After five long months of being cooped up at home without a real vacation, it was time for our family of four to head out of town for a break. Like most people, all of our summer plans that involved flying had been canceled due to the pandemic. Given the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., we wanted to travel safely and also be mindful of where we were going. We also preferred to find a destination that we could drive to in one day.
Living in Minneapolis, we are rather isolated in terms of where we can drive to under eight hours. We are blessed to have Lake Superior only a few hours away and have spent several fantastic family vacations along Minnesota’s rugged North Shore up in Lutsen, Minnesota, and have also visited Bayfield, Wisconsin, and the Apostle Islands. One place that we had not yet been to was Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on the other side of Lake Superior. We had heard a lot of wonderful things about the U.P. as locals call it so decided on a whim to plan a family trip. I did a search on Airbnb and found a weekly rental of an entire house in Eagle River along the U.P’s remote Keweenaw Peninsula. We left on Saturday, July 4th in time to celebrate our 20-year wedding anniversary on July 8th. It was going to be a wonderful week of rest, rejuvenation, and priceless family time.
On the hot, sultry night of July 4th, we watched the sun dip below the horizon of an uncharacteristically calm Lake Superior. The water was like glass and the fresh lake air filled my lungs and touched my soul with ease. For just a week, I finally let my weary, stressed-out soul completely relax and break free of the chaos of the last few months living through a global pandemic, uprisings, and endless stress. Life as it was meant to be returned to me for one short week, and for that, I am truly grateful.
Getting There: A Road Trip During a Pandemic
Traveling during a pandemic is a bit tricky however thankfully we had practice as a month earlier we did a weekend trip four hours north of the Twin Cities to stay in Ely, Minnesota. That trip built our confidence and know-how on how to travel safely during the coronavirus. We realized that we felt comfortable traveling as long as we could get to our destination in one day so we would not have to stay overnight in a roadside hotel. We also packed all our food for the drive and tried to stop as little as possible along the way. One thing that we found tricky was finding a rest stop to use the bathroom. Most wayside rest stops were closed so unfortunately, we had to use gas stations where not everyone wore a face mask. We made sure we wore our masks and social-distanced as much as possible. Along with thoroughly washing our hands, we also sanitized them in the car.
The U.P. stretches along Michigan’s northern edges of Lake Superior from its boundaries with Wisconsin to the west to Ontario, Canada in the East. The Keweenaw Peninsula is the northernmost part of the U.P., jetting out for roughly 100 miles into Lake Superior and is known for its vast stretches of stunning shoreline, beaches, waterfalls, inland lakes, and dense forests. Given its remoteness and raw, natural beauty, it was the perfect place to visit during a pandemic where we could be safe and also find a ton of outdoor activities to fill up a week.
From Minneapolis/St. Paul, the drive to the Keweenaw Peninsula is roughly 400 miles northeast to Eagle River where we stayed. The more popular Copper Harbor is an additional 36 miles north of Eagle River and is known for its adventure sports such as world-class mountain biking, kayaking, hiking, and skiing in the winter. There is even a golf course.
Where to Base your Stay
The Keweenaw Peninsula is fairly remote and the only large enough towns that have grocery stores and other amenities are in Houghton and its neighbor Hancock. It is still another 36 miles north to reach the very small town of Eagle River (population 84) where we stayed, and an hour’s drive to reach Copper Harbor (population 108) which is the best-known destination on the entire peninsula and where most tourists prefer to stay.
We chose to base our stay in Eagle River for its amazing accommodations, central location, quaintness, and peace. There is not much at all to the town however it was perfect for our family to base our stay as we found a beautiful historic house that had more than enough space and everything that we could possibly need for a wonderful vacation. The “Big House” was built in the 1850’s as a hotel and the town’s first jail, and was spectacularly renovated into a single-family home just a short block away from Lake Superior. Everything about the Big House was perfect! It has a huge front porch where I enjoyed soaking up the fragrant breezes from Lake Superior, a large gourmet kitchen, plenty of cozy family area and 5 rooms and 5 baths. It was a real treasure and made our trip memorable.
Our Airbnb host, Jan, was rated a super host and we could see why. When we arrived everything was beyond expectations, and there were beautifully arranged fresh flowers in every room along with a basket of fresh baked goods, coffee, and jams from the area. She also left us with a great list of things to do and information on everything we needed. I met her during our week in Eagle River, and she told me that she also rents out a historic lighthouse and a cabin in Eagle River. Here is the view one block away from the Big house:
Like most of America, the Keweenaw Peninsula was first inhabited by Native Americans and was home to Ojibwe People for thousands of years up until 1836 when the Upper Peninsula was ceded to the U.S. Known as Copper County, the peninsula was the site of the first big copper boom in the United States and brought in immigrants from Cornwall, England, Finland, French-Canadians and Irish, who were looking to find opportunity and freedom by working in Copper County’s growing copper industry. Copper mining employed thousands of people in this rugged, harsh terrain up until the 20th century and the culture of its mining towns is prevalent even today. Nowadays, the Keweenaw Peninsula is mostly a tourist destination and you can visit year-round to enjoy its many outdoor activities as well as venture down into an old copper mine for those who dare.
What to Do
Given the Keweenaw Peninsula’s geology and natural beauty, it is a haven for outdoor sports and activities. The peninsula boasts 16 beaches along Lake Superior, 10 waterfalls, 15 lighthouses, and plenty of inland lakes for boating, fishing and swimming, kayaking and world-class mountain bike trails. If you go in the winter, there is downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing. Here are my top ideas for fun activities to do:
The Keweenaw Peninsula is a magical place with both rocky and sandy beaches along its eastern and western shoreline. Two of the best beaches include the Great Sand Bay and Bete Grise (which is next to the stunning inland lake, Lac La Belle). We also had a nice beach at Eagle River. In the summertime, you can actually swim in the cool waters of Lake Superior, a big surprise to me as it is way too cold and rough on the Minnesota side. If swimming is too cold, it is always nice to kayak or paddleboard on the “Big Lake”. Sunset in the summer is well after ten and watching the sun dip below the horizon is a must every night.
- Mount Baldy (Mount Lookout): A rigorous 3-mile hike to the top of Mount Baldy which affords stunning panoramic views of Lake Superior and the peninsula.
- Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary: Head out to the tip of the peninsula to the Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary where you will find a wilderness tract of over 500 acres protecting one of the United States’ largest growth of eastern white pines, some over 500 years old and towering over 100 feet into the sky.
- The Monk Walk: A lovely two-mile hike to explore the Arnold Mine ruins and the Jacob Creek Gorge.
- Eagle Harbor Loop: A heavily-forested hike that brings you to lakes and all the way to the Great Sand Bay if you have the energy.
- Drive up Brockway Mountain along a gravel road that affords glorious panoramic views of Lake Superior and lots of places to stop and take a hike.
Best Bike Trails
As I mentioned earlier, Keweenaw has some of the best mountain hiking trails in the country and Copper Harbor hosts one of the best trail systems on the peninsula, followed by Swedetown. A really fun way to spend a day is by taking a mountain biking tour with Keweenaw Adventures, who will set you up with a bike and give you instructions on technique as well as show you around some of the best trails for your skill level. They even offer a shuttle service so you can really get out and explore the immense variety of terrain. Keweenaw Adventures also offers a guided sea kayaking tour on Lake Superior. We did not take this as I have already done this in the Apostle Islands.
Explore the waterfalls and lighthouses
The Keweenaw Peninsula is home to 10 waterfalls and 15 lighthouses. We were lucky to have a waterfall right across the street from our Airbnb in Eagle Harbor, however, you are sure to see many more hiking and exploring the peninsula. Only the Eagle Harbor Lighthouse is open to the public for tours.
Tour Fort Wilkins Tour Historic State Park
If you are in Eagle Harbor, it is fun to visit Fort Wilkins where you can tour the restored buildings of this historic 1844 military outpost. After the self-guided tour, it is fun to walk around beautiful Fanny Hooe Lake and then you can continue hiking around the Fort Wilkins State Park which provides great views of the Copper Harbor Lighthouse.
Copper Mine Tour
Copper County was founded on copper and there is no better way than to take a step back into history and culture than by visiting one of the peninsula’s copper mines. The two best mines to visit are the Quincy (operated between 1846 and 1945) and smaller Delaware Mine. We did a 2.5-hour tour of the amazing Quincy mine located in Hancock where we got to spend 45 minutes walking through the dark, cold corners of the mine. It was an excellent tour and I highly recommend it.
Sit Back, Relax and Watch the Most Amazing Sunsets
Reflecting back on perhaps the best part of all about our week in the Keweenaw Peninsula was the pure joy of watching the sunset each night on Lake Superior. During that moment in time, when the sky turned her brilliant colors my heart and soul felt at ease. This is what vacation is all about. Time with the people you love, and taking the time to slow down to enjoy the beauty of a sunset. When so much is happening in the world today, now more than ever before, we need this simple joy. I am so glad I rediscovered it, even if only for a short week. Until we can travel again.
If You Go
The Keneewaw Michigan Visitors Guide is filled with information on what to do and see in Copper County. It also has lodging information and lots more. Be sure to check it out if you are planning a trip to the U.P.
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