All across the United States are 150 designated scenic byways, three of which are in the state of Michigan. The 47-mile Copper Country Scenic Byway that runs through the middle of the Keweenaw Peninsula of the U.P. traverses one of Michigan’s most remote and picturesque wilderness.
The historic towns, once the centers of commerce and life for thousands of miners and their families at the height of the copper boom, have much to tell about the past and cultural heritage. But these towns are still harbors for unique businesses and surrounded by natural features that continue to attract and awe travelers.
According to www.coppercountrytrail.org/, this trek along US-41 from Houghton to Copper Harbor “follows the copper lode that lies deep underground and is the basis of [the area’s] exciting and turbulent history.” (Here’s a complete map of the route.) It’ll take you about two hours to complete a round trip of this scenic drive if you never make a stop, but we all know that’s impossible. You’ll naturally slow down to take in the sights and history of the region.
These are just a few of the stops you can make along the Copper Country Scenic Byway that should not be missed. Yet road trips are always full of pleasant surprises, and there’s no better place to be adventurous than in the wilds of the Upper Peninsula.
Stop #1: Houghton
Houghton is one of the best 100 places to live according to “The 100 Best Small Towns In America,” by Norman Crampton. It’s the ideal base for visitors to the Keweenaw Peninsula, especially those who love to be outside. There are 30 sites for walking or biking geotours in the city, which explore the unique geography and natural history of the peninsula. If you have your bikes, take the Waterfront Trail, a paved, non-motorized trail that runs the length of the city; however, Houghton is also a designated as a Bicycle Friendly Community silver level, so you can get around just by pedaling. Don’t miss the downtown, either, which is full of shops as unique as the cultural history of the area.
Side road: Take M-203 N for 11 miles, or 19 minutes, to McLain State Park. Situated on Lake Superior, his 443-acre park has two miles of shoreline and the Keweenaw Waterway Upper Entrance Lighthouse. This is the perfect spot to go rock-hounding, swimming, or to watch the sunset.
Stop #2: Laurium
“Win one for the Gipper” is one of the most well-known sports references of all time. George Gipp was from this small village in Calumet Township, and his four-year football career at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, was as illustrious as it was rocky. You can go to the ice arena that bears his name to enjoy public skating. For a small fee, go on the Laurium Manor Inn self-guided tour through the stately 1900s home that has been completely restored with period decor and furniture. If you come in the winter, bring the snowmobiles. Calumet is well-known for its network of trails.
Side road: Lake Linden is just a seven-minute ride away to the east on M-26. Situated on the north end of Torch Lake, this little town gives you a quiet taste of the old country. The Village Park has a marina, nature trail, playground, and more.
Stop #3: Delaware
The only remnants of this once-booming mining town are two decrepit old buildings along the side of the highway. You won’t find much else but ghosts. But the pride and joy of this stop is the Delaware Mine, where tours are available. One of the area’s original mines, most of the workers were Cornish, and they mined more than 8 million pounds of copper over the 40 years of the mine’s existence. All tours are self-guided (hard hats required and provided), after paying a minimal admission fee. There is a video detailing the history and finds of the mine. Above ground, there’s quote a panoramic view plus walking trails. P.S. – The Delaware Mine has the area’s only underground picnic area.
Side road: Backtrack a few miles on US-41 and then head up Eagle Harbor Cut Off Road to visit Copper Falls. There are numerous drops of this majestic waterfall, both upstream and downstream and over various rock formations. The largest falls are located south of Cutoff Road, although the drops with the most flow are furthest downstream.
Stop #4: Lac La Belle
Once home to the stamping plant for nearby copper mines, Lac La Belle is now more of a resort town. Nearby Mount Bohemia has some of the state’s best skiing and Lake La Belle has outstanding fishing. Go on a hike up Bare Bluff, which offers beautiful scenery over some bluffs. It’s a three-mile loop and family friendly if you have older kids. There’s a shorter trail, too, if that fits your schedule or group’s stamina better. The view is one of the best in the north.
Side road: Three miles east on Lac La Belle Road is the ghost town of Bete Grise, French for “grey beast.” The white sand beach is the ideal spot to take relax and unwind on beautiful summer days, but on stormy days you may see a Lake Superior freighter taking refuge in the bay. There’s a lighthouse and a wetland preserve, too.
Stop #5: Copper Harbor
Copper Harbor is at the tip of the Keweenaw, which feels like the edge of the world. That’s why people come here. It’s the freshest air and purest scenery. Visit the lighthouse or go on a sea-kayak tour (other types of kayaks are not recommended). This is the place to visit in the fall for a color tour and the place to see the Northern Lights as you’ve never seen them before. Immerse yourself in the history of the area and take in the unique shops downtown (Brickside Brewery is the first and only microbrewery in town and Jamsen’s Fish Market & Bakery has only the freshest fare available during the summer season).
Side road: Brockway Mountain Drive is the highest paved road between the Rockies and the Alleghenies (according to copperharbor.org). It’s a 10-mile drive with many pull-offs and scenic vistas. You need to take this drive… and take your time doing it.