One of my main goals driving cross country is to visit my daughter and see her new apartment in Jersey City. And after an unexpected month in Wisconsin, we’re starting to run out time with the weather. And to complicate things a bit more, the east travel restrictions for covid are much stricter than where we’ve been and keep changing due to increasing infection rates. When Wisconsin was added to the Ohio and Pennsylvania watch lists it left us with only one good option, and that was to spend two weeks in Michigan to meet the entry requirements that we need to go through Ohio and into New York.
Honestly I don’t know much about Michigan. I’d been there a couple times to visit an ex’s extended family two decades ago and that time was spent in a small conservative town that I was happy to leave. But I’d never been to the endless coastlines surrounding the state and never ventured into the upper peninsula or the “UP” as the locals call it.
When we left Wisconsin we drove to the newly created Indiana Dunes National Park just south of Chicago (that Trump signed as a rider to get his Mexico wall money). The beaches around Lake Superior in Duluth were nice enough but I wasn’t expecting the enormous dunes, the endless soft fluffy sand beaches, and the lush forests that had covered the sandy areas inland from the dunes. We needed to start our clock in Michigan so we had to reluctantly leave Indiana but we drove only a short ways up the coast across the state line and had a similar experience in Warren Dunes state park.
From there we drove straight north about 7 hours across the Mackinac bridge connecting mainland Michigan to it’s upper peninsula and to the north shore at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This far north the leaves had already begun to change to brilliant canary yellows, radiant pumpkin oranges, and deep primary reds. The weather was stormy but we got a few days of hiking in before the downpours and got to snuggle in our bed and binge watch some TV shows we had downloaded.
Indiana Dunes National Park (Indiana)
Had this national lakeshore not become a national park we may have missed this amazing area. The designation is so new that most of the signs still refer to it as a lakeshore and the main sign seems hastily printed and installed.
We picked a pretty easy sounding hike, only about 3.5 miles and not that much elevation that meandered through the woods then loop back up the dunes along the shore. I’d never hiked in an area like this. The trails looked like someone had poured thick sand trails through a green deciduous forest. But after a bit of prodding it became clear that the entire area was packed sand completely covered by a dense forest. Where the vegetation had been cleared for the trails, the ground became fluffy with the sand underneath. The side effect, though soft on the feet, was that it was twice as hard to make progress and the terrain made your body shift in strange ways and use strange muscles. By the time we started to climb the dunes on the beach it was becoming a real workout. My knees were not happy with me.
Warren Dunes State Park (Michigan)
When we got to Warren Dunes we camped inside of the park. The dunes and trails were very similar to Indiana shores with soft sandy paths and enormous mostly deserted beaches. We spent a day just chilling lakeside and and Katy did a longer hike by herself the next morning.
For the first time since we left, we got distracted and pulled out with the shore line plugged in. Luckily we were only driving slowly 3 miles to the beach. We only discovered the mistake when we returned to the car later that evening. Luckily there was only minor wear on the cable and some grinding on the posts and we were able to use it without any repairs.
Crossing the Mackinac bridge.
The Mackinac bridge connects the lower mainland of Michigan to its upper peninsula. Without it you would need to either take a rough ferry across the straight (which people did until 1957) or drive all the way around Lake Michigan through Wisconsin. It’s 26,372 ft (5 miles) long compared to the Golden Gate’s 8,980 ft and is the “longest suspension bridge between anchorages in the western hemisphere”. Apparently they’ve only lost two cars over the side. We stopped on the north end to take some pics before heading across the peninsula another 2.5 hours to the north shore.
Just after we crossed the bridge heavy rains started. Hard enough that many cars had to pull off the road.
Driving Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Where southern Michigan feels like Ohio to me, flat farmland, small towns, and occasional sprawl, the UP is much more remote and wild. The entire area is thickly forested with deciduous trees that had begun to change colors even in September. You could tell at some point the entire area had been clear cut by early Americans but the forests have grown back and the canopies are thick enough to blot out much of the ground cover and really open the space up. The coasts here are on Lake Superior and much of the shoreline is cliff with bright mineral markings and some stone features. The beaches are wonderful too and the waves are a bit more pronounced coming off of Superior. One small downside is that since the area is more remote many of the access roads are unpaved and more suitable for higher clearance vehicles.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Our ultimate destination was the national lakeshore. This area has steep cliffs that are ornately decorated by minerals and seem like abstract paintings. The best way to see them is by boat tour but we’re not that comfortable being stuffed onto crowded tour boats so we drove to the various beaches and areas that we could. To me the real show here were the forests. Quite magical. Some areas thickly carpeted in dark moss and interesting ground cover. Lots of birch and aspen trees standing out in contrast.
We picked a bad week for rain and half of the time we had to hide out from the hard downpours. But that was fun too.
Taking a walk in a marsh.
Since the area is very flat there were large areas of marshland. Near one beach Katy discovered a marshland boardwalk that ran parallel to the trail she was hiking. I didn’t do her entire hike but I explored the boardwalk before driving over and collecting her at the other side of the trail.
Some local food
Starting immediately into the UP, we started seeing signs for Pasties. A pasty is like a savory empanada filled with a dry beef stew or other fillings. Imagine a slightly less juicy pot pie shaped like a potato. Potatoes and pie dough are definitely not on my diet but these things were ubiquitous so we had to try them. When I’ve seen these in other places they were much smaller but the ones that we bought were enormous. One was enough for a meal. But curious as I am I bought both the “yooper”, which I suppose is a play on “UP”, and the breakfast variety of egg, cheese, and sausage. Both were excellent and they turned out to be both lunch and dinner.
Unsurprisingly I have a soft spot for pickled bologna. My stepdad introduced me to it when I was younger. It sounds strange but I think it’s delicious. Though I supposed you need to like bologna and pickled things then make that jump to pickled meat. I found similar pickled meat in Prague as a common bar food and loved it (they even had pickled cheese). I just sliced this guy up and ate it cold.
The blood sausage was really interesting too. It’s everywhere up here. And it’s the soft kind, which I prefer to the rice stuffed and dryer variety. It was fully cooked but I still boiled it till it was warm through, sliced it, then fried the slices on both open sides until it was crispy. It may sound weird but it’s surprisingly delicious.
Aside from the perfect stoner movie, I have a soft spot for White Castle burgers. They didn’t have these where I grew up and I only saw them when we made the 3 hour drive to Cincinnati to go to an amusement park. It’s barely a burger. The “meat” is only an 1/8″ thick flap reminiscent of a meat based fruit leather, the “bun” is a soft dinner roll, the onions are caramelized to almost paste, and the cheese … we’ll just call that “American”. But all together it’s a tremendous flavor bomb of grease that really hits the spot when you’re craving it. There’s basically an identical chain in the south called Krystal’s that I used to love visiting with an alcoholic smoothie in hand. Good times.