Midwest Travel: Michigan's Western Upper PenninsulaAug 26, 2014 05:00PM ● By Julie Henning
Western Upper Peninsula Boundless Playground, Watersmeet
Located near the intersection of Hwy 2 and Hwy 45 in the town of Watersmeet, the Western U.P. Boundless Playground is the perfect place for a long "play" break. One of many playgrounds made possible with funds from the W.K. Kellogg foundation, we have enjoyed other (similar) boundless playgrounds throughout the state of Michigan. This particular playground features different types of activities for kids of all ages and abilities (from a rock climbing wall to musical instruments).
Younger kids will enjoy the structure pictured below. If you need a break from the sun, find the stand of pine trees located off to the side (near the swings). It appears this playground may be enjoyed by school children during the school year, but is open to the general public in the summer and before/after the school day.
In Wisconsin you will find cheese curds. Georgia has peaches and Philadelphia is known for the cheese steak. And, so the pasty belongs forever to Michigan's U.P. While the origins of the pasty (pronounced pah-stee) are somewhat confusing, this "pot pie without a pot" is typically stuffed with meat and/or vegetables and served steaming hot. Depending on what's in your pasty and when it was originally put together, you may need some katsup for moisture (and flavor).
And while I've eaten a pasty or ten in my lifetime, the best one I've ever had was on this trip and was procured from the Bread of Life Bakery & Cafe in the town of Bessemer. One block off of the main drag, this sweet little shop features a kitchen, main entrance, and "no frills" dining room with a few booths and tables. In addition to my pasty, the kids enjoyed sub sandwiches baked on fresh bread, pastries, and hand-scooped ice cream cones. Nothing against the nearby Dairy Queen, but if you made it this far, why not eat like the locals?
One of the best ways to get a feel for the landscape of the Upper Peninsula is the Copper Peak Adventure Ride located in Ironwood Township. Currently one of six ski flying hills in the world (and the only one in the Western Hemisphere), Copper Peak is trying to make a comeback after over 20 years of inactivity. Operating as a non-profit organization, your admission to the Adventure Ride is slated for improvements to the facility, necessary for a grand-reopening within the next two years.
"From the start of the top chute, Copper Peak’s rocket-steep in-run forms a descent three times greater than Niagra Falls. The scenic views are breath-taking, the air is stronger way up there. Test your own fears, ride the chairlift, then take the 24-story elevator to the top of the 300 ton steel scaffold super structure. Close your eyes and imagine the thrill fliers feel with windspeeds over 70 mph or dropping 95 feet per second from its peak! It might take your breath away again, but no worries, it’s built to withstand winds in excess of 190 mph and designed to sway up to 18 inches in strong winds! Copper Peak is one of six ski flying hills in the world—the only one in the Western Hemisphere. It is the largest artificial slide in the world. Copper Peak rises sharply, anchored solidly into a 364 foot ancient rock formation. The mountain, the majesty, one of the first points that peeked through glacier ice a billion years ago. Lake Superior, formed by glaciers, Copper Peak, formed by man. The Adventure Ride allows visitors to rise to the same heights as the athletes who have flown down the hill in years past. After an 800-foot chair lift ride to the crest of the hill (a 360 foot copper-bearing volcanic outcrop), visitors take a thrilling 18-story elevator to the main observation deck. From there, the truly fearless can walk an additional 8 stories to the top starting gate." ~ CopperPeak.com
After learning about the history of the ski flying hill from our chair lift operator, we boarded the ski lift and made our way up to the base of the elevator. To reduce the strain on the lift, we learned that some chairs have been removed and the ride operates at a speed slow enough for visitors to fully take in the view.
At the base of the jump, you start to understand why Copper Peak uses the term "ski flying". In all, the elevator ride takes 2-3 minutes to reach the 18th floor (and you may have to wait a minute or two to catch a ride).
As you climb the remaining eight stories from the main observation deck to the top of the starting gate, the wooden stairs give way to a metal grate somewhat akin to walking sideways on a chain link fence. The trees look like something best seen from an airplane window and this is the point that separates boys from men.
As much as I tried not to look down, I eventually did and this is where I begrudgingly made all of my kids retreat back town to the main observation deck. Glad it was summer and to be free from a pair of skis strapped to my back, I have a whole new appreciation for this Olympic sport.
Branded as "totally lame" by my pre-teen daughter, let it be known I will gladly accompany Marie to Copper Peak with her own children in the year 2034. Also worth noting is the somewhat high admission price tied to this activity ($17 for adults, $8 for kids ages 6-14, and free for kids ages 5 and under). $41 is on the upper end of what I would want to spend on any activity with my three kids, including an afternoon at the movies—but, again, admission does go towards the improvement of the course and the return of ski flying to the Midwest.
Forming a natural boundary between Wisconsin and Michigan, the Montreal River makes a tumble down Superior Falls before feeding into Lake Superior. Part of Legion County Park, you'll see signs for the Xcel Energy "responsible by nature" initiative next to the parking lot and pipe leading down to the Superior Falls Hydro Generating Station.
Unsure of exactly how to access the falls, we followed the paved path down to the lake front, near the sign for the Western Upper Peninsula Heritage Trail. Truly a beautiful place to kayak, hiking to the falls involves doubling back a bit following the Western edge of the river. When you arrive at the hydro generating station, look for the path to continue on a walkway behind the building (This is somewhat disconcerting as the warning sign reads as following: "The gates on this dam will open automatically shortly after you hear the alarm or see the flashing light. Water may flow without prior warning. Those people near the spillway and downstream will see a dangerous rise in the water level. You must go to higher ground to be safe, there is the danger of drowning." All righty then. Shaking our fists in the face of death (and feeling pretty confident the weather was in our favor), we followed the trail along the edge of the water and around the bend.
At the end of the trail, a bend in the river separates you from the mouth of the falls. We visited in August and you can see an impressive swarm of gnats hovering above the water (although they really didn't bother us at all on the trial or at the mouth of the river). Pending any tsunami waves generated by Xcel energy, this (again) would make for a memorable kayaking experience. If we went again, I would just admire the falls from afar and let the kids play in the water.
Wading into the shallows of an always chilly Lake Superior, the kids amused themselves by skipping stones and picking out the most beautiful rocks they could find sparking up from under their toes (although we had thankfully remembered to pack water shoes).
If you're traveling with kids, another option for enjoying the splendors of Lake Superior is at Saxon Harbor County Park in neighboring Wisconsin. Not only is this park near toilets and a parking area, you arrive practically at the shoreline. The beach is somewhat sandier here and one family we talked to recommended heading town to the beach just below the clay cliff shown in the photo below.
Perhaps the highlight of our trip to the Western Upper Peninsula was Bond Falls near the town of Paulding. Because this was such a memorable experience, I felt compelled to write a story featuring this location on this page.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Silver City
One of the biggest tourist draws in the Western Upper Peninsula is Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park. A destination for hikers, climbers, campers, and naturalists, perhaps the most family friendly destination in the State Park is the Lake of the Clouds Viewing Area near the town of Silver City. If you are an out-of-state visitor, you'll need to secure a Recreation Passport at the Visitor Center.
While we simply enjoyed the scenic drive through the park, the waterfalls located along the Presque Isle River (turn left at intersection of 519 and South Boundary Road) are on our bucket list for a return trip to the region.
Comfort Inn, Ironwood
Home to over 5000 people, Ironwood, Michigan is the largest town in Gogebic County. Originally occupied by iron mining families, people flock to Ironwoood once the snow starts to fly—area downhill ski resorts are Big Powderhorn, Blackjack, Indianhead, Mount Zion, and Whitecap; cross country skiers come for the Wolverine Nordic Trail System.
Located near the "older" downtown area is the "World's Tallest Indian," 52 ft fiberglass statue of a Hiawatha tribal leader (see the photo at the top of this page). In the "newer" part of Ironwood, you will find such things as a Wal*Mart, K-mart, sporting good stores, mini-malls, grocery stores, fast food restaurants, and various hotels and motels. Somewhat located between "old and new" is the Comfort Inn at 210 E. Cleveland Drive.
To my delight, the entire property is non-smoking and the rooms feature modern upgrades with comfortable beds. Some rooms don't have a refrigerator or microwave, but guests are welcome to use front desk refrigerator and the microwaves in the front lobby. We loved the afternoon lobby treats (lemonade and bulk snack mix) as much as the complimentary continental breakfast each morning.
After two long days of driving and in the being in the great outdoors, we all appreciated a swim in the pool. Within walking distance of the property is both a steakhouse (Maplewood Restaurant) and Larry's Bowling Alley; we enjoyed a fine meal the first night and bowling the second If you bowl, leave room for some of the best homemade thin crust pizza you'll find for miles around.
For more information on customizing your own trip to Michigan's Upper Penninsula, visit www.explorewesternup.com.