A Weekend Overlanding Michigan’s UP

The Western United States is a fantastic place, filled with wide-open spaces, diverse scenery, and enough backroads and public lands to keep you occupied for years, if not your entire life. It’s little wonder why overlanders from all over the world travel there to explore, but for those of us lucky enough to live in these States, there is a hidden risk. It’s not a risk of snake bites, bear attacks or getting lost in the desert, though those do exist, but of complacency in our travels, and never venturing East on the assumption it would pale in comparison to the West. Last year, I realized I had fallen into this exact trap, and decided it was about time I experienced the Midwest and East Coast for myself, starting with some of the stunning beauty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The Upper Peninsula, or UP, can be driven quickly on major highways and byways, but if you really want to experience its charm and beauty, you’ll need to take the closest exit and head for the coast. Here, two-lane roads ebb and flow along the pristine shores of Lake Superior, weaving green treelines together with the deep blues and teals of North America’s largest lake. Small towns dot the journey, often enticing you with coffee shops, restaurants, and an abundance of roadside stands selling fresh fruit, produce, and local smoked fish. It was in one such town that we began out weekend adventure, soaking in the dawn colors, and sampling the brews of a quiet coffee shop.

Fully caffeinated, our plan now led us toward Copper Harbor, a small town known for its fantastic mountain biking trails, natural scenery, and a good pub or two, but our route was only loosely defined. We’d wander our way there through a mix of dirt and paved roads, following paths that looked interesting, and getting sidetracked as much as possible. It’s pretty much our specialty.

We rolled into the sleepy town later that day, and to our surprise, found it wasn’t so sleepy after all. Somehow during the course of our research, we failed to notice the announcement that a mountain bike race was being hosted there that weekend. The crowds in attendance would have made most cities in the US busy, but with a population of just 108 people, it made Copper Harbor feel like a free for all.

Since it was clear that mountain biking some of the town’s more popular trails was totally out of the question, we stopped by a local fishing store and grabbed a map of the area. It hadn’t been updated since the ’70s, but the detail was exceptional, illustrating every nook and cranny of the county down to an old rocket launch site once used by NASA. Of course, we already had a more up to date map on our Garmin Overlander, but it’s not every day you get to pull out a 45-year-old piece of paper and plot a course to your next campsite. It was an experience I couldn’t pass up, and before long, we had ditched the Sprinter in town and were heading down a dirt road toward the very tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

What we found on the other end stacked up to almost any camping we’d experienced out West. Grassy sites dotted a beautiful rock outcropping, which was surrounded by blue water lapping against gravel beaches. On the horizon, a lighthouse stood guard for Manitou Island, and boats could be seen rolling on the waves. There were a few other people in the area upon our arrival, not surprising for Labor Day weekend with a bike race going on, so we claimed our spot quickly, grabbed the bikes off the rack, and set out for an afternoon ride.

The campsites in this region are pretty far from the main stretch of Copper Harbor trails, so it took some time to pick our way through rocky and muddy roads to our own slice of single-track heaven, but it was definitely worth it. There’s no question why mountain bikers fall in love with the Keweenaw Peninsula. From technical scrambles to flowing single tracks, this section of the UP has it all.

After a day’s ride in this region though, you can expect to be gassed and muddy. Having torn through a few unexpected puddles, I found myself especially filthy and decided Lake Superior’s waters were well worth a dip. With an average temperature of 40° though, I made it short, and then followed it up with hot drinks and a steaming dinner of ravioli and broccoli from our Omnia oven.

They say that the Western states have some of the best sunsets, but I’d argue the sunrises out East are just as spectacular. Day two began with all of the brilliant colors we had seen before, and I was up early to soak it all in. To my surprise, my girlfriend, who had never failed to rise earlier than me, was still sleeping. That was certainly a good sign for the Exped I was reviewing, but it left me in uncharted territory for waking her up. I decided to play it safe, and let the smell of coffee, eggs, and freshly baked biscuits wafting through the truck do the work for me. It worked like a charm.

Our last stop for the weekend was a cliff-lined coast just a few hours away. Most of the drive was comprised of the same winding byways we had already come to love in the UP, but the final hour was truly special: a sandy two-track carving its way through a dense northern forest. Once again, we searched for somewhere to drop the Sprinter, but to no avail. Eventually, we made the call to take it along, which ended up being a blast as we guided the low-slung van through undulating trails. It reminded me just how far you could take a two-wheel-drive vehicle with a little bit of off-road knowledge and a lot of careful driving.

We reached our destination by mid-afternoon, only slightly delayed by the careful driving with the van. Once again, we stood overlooking the deep blue waters of Lake Superior, but this time the view we wanted couldn’t be observed from ground level. The best scenery had to be taken in from above, so we broke out the drone and marveled at the way the water painted the sculpted rock bottom in vibrant shades of blue, teal, and green.

The rest of our day was consumed swimming, cliff-jumping, and soaking up the warmth of the sun-baked rocks until, eventually, we had to set off to find camp. Monday was fast approaching and with it a 10-hour drive to our next destination. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to leave this stunning locale behind. Michigan’s UP had already left an impression on us during this short time, and there was still so much of it to explore. If what lay ahead was anywhere near this good, we’d have more than a few stories to share by the time we headed West.

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Chris didn’t receive a real taste of the outdoors until moving to Prescott, Arizona, in 2009. While working on his business degree, he learned to fly and spent his weekends exploring the Arizona desert and high country. It was there that he fell in love with backcountry travel and four-wheel drive vehicles, eventually leading him to Overland Journal and Expedition Portal. After several years of honing his skills in writing, photography, and off-road driving, Chris now works for the company full time as Expedition Portal's Senior Editor while living full-time on the road.