Point Lighthouse is the oldest operating light on
Lake Superior and is located next to the Great Lakes
Shipwreck Museum in Paradise, Mich., one of the
highlights on the 1,300-mile Lake Superior Circle
blue-green water lapped at my kayak, bobbing beside
towering sandstone cliffs. Seagulls squawked overhead. The
water that sprayed from my paddle was ice-cold, a reminder
that I was paddling the largest — and coldest — of the
toured Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on
Lake Superior, I could hardly believe that this dramatic
landscape was part of the same lake I’ve spent my life
visiting on Minnesota’s North Shore. My memories of
granite outcrops and pebble beaches didn’t match the
Caribbean hues and multicolored cliffs of Michigan’s
fresh view is why I wanted to complete the Lake Superior
Circle Tour — a 1,300-mile route around the world’s
largest freshwater lake. As a Minnesotan, I had mistakenly
believed I knew the lake and all it had to offer. But
after a weeklong road trip around it totaling 1,700 miles
with sightseeing, I realized how wrong I was.
claims only part of the big lake’s western end. Go past
that and the terrain varies through Ontario, Michigan and
Wisconsin — from the rugged high hills and sandy beaches
in Canada to the sandstone caves and rock formations in
Michigan. The only constant: the frigid temperature of the
scenery is likely why the Circle Tour is becoming more
popular. The Duluth-based Lake Superior Magazine, which
prints a travel guide, runs a "circle tour club"
for those who complete the journey — at 2,500 people and
counting. Its editor, Konnie LeMay, has seen an uptick in
a very accessible vacation and it kind of harks back to
those family road trips and there’s some nostalgia about
that," she said. "Lake Superior has a …
magnetic, mystic draw."
motorcyclists and bicyclists have done the trek since the
1960s, when it became possible to drive around the entire
lake. But everyone from sailboaters to snowmobilers and
hikers do the loop, too. By the 1990s, the magazine
started publishing a tour map.
the magazine’s guidebook recommends taking two weeks to
do the drive, it’s possible to do it in one week. My
deadline-driven parents and I set out on our weeklong trip
in June, beating the peak crowds in July and August. While
it meant layering up for cooler weather, we eluded pesky
living in Duluth and spending years visiting Minnesota’s
shoreline, we zipped by Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock
Lighthouse. Soon, we were in new territory across the
earshot of the second highest waterfall in Ontario, we
pitched tents at Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park and drove
to Ouimet (pronounced we-met) Canyon. A half-mile path led
to platforms over the rim of the sheer cliffs that drop
300 feet to a rocky, stark canyon floor. Already, we were
amazed by a new side of Superior.
hard to believe this is the same water in Duluth," my
dad said as we passed the town of Rossport, Ontario, after
gawking at two black bears tromping through roadside
skirted the shore, past islands and steep hills. At Kama
Bay, the northernmost point of the lake, we snapped photos
in a quick unceremonious stop. That was the downside to
our one-week trek — there was little room in the
schedule for long breaks or spontaneous sightseeing. We
had to keep moving.
from major cities and reliable cell service, we dashed by
small lake towns, surprised not to see clusters of
restaurants and souvenir shops like those that dot the
lake’s southern shore in places like Grand Marais,
Minn., or Bayfield, Wis.
there were boarded up hotels and shuttered truck stops in
Wawa, a 3,000-resident town in Ontario that once bustled
with logging and mining — even gold. When the mines
closed and the paper mill shut down, other businesses
fell, a resident told us.
town now may be best known for two massive roadside goose
sculptures (Wawa is Ojibwe for wild goose). Like other
cities, Wawa’s tourism seemed to rely on its natural
sights — hiking trails, beaches and waterfalls. After a
night at Rock Island Lodge, a cozy B&B on a craggy
peninsula, we gazed at the Scenic High Falls on the Magpie
River, the 125-foot-wide waterfalls spilling over in wispy
streaks like a man-made resort fountain.
Lake Superior Provincial Park, we walked a sandy beach at
a horseshoe-shaped bay with 650-foot-tall forested cliffs
and crystal-clear water. It felt like we were a world away
from our familiar lake.
has more than just postcard-perfect views, though. It’s
also full of fascinating history and culture.
stopped at Agawa Rock, where the Ojibwe people, who have
called Gi chi Gamiing ("Great Lake") home for
centuries, left sacred messages. On a cliff wall, they
painted canoes, fish, serpents and mythical creatures like
Misshepezhieu, a horned animal that is said to be the
spirit of the water. With signs warning of the dangerous
climb, we made our way across the ledge, holding onto
ropes fastened to the rocks. We were awed by the
red-orange pictographs, which are 150 to 400 years old and
visible only from a ledge that drops abruptly into aqua
in the car, the road wound its way high above the lake,
past yellow warning signs for moose and dense forests of
spruce, aspen and birch trees.
rivals any road through Colorado," my mom said.
"It’s wilderness right up to your car."
crossing into the U.S., we cheated on Superior with a day
trip to Lake Huron, stepping back in time on Mackinac
Island. During our detour to the famous island, its
19th-century main street lined with fudge shops and
horse-drawn wagons (cars are banned), we pedaled the 8
miles around it by bike and learned about British and
American soldiers who had lived at the fort.
it was back to paradise — Paradise, Mich., where we
camped at Tahquamenon (rhymes with "phenomenon")
Falls State Park under a canopy of towering red pines. The
second largest state park in Michigan is becoming a
popular spot in the Upper Peninsula.
root beer-colored river, caused by the tannic acid from
the cedar and hemlock trees, led to the Upper Falls, a
50-foot-tall, 200-foot-wide waterfall — one of the
largest east of the Mississippi River. Four miles
downstream, mist from the smaller Lower Falls hit our
faces as visitors took selfies.
a packed day of sightseeing over, I looked for a spot to
refuel: a brewpub. The Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub
is the country’s only brewery in a state park, our
server told us. We ordered pasties and pints of beers as
clouds rolled in and the temperature fell into the 50s in
winds slammed against us the next day as we stood in the
gallery deck atop the Whitefish Point Light Station, the
oldest operating light on the lake.
wouldn’t even consider this windy," a staff member
at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum told us.
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
Point has gained a notorious reputation as the
"graveyard of Lake Superior" since more ships
— more than 200 in all — have been lost there than in
any other part of the lake. The narrow congested area and
poor visibility caused ships to collide or run aground on
the sandbars, our guide said. The museum had artifacts
like the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the freighter that
sank about 15 miles from the point in 1975 with 29 people
remember the wind that day," a man from Green Bay
visitors walked the shore, the southeastern end of
different from the north shore," said a visitor, who
I wrongly assumed was talking about Minnesota’s North
Shore until I realized he meant Canada.
the green Circle Tour road signs, we stopped at the Grand
Sable Dunes, where we sweated and trudged up 300-foot-high
banks that stretch over 5 square miles. I looked at my
map. Wawa, where we were three days earlier, was somewhere
out there in the blue horizon.
spending much of the Circle Tour in remote areas, we
noticed the crowds starting to grow once we arrived in
with license plates from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois
and New York filled our hotel parking lot as we left for a
tour of Pictured Rocks, one of four national lakeshores in
paddling the caves of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands, I had
high hopes for Pictured Rocks — and it blew me away. We
maneuvered our kayaks under arches and into caves
surrounded by a translucent blue-green water. Impressive
sandstone cliffs streaked with minerals seeping from
groundwater — turquoise from copper, red and orange from
iron and brown and black from manganese — were works of
art. Like magic, fog creeping on the lake dissipated as a
waterfall dropped off the cliff into the lake in the
natural beauty is alluring. The nearby town of Munising
(pronounced MEW-ni-sing) is booming with visitors, to the
pleasure and dismay of its 2,300 residents. One resident
said tourism has increased 10-fold since he was a kid.
"It’s way more popular," he said of Pictured
Rocks, adding that businesses have been renamed after its
hot spot. "I hope they don’t rename the town."
to the National Park Service, the number of annual
visitors surged to more than 780,000 in 2017 from 440,000
visitors a decade earlier.
stopping at breweries in Marquette and Houghton in the
Keweenaw Peninsula, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we
joined the crowds visiting Porcupine Mountains Wilderness
State Park, Michigan’s largest state park.
the sweet cool air, we hiked past Presque Isle River
waterfalls, following the river as it flowed into
Superior, where waves slammed a pebble beach. I looked at
my map; Lutsen, Minn., was across the way.
the campground, people sat in the glow of smartphones
outside RVs while we were mesmerized by the flicker of our
campfire’s red coals. We climbed into our tents in the
crisp night and I was filled with sadness that the next
day would be our last, passing Ashland and Bayfield before
reaching the finish line, in Duluth, after eight days of
sightseeing and 1,700 total miles of driving.
until then, I was lulled to sleep by the familiar sound of
those crashing waves, the repetitive roar of the lake we
now know just a little bit better.