A refreshing departure from tradition
By Nicole Serra
Spring has arrived, and with it, the much anticipated Spring Break.
Michiganders across the state are finalizing travel plans: packing swimsuits, flip flops and car snacks for drives to Florida, the Carolinas and other popular vacation spots. However, as nice as it is to soak up the sun for a week, the prospect of traffic, construction and yet another drive south on Interstate-75 (I-75) may take some of the thrill out of your travels.
This spring, why not break the mold and head north? That’s right, turn the car around and reinvent your vacation. Trade sandy beaches for frosted waterfalls, seagulls for elk and cruise ships for freighters. Northern Michigan has long been the go-to destination for summer trips, but there’s nothing quite like seeing it in its most rugged form.
I-75 north stretches close to 400 miles from southern Michigan to the northern border at Sault Ste. Marie. Along the way, exits reveal hidden gems: mom-and-pop pasty shops, museums, sightseeing and countless other surprises.
Venture Michigan has mapped it all out for you and planned the perfect spring break road trip along I-75 in the Great Lakes state.
The Alpine Village is home to a scenic downtown and much more. Strolling through the streets you’ll find great shops such as the Alpine Chocolat Haus, a dessert and candy store filled with fudge, local specialty desserts and chocolates. Fan favorites include boysenberry bark and elk patties, a clump of potato chips covered in chocolate. These are tasty, despite their uncanny resemblance to the droppings of Gaylord’s famous herd.
Outside the streets of the bustling downtown, you can see elk up close while visiting Gaylord’s City Elk Park. The park is home to about 70 elk and is a popular stop for tourists and locals. The herd started with three elk 15 years ago, but has grown since. The elk are cared for by the city and can be seen from the Elk Lodge off Grandview.
For those interested in seeing elk in a natural environment, check out the free ranging herds of the Pigeon River Forest. Although not as easy to track as the city elk, they are often seen on Fontinalis Road, East Sturgeon Valley Road and near the intersection of Osmun and Clark Bridge roads.
Spring is a great time to view elk since there are few other tourists and the animals are especially active eating new growth during daylight hours. For more information on elk viewing, go to gaylordmichigan.net.
For the kids (or your inner kid), stop by the Call of the Wild Museum and take a tour guided by Pokey the black bear. The museum, though a little corny, is full of fun and is a great way to get a break from the brisk spring air. The walking tour consists of 60 wild animal displays and a kids’ theater, during which you’ll hear the sound a deer makes.
Afterward, weather permitting, you can head next door to the Bavarian Falls Park for go-carting and adventure golf.
Travel 20 miles north on I-75 and you’ll find Wolverine, a rustic town known for its solitude, winter sports and wilderness. Although small in population, the town makes up for it with incredible forests and beautiful rivers. For an authentic “up north” experience, look no further than the Silent Sport Lodge.
Owners John and Rhonda Smit built their lodge years ago to make the dream of operating a B&B a reality. Named for the many winter activities offered by the adventurous duo, the Silent Sport Lodge often hosts weekends filled with themed activities. While staying at the lodge, you can enjoy countless outdoor sports such as snowshoe treks (and even snowshoe making), fly fishing, kayaking, sleigh rides, and more — all weather permitting.
At the very tip of the Lower Peninsula sits Mackinaw City. The historic town is filled with character — from the Old Mackinac Lighthouse and Fort Michilimackinac to the countless fudge shops on Main Street. Spring in Mackinaw is the perfect time to enjoy a bit of sightseeing on your way to the Upper Peninsula, including a thawing Lake Michigan and far less crowded tourist attractions.
Mackinaw City is also home to the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, a must-see for those traveling through the area near nightfall. The park is known for its undeveloped shoreline and preserved night sky, meaning the stars are brighter and more visible to the naked eye. The Northern Lights are frequently spotted from the park.
Exploring works up quite the appetite, but luckily Mackinaw City is home to Hunt’s Mackinaw Pastie & Cookie Co. The small restaurant serves up authentic Michigan pasties (pastry pies stuffed with beef, chicken or veggies) served with gravy or ketchup. This place is sure to please even the pickiest of pasty snobs, and is conveniently located right off of I-75.
Crossing the Mackinac Bridge, the third longest suspension bridge in the world, is its own adventure on your way to Newberry, home to one of Michigan’s most beautiful attractions: Tahquamenon Falls. Although a bit of a detour from I-75, the drive is well worth it. Tahquamenon Falls, while impressive year round, is even more so in late winter and spring. The copper colored water contrasts starkly against the melting snow banks, and, if it has remained cold enough, the massive icicles formed against the banks of the river.
Although the Upper and Lower falls are worth seeing, Upper Falls is the safer hike if you’re heading to Newberry in questionable weather. The views of Upper Falls can be reached within a short distance and require no trekking through difficult terrain.
Just a short drive from the Falls is Oswald’s Bear Ranch. Home to 29 black bears, Oswald’s is the largest bear-only ranch in the United States. The bears are rescues, and now live in large, natural enclosures. Opening dates for the ranch vary based on the hibernation patterns of the bears, so double check with the ranch before visiting. Call 906-293-3147.
Still north of I-75 (but not far from Newberry) sits the little town of Paradise. The small community is a perfect place to explore the back roads of the Upper Peninsula and catch great views of Lake Superior.
Paradise’s most famous attraction is probably the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, located on Whitefish Point. Unfortunately, the museum does not open until May 1, but should be kept in mind for those planning a later trip. Visitors can see artifacts and exhibits that tell the stories of sailors and ships who braved the waters of Lake Superior and those who were lost to its powerful waves.
Whitefish Point offers more than the museum. On the same campus is the Whitefish Point Light. The lighthouse is vital to freighters and ships. Built in 1847, the light was cared for by keepers until 1971 when the radio beacon, fog signal and light became automated and controlled from Sault Ste. Marie.
The campus also features a viewing platform of Lake Superior. Standing on the wooden dock, you’ll feel the strength of Superior’s winds and see the chaos of the waves, the factors that have contributed to numerous shipwrecks in the area and gave Whitefish Point the nickname “Graveyard of the Great Lakes.”
For nature buffs, visit the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, a migration hotspot for over 340 species of birds. Guided tours of the observatory are available starting in April.
Sault Ste. Marie
At the end of I-75 is the city of Sault Ste. Marie. As far as spring break destinations go, Sault Ste. Marie is sure to give Fort Lauderdale a run for its money. The city is filled with great restaurants, sights and history.
Downtown Sault Ste. Marie is a wonderful spot to wander. It features a variety of shops and restaurants, as well as multiple art galleries and the Kewadin Casino.
Of course, a visit to Sault Ste. Marie isn’t complete without a trip to the Soo Locks, a set of parallel locks that enable ships to travel between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes. To save yourself time, go to marinetraffic.com to track the progress of freighters in the Great Lakes. This allows you to time your trip to the visitor’s center and observation decks, instead of standing in one place for hours waiting (although you might want to anyway).
For a closer look at the Soo Locks, take a boat tour and cruise the St. Mary’s River. You can travel through the Locks while enjoying dinner and learning about passing freighters.
Sault Ste. Marie was developed into a European settlement in 1668 by Father Jacques Marquette, making it the oldest settlement in the Midwestern United States.
Multiple historical attractions in the city include the Museum Ship Valley Camp, the River of History Museum and the Tower of History Museum. The Museum Ship Valley Camp is onboard the SS Valley Camp, a lake freighter that sailed for almost 50 years before its conversion to a museum. In addition to the museums, Historic Water Street is a great place to spend some time exploring.
The Tower of History is an enormous concrete structure that quite literally towers over the city. It features a few exhibits of Native American cultural artifacts and Sault Ste. Marie history. Views from the tower are breathtaking. The entire layout of Sault Ste. Marie can be seen from the viewing platforms, as well as the International Bridge to Canada. At night, the bridge’s colored lights are clearly visible: red, white and blue for the American side, and red and white for the Canadian side.
If history isn’t your cup of tea, you’re sure to find something else that is. The colder months are filled with activities such as snowmobiling and tube sledding. The nearby campus of Lake Superior State University is another great place to explore, as well, and while it may be too late in the year to watch the school’s hockey team, ice skating is available at multiple ice rinks in the city.
Sault Ste. Marie has plenty of options for lodging. You’re sure to find accommodations that suit your needs at a very reasonable price. One of the city’s most popular places to stay is the Plaza Motor Motel, a small, well-kept property with beautiful gardens in the warmer months.
When it comes to dining, Sault Ste. Marie will not disappoint. The city is filled with options for all meals. In the morning, stop by the Superior Coffee Roasting Company Cafe for fresh coffee roasted right in the city. Lunchtime calls for a sandwich and dessert at local favorite Penny’s Kitchen. For dinner, head over to the Antlers Restaurant. A Soo staple, Antlers was originally named the Bucket of Blood Saloon. During the Prohibition era, its front was an ice cream parlor. Today, Antlers is a family restaurant filled wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with taxidermy. You can even enjoy a burger while looking at the stuffed form of a two-headed calf.
Before you leave, grab your passport and take a quick drive across the bridge to Canada to see Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Get a bite to eat at the West Side Cafe. The small restaurant is a bit of a dive, but serves some of Canada’s best poutine (a delicious concoction of fries, cheese curds and gravy).
Traveling back down I-75, stop off in Bay City’s many antique and specialty shops. Bay City is also a great place to get a bite to eat — check out Gatsby’s — and to stretch your legs after a long drive. You may even spot freighters passing through on their way to Sault Ste. Marie.
Michigan is bursting with adventure during every season. Your vacation doesn’t have to be warm to be fun, and what the Mitten lacks in warmth it makes up for in beauty, wilderness and fantastic experiences. So this spring break, head for the beach - I recommend choosing one on Lake Superior.