We all have those trips on our “bucket list” that we want to take before a certain point in life – before we’re too old, before the kids are grown. Whatever the reason you’re feeling drawn to these areas and want to embark on a trip to see them, these “once-in-a-lifetime” trips are what we’ll remember for many, many years to come.
We have three suggestions for such a trip in this article. It’s not all-encompassing, and there are certainly other very worthy destinations and routes and sights, but this can help give you a start.
Empire – Sleeping Bear Dunes – Leland – Manitou Islands
A scenic route not to be missed is M22, which follows the shoreline of Lake Michigan in the Leelanau Peninsula, the tip of Michigan’s pinkie finger. Even though this portion of the route is only 28 miles long, it’ll take you several days to take everything in, as well as recover from the exercise. Start in Empire, a hamlet with only a handful of eateries and taverns as well as a few fun and specialty shops. Empire resides within a stone’s throw of the incredible Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Take a tour of Pierce Stocking Drive (RV friendly and this driving tour gives you the highlights so you know what to expect), hike the dune climb (go all the way to the lake if you can), explore the bluffs, and hike some of the trails. It’s a nature lover’s paradise. Rangers host programs throughout the year, too, so check out the website for information.
Next, drive up to Leland, also known as Fishtown. It’s one of the most beautiful and quintessential “up north” towns you can find. From art galleries to specialty shops to pretzel bun sandwiches in an old shanty, Fishtown is just downright wholesome and romantic. Stick around for a sunset and watch the boats come back into the harbor, one of which is the ferry that shuttles folks between Leland and the Manitou Islands.
There are two islands, North and South, the “cubs” of the Mother Bear (Sleeping Bear Dunes), a tragic tale that is yet full of hope. The island portion of the journey will take an entire day, unless you decide to stay a night or two on the island (if you have a boat reservation, you have a guaranteed camping permit). The summer schedule has the ferry departing at 10 a.m., and it takes approximately 90 minutes to reach South Manitou Island. The ferry docks, leaving you to your own devices until its departure at 4 p.m. Only bring what you can easily carry on and off the boat; there are no carts, wagons, sleds, or wheels allowed. During your time there, go swimming, hiking, and visit the lighthouse. Manitou Island Cruise also offers a sunset cruise at 6:30 p.m., along Manitou Passage, if you don’t feel like going all the way to the island or want to tack something extra on to your trip.
Alpena – Rogers City – Mackinac City – Mackinac Island
The beauty of going to the Sunrise Side of the state, the Lake Huron side, is that it’s not nearly as busy as the Lake Michigan side. You’re not fighting throngs of people – or traffic, for that matter. Like the entire state of Michigan, this region of the state requires intentional planning – you’re not going to pass it on the way to going somewhere else.
The jewel of the Sunrise Side, Alpena exudes northern Michigan charm. Not to mention the people who live and work here are some of the friendliest you’ll meet. Alpena has a very walkable downtown area, riverside walk, and a meticulously built covered bridge to a wildlife sanctuary that resides in Thunder Bay River. Also worth visiting is the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary museum, and if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, then embark on a glass bottom shipwreck tour; the area is well-known for its ship wrecks. The downtown parks and marina have plenty of space for swimming, relaxing, and letting the kids run around. Not far from town is Besser Natural Area and Rockport State Park, both of which offer seclusion during the day and amazing stargazing at night.
Continue on U.S. 23 North to get to Rogers City, the home of 40 Mile Lighthouse. Hoeft State Park and Lakeside Park are popular destinations for travelers to stop at and enjoy a picnic or a swim in the lake. The bike-friendly Huron Sunrise Trail runs through Hoeft State Park, so if you’re planning to stay in the area for a couple days, try pedaling part of that scenic route.
As you continue north, you’ll pass through a few other small beachside towns, but what you’re trying to reach is Mackinaw City. Apart from all the touristy shops and fudge shops, Mackinaw City is at the intersection of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and has been settled since the early days of our country, even the site of some battles between the British and the Americans during the War of 1812, as evident by the historic fort – complete with reenactments and demonstrations – on the Lake Michigan shoreline. The five-mile “Mighty Mac” crosses the Straits of Michigan, giving travelers safe and efficient passage over the churning water. You can choose to cross to St. Ignace just for the experience, and then return (there is a fee both directions).
Either Mackinaw City or St. Ignace has parking and ferry departures for the one-of-a-kind Mackinac Island. You can bring your bike but will need to leave your RV behind, as the island doesn’t have vehicles – it’s all foot and hoof traffic. You can easily spend a couple days on the island, especially if you get out of the downtown area and explore the various trails across the island, or bike ride the eight-mile roadway (part of the Iron Belle Trail) around the entirety of the island. The days can get congested on the island during the high season, but if you decide to stay overnight, one of the best parts is waking up in the morning to the sound of waves and walking horses. Some folks choose to do a sunrise or sunset kayak, which is guided, or to kayak out to the lighthouse beyond the harbor.
L’Anse – Houghton – Copper Harbor
Part of the fun of reaching such a remote town such as Copper Harbor is the journey there. Highway 41, which actually traverses the entire country north-south, going all the way to Miami, Florida, is your roadway to enjoy this picturesque ride through the wilderness.
L’Anse on the southern shore of Keweenaw Bay, an inlet of Lake Superior, is the gateway to adventure and scenic views along the 80 miles around Keweenaw Bay and northward to Copper Harbor. Not far from L’Anse is Canyon Falls and Gorge, known as the Grand Canyon of Michigan. It’s an easy trail alongside the Sturgeon River to the falls that takes about 15 minutes. The gorgeous falls tumble an impressive (by Michigan standards) 30 feet. Then get back on U.S. 41 toward Houghton. Along the way, Keweenaw Bay will be on your right.
Houghton is another city worth seeing. It’s the largest city in Copper Country and home to Michigan Tech. The downtown area is worth exploring if you have the time, visit the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum, and grab a pint at Keweenaw Brewing as well as a pasty at. Continue Roy’s on your way to Copper Harbor.
Once you reach this area, there are a few must-do things: visit Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary, which has white pines as old as 500 years. There are two loop trails, both fairly brief but can be combined into a single 2.5-mile hike. Nature is at its finest up here in the far north, with several parks and trail systems, access to waterfalls, and far-reaching beaches on Lake Superior. Copper Harbor Lighthouse and Fort Wilkins Historic State Park are ideal stops for history buffs and families.
All in all, this once-in-a-lifetime trip from L’Anse to Copper Harbor will take about four days if you try to cram everything in, but since you’re not in a rush, take a full week to enjoy the sights and culture of the Upper Peninsula.