An Epic Michigan Upper Peninsula Road Trip: 4 Day Itinerary
January 22, 2024
The Michigan Upper Peninsula is a fantastic road trip destination for anyone who loves adventure. While some areas are well loved, this rugged region of the midwest feels untouched and is full of unique places to discover.
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is affectionately known as the “U.P.” While it makes up almost 30% of the land area of Michigan, it only holds about 3% of the state’s population. This certainly explains why driving through the region feels so remote and forested. The area is also full of wildlife, including moose, bears, wolves, bobcats, and more.
Fun Fact: Locals who live in the U.P. are nicknamed “Yoopers” (coming from UP-ers). They have a strong regional identity! They refer to residents of the Lower Peninsula as “Trolls” because they live “Under the Bridge.” (The Mackinac Bridge!)
The region has a history of mining and timber, but is not well suited for agriculture. The Upper Peninsula is rich in iron, copper, nickel and silver, which made mining a huge part of their economy in the 19th century. However, it’s no longer as economical to mine here, so very few mines remain open.
The opening of the Mackinac Bridge in 1957 made the Upper Peninsula easily accessible to those coming from Southern Michigan. It opened the region as a tourist destination for the decades to come.
This Michigan Upper Peninsula itinerary includes incredible rock formations on the shores of Lake Superior, the largest state park in Michigan, a natural spring with incredibly clear water, an impressive system of locks on the border of Canada, and more! There is so much to discover on a Michigan U.P. road trip. I hope this guide helps you discover all of the best things to do in Michigan U.P., even if you’re short on time.
Tips for a Michigan Upper Peninsula Road Trip
- Some parts of the Michigan UP are quite remote! I highly recommend downloading offline maps for navigation and filling up on gas when you can.
- Moose and bears are just a few of the wild animals you may encounter on your trip to Michigan. Be sure to always keep your distance from wildlife and never feed or approach them. If camping, make sure to check local regulations on how to properly store your food.
- The mosquitoes can be quite awful during the summer months. Be sure to pack your insect repellant.
- While the Upper Peninsula can also be great for winter adventures, this blog is written from the perspective of visiting in the summer. Many of the businesses and activities mentioned in this blog are only open from the end of May to the end of September. Be sure to check opening or closing dates if you’re visiting during the shoulder season or off season.
When to Visit the Michigan UP
The Michigan Upper Peninsula is beautiful to visit year-round. In the winter months, they receive a lot of snow. You can enjoy ice climbing, snowshoeing, attend Michigan Ice Fest, go dog sledding or snowmobiling, and more. As with any winter destination, make sure to come prepared with the proper safety gear before venturing out in the cold.
In the Spring, everything thaws and you may get to enjoy wildflowers. This is a quiet time of year before the crowds increase during the summer. Winter activities can typically still be enjoyed through April.
Summer is the peak time to visit the U.P. It’s the perfect time of year for hiking, swimming, kayaking, biking and other outdoor adventures. While it can be crowded, it’s worth it for the warm weather and the amount of options available.
Fall is a stunning time of year to visit. The Keweenaw Peninsula tends to have especially beautiful fall foliage. Leaves typically peak by mid-October.
This Michigan UP itinerary is based on visiting during the summer.
An Epic Michigan Upper Peninsula 4-Day Itinerary
This itinerary includes 4 days packed full of adventures in the Michigan UP. It will generally take you from west to east. If you prefer to take things more slowly, I recommend staying longer, as each of these 4 days are busy.
For a road trip with the least amount of driving, I recommend staying in a few different places throughout this trip. If you prefer to stay in one place the whole time, I recommend basing yourself in Munising (right next to Pictured Rocks!).
Day One: Porcupine Mountains and the Keweenaw Peninsula
Hike in the Porcupine Mountains
The Porcupine Mountains (affectionately known as “The Porkies”) are the largest state park in Michigan and one of the largest state parks in the midwest. The park encompasses 60,000 acres of land and has over 90 miles of hiking trails.
You could easily spend days hiking and exploring this park. But if you’re limited on time, one of the best trails you should consider is the Escarpment Trail. While the entire trail is over 8 miles, you still can get a great taste of the views by doing a portion of it.
I recommend starting at the Lake of the Clouds Scenic Overlook. You’ll get to enjoy a beautiful view before you even start the hike. From there, hike any portion of the trail that you have time for. I hiked a 2.5 mile round-trip portion of the trail and enjoyed several different viewpoints of the Lake of the Clouds down below.
Another great, short trail to consider is the Summit Peak Observation Tower, which offers expansive views of the area and is less than a mile in length.
The park costs $11 per vehicle for out-of-state license plates. You can pay as you enter the Lake of Clouds overlook parking lot, or at the ski area along the way.
Have Lunch in Houghton
Houghton is a town in the Keweenaw Peninsula known for its mining history and as home to Michigan Technological University. One central part of the town is the Portage Canal Lift Bridge, as it’s the only one of its type in Michigan.
I recommend Suomi Home Bakery & Restaurant as a fantastic place for brunch. It’s a Finnish restaurant that has been serving breakfast and pastries since 1967. To try a Finnish dish, order the pannukakku (a Finnish pancake filled with custard) and the Nisu toast (a sweet bread typically made with cardamom).
The cafe has the atmosphere of an American diner and is a cozy spot for a comforting breakfast.
It’s also very close to the water, making it convenient to take a walk and admire the lift bridge before or after your meal.
Visit the Mineral Museum
The A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum at Michigan Tech is a great spot to visit if you’re at all interested in rocks and minerals!
They have an extensive collection of minerals. You’ll see local Great Lakes Minerals alongside gems found all over the world, and even a couple from space. One of the most interesting areas was the fluorescent exhibit, where you can see several rocks glowing under UV light.
The museum costs $8 per adult and is a fun way to learn more about the minerals found throughout the region.
Tour the Quincy Mine
Spend your afternoon taking a tour of the Quincy Mine, which is part of the Keweenaw National Historical Park. It’s a fascinating tour where you’ll get to see the largest hoist in the world, ride a tram down to the mine entrance and actually go inside one of the levels.
The mine used to be over a mile deep and had at least 20 levels. Today, much of it is flooded, but it’s neat to see what is still accessible.
During the tour, you’ll learn all about how they mined copper here and how dangerous it was. You’ll also learn the sad history of the Italian Hall Massacre of 1913 - where 73 people (mostly mine workers and their families) died in a stampede when someone falsely yelled “fire” at a Christmas party.
Plus, you’ll get to see the improvements made by college students studying mining over the years. The Mining students at Michigan Tech had practically full reign to play around with the mine in the 1970's and 80’s.
Tours are offered regularly throughout the summer through the Quincy Mine Hoist Association. Make sure to bring a jacket, as the mine maintains a temperature of about 43°F. The standard tour takes a little over 2 hours and costs $35 per adult. I thought it was a great tour that was well worth it!
Where to Stay in Houghton
Stay the night in Houghton after a day full of adventure. For a luxurious stay along the way, check out The Vault Hotel. For a more affordable stay nearby, The Holiday Inn Express is a great option. There are also some great, centrally located Airbnbs if that is more your style.
More Things To Do on the Keweenaw Peninsula
If you have more than a day to devote to this area, there is a lot more to do! Here are a few more activities to consider:
Visit Isle Royale National Park. Ferries leave from both Houghton and Copper Harbor to visit the park. Seaplanes also leave from Houghton, which are much faster, but more expensive. While you can visit on a day trip, I recommend spending at least one night on the island to truly experience it.
Tour the Delaware Copper Mine
Drive the Brockway Mountain Scenic Drive
Visit McLain State Park
Visit Fort Wilkins Historic State Park
Days Two and Three: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Spend the next two days exploring Pictured Rocks by both land and water!
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is an area along Lake Superior known for its brilliant sandstone cliffs. It’s easily one of the best things to do in the Michigan U.P. Plus, the park is home to several waterfalls, sand dunes, beaches and other sights. It was America’s first national lakeshore, established in 1966.
Hiking in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
If you’re a hiker, it’s well worth venturing out on the 10-mile loop trail that will lead you past Mosquito Falls, Chapel Falls and other sights.
Part of the trail involves hiking through the forest, where you’ll get to see Chapel Lake, Chapel Falls and Mosquito Falls.
However, the real highlight is the large portion of the hike that is right along the Lake Superior coast. You’ll pass by multiple beaches, walk over Chapel Beach Falls, admire Chapel Rock, and enjoy countless views of the cliffs rising up next to the water. It’s a neat trail that is full of variety.
While the terrain and elevation gain is not overly difficult, it’s a long trail that you’ll want to be prepared for. It’s also common for the trail to be quite muddy. Be sure to wear proper hiking shoes and come prepared with water, food and the rest of the hiking essentials. And as with any trail, please make sure to pack out all of your trash. You can also bring a bathing suit and take a dip in Lake Superior if you’d like!
If you’re looking for some shorter viewpoints to add to your Pictured Rocks itinerary, I also recommend stopping at Miners Castle Overlook and Munising Falls.
The Miners Castle Overlook requires a short walk to get up close to a rock formation that resembles a castle.
Munising Falls is a half mile hike that leads you to a nice waterfall falling from a tall cliff. There is both an upper and lower viewpoint allowing you to enjoy it from several different angles.
If you have enough time, you can drive further north along the coast to see the large sand dunes inside Pictured Rocks. The Log Slide Overlook provides a great viewpoint of the large dunes left behind by glaciers. You can also hike the Grand Sable Dunes Trail to access the dunes.
Kayaking in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
If you’re up for an adventure, kayaking is a fantastic way to explore the various cliffs from a different perspective. Being in the water below to towering cliffs will make you feel small in the best way.
Kayaking on Lake Superior can be quite dangerous depending on the conditions, so I highly recommend going with a guide if you haven’t paddled here before. We had a great experience with Northern Water Adventures.
In tandem kayaks, we explored Painted Cave, kayaked through a narrow section known as the Kissing Rocks, saw a shipwreck, admired Bridal Veil Falls, paddled through Lover’s Arch and more. There were also some opportunities to paddle into small sea caves along the shore. We took a break at Mosquito Beach and had a packed lunch.
The best part was getting to see the vibrant stripes on some of the cliffs up close. They are full of texture! A kayaking adventure is definitely one of the best things to do at Pictured Rocks.
Take a Sunset Boat Ride
Kick back and relax as you admire the cliffs from one more angle - from a boat at sunset! Pictured Rocks Cruises runs boat tours both during the day and at sunset from May through October. I highly recommend going at sunset to watch the cliffs glow a brighter orange as the sun sets.
It was hazy during my trip, but we still got to see a bit of the brighter orange color. The boat took us past many of the things we had seen via land or kayak, such as Lover’s Arch, Miners Castle, and more. But it then went even further (out to Spray Falls) so we could see new places too.
You have the option to book a classic cruise or the Spray Falls Cruise. The Spray Falls cruise costs a few dollars more and covers more ground in a shorter time, as it’s done on a faster boat. I recommend the Spray Falls cruise because it’s a neat waterfall to see.
Soda and water is available to purchase on the boat (bring cash) and you are welcome to bring your own snacks. It’s recommended to book ahead of time as they can sell out.
If you only had time to take a boat ride, kayak or hike at Pictured Rocks, I would recommend taking a boat ride. It’s the fastest and easiest way to see the largest portion of the park, and you’ll get to learn about the park and the various rock formations on the way. Needless to say, I think a Pictured Rocks boat tour is a must for your Michigan Upper Peninsula itinerary!
Where to Stay in Munising
It is super convenient to stay in the town of Munising during your visit to Pictured Rocks. It’s a small town that has a variety of restaurants and shops. Plus, it’s extremely close to everything that Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore has to offer.
Personally, I stayed at this pet-friendly Airbnb in Munising for 2 weeks and had a great stay. It was under a laundromat and next to a gas station, but had what we needed for a decent price.
Where to Eat in Munising
After spending two weeks based in Munising, these were the restaurants I enjoyed!
Tip: Make sure to try a pasty during your time in the Michigan UP! A pasty is a portable hand pie that is typically filled with veggies or meat. It was a popular dish for miners to bring along with them in the 1800’s.
- Muldoon’s Pasties
- Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore
- Pictured Rocks Pizza
- Driftwood Deli and ByGeorge Brewing Co.
Day Four: Kitch iti kipi, Tahquamenon Falls and Soo Locks
Kitch-iti-kipi is a magical place that should be on your Michigan bucket list. It’s the largest natural, freshwater spring in Michigan and extends 200 feet across, at 40 feet deep. It has extremely clear and blue water.
However, the most unique part about visiting is the moving dock. You’re in control as you use a steering wheel to drive the dock out to the center of the water. The dock is attached to a set of ropes.
The concept began as a tiny raft over 100 years ago, and they continued to refine the design over the years. I’ve never seen anything like this!
In the middle of the dock, there is a viewing area where you can gaze down and watch giant fish swim back and forth. It’s a really neat sight to behold.
While this spot is remote (about an hour from Munising), I highly recommend getting an early start to have it to yourself. We got there around 8AM and had it all to ourselves for about 45 minutes. Later in the day, lines get quite long and you may have to share the dock with many others.
Like other Michigan state parks, it costs $11 to visit for out-of-staters. Since we arrived before the office was open, we could only pay in cash or check.
Hike to Views of Tahquamenon Falls
Tahquamenon Falls State Park is a beautiful park where you can see two major waterfalls and enjoy hiking trails of various levels. They even have a brewery where you can dine after a day of exploring.
The Lower Falls area has a short, boardwalk trail to reach a view of the waterfall. You can also cross the bridge over the Tahquamenon River and hike a small loop around a small island. I saw many people swimming and wading near the waterfall.
Another option is to rent a row boat and paddle out to the island!
You can hike between the Lower and Upper Falls (they are about 5 miles apart) or drive. The drive takes about 10 minutes. If you want to hike the trail one way, there is also a shuttle service in the summer that will take you back to your car (called Jordans shuttle service).
To see the Upper Falls from the parking area, it’s about 1.5 miles round trip. In my opinion, Upper Falls was much more impressive. At 200-feet wide, it’s one of the largest waterfalls located east of the Mississippi River.
You’ll also probably notice a tan or amber color in the water. This is not dirt, it’s actually caused by tannins that come from the cedar, spruce and hemlock trees in swamps that drain into the river.
Next to the Upper Falls parking lot, you’ll find the brewery, plus a gift shop, a taco cart, ice cream and more.
Tahquamenon Falls is definitely worth a visit, but expect huge crowds if you go during the day like I did. As always, make sure to leave no trace and respect those around you when you visit.
If you have extra time: The MI Sled Dog Summer Center is not far from Tahquamenon Falls! You can take a tour, see how the dogs spend their off season and meet the puppies.**
Take a Ride Through the Soo Locks
End your Michigan Upper Peninsula road trip with a visit to Sault Ste. Marie, where you can see the famous Soo Locks!
Tip: Depending on boat tour times of the locks, how early you wake up, etc, you may want to visit the Soo Locks before visiting Tahquamenon Falls.
The Soo Locks are an engineering marvel and very important for shipping. In fact, they are known as the “Linchpin of the Great Lakes,” because they are the only way for large ships to travel between Lake Superior and Lake Huron.
They are hugely important in the US economy and move nearly 86 million tons of cargo annually, plus the vast majority of iron ore in the US. In fact, they are working on building a new lock because this mode of transportation is so critical to the US economy.
One way to experience them is to visit the Soo Locks Visitor Center. From a viewing platform, you can watch ships go through the American lock. There is also a museum area inside that is free to visit.
However, to better experience the locks and learn more details, I highly recommend taking a boat tour that will take you through both the American lock and the Canadian lock. I took a tour with Famous Soo Locks, which has been in operation for 65 years.
You’ll get to experience the locks filling up from the inside and learn about the history along the way.
It’s quite interesting to see the contrast between the American locks and the Canadian locks. The Canadian lock is much smaller and more relaxed. In fact, you can even take a canoe through it.
If you have any interest in infrastructure or the shipping economy of the Great Lakes, the Soo Locks are worth a visit.
Where to Stay in Sault Ste. Marie
For a central location right next to the American locks, The Hotel Ojibway is a convenient option.
If you’re able to cross over to the Canada side, there are several more hotels to choose from. The Delta Hotel by Marriott offers some great waterfront views and the Holiday Inn Express is conveniently located with great reviews.
I hope this Upper Peninsula itinerary helps you plan an epic Michigan road trip! From colorful cliffs to waterfalls to feats of engineering, the Michigan UP is a destination you’ll want to visit again and again.
For more Guides on Exploring the Midwest, check out these blogs:
- How to Take a Perfect Day Trip to Mackinac Island
- How to Spend 3 Days on the MN North Shore
- The Best MN North Shore Hiking Trails
- The Best Outdoor Adventures in St Cloud
- How to Spend 3 Days in Madison, Wisconsin
- The Best Hikes in Indiana
- The Best Things To Do in Hocking Hills, OH
- The Best Things To Do in Cuyahoga Valley, OH
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