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Beat the Heat and Spend a Summer Vacation Exploring Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

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By Rachel Means

Not a fan of summer’s extreme heat but love getting outdoors? Tired of going to the same ole’ beach for the same summer vacation, year after year? Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is the answer for you.

Temperatures in the Upper Peninsula stay reasonable in the summer with June and July highs in the mid-to-upper 70s and lows in the 50s. May is slightly cooler, ranging from highs in the mid-60s to lows around 40°F. If you get too hot from hiking or exploring, you can take a dip in one of the three Great Lakes that surround the peninsula. Lake Superior never gets warmer than 70°F, has sandy beaches, and none of the ridiculous crowds typical of coastal beach towns.

The UP, pronounced “yew pee” (like the letters), is a beautiful natural paradise, populated more by nature than man. Spend time chasing waterfalls, hiking through forests, kayaking on a lake, or camping in isolation. Or, do it all!

The Upper Peninsula is home to four of Michigan’s six National Park Service sites. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is the easiest to reach and most popular to visit. Hikers, though, will love the North Country National Scenic Trail, and backpackers can’t beat the magnificent isolation of Isle Royale National Park. For a deep dive into the region’s long-standing history with copper mining, check out the Keweenaw National Historical Park. Everything from copper processing facilities to fancy mansion tours can be tied back to the copper mining industry and found across the western end of Michigan’s UP.

The eastern end of the Upper Peninsula hosts the most visitors with showstopper attractions like Mackinac Island, the Soo Locks, Tahquamenon Falls, and Whitefish Point. The scenic drive along Whitefish Bay and out to Whitefish Point is a great way to pass a few hours and make unexpectedly interesting stops, like at the Pendills Creek National Fish Hatchery. Not far up the coast, you’ll find Tahquamenon Falls State Park. Known as Root Beer Falls to some, due to its brown color and foamy falls, there are two waterfalls to see at this park. Both are worth a stop, and the Lower Falls is even ADA accessible now.

Continue up the bay until the road ends, and you’ll find yourself at Whitefish Point. The main attraction here is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at the old Whitefish Point Lighthouse complex. Lake Superior has notoriously terrible winter weather, and this stretch has become known as the Shipwreck Coast. Ever heard the song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?” That was a real lake freighter that quickly and mysteriously disappeared and sank during a storm in 1975, just 17 miles north of Whitefish Point. There are at least three other ships in the area. Tour the museum of shipwrecks and various artifacts from dives done in the lake, including the bell recovered from the wreckage of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Explore the lighthouse keeper’s quarters, preserved as it would have been used in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Stop in the US Coast Guard exhibit to see how these brave men used to go out in rowboats to help troubled mariners. Kids will love the boats, the wrecks, and the space to run around outside and on the beach.

Don’t forget to explore the region’s largest city, Sault Ste. Marie. Watch in awe as you’re dwarfed by an enormous freighter ship passing within feet of where you’re standing at the Soo Locks Observation Deck. These incredible ships use the locks to travel between Lake Superior and the St Mary’s River to reach Lake Huron, a 21ft drop in elevation they wouldn’t be able to manage without the locks. You can take a guided boat ride through the locks, too! Book a tour with Famous Soo Locks Boat Tours or their competitor, Original Soo Locks Boats Tours, and experience first-hand how the locks work. Both offer similar experiences and enthusiastic crews.

If you’ve got some extra time and a sweet tooth, plan a day trip to Mackinac Island. You’ll need an entire day, at least, to explore this small but mighty island. Step off the ferry at the dock and sugary goodness wafts through the air as you pass dozens of fudge shops along the town’s main road. Don’t step in any puddles, though! No cars are allowed on the island, so horse carriages (and electric golf carts) are the primary source of transportation on the island. Puddles aren’t safe.

The majority of Mackinac Island is state park (over 80%), preserving natural formations, historic buildings and sites, and the lakefront. Rent a bike from town and pedal around the island in just a couple of hours. Tag-a-longs are available for rent, too, for the younger ones that can’t bike themselves yet. Take in stunning blues of every hue as you explore the undeveloped lakeshore and discover the best views around the island. Opt for a carriage tour to explore the island interior (and save your legs from biking up the hills). Stop in at Fort Mackinac on the bluff above town and learn about life in a colonial-era fort. You can even enjoy afternoon tea with a view from the Officers’ Stone Quarters. If you’re bringing the kids, don’t miss the cannon firing or rifle firing demonstrations. Kids 13 and older can participate in the cannon firing demonstration (for a fee), helping to load and fire the cannon themselves!

While a visit to Michigan’s UP can be an affordable way to spend a summer vacation, the most expensive part of your stay will be lodging. Mackinac Island hotels and guest houses sell out months ahead of time and go for outrageous prices in peak summer season. The experience is worth a splurge once in your life, but it’s not the most economical place to stay in the UP. Hotels are few and far between, located in the few residential areas on the peninsula, like Sault Ste. Marie and Marquette. These, too, will be pricey during summer but more reasonable than Mackinac. If you’re willing to camp, though, a vacation to this slice of paradise can be affordable. Whichever you choose, book as far ahead as you can for the best rates and availability.

Mix things up this summer and choose a fun and relaxing vacation to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Enjoy hiking, history, biking, and beach days with blue waters that rival the Caribbean but don’t have that terrible salt taste! It’s the perfect way to beat the heat and still enjoy plenty of outdoor time!

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