Driving Michigan's lonely northern shoreline is almost like being on the water itself. "The lake is the boss," says a retired commercial fisherman who has lived eight decades along the shores of Lake Superior. "Make no mistake—the lake is the boss."
This route follows a string of quiet roads along Michigan's Upper Peninsula between Marquette and Whitefish Point. The roads are set so close to the shore they seem at times strung across the waves. The power of the lake is evident at every turn. You see it in the shape of the land, particularly in the sandstone cliffs sculpted into weird artistic shapes along the 40-mile (64-kilometer) stretch of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It's also apparent in the shifting sands at Grand Sable Dunes. It's in the weathered clapboard cottages and lakeside galleries gone silver-gray under years of spray and in the 40-foot (12-meter) drift logs tossed far up the shore like ghostly matchsticks you pass by on a lonely beach walk.
Here Lake Superior sings the stories of the more than 300 shipwrecks that the waters just offshore have claimed over the years, famous ships like the Edmund Fitzgerald as well as anonymous wrecks washed ashore without a clue, earning this stretch of the Upper Peninsula a reputation as the "Shipwreck Coast."
Start at Marquette
Take in the view of Lake Superior from the lantern room of the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse at the Marquette Maritime Museum (300 Lakeshore Blvd., Marquette; tel. 1 906 226 2006; www.mqtmaritimemuseum.com). The lighthouse itself dates to 1866. Next door is the main building of the museum, with its glittering collection of lighthouse lenses, a working periscope, and an assortment of Lake Superior memorabilia, including a replica fishing shack.
Thill's Fish House
You can order a plate of trout or whitefish at any of a dozen fancy restaurants in Marquette. But a better choice is Thill's Fish House (250 E. Main, Marquette docks; tel. 1 906 226 9851), owned by a commercial fisherman. It not only has the town's best smoked trout and whitefish fillets but is also an authentic fishing operation. You might see the Linda Lee pulled up at the dock, tangles of ropes and anchors next to the fish house, and the green slickers worn by the fishermen. There is also that unmistakable fish house aroma.
To get a fish-eye view of real-life shipwrecks, board the 60-foot Miss Munising, owned and operated by Glass Bottom Shipwreck Tours (1204 Commercial St., Munising; ttel. 1 906 387 4477; www.shipwrecktours.com). You won't see any colorful marine life swimming beneath you, but you will discover the wrecks of such ships as the Bermuda, a 150-foot wooden schooner that sank in 1870, and views of the Alger Underwater Preserve and the East Channel Lighthouse.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
"Imagine the power it takes to do something like that," says a hiker on the trail near Chapel Rock. It's not clear if he means the carved pulpit of Chapel Rock itself, the sweep of blond sand at Chapel Beach, or the wind-twisted trees perched on the cliffs. Superior's relentless waves and breezes have created these natural works of art and others along the 40 miles (64 kilometers) of cliff, beach, and shoreline protected at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (tel. 1 906 387 3700; www.nps.gov/piro). Beachcombers will want hours to search for driftwood and agates on Twelvemile Beach. Kayakers can drift through lake caves and beneath rock arches, appreciating the brushstrokes of colored minerals in the cliffs that give the lakeshore its name. Go on a long hike along the shore or just sit and wonder at the artistry of the lake.
Stop in Grand Marais, a classic, windblown lake town, to see The Shark, one of the last handmade fishing tugs in the Great Lakes. It's dry-docked next to the Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum (E21739 Brazel St.; tel. 1 906 494 3000; www.agatelady.com), a rock hound's delight. From a stool at the West Bay Diner and Delicatessen (E21825 Veteran St.; tel. 1 906 494 2607), a traditional stainless steel diner, you can hear fishermen and lake sailors trade yarns. Try the fresh whitefish fillet sandwich. At the Lake Superior Brewing Company (N14283 Lake Ave.; tel. 1 906 494 2337), sample the local microbrews, with names like Agate Amber and Hematite Stout, or, for something nonalcoholic, the homemade ginger ale and root beer. Then visit the low-key shipwreck memorial along the beach.
On Highway 77 you'll pass the town of Seney and the Fox River where Ernest Hemingway set a famous Nick Adams story, "Big Two-Hearted River." Just to the northeast, on H37, drive over the Two Hearted River itself. Follow the road to the small park where the river empties into the lake. You can arrange a canoe or fishing trip through Two Hearted Canoe Trips (32752 County Rd. 423, Newberry; tel. 1 906 658 3357; www.rainbowlodgemi.com), open year-round.
Tahquamenon Logging Museum
To get your fix of lumberjack lore, stop at the rustic Tahquamenon Logging Museum (North M123; tel. 1 906 293 3700; www.superiorsights.com/loggingmuseum) just outside of Newberry. This down-home museum features lumberjack breakfasts in the mess hall, old photographs, a cookpot only Paul Bunyan could appreciate, and plenty of old logging equipment.
Tahquamenon Falls State Park
See one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River at the 40,000-acre (16,187-hectare) Tahquamenon Falls State Park (tel. 1 906 492 3415; www.michigan.gov/dnr). Within the 13 miles (21 kilometers) of waterway protected by the park, the river with the long name makes several dramatic drops, including one of nearly 50 feet (15 meter) at the Upper Falls, where the water thunders, and a slower, cascading drop around a tear-shaped island at Lower Falls.
Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
An apt end to the route is the Whitefish Point Light Station and Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (18335 N. Whitefish Point Rd., Paradise; tel. 888 492 3747; www.shipwreckmuseum.com). The windblown point was where the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald was heading that November night in 1975 when the ship vanished, taking all 29 of its sailors with it, to be memorialized soon thereafter in a Gordon Lightfoot ballad. Today, the museum and still-working light station pay homage to the Fitzgerald and a dozen other Superior shipwrecks. Tour this first-class museum and spend a night or two in the restored 1923 Coast Guard Lifeboat Station crew quarters, where the lighthouse beam will flicker all night in your window.
Get "The Official Visitor Guide" from the Marquette Country Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel. 800 544 4321; www.marquettecountry.org). For more on shipwrecks and lighthouses, see Lake Superior's Shipwreck Coast by Frederick Stonehouse (www.frederickstonehouse.com).
—Text by Jeff Rennicke