Michigan's Upper Peninsula has been on the short list of riding destinations for me and my long time riding companions ever since we began riding together.
The following is my account of our four day trip up into the "U.P." and back.
Friday, July 7, 4:40 am: I've been up for nearly an hour and it still seems ridiculously early. At about 5AM, I roll up on my brother Jason, and father Bruce who are waiting for me at our designated meeting spot. After a quick discussion, we're off and rolling in the cool darkness of a July morning.
We headed west on I-96 from Grand Rapids toward Muskegon where we turned north on US-31. None of us anticipated the temperature being quite so cold and after about 50 miles, we were all struggling to keep warm. So, when we rolled into Ludington, a little thaw out was in order.
6:45 am: Our destination for the morning was the SS Badger. The SS Badger is a ferry for people and vehicles that crosses Lake Michigan between Ludington, MI and Manitowoc, WI. It's a great alternative to driving around the lake or up and through the U.P. of Michigan on the very busy US-2. We arrived at the docks fifteen minutes before we needed to and were told to line up with the other motorcycles that had shown up.
The SS Badger is 450 ft long, 53 ft wide and can hold up to 90 vehicles and nearly 400 people. It was built in the 1930's to ferry train cars across the big lake. The ship is obviously old but it has been restored nicely and has all of the amenities and conveniences you would expect: restaurants, a bar, TV lounges, a movie theater, state rooms and lots of sitting areas.
The crossing takes roughly four hours and costs about $85 ($60 per person plus $15 for the bike). By the way, bikers do have to provide their own tie downs.
We were guided into the bowels of the ship, lashed our bikes down and climbed the stairs to the passenger area. Breakfast was a priority at that point so we loaded up our plates at the buffet and found a table near the rear of the ship as we floated towards Wisconsin.
11:30 am (Wisconsin time)
12:30 pm (Michigan time) - We arrived at Manitowoc, Wisconsin, which I am sure is a lovely little town, but we didn't see much of it beyond the main street. With me in the lead, we followed the main road north, skirting Lake Michigan, and found state road 42. It was probably my imagination, but the water seemed a lighter shade of blue than on the Michigan side.
The temperature was cool along the lake, but as soon as the road turned inland a bit, it was downright hot.
1:30 pm - It was a pretty uninspiring ride up into Door County and when we reached Sturgeon Bay, it was time for lunch. We parked the bikes on the south side of a big iron draw bridge (whose nasty metal grate-work we rode over twice) and walked up the street looking for a good spot to eat.
Andre's Food and Spirits fit the bill and provided a decent meal. One of the things we all enjoy about traveling with good friends and family, is the depth of conversation we are able to have. Sometimes it's profound, other times it's downright... well, you know how guys are.
2:30 pm - Stomachs full, the road was once again calling to us, and after a few pictures near the water, we answered. The ride so far had not convinced us that Door County was worth further investigation, so I led us back south toward Green Bay on state road 57 then hooked north on US-41.
4:00 pm - After a lengthy fuel stop, we pressed on branching off on US-141 which takes a more direct route north. The landscape steadily grew more desolate, but the ride was enjoyable and soon we rolled across the border back into Michigan and into the town of Iron Mountain.
It may have just as well been a different country because the landscape looked nothing like the parts of Michigan we are used to seeing. This was the "U.P." - land of the infamous "Yoopers" - people who call us from the Lower Peninsula "Flatlanders."
Our focus in Iron Mountain was on finding a motel and then finding eats. A newer Super 8 motel served our purpose for lodging and as an added bonus had a great swimming pool. Dad asked the clerk if swimming in our "birthday suits" was allowed. The clerk said she didn't care but would rather not be around at the time. Good answer.
Back at the motel, we had a great swim and an even greater soak in the whirlpool and called it a night.
Mileage: 315 (405 if you include the boat trip across Lake Michigan)
Saturday, July 8, 9:00 am - (I think...) Time has ceased to be important by now and other than setting the alarm to wake up in the morning, we stopped paying attention to it.
After taking full advantage of the free breakfast at the motel, we set off in the bright warm sunshine, heading North West on US-141.
After riding through what was decidedly more hilly country, we stopped in crystal falls for fuel and pulled up in front of the town courthouse, a beautiful old stone structure on a hill.
We continued on following the tree lined highway for another forty five minutes without a whole lot of excitement. Soon we saw the reflections of Lake Superior in the distance as we rolled through the towns of L'Anse and Baraga. Now that was scenic!
We made a quick pit stop at a gas station that was right at the waters edge and marveled at the scenery. We even considered having our bikes washed as a group of bikini clad cheerleaders from the local high school were getting their buckets and hoses out for a fund raising car wash. A little slap to the face to get the thoughts back on riding and we were back on the road.
Resisting the bike wash turned out to be a good idea as we noticed that the skies had darkened considerably to the north and we felt the occasional drop or two of rain. We were enjoying the curves of the road as it hugged the shoreline fairly closely and before we knew it, we were coming up to the town of Chassell. As we rounded a bend, we were greeted with the flashing lights of a bunch of emergency vehicles and stopped traffic. Fearing the worst, we approached slowly but found that we were only being routed around the local Strawberry Festival parade.
We cut north in hopes of meeting up with 41 again but the random rain drops had now turned into a steady shower. We sought shelter under the canopy of a gas station. Thinking we were still in the middle of nowhere with miles to go, we figured we'd wait out the rain a bit and mill around the station. I spotted a map hanging on the wall and upon further inspection, found that we were right on the outskirts of Houghton, our destination for the day.
Houghton and Hancock are twin cities that sit on opposite sides of the Portage River, about halfway up the Keweenaw Peninsula. This area was a major hub for the Copper mining industry in years past. Despite the fact that the copper has pretty much dried up, you can still see evidence of the once booming industry. The steel structure of the Quincy mine stands towering over the valley and can be seen for miles. This was to be our stopping point for the day.
We decided that we would venture on in the rain and see if we could locate a spot to dry off and have some lunch so we rode down the steep streets into downtown Houghton. Jason and I both spotted a covered bank drive through and since it was a Saturday and the bank was closed, we made use of the protection for our bikes and set off on foot. We found a little diner right on the main street and went in to sample "Keweenaw's Best Pasty's." Pasty's, if you've never been to the U.P., are basically meat, potatoes and vegetables folded into a pastry. Kind of like a meat calzone without the pizza sauce. It wasn't too bad, but I wished I'd have had a BLT.
Since riding in the rain wasn't our idea of fun, we decided to find a hotel, check in, and see what happened. As luck would have it, there was a recently refurbished Best Western nearby and they had a pool.
Nearing Phoenix, the landscape turned mountainous and we found ourselves winding our way along with mountains on either side. We rumbled intoEagle River. The canopy of trees seemed to close in even more and the road twisted and turned through the forest. The speed limit was posted at 55 but the road was so postcard like in its beauty, we had a hard time even getting above 45.
Soon, I saw a group of cars stopped on the side of the road so I slowed down to see what folks were gawking at. It turned out to be a small but spectacular waterfall. Jacob's Falls looks like it is coming right out of the rocks about 25 feet up and spills down into a stream that runs under the road and out into Lake Superior.
Continuing on, I had read on the internet that the Brockway Mountain Road was one of the best roads in the north for bikers. We found the road, and less than a mile in, I figured they must have been talking about mountain bikers. The winding narrow path, was so uneven and bumpy, it was next to impossible to get above 40 miles and hour.
The beauty of the surroundings more than made up for the road conditions. We stopped a few times along the way just to drink it in. At the top we found a lookout park where we got off the motorcycles to marvel at the view.
We headed back down the road and then struck out heading south on US41 after a quick pit stop in Copper Harbor. Being the northern most town in the state of Michigan, I wasn't surprised that we paid the highest gas prices of the trip there.
For about 20 miles or so going south from Copper Harbor, US-41 is another motorcyclist's dream road. It is smooth and wide and it undulates like a good roller coaster through the woods. The fun gradually came to an end and we were tempted to turn around and ride back the other way, but the Pasty from lunch was wearing off quickly.
So, we made a right turn in Calumet and followed county road 203 down the west side of the peninsula and made our way back into Hancock and Houghton. In downtown Houghton we parked the bikes, took advantage of a few more photo ops, and assessed our dinner options.
Being surrounded by water, seafood seemed like a natural choice, so Joe's Crab Shack got the nod. I'm pretty sure that they don't get any shrimp or crab from Lake Superior, but we had a good meal none the less.
Weary from a long day of riding, we made our way back to the hotel. The day would not have been complete without a swim in the pool and a soak in the hot tub, so we donned our suits again and did just that before officially calling it a night.
It was Sunday morning and we decided to get an early start.
We headed south on US-41, passing again through Baraga and L'Anse and had an uneventful and cool ride through a lot of forested wilderness to Ishpeming and then into Marquette.
Home of Northern Michigan University, I was surprised at how big a city Marquette is. Sprawled out along the shoreline of Lake Superior, it seemed to stretch on for a good long way with all of the modern amenities you would need. There was even a Harley dealership.
Here we were faced with a decision. What was the best way to cross the balance of the Upper Peninsula? We chose M-28.
M-28 was as straight as an arrow for 40 miles as we headed east. Near Newberry, and the Tahquamenon Falls area, we spotted a gas station and restaurant complex and since I was leading, I led us in. We went right for the Sunday buffet at the Country Kitchen and had a decent meal while reminiscing about a family trip to the area probably 25 years ago. I surprised dad with how much I could remember, including the first time I heard my mother swear.
We rode out on M-28, soon found M-123, and headed south towards I-75 and St. Ignace.
St Ignace is a town which in my opinion always plays second fiddle to Mackinaw City across the straights. I'm sure that there is plenty to do there, but we were undecided at that point as to how much more riding we would do for the day. Since it was only 3:30, the decision was made to cross the bridge, find a room in Mackinac and see what we felt like doing then.
We crossed the mighty Mackinaw Bridge last year on our trip around the state and it's a pretty big deal to us Michiganders. We're proud of the "Big Mac," one of the longest suspension bridges in the world. Last time it was a challenge, as we were forced to ride on the mile or so of grated roadway in the center two lanes. This time we could ride on the paved outer lane, but we had to deal with an extremely strong cross wind. We were prepared for it and it wasn't too unnerving and none of us got blown off into the drink several hundred feet below, I'd call it a successful crossing.
We found a motel, got some dinner, and then (what else?) we enjoyed the best pool and hot tub of the trip.
We decided that although most of the roads we had traversed that day were not as challenging or exciting as we had experienced on the previous day, the trip was about riding and enjoying riding for what it is. And that we did.
DAY FOUR -
Today was all about getting home. Dad had to be back in town in time for a 3:00 meeting. Being roughly 3 hours from home, that gave us plenty of time, even with a couple of stops.
We took US-31 south to Petoskey and then set out following US-131. South of Boyne Falls, sight of the famous ski area. The temperature was taking its sweet time in climbing as we passed through the familiar little towns of Alba, Mancelona and Kalkaska. I take this route by car with my family several times a year and there is a big gas station near the town of South Boardman that is a natural stopping point. We stood around and tried to warm up with a cup of coffee before continuing on home via the freeway.
As I pulled into my driveway - I was certainly glad to be home, but I was also thrilled to have had the experience of this trip. Ever since I started riding I had dreamed of going to the U.P. We will definitely be back to the UP again in the future, maybe many times, looking for more roads and just enjoying the ride.