On the Wilderness Threshold ~ Isle Royale National Park

Grand Portage RV Park

The final stop on our North Shore adventure was Grand Portage Lodge and Casino (and RV Park), seven miles south of the Canadian border.  This quiet little campground, carpeted in golden wildflowers, was our gateway to a wilderness archipelago, Isle Royale National Park.  The forecast was for cloudy skies and chance of rain when we headed out across Lake Superior for the 1.5 hour boat ride to the park.  Thankfully the waters were calm.

Isle Royale National Park, the largest island in the largest Great Lake and the least visited national park (only 17,000 annual visitors), comprises the island we visitors see and another 400 smaller islands, some submerged.  This wilderness archipelago covers just shy of 900 square miles, with only 200 miles of this being above ground, a full 80% of this park exists below the frigid waters of Lake Superior…pretty interesting. 😉


There are two visitors centers on the island and for day-trippers like ourselves, versus backpackers or those with more sophisticated tastes who stay at the lodge, Windigo Visitor Center at the west end of the island is the drop-off point.  With only four hours on the island, we opted for a short hike to give us a feel for the backcountry.

As we walked along the rocky trail, through forests of maple, birch, and fir, on this cool cloudy day, listening to the frigid Minnesota_140725-6191waters of Lake Superior lap the shore, I visualized rounding the bend to find an imposing bull moose munching on a balsam fir.  The rangers believe there are about 1000 on the island and one was not too much to wish for, was it?  Unfortunately our paths did not cross, which was not surprising, given that we lived in Yellowstone National Park for two years and I never saw one in the park until we took a trip to the Grand Tetons.

In the bone-chilling winter of 1948-49 an ice bridge formed between Canada and Isle Royale and a small pack of Eastern timber wolves crossed over.  Today only nine exist on the island, the numbers down from an average of 20-25 due to disease and inbreeding.  Trophic cascade, a term we learned years ago in Yellowstone, is reflected here in the relationship between wolf and moose.  But with the wolf population at an all-time low, the moose population is much larger than is healthy for the island.  The result is devastation of the balsam firs, a tasty moose treat.  The conundrum for the park is whether to intercede and introduce another lineage of wolf to bring down the number of moose or not interfere with the rhythm of the island.  It will be interesting to see what unfolds.

The best way to see this wild island, imho, is backpacking.  With only 4 hours to visit, there is not much to be done besides explore the small visitor center, get your passport stamped and take in a short hike.

On our trip back the rains came and the fog rolled in, just as we approached a lone sentinel emerging through the mist.

Rock of Ages Lighthouse emerges through the mist.
Rock of Ages Lighthouse emerges through the mist.

Rock of Ages Lighthouse, one of the most remote on the continent, sitting two miles off the south end of Isle Royale, was built in 1908.  It would seem that even a sea-hardened sailor could be brought to his knees in despair over the assignment to care for this station, given the acute isolation.  Manned until 1977 and automated in 1985, the original 2nd-order Fresnel lens now sits in the Windigo Visitor Center.

One final sight I wanted to see before we left the North Shore was the High Falls on the Pigeon River, Minnesota’s highest waterfall at 120 feet.  Located in the Grand Portage State Park, one-half mile walk from the visitor center, she did not disappoint, but then few waterfalls ever do for me if there is water flowing over them. 🙂


Grand Portage has a rich history dating back to the 1700’s in what was the beginning of the international fur trade.  For those interested in learning more about “The Great Carrying Place”, you can read about it here.  We did visit the Grand Portage National Monument and found the background most educational.

Wildflowers, Dunes, Turquoise Waters, and a Sleeping Bear…Shhh!

Long ago, in the land now known as Wisconsin, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. After miles of swimming, the two cubs began to lag behind.  When mother bear reached shore she climbed onto a tall bluff to await her two babes but the weary cubs never appeared, having drowned in the lake. Mother bear fell asleep waiting for their safe arrival. Impressed by her faith and determination the Great Spirit created two islands, North and South Manitou, to honor the cubs, and the winds buried the sleeping bear under the dunes, where she waits to this day.    ~  Chippewa legend of the “sleeping bear”

Powerful earth-moving forces of ice, wind, and water, most occurring during the Ice Age, swept glaciers down from Canada, creating the diverse tapestry known today as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This 35-mile stretch of land along Lake Michigan, in the Leelanau Peninsula (the “little finger” in the Michigan mitten), is dotted with “perched dunes”, formed by glacial sands deposited on plateaus high above the shore.

Where shipping and commerce fueled this region in the 1800’s, today tourism has stepped in, and there is much to tantalize vacationers year-round, given the pleasant summer climate and 80” of snowfall each year. A dramatic National Lakeshore tops the list, but not to be overlooked are miles of sandy beaches to explore, wind-swept bluffs rising 450’ above Lake Michigan, lush forests to hike in the summer and cross-country ski in winter, crystalline inland lakes to canoe and kayak, miles and miles of paved trails to bike, picturesque lakeshore villages to enchant – the list goes on and on. It’s no wonder Good Morning America named Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore the “most beautiful place in America” in 2011.

Indigo Bluffs Motorcoach Resort and RV Park is where we chose to stay and although the RV Park was a bit crowded, it still had a peaceful feel to it. Those who travel in a Class A  can get a bit more pampering next door at the Motorcoach Resort.

With so much to offer in the area, our first stop was the Philip A Hart Visitor Center, where we grabbed some hiking maps, watched a short film, and peppered the rangers with questions about area activities.

Here are a few highlights of our week:

1/  Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail

A 10-mile bike trail (each way) that continues to grow, with plans to extend it another 17 miles.  This beautifully paved trail currently connects the village of Empire to the artsy town of Glen Arbor.  Parking is available off-road near the trailhead or you can leave your vehicle 2 miles away at the visitor center, which we did.  Stop to explore historic Glen Haven along the way and take the one-mile dune hike to Sleeping Bear Overlook, for some great views of Lake Michigan.  The Heritage Trail is groomed in the winter for those cross-country ski enthusiasts.

2/  Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

Named after a local lumberman who helped to build this road, this 7.5 mile drive takes you through beech-maple forests and some spectacular lookouts, the most popular being Lake Michigan Overlook, where an observation tower sits 450′ above the lake level.  Many hopefuls come here to experience a special sunset or tackle the steep dunes.  We were among them but Mother Nature did not cooperate during our stay.

3/ Dune Climb/Dune Trail

I had to join the throngs and do the Dune Climb, a very steep climb through loose dune sand that will leave you a bit breathless, as will the run back down.  The Dune Trail can be taken from the crest of the Climb, the most strenuous hike in the park, 3.5 miles through loose, shifting dunes.

4/  Alligator Hill Trail

No alligators to be found here but 8 miles of beech-maple forests through rolling hills and views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands make up for the lack of reptiles.

5/  Port Oneida Historic Farm Tour

Although NPS is in the process of preserving this area dotted with turn of the century farms, it still makes for a picturesque bike ride down lazy country roads, while you inhale the sweet fragrance of hay and wildflowers strewn across the meadows.

6/  Traverse City

This pristine city on the shore of Lake Michigan is the largest producer of tart cherries in the country and the annual Cherry Festival was in full-swing when we arrived.  We did manage to sneak in and score some grass-fed Michigan jerky (yum) and avoid the carnival scene.  Traverse City also offers four bike trails, kayak launches, several vineyards in the surrounding countryside, seasonal farm stands, and a wide assortment of brew pubs.  We stopped by the North Peak Brewing Company for a sampler…very tasty!

We find ourselves back in northern Michigan again almost three years since we began this roving lifestyle, having watched the fall colors change our last time through.  I had forgotten how striking the landscape – carpets of wildflowers, undulating sand dunes, crystalline turquoise waters, and air so fresh it is intoxicating.


Mackinac Island, MI

The day before our visit to Mackinac Island, we drove to Whitefish Bay to see Tahquamenon Falls, which we had heard were rather special.  Root Beer Falls is the name given to the Upper Falls by the locals, as the water cascading over the edge is notably brown in color, due to the tannins that leach from the nearby cedar swamps into the river.  The Upper Falls span 200′ with a 48′ drop.

The Lower Falls consist of a series of 5 smaller falls that cascade around a small island.  A vehicle can be driven to view both
the Upper and Lower Falls or a hiking trail 4 miles out and back (8 miles round-trip) can also be taken.  We opted for the latter and what a treat it was.  We had to admit that it rivaled our hike at Pictured Rocks, although this hike provided more exercise with many stairs scattered throughout the woods.  Much of the trail ran along the river, which was oh so pretty.

If you are in the area and have bikes, a great-looking bike trail is the North Central State Trail, a 62-mile multi-use trail connecting Gaylord, Indian River, Cheboygan and Mackinaw City.  The trail has a 10′ wide packed crushed limestone surface and is open to non-motorized use year-round.  John and Janie, if you are reading this, you have yet another reason to head back to the UP.

Terry had been to Mackinac Island before but this was to be a real treat for me. Our last day in the area brought sunshine and temps in the 50’s so our ferry ride over to Mackinac Island proved to be invigorating.

Located in Lake Huron between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, Mackinac Island was home to Native Americans before European explorers arrived in the 17th century.  Based on its position, it played a significant role in the Great Lakes fur trade.  This led to the establishment of Fort Mackinac  in 1780 by the British during the American Revolutionary War.

Much of the island has undergone extensive historical restoration and preservation.  More than 80% of the island is preserved as Mackinac Island State Park, originally designated the second National Park behind Yellowstone, in 1875.  In 1895 the park was turned over to state control.

On this island of 492 year-round residents, motorized vehicles have been prohibited since 1898, with the exception of snowmobiles in the winter and emergency vehicles.  Travel on the island is by foot, bicycle, or horse-drawn carriage.

The Three Amigos

Many homes that we walked by have bicycle racks in the side yard.  Tourists can rent bikes, drive a horse-drawn carriage or climb on a carriage, relax and get a tour of the island.

Aside from the numerous retail shops, galleries, restaurants, and candy shops, probably the most prominent structure on the island is the Grand Hotel.  This stunning Victorian-style hotel opened in 1887 and gained national notoriety after the movie Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, was shot on location in 1979.

Grand Hotel
Coachman at the Grand

The porch at the Grand Hotel is said to be the world’s longest at 660 feet.  With white rocking chairs along its length and its trademark red geraniums, it beckoned us to relax and enjoy lunch overlooking the golf course and the lake.  The Cupola Bar is the highest point at the top of the hotel and features a stunning  view of the Straits of Mackinac.

Condé Naste Traveler lists the Grand Hotel as one of the “Best Places to Stay in the Whole World” and Travel & Leisure Magazine lists it as among the “Top 100 Hotels in the World”.  This amazing hotel has been visited by five U. S. Presidents, as well as Prime Ministers and inventors.

We had a wonderful day and an ideal end to our stay in Mackinaw.  From here we are headed to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to spend time with family.  Please enjoy the gallery of photos below!

Saute Ste. Marie, MI

Terry had traveled across the Mackinac Bridge before but I never had.  He does not necessarily embrace heights so he was wondering how it would feel to travel across the bridge pulling a 38 foot 5th-wheel.  Just before we stopped to pay the toll to cross over, a large flashing sign announced heavy winds and the need for RV’s and buses to travel at speeds no greater than 20 mph across the bridge.  Holy s@*t!  We pay our toll and with some trepidation begin our journey.  With me behind the wheel of our little Toyota truck, I watch Terry pull our “home” across a very long and tall bridge.

Mackinac Bridge connects Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas.  It is the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere and the 3rd longest in the world.  The bridge is about 5 miles in length, suspended over the straits of Mackinac.  At mid-span the height of the roadway is about 200 feet above the water.  Construction began on May 7, 1954 and she opened to traffic on November 1, 1957.

All suspension bridges are designed to move to accommodate wind, weight, and changes in temperature.  It is possible that the deck at the center of the bridge could move as much as 35 feet (east or west) during high winds.  I am thankful we had not heard this before our trek across.

Rainy days and Mondays… That could be our theme song for when we arrived at Mackinaw City Campground, our home for the next week.  We are staying at a “no frills” campground, with water, electric, and 30-amp service, and fairly open spaces.  What more do we really need?  We agree that we have been spoiled given our stays over the past several weeks.  But with an effective rate of $13.25 daily, we are comfortable laying our heads here and venturing out on day trips.

A little side note:  For those of you who have noticed the two spellings, Mackinac and Mackinaw, here is the explanation I have read.  “Blame the French. And the British. You can even blame the area’s Native Americans. When Europeans got here (the French first), they picked up on all these words spoken by the local people and tried to write them down in their own language.”

We got quite a thunderstorm during the night and awoke to overcast skies but temps in the 60’s so we decided to explore Mackinaw City and get an exercise walk in before the rains came.  It is a touristy little town with a nice pier and a fun downtown area.  This is where we will head later in the week to take the ferry over to Mackinac Island.

Wednesday morning was “soupy”, with fog weaving its way through the campground but reports that it was to burn off early so we headed back across the bridge to explore Saute Ste. Marie.  I have never been to the locks before (I am beginning to see that I have lived a sheltered life) so I was excited.

Saute Ste. Marie is an old city, established in 1668.  It is the oldest European settlement in the U.S. Midwest and has a twin city of the same name in Ontario, separated by the St. Mary’s River.   The two cities are joined by the International Bridge.  Shipping traffic in the Great Lakes area bypasses the rapids by way of the American Soo Locks, the world’s busiest canal in terms of tonnage passing through it.  Smaller tour and recreational boats use the Canadian Saute Ste. Marie Canal.

Soo Locks

The Soo Locks are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and consist of two canals and four locks.  More than 11,000 vessels, carrying up to 90 million tons of cargo pass through these locks annually.  Most cargo is iron ore, coal, grain, or stone.  Only two of the four locks are used at this time and The Corps has plans to replace two of the locks with one that is state-of-the-art, to handle the larger vessels of the Great Lakes fleet.

When we arrived at the locks, we went to the viewing deck and did not have long to wait for a ship to arrive.  The MacArthur lock, first of four locks, is able to accommodate vessels up to 730 feet in length and 76 feet in width.  The Algoma Spirit, loaded with taconite, a low-grade iron ore, was 729 feet long and 76 feet wide, a perfect fit.

Algoma Spirit
A Tight Fit, with Two Feet of Wiggle Room on Each Side

Once the vessel is completely inside the lock, the gate closes behind it and the water level is dropped 21 feet, which is the drop in elevation between Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

The Algoma Spirit as She is Lowered in the Lock

Once the water level in lowered, the forward gate is opened and the vessel continues her journey.

Algoma Spirit Headed to Lake Huron

The Poe lock is the largest of the four; was rebuilt in 1968 to accommodate 1000 foot vessels, and took 6 years to build.  We were told that last week a ship moving into this lock came in too fast and stopped only three feet short of hitting the sill, which is the underwater concrete abutment that keeps the gate open.  If that had occurred, the ship would have sunk in the lock.

Saute Ste. Marie is a charming little town and the tour of the locks was fascinating.  I am constantly surprised at just how much Michigan has to offer and we are not done yet!

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore ~ #3

Hooray!  65 and sunny – ideal for the Pictured Rocks Cruise.  This boat was to take us on much of the same shoreline that we had seen from our hike earlier in the week.  The perspective from the water made for some interesting conversation.

Pictured Rocks is one of four National Lakeshores in the U.S. and is also the largest and the first established, on October 15, 1966.  We could potentially see all four during our visit through the midwest.  We have already crossed two off the list, Apostle Islands and Pictured Rocks and plan to see a third, Sleeping Bear Dunes, also in Michigan.  The fourth would be Indiana Dunes.

Some of the oldest exposed sandstone is at Pictured Rocks.  The vegetation set against this pinkish-gray Jacobsville sandstone is striking.  In this part of the UP, storms typically come from the northwest.  A very large island across the channel from Pictured Rocks, Grand Island, takes the brunt of these storms, which helps to protect this vegetation.

Approximately 20 years ago, Terry took his sons to the UP on a camping trip.  We were looking at pictures he took during that time, one in particular, trying to determine which rock formation it was.  We both thought it looked like Miners Castle, with one noticeable difference between his 20-year-old shot and our present day photo.  Look at the two photos below and see if you can tell the difference.

Miners Castle - 20 Years Ago
Miners Castle - Present Day

The reason we were originally uncertain that this was the same rock formation is that the photo from 20 years ago reflects two turrets on its top and present day photos show only one.  We learned during the cruise that a turret fell off of Miners Castle on April 12, 2006.   This sandstone, as we evidenced all along the coast, is unstable.  From the trail that we walked earlier in the week, many postings warned hikers of the danger in standing too close to the edge.

Note the vertical crack in the sandstone, the large boulders lying in the water below, and the kayakers coming in for a closer look.

The remainder of this post will be more picture than prose as I cannot begin to describe the beauty in the rocks as well as they can speak for themselves.

Minerals Leeching from Sandstone against Stunning Turquoise Waters
Caves of Many Colors

We walked right over this rock formation when we hiked the Chapel Basin trail near Mosquito Beach.

Lover's Leap

At the base of Lover’s Leap, the water is only two feet deep so unless you are despondent due to an unrequited love, you would not want to be hurling yourself from the top of this rock.  From the trail we originally thought this rock formation was Grand Portal as it is so spectacular.

This rock collapse took place on Thursday and we took our hike of this section of Pictured Rocks on Wednesday.  The trail is right above where the collapse took place.

Grand Portal

Grand Portal is the highest point in the park, standing proud at 207 feet.

Chapel Cave

While hiking the Chapel Basin trail, we had peered down into the cave but never imagined that our tour boat would be sitting in this very spot!

Chapel Rock

The sandstone supporting the root system for the tree atop Chapel Rock collapsed approximately 40 years ago.  It could be said that Chapel Rock is now an island with its lifeline attached to the mainland.

Spray Falls
East Channel Lighthouse

The East Channel Lighthouse can only be viewed from the water, as it is now on private land on Grand Island.  It was built in 1867 and its kerosene lamp was extinguished for the last time in 1907.

We thoroughly enjoyed the day and believe that this cruise is a must if you find yourself in the Pictured Rocks area.  We are sad to leave this beautiful piece of the Upper Peninsula but look forward to the next leg of our journey.

Our last night’s sunset in the Munising Tourist Park.