Things to Do In the UP: Keweenaw Peninsula

(Last Updated On: July 20, 2021)

When Jackie asked if she could interview me for an episode of the JUMP podcast about my hometown, I knew I couldn’t even begin to make a dent in describing one of the greatest hidden gems in Michigan. 

The Keweenaw (KEE-wi-naw) Peninsula is so off-the-beaten-path and geographically forgotten by the rest of the world that it’s almost like describing Neverland. With the amount of adventure behind every twist and turn, you could easily find yourself as one of the lost boys (or girls) who choose to play in the wilderness for all eternity.

To understand why you need to add this Michigan destination to your next domestic trip, you must first learn how this place came to be.

things to do in the up, upper peninsula michigan keweenaw peninsula
A postcard of the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan, Card Postmarked 1923. © Don Harrison

Keweenaw, The Copper Country

It all comes down to one resource: copper.

For thousands of years, tribes including the Menomini, Ojibway, and Winnebago easily dug copper from the southern shores of Lake Superior. In 1845, colonizers began to notice the plentiful bounty just below the surface, which quickly gave rise to the country’s first copper boom.

Hundreds of European immigrants flooded the area searching for a better life in the depths of a mine shaft. The region has been known as “Copper Country” ever since.

Eventually, people discovered copper elsewhere, and many departed from the Keweenaw, leaving it a ghost of its former self. However, Finlandares (Finnish immigrants) stayed and flourished in the poor economy, isolation, and copious lake-effect snow (roughly 230 inches on average).

The Finlandares even have a word for this: sisu. There’s no direct translation, but the closest would be: strength, determination, guts, and tenacity. This four-letter word perfectly describes the past, present, and future of this fantastical land full of ruins, trails, and hidden wonders.

So enough of the past. Let’s plan your trip!

Top 4 Keweenaw Peninsula Regions to Explore

1. Houghton, Michigan

Whether you’re making a trip to Isle Royale or doing a grand tour of the Keweenaw, your first stop will be Houghton. This town has the only connecting bridge to the smaller peninsula and is your last “city” before you head farther north.

The first thing you’ll notice is the juxtaposition of the small-town feel that lives in harmony with the research university (Michigan Technological University) it shares its boundaries with. It takes a certain type of hardiness to live this far north, and the students bring in fresh ideas and businesses that balance the long glance into the past that the older Yoopers take.

things to do in the upper peninsula, keweenaw peninsula, michigan
Sunset over the only bridge to the Keweenaw from the mainland. © Eric Hackney

Lodging 

Constructed in 1887, The Vault sits in the historic remains of a copper boom bank. This boutique hotel highlights the fortunes made from local copper mining and Great Lakes shipping with an updated modern aesthetic.

Food & Drink

To go where the locals gather, Suomi Restaurant & Bakery (pronounced sow-mee) has to be one of your stops. This place is the quintessential mingling point between university students and generation-old mining families. Grab a quick bite of blueberry pannukakku and nisu before starting your day, or come around at the end of the day to fill up on a Finnish pasty.

Keweenaw Brewing Company Taproom (referred to locally as KBC) is the lively evening spot for anyone looking for a pint of ale. This local brewery even has a resident microbiologist who’s cultivated several indigenous yeasts so brewers can experiment with new flavors. You’ll find live music and a table or two of cribbage happening on any given night.

History

Quincy Mine/Quincy Smelting Works Tours tells the quintessential story of copper mining in the Keweenaw. Be prepared for the 43°F underground tour with a warm hat and coat.

Silent Sports

Maasto Hiihto and Churning Rapids Trails is a community-run, multi-use silent sport recreation area. Maasto hiihto translates to “cross-country ski” in Finnish, but their 30 miles of trails are also great for mountain biking and hiking. Bring your pup along for fun on this system.

The local university, Michigan Technological University, also has a system open to the public with about 44 miles of trails. There’s also plenty of singletracks, and for those looking for a slower pace, their disc golf course is on-par. The University is very community-centric and provides winter and summer rentals to the public. Michigan Tech also has an alpine ski hill across the canal that’s also open to the public. 

Events

June – The Keweenaw Chain Drive Festival is a two-day mountain bike event that gives cyclists a chance to race on Maasto Hiihto & Churning Rapids trails for one day and the Michigan Tech trails the day after. Races include 15 and 28-mile courses, a youth course, and an enduro course (a long-distance bicycle race typically done over rough terrain).

February – Started in 1922, the Winter Carnival at Michigan Tech University is one of the largest annual winter festivals in the nation. Ice statues get up to 30 ft high, and each takes around 1,000 hours of work to complete. This is what happens when engineering students live in the middle of nowhere with 200+ inches of snow and too much time on their hands. If you attend this event, plan on attending the All-Nighter to witness the Huskies in action.

Outfitters

Downwind Sports has been a staple to the Keweenaw since 2000 and will have you prepared for any summer or winter activity, including hiking, camping, climbing, snowshoeing, skiing, paddling, or fishing. They’ll also be able to give you tips on where to head for your next adventure.

See places mentioned above and below on Tess’s custom-made map of the Keweenaw Penninsula.

2. Isle Royale National Park

Houghton, MI is a gateway town to Isle Royale National Park – the country’s least-visited national park in the lower 48.

ferry to isle royale, upper peninsula michigan, things to do in keweenaw peninsula
Ranger III Ferry Boat at Rock Harbor – Isle Royale. © Tony Webster, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Transportation

From April to October, you can get to the island by ferry, seaplane, or private boat. Book your passage ahead of time and expect 3-6 hours to cross the lake. I recommend the Ranger III from the Houghton Visitor Center to Rock Harbor. It’s the smoothest ride of any of the ships, and you’ll get the added perk of traveling the scenic waterway of the Portage Canal. This ship has a kitchen so grab a pasty while you enjoy the scenery.

Activities

The outdoor enthusiast coming to this park will find rugged backpacking and camping. You’re likely to run into wolves and moose on the island. Come prepared with binoculars so you can enjoy them from a safe distance.

In addition, you may want to bring your fishing, kayak, and sailing equipment. There are also park-run ranger programs at the park. Check at the visitor centers for a complete schedule.

There are about ten shipwrecks listed on the National Register around the island for certified scuba divers. Isle Royale Charters will take you out and help you explore the best of them.

Plan at least four nights on the island with two travel days for there and back, and make sure you get all your permits ahead of time! 

Explore other US destinations:

3. Calumet, Michigan

After visiting Houghton and Isle Royale National Park, the best way to explore the Keweenaw is by doing a counter-clockwise circuit. Immediately after you cross the bridge in Houghton, you’ll head right onto M-26 and make your way up to Calumet, with a few stops along the way. Start early and catch the sunrise over the canal.

Lodging

Walk back in time to the wealthier side of the Keweenaw by staying at the Laurium Manor Inn. Constructed in 1908 for the copper baron Thomas H. Hoatson, Calumet & Arizona Mining Co. owner, this mansion has 45 rooms. You can meander the building or take a mansion tour with a guide.

Food/Drink

Stop for a drink at Shute’s Bar. This 1890s Italian saloon is an unassuming building from the outside that has a gorgeous original stained-glass bar and woodwork hiding within. Shute’s (pronounced shoot-eez) was named after Bernie Shutes, a child of Croatian immigrants born above the bar and spent his formative years as a self-proclaimed “bootlegger baby.” Later becoming the owner, Bernie and his family made Shutes the local watering hole for 70 years, and it still holds that feel today. 

Get your morning (or afternoon) pick-me-up at Keweenaw Coffee Works. This crew supports small artisanal farms and sustainable practices.

History

As you travel along the Portage Canal, you’ll notice a LOT of mining ruins. On your way up M-26, make sure to make a quick stop for a picture at the Quincy Mill and Quincy Dredge Number 2.

Once you’ve made it to Calumet, you’ve unknowingly driven into the Keweenaw National Historical Park. There’s even an official Minecraft model of the park you can tour online. Talk to the rangers at the Calumet Visitor Center about their favorite areas of the park. Make sure to ask about the Italian Hall Tragedy, one of the most notorious events of the copper boom. Woody Guthrie even wrote a song about it.

A few blocks away is the Calumet Theatre, one of the most significant cultural epicenters before the depression. It attracted well-known performers such as Madame Helena Modjeska, Lillian Russell, John Phillip Sousa, and Sarah Bernhardt. Call ahead to arrange a tour.

Silent Sports

Down the highway from the Quincy Mill, you’ll take a left on an unassuming street of Hubble to arrive at your next adventure. Hungarian Falls is an ideal hiking stop during spring runoff. With 10 acres along the Keweenaw Fault (a billion-year-old geological feature), these paths and cliffs also offer rock and ice-climbing routes between December and March.

Person in a green jacket walking on the snow-covered ground during daytime photo by hans isaacson
© Hans Isaacson

With 1900 acres of wilderness to explore, Swedetown trails are the locals’ go-to location for 35 km of groomed cross country skiing trails and 10 miles of snow biking. In the summer, the trails are open to hikers, trail running, and your adventure dog.

Events

February/March – The Copper Dog is a sled team race that takes 180 dogs (23 teams) on a 3-day mush from Calumet to Copper Harbor and then finishes in Eagle Harbor, MI.

March – Started at Swedetown Trails in 1981, the Great Bear Chase Ski Marathon hosts races from 10 to 50 km in both freestyle and classic.

August – The Great Deer Chase Mountain Bike Race offers different courses from 10, 15, 30-miles and categories such as single speed and fat tire. 

4. Copper Harbor, Michigan

US Route 41 will be your road across the Copper Country Trail National Byway. As you twist and turn up winding streets full of beech, birch, and maples, dare to venture off onto a side road that calls your name. Just make sure you leave Calumet with a full tank of gas. It’s harder to come by once you’re farther north.

Lodging

Established in 1934 by the local Civilian Conservation Corps, the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge hosts the most extensive spectrum of options for any traveler in your group for any season. That includes skijoring, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, sea kayaking, and more. The historical architecture of the main lodge and cabins will immediately take you back in time.

Food/Drink

Heading to Copper Harbor from May to October is synonymous with stopping at The Jam Pot, run by the Byzantine Monks of the Holy Transfiguration Skete of the Society of St. John. 

At the Jam Pot, you will find a delectable selection of confectionery treats, preserves, and fruitcakes. Grab a bundle of sweets and a jar of thimbleberry jam and enjoy the monastery’s gardens and Monk Trail before heading back out on the road. Perhaps don’t let your driver eat the rum cake before they get back behind the wheel! 

Silent Sports 

Just north of Ahmeek, Cliff Drive is a rocker climber’s paradise. A secluded basalt cliff outcropping with roughly 66 documented routes, you’ll find climbing routes for all skill levels. Talk to Down Wind Sports about getting there and recommended climbing routes. 

Unlike the sandy beaches of other great lakes, Superior is known for its rocky shores. To take full advantage of the coastline, hit the west coast right before sunset, come with a good pair of hard-soled strapped sandals, and don’t forget a UV light! That’s right. These beaches have a unique fluorescent rock called Yooperlite, which you can hunt for in the evening. Leave a lit glow stick at the trailhead so you can easily find your way back to your car after dusk.

Hidden just south of Copper Harbor is an ancient 570.5-acre old-growth forest called Estivant Pines. These pines get up to 125 ft tall and can range from 300 to 500 years old. 

exploring estivant pines by hans isaacson
Exploring Estivant Pines. © Hans Isaacson

A little farther east along the coast is the Keweenaw Rocket Range. From 1964 to 1971, NASA launched Nike Apache rockets and Acras to collect scientific data on electron density and solar X-rays. You can see part of the track and a plaque that remains at the end of the Rocket Range Trail.

high rock bay in keweenaw peninsula, upper peninsula, michigan
Sunset in the fog over on High Rock Bay near Rocket Range Trail. © Eric Hackney

You can find the best downhill skiing in the area at Mt. Bohemia, near Lac La Belle. This set of advanced hills has 12 snowcat runs and a total of about 105 trails. There’s also a Nordic Spa where you can warm up in the sauna or outdoor pools after a successful day in the powder.

Outfitter

Keweenaw Adventure Company has been a pillar of the Copper Harbor community since 1994 with the sole purpose of being “the hub for human-powered recreation in Keweenaw County by providing essential goods and services that connect people with awe and respect to the Keweenaw Peninsula – ultimately contributing to the region’s well-being through education, stewardship, conservation, and responsible tourism.”

To wrap up your trip, head back down to Calumet, take M-203 over to McLain’s State Park, and walk the breakers to the Keweenaw Waterway Upper Entrance Lighthouse. It’s a perfect end to your tour of the Keweenaw peninsula.

off the beaten path michigan, upper peninsula, keweenaw peninsula
Snow and ice cover the water as the sun sets on the horizon near McClain State Park. © Eric Hackney

And there you have it! A glimpse into one of the most interesting and beautiful hidden treasures of our land. And the best part is, this is just the beginning of all you’ll discover. 

Leave a comment below and tell us about your discoveries in the Keweenaw!


By Tess O’Connor. Check out her podcast episode, Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula: A MUST DO Remote Adventure.