Head north from Grand Rapids and you’ll hit lots of cottages and summer escapes.
Cities like Traverse City, Petoskey, Mackinaw, Cadillac, Grayling, and Alpena all offer retreats within an easy drive for West Michigan families. Go just a bit further and you’ll find yourself at the foot of the Mackinac Bridge, staring up at rows of suspension cables lining the 5-mile bridge. Indeed, crossing the Mighty Mac ushers you into a different time and place….a place I hold with reverence and joy.
Welcome to Upper Michigan. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The U.P.
Internet and cell service are spotty between towns up here, but that’s ok. You’ll be busy taking in all of the natural beauty surrounding you- and consulting the map you just bought from the corner gas station because the google maps app doesn’t work so well here.
If you want to get away from it all, head to the U.P.
If you want your kids to live like you did as a child in the 80’s, drive north.
If you’re lucky enough to get away to the U.P. with your kids anytime soon, here are a few places I suggest you visit. The order of listings is the order our family experienced them. We only had Monday – Saturday to explore. Wish our time would have been longer!
DAY ONE: UPPER PENINSULA MICHIGAN
After lots of driving, we crossed the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, paid the toll, and wound our way westward, along the northern shores of Lake Michigan via US-2.
Kitch-iti-kipi is a must-see while you’re in the U.P.
When you visit, you’ll pull yourself across Michigan’s largest spring on a glass-bottom raft.
The crystal clear water of this 40-feet deep spring makes it easy to see the giant trout and other fish swimming below, and if you look carefully, you can see the springs bubbling up through the soil on the bottom.
Bonus: No charge for this experience!
Visiting Marquette, Michigan with Kids
We decided to drive to the most western destination of our trip first. That meant that Marquette was one of our first major stops on our U.P. vacation.
Marquette is the largest city in the yoop, and is home to Northern Michigan University. It’s also located on the shores of Lake Superior and is blessed with amazing natural beauty and recreation options.
These details, plus the city’s rich mining heritage, have shaped the city into a wonderful place to visit.
Black Rocks, Marquette MI
You won’t be at a loss for outdoor options in Marquette.
If you’re limited on time, a visit to the Black Rocks at Presque Isle Park is in order.
Jumping off of the cliffs at the Black Rocks is a tradition in these parts. You’ll find many people stepping up to the challenge on warm summer days – testing their bravery against the jump as well as the icy Lake Superior water.
Or, if you’re looking for something a little tamer, there are swimming options that don’t require jumping from the Black Rocks.
Just What Are the Black Rocks?
If you feel like you’re walking around on top of an old lava flow at the Black Rocks, that’s because you are!
This uphill hike follows the Dead River to various falls. You’ll definitely want good shoes and bug spray for this hike, and maybe a swimsuit. The first part of the hike is the hardest and where I probably wouldn’t bring small kids. You scramble up a steep hill covered in roots and then hike a narrow ledge with a sharp drop off.
We saw people jumping the falls and swimming at various points in the river. Not sure how safe that is, but it was fun to watch!
As much as I love getting out in nature, appreciating the beauty of waterfalls and Lake Superior, I also enjoy creature comforts.
Marquette is the largest city in the Upper Peninsula and its downtown reminded me of Traverse City – with a U.P. vibe.
Cute shops and restaurants line the main street, while the harbor park is lush, open, and constantly hosting some sort of festival. We were in town over the Fourth of July and were treated to a Food Fest, Fourth of July parade and independence day fireworks!
My beer-loving husband was thrilled to see the breweries popping up around Marquette. I noted many adult parade-goers were drinking beer while the floats passed by… not something you see at a West Michigan parade.
We ate at a historic lunch counter and soda fountain one afternoon – Donckers.
Yummy food, great ice cream. Definitely worth the stop. And we also were sure to grab a local pasty while in town. If you’ve never had one, it’s a food the U.P. is famous for. Think pot pie ingredients – but bigger, and folded somewhat like a calzone. I really liked the veggie pasty at Jean Kay’s.
A short trail circles the blast furnace ruins, where pig iron was made in the iron kiln from 1870-1877.
The neat thing about stopping here is searching the Lake Superior shoreline for slag, a byproduct of smelting pig iron.
We had a great time searching the beach, ultimately scoring purple and green glassy rocks.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
If you put one thing on your Upper Peninsula Michigan trip itinerary, let it be Pictured Rocks.
I backpacked the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in college. It was a lovely trip, but you don’t get to see the cliffs in the same way as you do when you’re out on the water.
When I had a chance to go back and kayak the Pictured Rocks with my husband, it was a revelation. This was the way to see the Pictured Rocks! But, once we had kids, I knew we had to hang up the paddles for awhile.
Kayaking on Lake Superior is hard work, and dangerous – with storms coming out of nowhere and being tossed against the cliffs – I didn’t want to take my kids out there. Backpacking the whole length of the trail wasn’t an option, either. This time around, we opted to take the Pictured Rocks Boat tour with our family. (Many families opt to rent a pontoon boat for Pictured Rocks explorations. That option gives you the freedom to go on your own schedule and get closer to the Pictured Rocks.)
The boat tour leaves often and is really well done. With that said, it is a boat tour and the waves on Lake Superior can come up out of nowhere. That’s what happened on our trip. I highly advise taking Dramamine before you go if motion sickness is an issue for you at all.
We booked our cruise online in advance so we could see the Pictured Rocks with kids in tow and not worry about the hassle at the dock.
We arrived about an hour before our cruise left because seating is first-come, first-served. Get in line as soon as you can to get the best selection of seats. We were early enough that I got to sit right on the edge… a great spot for photography!
The boat has interior and exterior riding spaces. You can move around the boat while on the two-hour trip.
The captain narrates the trip on the way out, identifying rock formations, waterfalls, and digging into the history of the area.
Bridal Veil Falls is best viewed from the water. We loved passing it by while cruising Lake Superior on our Pictured Rocks Boat Tour. The waterfall is seasonal and will slow to a trickle in the late summer and fall.
Chasing Waterfalls Near Munising
The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is home to a lot of natural beauty – waterfalls included.
If you like hikes with a great payoff, the Pictured Rocks are for you.
Here’s a sampling of the waterfalls we found on our adventures in the area:
A short quarter-mile paved trail will lead you right up to two different viewing platform at the base of Munising Falls.
The waterfall drops 50-feet over a sandstone cliff and is an easy stop for families.
Memorial Falls, Twin Falls, Wagner Falls
The short hike to Memorial Falls is exciting because you start ABOVE the waterfall.
Memorial Falls Located on H58. Head east on Munising Ave, turn right on Nestor, and follow the signs.
Eventually, the climb down leads you to undercut rock where you can go behind the falls. If you go beyond Memorial Falls, you come upon Tannery Falls. On our visit, though, Memorial Falls had slowed to a trickle. The entrance to these falls is via Twin Falls nature preserve.
Wagner Falls is just south of Munising and is a short hike from its roadside parking lot. The path is hard-packed and smooth, making it an easy walk to the falls for your whole family.
While camping at the Lower Falls campground, we thought we’d ride our bikes down to the Lower Falls after dinner for a quick look.
We anticipated a small waterfall, something like we’d already encountered on our hikes in Munising and Marquette.
Instead, we found multiple falls with a rowboat rental. We could paddle around the lower falls and over to an island with a short hiking loop. The kids took turns testing their muscles on the rowboat and then we spent time tooling around the island.
The rowboat actually ended up being quite fun and allowed us to see more of the park and falls.
What a fun, impromptu experience!
Hiking from Lower to Upper Falls
We decided to test our legs on the four-mile trail between the upper and lower falls.
The verdict: It was beautiful, but I probably won’t do it again. Oh, the MUD! So much mud. And it was a tough climb on the seven-year-old, so much so, that my husband carried her a good deal of the way. The few boardwalks we did encounter were well-placed but pretty warped. The reward was a great view of the Upper Falls and ice cream.
Upper Tahquamenon Falls
The upper falls are bigger, but you can’t get into a rowboat to experience them.
To get close, there are two viewing platforms at the bottom of the falls- requiring a lot more stair climbing.
The Upper Falls does have a great brewery on-site, as well as concessions. We ate lunch and got ice cream here – there are not any other food options for miles.
If you choose to stay within the park, there are four different campgrounds ranging from rustic to modern. There are also a couple of cabins available to rent.
There’s no way you can do justice to Upper Penisula Michigan in just one week. Here are additional stopping points friends have told us about that we’re considering for a return trip:
Stop in St. Ignace
St. Ignace is just across the Mackinac Bridge. It’s the first city you’ll hit after the bridge.
Here you can visit Castle Rock, which offers an amazing view of the lake, Mackinac Island and St. Ignace. It is probably more than 200 stairs to the top (so be prepared to carry your smaller kids), but the view is worth it. Plus, your kids will dig having their picture taken with Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
You can also explore the little shops and restaurants in downtown St. Ignace including The Indian Village, which has a combination of cool handcrafted items and trinkets. Another favorite was Bridge View Park where you can enjoy a picnic lunch overlooking the bridge.
Visit the Soo Locks
Sopped in Sault Ste. Marie, the oldest city in Michigan and the third oldest city in the United States. (Did you know that Sault Ste Marie was Michigan’s first capital?)
While you’re there, check out the Soo Locks. Kids can be surprisingly fascinated by them.
There is a museum (free) and the observation deck (also free). If you want, you can take a boat tour where you actually get to experience the locks.
Consider eating dinner at the Antlers Restaurant (if you are freaked out by taxidermy, you may want to consider a different option!) and also just walking around the downtown area.
More to Look Forward To
I know we didn’t hit a lot of things in the U.P. – I wish we could’ve made it over to the Porcupine Mountains, and up to Copper Harbor. And Mackinacis a whole different trip!
It was a great family vacation and we’ll be back.
If you’ve been, and have places to recommend, please tell me about them. I would love to look them up for a future trip!