Ever since we heard about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula some years ago, we’ve been eager to see it. It was first described to us as “basically Canada”. The Upper Peninsula (the UP) is the northern section of the state that in the past has frequently been forgotten on maps and verbal discussions of the more widely recognized lower half (the Mitten). We had planned a long weekend camping trip with Allison to see what it was all about.
After arriving in Holland and spending some much needed time tidying up the bus and getting batteries all charged back up, it was time to leave on our big camping trip. This is the trip we have been planning for a while, and the reason we didn’t spend as much time in some of the other states. Allison had taken Friday off, so we were all set to depart Thursday evening when she got home from work. The bus was loaded with food and gear for our UP adventure! And we couldn’t forget to bring along some Bell’s Oberon, the official summer beer of Michigan. Setting off from Holland around 5 PM, we headed north toward Mackinaw City, our stopping point for the night. As we were driving, Allison and I had been looking up places to park overnight, and hadn’t turned up much of anything. We figured it would be another Wal-Mart night for us, until we decided to try a place called French Farm Lake, which supposedly had free camping. It didn’t look like much on the map, but we had to go check it out. Arriving in Mackinaw City we got a great view of the Mackinac (still pronounced “Mackinaw”) bridge as the sun went down, we turned off the highway and found the road leading to French Farm Lake. This road was a decent gravel road, although a little narrow for the bus, so we pushed on farther into the woods. Soon the road turned to sandy dirt and got even narrower. We threaded the bus through the trees looking for a spot big enough to pull off and set up camp. It was quickly getting dark and hard to see in the forest along the lake. We found a spot that looked like it would work, but we needed to turn around to get a better approach angle, so we continued down the road in search of a wide enough area to turn around. A little farther down the road ended at a small turn around where several grizzled locals were pulling small fishing boats out of the water for the night, they all stared with amusement as they watched us come cruising up in the giant bus, and turn around in the small sandy area. At last we were pointing the other direction down the narrow dirt lane, and drove back up to the spot we had seen. Fortunately Allison and I were able to use flashlights and help watch all the corners as Steven made a strange 3 point turn and squeezed up into the trees, we had made it to our camping spot for the night! So much better than another parking lot stop. We set about making a small campfire and putting together some hot sandwiches and soup for dinner. Relaxing around a fire with a cold can of beer was a great way to end the night and start our camping adventure. While we sat quietly and enjoyed the evening sounds we heard a loon singing his mournful call out on the lake. It was then that I realized we had arrived. This was the place to be.
Waking up the next morning to a view of the sun on the little lake was great, it’s nice to have a bedroom with so many windows! After cooking some delicious eggs in the cast iron skillet we set about cleaning up camp, preparing to continue our trek into the UP. After taking photos and climbing the small dune next to our campsite we fired up the bus and began the process of extracting ourselves from the trees. Again it was very nice to have 2 extra sets of eyes to help maneuver through the trees and back out onto the road. From there it was a piece of cake to find our way back out to Mackinaw City and head for the bridge to the UP.
Ask anyone familiar with Michigan about the UP and they will tell you it’s one of the greatest summer destinations in the country. Ask someone in the UP about it, and they will tell you it is the best place on Earth, period. Residents of the UP, or Yoopers, are very enthusiastic about their stomping grounds. And they have many reasons to be proud! Entering the UP is like entering another country, and it all starts with the Mackinac Bridge. It’s a long suspension bridge that provides a beautiful view of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet. When you get to the other side, you’ve made it to the Upper Peninsula. We stopped at a bridge overlook to snap some photos.
Our next stop was Tahquamenon Falls State Park (rhymes with phenomenon). It didn’t take long to get there, maybe an hour and a half. So we had plenty of time to get settled at our campsite and go exploring. We loved all the hilarious looks we got from our fellow campers with their tents or fancy RVs. Our neighbors next to us had a nice rig, complete with two scooters and two folding bicycles, and they made sure not to engage with us. Their loss! But other campers around the park were more interested, and told us they thought the bus was awesome. We beamed with pride.
The Upper Falls viewing area was four miles away from the campsite, and it was a bit late in the day to start an 8 mile trek, so Steven took turns giving Allison and I rides on the motorcycle like a true ladies man. There was a large shopping area and brew pub at the Upper Falls parking area, all very commercialized and busy. We avoided it and continued down the path see the water fall, and understood why it is sometimes called the root beer falls. There are tannins that leach out of the trees into the river, giving the falls a reddish brown hue that tumbles 50 feet into the foamy water below.
When we returned to camp, we took a walk around to see the smaller Lower Falls, got slightly lost in the woods, then got back just in time to purchase some firewood from a local vendor that drives around the camp in the evenings. Michigan has had a problem with the Emerald Ash Bore, which if you listen to Science Friday on NPR, you might have heard of it! It’s an invasive bug that destroys trees and is easily transported via firewood. Therefore, you are not allowed to bring your own firewood to camp and must purchase it on site. (That was something we were asked about at each border crossing, too).
Finally it was time for pizza! After successfully baking a cobbler some days ago in the tiny camp oven, I was fairly positive we could make some tiny pizzas too. They turned out beautifully; talk about luxurious camping. It rained a little bit while we made dinner, but luckily it dissipated and did not ruin our s’more ambitions. However, there was a wild critter that was determined to take advantage of the situation. There we were, full of pizza and wiping the melty chocolate from our chins, when there was a faint rustling sound behind us. No matter, we were parked up against the woods and there were leaves all over the ground, and lots of chipmunks. Pretty soon there were more rustling sounds. This still did not alarm us. After a few moments the rustling came once more, this time louder than before. I stood out of my chair, “OKAY GUYS. What is going on?!”
The sounds got more frantic as I walked the short couple of feet back to the picnic table where our bag of sweets was sitting. I couldn’t see anything in the darkness, but Steven came running with a flashlight and we followed the scrambling sounds. Peering down the slope into the trees, we saw a pair of eyes twinkling in the beam of the flashlight, and a pair of tiny black hands gripping an ENTIRE BAG of marshmallows! We all came to one conclusion: there’s going to be a very sick raccoon in the woods tomorrow morning. Sure enough, we recovered the empty bag the next day, and laughed again at the creature’s boldness.
Saturday found us on the road again, driving towards Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We decided to brave an unpaved back road that went along Lake Superior. It turned out to be a good decision, as the road was wide and had an excellent spot to pull over and check out the rocky beach. The water was cold and the rocks were beautiful, we put a few in our pockets to take home with us.
We bumped along until we came back out to paved roads and into Pictured Rocks. The National Lakeshore runs for 42 miles along Lake Superior and is home to waterfalls, sand dunes, and beautiful cliff formations. We packed some sandwiches into our backpacks and hiked to the Au Sable dunes, first down to the beach, then up into the sand for a picnic lunch. We really enjoyed sitting up there in the extra fine sand, looking out over the water. We watched fog roll in, slow at first then seemed to speed up as it reached the shore, obscuring the water completely and washing through the tree tops over us. The temperature instantly dropped as the cloud enveloped us. It was a really cool feeling.
After lunch, we kept on moving, stopping to see the log slide overlook down the road. The log slide is on the side of an extremely steep dune where loggers used to slide trees down to the lake. The fog created a ghostly feel as we stood on the edge an saw nothing but white before us, water droplets forming in our hair. We moved on from there to the western edge of the park at Miners Castle. Miners Castle is the name for the cliff formations that have been eroded over the years by the lake, leaving behind strange indents and caves. Of course we couldn’t see a thing with the fog, but we were able to hike the half mile to Miners Falls, which was neat. I hadn’t expected to see so many spectacular water falls on this trip!
Our stop for the night was at a boondocker’s house, right on the edge of Lake Superior. I think it’s hard to find a place in the UP that doesn’t have amazing scenery. Jean and Wes were happy to let us park in their driveway for the night, and we were grateful. We had a relaxing evening in the bus full of tacos, beer, and Allison’s beautiful banjo playing. The next morning we were delighted to see that the fog had burned off, and we stood at the edge of the yard, taking in the view.
Seeing that the fog was gone, we planned on going back to Miners Castle before heading home. But there was one other thing we had to do first: get pasties for breakfast. Pasties are a UP tradition, and are popular in England as well. It’s a round pastry stuffed with meat and root vegetables and seasonings. We went to a shop down the road called Muldoon’s, where they made the pasties fresh (and had vegetarian ones!). We each scarfed one down on the way to Miners Castle, and put some extras in the fridge for later. When we got to the lookout, it was clear as ever and we were blown away by the stunning beauty of it all.
We reluctantly pulled ourselves away from the Pictured Rocks, still full of pastie, and started back to Holland where hot showers awaited us. It was a weekend camping trip of epic proportions.