1. SHIPWRECK COAST, Michigan
This route follows Michigan’s lonely Upper Peninsula on a string of quiet roads between Marquette and Whitefish Point. Driving is almost like being on the water itself. The power of Lake Superior is evident at every turn. You see it in the shape of the land, particularly in the sandstone cliffs sculpted into weird artistic shapes along the 40-mile stretch of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It’s also apparent in the shifting sands at Grand Sable Dunes where 40-foot (12-meter) drift logs are tossed far up the shore like ghostly matchsticks you pass by on a lonely beach. Make no mistake – Lake Superior is the boss. More than 300 shipwrecks just offshore have been claimed over the years, famous ships like the Edmund Fitzgerald as well as anonymous wrecks washed ashore without a clue, earning this stretch of the Upper Peninsula a reputation as the “Shipwreck Coast.”
Start at Marquette taking in the view of Lake Superior from the lantern room of the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse dating to 1866. The Marquette Maritime Museum has a glittering collection of lighthouse lenses, a working periscope, and an assortment of Lake Superior memorabilia, including a replica fishing shack. You can order a plate of trout or whitefish at Thill’s Fish House (250 E. Main, Marquette docks), owned by a commercial fisherman. It not only has the town’s best smoked trout and whitefish fillets but is also an authentic fishing operation.
Munsing. To get a fish-eye view of real-life shipwrecks, board the 60-foot Miss Munising, owned and operated by Glass Bottom Shipwreck Tours (1204 Commercial St., Munising) to discover the wrecks of such ships as the Bermuda, a 150-foot wooden schooner that sank in 1870, and views of the Alger Underwater Preserve and the East Channel Lighthouse.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Superior’s relentless waves and breezes have created natural works of art and others along the 40 miles (64 kilometers) of cliff, beach, and shoreline in the park. From a trail, see the carved pulpit of Chapel Rock itself, the sweep of blond sand at Chapel Beach, and the wind-twisted trees perched on the cliffs. Beachcombers can search for driftwood and agates on Twelvemile Beach. Kayakers can drift through lake caves and beneath rock arches, appreciating the brushstrokes of colored minerals in the cliffs that give the lakeshore its name. Go on a long hike along the shore or just sit and wonder at the artistry of the lake.
Stop in Grand Marais, a classic, windblown lake town, to see the dry-docked The Shark, one of the last handmade fishing tugs in the Great Lakes. It’s next to the Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum. Then visit the low-key shipwreck memorial along the beach.
On Highway 77 you’ll pass the town of Seney and the Fox River where Ernest Hemingway set the story, “Big Two-Hearted River.” Just to the northeast, on H37, drive over the Two Hearted River itself. Follow the road to the small park where the river empties into the lake.
To get your fix of lumberjack lore, stop at the rustic Tahquamenon Logging Museum just outside of Newberry. This down-home museum features lumberjack breakfasts in the mess hall, old photographs, a cook pot only Paul Bunyan could appreciate, and plenty of old logging equipment.
See one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River at the 40,000-acre Tahquamenon Falls State Park. Within the 13 miles of waterway protected by the park, the river makes several dramatic drops, including one of nearly 50 feet (15 meter) at the Upper Falls and a slower, cascading drop around a tear-shaped island at Lower Falls.
An apt end to the route is the Whitefish Point Light Station and Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (18335 N. Whitefish Point Rd., Paradise). The windblown point was where the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald was heading that November night in 1975 when the ship vanished, taking all 29 of its sailors with it, to be memorialized soon thereafter in a Gordon Lightfoot ballad. Today, the museum and still-working light station pay homage to the Fitzgerald and a dozen other Superior shipwrecks. Tour this first-class museum and spend a night or two in the restored 1923 Coast Guard Lifeboat Station crew quarters, where the lighthouse beam will flicker all night in your window.
Get “The Official Visitor Guide” from the Marquette Country Convention and Visitors Bureau. For more on shipwrecks and lighthouses, see Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast by Frederick Stonehouse.
2. NORTHERN MINNESOTA
Road trips up the Minnesota shore of Lake Superior begin in Duluth, an industrial harbor town at the southern end of a wooded triangle called the Arrowhead and two-lane Highway 6 or North Shore Scenic Drive. Ancient volcanic basalt cliffs plunge into Lake Superior, so vast it merges with the sky on the horizon. At the turn of the 20th century, outbound ships loaded with northern Minnesota’s prized iron ore ranked Duluth among the U.S.’s busiest ports. Working ships still dock here (about a thousand vessels annually, more than any other Great Lakes port), and pass under the 1905 Aerial Lift Bridge. The Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center is near the bridge’s foot. Canal Park, a onetime warehouse district, is now filled with lakeside restaurants, shops, hotels, and historical attractions. Explore the S.S. William A. Irvin, a 610-foot retired ore and coal ship. Life here is still trained on the water.
About 30 miles up the road, on the east edge of Two Harbors, smoked Lake Superior trout—brined in teriyaki, cured in brown sugar, or worked into a spread is sold. Then it’s on to Gooseberry Falls State Park, the first of eight state parks that line the 150-mile-long stretch between Duluth and Canada. More than half a million annual visitors stop to absorb the thunderous, misting cascades before tumbling into Lake Superior.
A few more minutes along is Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, 2,200 acres edged with steep shoreline trails. The black-capped Split Rock Lighthouse, atop a 13-story hunk of gray cliff, was commissioned after one of the notorious November gales damaged 29 ships, two of which crashed onto the rocky shore. Obsolete decades ago, visitors can climb the lighthouse tower.
About 40 miles shy of Canada is Grand Marais, once an 1800s trading post and fishing village. The one-stoplight town of 1,400 has nature at its doorstep. North House Folk School, gives classes on northern skills and crafts. Follow a half-mile ancient lava flow to Artists’ Point to visit the squat white lighthouse.
Grand Marais is the lakeside end point for the Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway, which cuts a 57-mile corridor through the three-million-acre Superior National Forest. A recent fire scorched a 100,000-acre scar into the Arrowhead.
The Arrowhead’s Canadian edge is laced with the daisy-chained lakes and lanky pines of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, over a million motor-free acres that look as they did when American Indians and French fur traders paddled them in the 18th and 19th centuries. A footpath trampled by native Ojibwe thousands of years ago, today the Gunflint Trail has hiking trails that offer close encounters with wildlife.