Growing up in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, I always looked at the Upper Peninsula as a vast, unknown wilderness. Though I had crossed the Mackinac Bridge several times, my first camping excursion in the U.P. was just three years ago. In lieu of a crowded birthday celebration, my friend Andrew and I opted for an extended weekend of camping for my 25th birthday. Other than my burning desire to see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, we had no set plans.
Crossing the five-mile bridge was a treat on its own. The breathtaking views of Lake Michigan on one side and Lake Huron on the other are almost as amazing as standing underneath the bridge and hopping back and forth between the two, a silly habit to which I adhere every time I visit the gateway to the U.P.
We stopped first at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, pitching our tent at the Lower Falls Campground. For first time Tahq. Falls visitors, if you choose to stay at this campground, I would recommend making a reservation ahead of time, at least during the summer season. We arrived at approximately 2 p.m. and by that time, all riverside sites were occupied. As a popular tourist destination, the Lower Falls Campground is modern with flush toilets and hot showers, unlike its more rustic sibling, The River Mouth Unit, which is equipped with only vault toilets. Personally, I prefer the latter: the seclusion of most of the sites at River Mouth gives the illusion of being completely alone in nature. That, however, is a story for a different day.
After setting up camp, Drew and I made our way toward the Lower Falls concession area to rent a rowboat and paddle across the river to the island in the middle of the falls. Upon reaching land once again, we spent the afternoon hiking in and around the falls. Though swift in current, shallow waters allowed for easy wading.
The next morning, we drove north to Whitefish Point, a venture I would highly recommend for history buffs. While touring the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, reading of numerous tragedies, we were cued into the familiar notes of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” In honor of one of the lakes’ most remembered losses, the song was appropriately set on repeat during the museum’s hours of operation.
Directing our travels west, we followed paved and unpaved roads that appeared deserted, even in the summertime. We passed through Grand Marais and continued until we came upon what I consider to this day to be one of my favorite campgrounds.
The lovely Twelvemile Beach Campground is nestled on the shores of Lake Superior in the midst of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. With luck, we snagged the last available lakeside campsite in the picturesque little park. Though a line of trees separated the site from the lake, I followed a short path to a beach full of the most incredible stones I had ever seen.
Lake Superior, in my opinion, is the Pacific of the Great Lakes. “Gitchee Gumee,” as it is known by locals and fresh water gurus, is the largest of the lakes and sets a tone of peaceful mystery with hidden power. I enjoyed an afternoon of reading and combing the beach along the calm shoreline.
As the day drew on, the wind grew stronger, and Drew and I both knew a storm was imminent. Despite the small forest that separated the campground from the beach, I could hear waves crashing as I snuggled in my tent.
Then came the rains. Steady through the night, it poured. At daybreak, it seemed to be letting up. The winds had ceased, and everything was still. Hindsight would prove this to be the quiet before the storm. In our optimism, Drew and I readied ourselves for a dip in the big lake. As we approached the trail to the beach, a heavy gust of wind whipped through the tree tops above us, and we heard the crashing of waves return with a roar. We turned back abruptly but were, nonetheless, caught in a sudden torrential downpour. Within five minutes, we had broken down camp and shoved our sopping-wet gear into the trunk of my car.
The monsoon continued as we made our way to Munising, Michigan, stopping only when we finally reached town. The sun broke through the clouds, and we unloaded our drenched equipment to dry in its rays.
Despite the morning’s high seas, Pictured Rocks Cruises, a business offering boat tours of the shoreline, was up and running. We purchased tickets for a mere $36 a head. For a two-hour jaunt on the water with views of high cliffs painted in natural, spectacular colors, I thought it was extremely reasonable. The incredible rock formations along Lake Superior were almost unfathomable, and left me imagining a future kayaking trip to get a closer glimpse.
After the cruise, we hopped into the car and rambled back to the Lower Peninsula. It was a short trip compared to the excursions I’ve had since, but one does not easily forget their first camping trip in the U.P.
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