Michigan’s desolate and heavily forested Upper Peninsula is virtually a no-man’s land. With less than a third of the state’s land area, the U.P. — as it’s called by locals — houses just three percent of Michigan’s residents. With spectacular forests, abundant lakes and waterfalls, many beautiful parks and about 1,700 miles of shoreline along Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, it may seem like a mystery why this peninsula is relatively unpopulated. The two-fold answer is obvious to residents and visitors alike: geographic isolation and extremely harsh, long winter seasons. This area gets more snow than anywhere in the Midwest and is nearly six hours from the closest major city, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Located at the northernmost part of the state and extending into the middle of Lake Superior like a hitchhiker’s thumb, the Keweenaw Peninsula is a microcosm of the Upper Peninsula’s appeal — relics of a bygone mining industry, the beautiful twin cities of Houghton-Hancock, unexpected elevation for the Midwest, the infinite and rugged shoreline of Lake Superior, camping opportunities and, at the very tip of the peninsula, the charming village of Copper Harbor.
Only about 2,000 residents brave life in the Keweenaw, which can get hundreds of inches of snow in a given winter, and the area is dotted in ghost towns and abandoned shaft mines — many hardly visible to passersby. While the winters provide great opportunities for snowmobiling, snowshoeing and skiing, the area comes to life during the summer.
Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, contains 10 percent of the planet’s freshwater and is the primary attraction along the Keweenaw. Its shores are rugged and rocky, yet stunning with crashing ocean-like waves or, depending on the day, glassy-smooth and clear water.
Explorer Jacques Cartier discovered the area’s great hills of native copper on an expedition in 1536, and Father Claude Allouez reported seeing copper along the south shore of Lake Superior in 1666. While Native Americans had successfully mined here in generations past, European settlers started industrial mining in 1844 and briefly made this area the world’s largest producer of copper.
Car travelers shouldn’t miss the 8-mile Brockway Mountain Drive that rises above the surrounding lakes and forests from Eagle Harbor to Copper Harbor. It climbs 720 feet above Lake Superior — but seems so much more dramatic in person. At the top is a lookout that is one of the best views in all of the Midwest.
Houghton, the gateway city to the Keweenaw, has quaint shops and restaurants, as well as the Houghton County Historical Museum with artifacts and photographs from 100 years of mining life. Rides on the coal-burning Lake Linden & Torch Lake Railroad steam train give visitors excellent views of Torch Lake and the Lake Linden Village Marina. From June-September, it runs each Sunday from noon to 4 p.m., and only costs $4 for adults.
A few private camping facilities dot the Keweenaw, while the Fort Wilkins State Park near Copper Harbor has 165 sites, electrical hookups, flush toilets, showers, a lighthouse and surviving relics of the 19th century military post located here. This facility protected the area’s copper resources during the Civil War and features costumed interpreters and museum exhibits to browse.
A host of heritage sites offer fantastic day trips for visitors that illuminate the Keweenaw’s mining and logging history, abundant mineral resources and the social history of this area’s hearty inhabitants. Don’t miss the Copper Range Historical Museum in South Range, guided tours at the Hanka Homestead Museum in Pelkie and the privately owned Delaware Copper Mine just south of Copper Harbor — one of the oldest underground copper mines on the peninsula.
The Keweenaw Peninsula, like much of upper Michigan, offers a glimpse at the industrial and military might of early America, while also preserving the human challenges and ethnic blending that makes our country’s history so unique.
Keweenaw National Historical Park, 906-337-3168, www.nps.gov/kewe/index.htm.