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When most folks think of Michigan, it’s the more populated Lower Peninsula (“LP”) that tends to come to mind. After all, that’s where the big cities of Detroit and Grand Rapids are located, along with Michigan’s capital city of Lansing. And there is plenty to see and do outdoors in the LP as well, with a myriad of fresh-water lakes and beaches, forests, trails and more. But it’s when you venture north, above the Mackinac Bridge, into Michigan’s upper peninsula — where the people are charmingly called “Yoopers” — that you discover the rest of what the state has to offer, whether you’re looking for relaxation, adventure, or both.
What is the Keweenaw Peninsula?
Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula is the furthest point in northern Michigan, above the Mackinac Bridge and extending into Lake Superior. This area was where the first copper boom in the United States took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leaving behind a historically rich legacy to learn about and explore.
I recently had the opportunity to spend several days in the Keweenaw and only touched on some of the fun and educational things to do. As a lifelong Michigander, I definitely will be heading back to the Upper Peninsula (“UP”) and to the Keweenaw county area again as well with my family someday.
Many folks take the scenic drive through the UP but if you prefer to fly, there is a small airport in the Houghton/Hancock area, which is also home to Michigan Technological University and the largest city in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Otherwise it’s mostly small towns through this area, interspersed with mountains, forests and plenty of lake frontage.
Getting Outdoors in the Keweenaw Peninsula
While it certainly gets cold, this area is an outdoors lover’s dream all year round.
In the warmer weather months, there is boating, hiking, and biking or just spending time out in nature — not to mention gorgeous fall colors each year!
And the area doesn’t hibernate in the winer. Far from it! The Keweenaw offers many options for snowmobiling, sledding, snowshoeing, and skiing.
Or if you’re like me and prefer to remain indoors by a nice warm fire with a book and cup of hot chocolate, you can enjoy the winter scenery at a distance as well.
Where to Stay
There are no high-rise hotels here, but there are many opportunities to get close to nature by camping or staying in cabin or cottage rentals. If you prefer a few more amenities, there are hotel and motel options spread throughout the area (especially in Houghton & Hancock).
There are bed and breakfasts as well, such as the Laurium Manor Inn, a beautifully restored copper era mansion. Even if you don’t stay there, you can tour this beautiful old home. Tours are generally available for $10/person (or free for registered guests) from May through October. Due to Covid-19, tours have been suspended for the rest of 2020, but they hope to resume in 2021. You can check the website for up-to-date tour information. Mansion tours include each of the four floors (13,000 square feet in total!) and allow you to see some of the unique features of this historic building.
If you can’t get enough of Lake Superior, there are many places to stay that offer beach frontage right on the water. If you prefer a traditional motel, the AmericInn in Calumet is a good option. Or if you like individual cabins, check out the Mountain View Lodges in Silver City. Fitzgerald’s Hotel & Restaurant in Eagle River offers beautiful sunset views over the lake as well.
Don’t forget camping! The 700-acre Fort Wilkins Historic State Park offers more than 150 campsites as well as a 4-mile hiking trail, a restored 1844 Army military outpost, and lighthouse.
Where did I stay on my Keweenaw Peninsula trip?
On my trip to the Keweenaw, I had the opportunity to stay at a variety of places. The Ramada Waterfront Hancock offered a traditional style hotel experience, right on the Portage Lake waterfront. In Copper Harbor, I stayed at the Bella Vista Motel, with where each room has views of Lake Superior. The Bella Vista also offers cottage rentals with full kitchen facilities.
My third night was spent at the AmericInn in Silver City, near Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. This is a pet-friendly hotel with an indoor pool and two restaurants on site. On my final night in the Keweenaw, I enjoyed the Holiday Inn Express in Houghton with complimentary breakfast, located only a few miles from the airport.
Where to Eat
The Keweenaw area caters to all types of dining options. There is fast food (mostly in Houghton/Hancock), but there also are plenty of local eateries featuring delectable seafood dishes and the most well-known local meal: pasties. Pasties are a meat and potato filled pastry that are associated with the history of the area and can be found at restaurants throughout the UP. They were initially introduced by Cornish miners brought to the area, who used them in their lunches because they were so easy to carry.
One of the most popular places to get pasties is Roy’s Pasties & Bakery in Houghton. Here you can find everything from the traditional pasty (filled with pork, beef, rutabaga, potatoes, onion and carrot) to vegetarian, breakfast, chicken & broccoli and even pizza pasties. I would definitely recommend the chicken & broccoli, which was my favorite on this trip.
Wildlife is abundant in the UP. If you want to share your mealtime with a black bear, you’ll definitely want to stop at the Konteka Black Bear Resort in White Pine. Bears stop by often and you can get a perfect view through the wall of windows in the dining room.
And don’t miss out on a stop at the Jampot where you can purchase delicious baked goods and jams made by the monks who live in the nearby monastery.
Exploring Copper Country
The UP is best known for its rich copper mining history. There are lots of ways to see and learn more about what copper mining was like, how it was done and what it meant to the local economy (and beyond).
The Quincy Mine Company offers tours of its steam hoist and shaft house.
You can also ride a tram down inside a portion of a real copper mine to find out what conditions were like when the area was a working mine. The men worked by candlelight day after day to bring up the native copper and provide a living for their families.
Another mine tour option is the Adventure Mine Company. It also offers underground mine tours, as well as the option to rappel down an actual mine tunnel. Both of these tours are educational and exciting. Hard hats are required, as are boots and warm clothes (some tours provide boots and/or jackets for the underground portions).
TravelingMom Tip: The mine tours are probably not a good idea for young kids or anyone who is afraid of the dark or enclosed places. These tours also require appropriate footwear (no open-toed shoes, sandals, etc.) and are not always easily accessible for those with mobility challenges. It’s best to call ahead and verify whether the tour is a good fit for you.
Learning about the Keweenaw Peninsula
Along with the mines, there are other opportunities to learn about the history of the area and its copper mining background. In addition to touring the Laurium Manor Inn, there’s a tour of Victoria, a ghost town, that shows how the miners and their families lived and worked.
You can also learn all about the local geology at Michigan Technological University’s Mineral Museum of Michigan in Houghton. It boasts the “World’s finest collection of Michigan minerals.” This would be the perfect spot to put together a scavenger hunt for kids. Having them locate various forms of rocks and minerals would be an educational and fun way to explore the museum.
Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula juts out into Lake Superior, offering some of the most beautiful fresh water beaches around. The water is cold (even in July), but we did see folks swimming. Even just wading up to my knees felt wonderful.
The beach areas are filled with small, smooth stones that are perfect for skipping into the water or collecting to bring back home. You can also go boating or kayaking, or just relax by the water and watch the sunset over the lake.
If you’re visiting the town of Copper Harbor at the tip of the Keweenaw, don’t miss out on the boat tour to the Copper Harbor Lighthouse. You can’t really beat the view, especially at dusk. The lighthouse is a museum that also teaches about the history of the area and its mining boom past.
Isle Royale National Park is located in Lake Superior, 56 miles from the Michigan’s shoreline or 18 miles from Minnesota’s. The island is part of Keweenaw County. You can visit the national park by ferry from either Copper Harbor or Houghton. There is an entrance fee per person per day, although children 15 and under are free. (Learn how to get free admission to US National Parks all year.)
No wheeled vehicles (except wheelchairs) are allowed on Isle Royale. Travel is either by foot or by boat (canoes/kayaks are popular). The island is perfect for hiking, fishing, or backpacking. Camping is also popular here. There are 36 campgrounds to choose from.
TravelingMom Tip: The island is closed to visitors from November 1 to April 15 every year.
Adventure is Everywhere
There are adventures just waiting to be had all throughout the Keweenaw Peninsula. You can enjoy a hike on your own through the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Ontonagon. Or sign up for a kayak or mountain bike excursion with the Keweenaw Adventure Company in Copper Harbor.
I tried kayaking for the first time on this trip, and loved it. Such a perfect way to explore the Lake Superior shoreline! I also discovered that mountain biking is not my thing. But I would love to try biking through some of the less hilly areas someday to further explore the UP.
If you love lighthouses, there are eight on the Keweenaw peninsula, plus seven more on Isle Royale. The Eagle Harbor lighthouse is the only one open for tours, but you can view the others from outside.
There are also abundant shipwrecks in Lake Superior off of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Beginner and intermediate divers can explore wrecks of the Mesquite, Tioga, John Jacob Aster and more.
Remember to leave your electronics behind. There is limited cell service in much of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Don’t worry, you’ll be so busy exploring that you shouldn’t even miss being plugged in at all times.
Wi-fi is available at some restaurants and lodging options. But be prepared to have the camera be the only part of your phone that you’ll be using regularly during your trip to the beautiful Upper Peninsula.