. Here you can visit a historic lighthouse, and learn about Lake Superior shipwrecks, including that of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
8. Charming little towns
When you combine the area's unique history with its relatively small population, you get some charming small towns to explore in the Upper Peninsula. It's true that many suffered after the copper boom ended, but they are still interesting to visit today, and charming from an outsider's perspective.
Elliot and I stayed in both Munising and Houghton (the latter of which is a college town, home to Michigan Technological University), and were pleasantly surprised by the number of local shops and restaurants in both. The UP is not really the land of chain stores and strip malls.
We can't talk about the Upper Peninsula without talking about pasties. These hand pies (pronounced “pass-tee,” by the way) are a direct result of the Cornish miners that came to the UP during the copper boom in the second half of the 19th century. (So if you're heard of a Cornish pasty, you'll know what we're talking about here.)
Traditional pasties have a flaky crust filled with hearty things like beef, pork, potatoes, onion, rutabega, and carrot. They were favored by miners because they were a full meal that could easily be packed up and eaten like a handheld pie.
You can find pasties all over the UP; basically every town, no matter how small, is likely to have a local pasty shop. Most will be the traditional savory type, but you can also find sweet pasties and breakfast pasties along with more “gourmet” pasty flavors.
Don't leave the Upper Peninsula without trying one!
Have I convinced you to plan a trip to the Upper Peninsula yet? Obviously I'm not an expert after just one visit, but I really loved this trip – especially in the fall!
If you are looking for a US destination to explore next year, definitely consider putting the UP on your list.
Have you ever been to the UP? If not, is it a place you'd like to visit?
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