Camping From Lake Michigan to Lake Superior: Two New Yorkers Shake Off the City Air

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Hoping for a break from the grind of the city, New York-based writer Hannah Murphy and her fiancée head to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for a weekend of camping in Hiawatha National Forest punctuated by local creature comforts. This piece was created in partnership with Pure Michigan.

On our second morning in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I woke up with the sun. I pulled on the well-worn fleece that I'd been using as a pillow, trying to hide from the dew that pressed between our tent and the rain fly. The gulls were already awake, and I could hear the same waves rushing up the shore that had lulled me to sleep the night before.

My fiancée, Billie, sleepily rolled out of the tent, searching for her camera before she lost the dawn light. The northern edge of Lake Michigan ebbed and flowed just a few feet from our campground. In the distance, the Manistique Breakwater Lighthouse had already turned off its beacon, but still stood dazzling and red against the lavender sunrise. Beyond that, the still lake stretched all the way to the horizon.

"I'm still not used to it," Billie mumbled, bleary but smiling, camera in hand. "The sound of the waves, water as far as I can see—I keep expecting to smell salt."

Billie was born and raised in New York City, and I've lived there for twelve years: We’re coastal, salt water people. When we first found out that we might be visiting the Upper Peninsula for work—me as a writer, Billie as a photographer—we hadn't left the perpetual hustle of the city in six months. So as we planned our trip, we leaned into the peninsula's wilderness. We’d spend four nights in four different campgrounds, venturing from Lake Michigan to Lake Superior through the Hiawatha National Forest.

By day two, surrounded by dew on the edge of Lake Michigan, I could feel the crisp air starting to wick away six months’ worth of city grime. We brought our campsite back to life, brewing coffee and starting a fire. A seaplane gently landed on the water closer to town. Billie stood on the sand dune with her camera, surrounded by aspens swaying in the lake breeze. She turned over her shoulder, smiling: "Well, this is just the worst, isn't it?"

Pouring hot sauce on a fresh beef pasty at Dobber's in Escanaba.
Hiawatha National Forest covers 900k acres and spans 50 mi. from Lake Michigan to Lake Superior.
Italian Cudighi sausages cooking over the fire at Indian Lake Campground.
Reliant on the honor system, here you can buy a bundle of wood for $10.

We started our trip in a town called Escanaba —a port on Lake Michigan where we could buy some food to live on for the next few days that wasn't freeze dried. Our first stop: Dobber's Pasties, which sells savory hand-held pies that still connect the U.P. to its industrial past. Pasties were a perfect lunch for miners who moved to the peninsula during the copper rush in the 1800s, and they've since become a defining part of being a Yooper (the affectionate term for U.P. residents). Different ethnic groups made their own additions and variations, but the Finnish added the rutabaga—a key element to Dobber's recipe.

We sat down at a cafeteria-style table with a red plastic tray and a fresh baked pasty. The dough was buttery, the beef, potatoes, and rutabaga inside perfectly peppered—hearty, warm-up-your bones food. We spotted a sign recommending a "Yooper's Cookout,” with photos of foil-wrapped pasties toasting on the grill. Exactly what we were looking for. We bought a neatly-wrapped frozen pasty and stashed it in our cooler.

Next, we hunted for two classic Yooper sausage varieties: cudighi and potato sausage. Cudighi is sweet and spicy, popularized by Italian settlers, while potato sausage, a combination of ground pork, onion, and potato, can be traced back to the peninsula's Swedish immigrants. We found both, plus some local coffee and a couple of Michigan ciders, and hit the road for the Hiawatha National Forest.

When we reached the Indian Lake Campground, the sun hung low over the water and campers were busy getting ready for dinner. Kids biked lazily along the tree-lined waterfront, and dogs waited under picnic tables. A gentle haze formed in the canopy as each firepit came to life. Summer days in the U.P. are long, so we still had hours to set up camp and make dinner.

"I'm still not used to it," Billie mumbled, bleary but smiling, camera in hand. "The sound of the waves, water as far as I can see—I keep expecting to smell salt."

The campground was full of folks that were either about to start their great adventure, or winding down from it. We could hear people swapping stories, recommending the best water holes, greeting each other as they came back to camp. It's the kind of instant community that, in the city, you only find under the dim light of a local bar. While we roasted our sausages on forks over the firepit (a lifelong dream we’d fostered ever since seeing it in cartoons) our camp neighbor strolled right over.

"Well, that just looks delicious!" she said. She asked us where we were from, and we told her. She and her husband, plus the two generations of family members that were camping in the site across from them, were from Grand Rapids, but the couple was in the process of selling their house to live in an RV. Listening to her describe their plans, as the sun fell below the lake and the birds started to settle in for the night, it sounded like a dream.

I woke up the next morning still thinking about our camp neighbors’ future plans, but we had our own adventure to get on with. Back on the road, I searched for the brown and white national park road signs. We lost reception a few miles north of Indian Lake Campground, and being used to the city, hadn't picked up a road map. But we were either very lucky, or the park rangers were very prepared, because every time we wondered if we'd driven ourselves off the edge of Hiawatha National Forest, a sign would appear from the trees.

This raft on Kitch-iti-kipi uses wheel & crank while the original used a pole to propel.
Below the surface of the Big Spring is 40 ft of water.
A cherry stand at the Manistique Folkfest.
All the gear it takes to camp from one great lake to another. (This is in Manistique, if you want to locate it.)
Our campground in Manistique, overlooking Lake Michigan.
Sarah, whose owner also owns the Mackinaw Trail Winery.

After a turn deeper into the woods, we found the sign we were looking for: Palms Book State Park. We'd arrived at Kitch-iti-kipi or "The Big Spring."

There are a lot of stories about Kitch-iti-kipi: one tells of a young Native American chieftain, the spring's namesake, who died while canoeing across it, attempting to prove his love to a young maiden.

Most of these stories, it turns out, were made up by John I. Bellaire, a conservationist in the 1920s. He'd convinced the Palms Book Land Company to sell this 90-acre plot of land to the state of Michigan for $10, and was determined to protect it. He believed that the exoticized stories would attract tourists, convincing others to protect the land he loved.

However misguided his storytelling seems today, when we arrived at Kitch-iti-kipi and looked down into the spring, it became clear why people believed in the spring’s magic. At its center, the spring is 40 feet deep, but you can still see every detail of the green limestone floor. Enormous lake trout swim between lime-encrusted roots and hundred-year-old logs. The water here is always 45 degrees, so instead of freezing in the winter, it produces a thin mist where it hits the cold air.

Ninety years after John I. Bellaire, conservation is still paramount in the park. As we waited for our turn on the raft that takes visitors across the spring using a hand-cranked cable system, a ranger told us how the Civilian Conservation Corps fortifies the area. We rode across, and with each turn of the wheel, the memory of our daily, polluted commute slipped further and further from our minds. It was difficult to imagine that there could have been a time when this blue-green pool—so pristine that it was named ‘Heaven’s Mirror”—wasn’t protected.

After the spring, we took a break from camp food and headed into Manistique, where the Manistique Folk Festival had enveloped the town center for the weekend. Legions of local performers, artists, and restaurants stretched down Main Street. We bought two enormous bags of Michigan cherries from a farmstand and wandered while we snacked.

We eventually found ourselves on the Manistique River, under a sign for the Mackinaw Trail Winery. A caramel-colored retriever sprawled between the small building’s French doors. We ordered a flight of wines and ciders and sat down at a picnic table on the water. It took Sarah (the retriever) a few minutes to wander over with her tennis ball. It took Ralph (owner of both Sarah and the winery) just a few minutes beyond that to join her. Already, we had more new friends than we knew what to do with.

The waterfront tasting room at Mackinaw Trail Winery, along the Manistique River.
The endless horizons of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.
The gently winding one-mile trail that leads to Miners Falls.
Dusk at Uncle Ducky's Paddlers' Village. A path leading to Lake Superior.
Waiting for our turn to Kayak through a crack in the Pictured Rock cliffs.

The next day broke hot and clear, and we were determined to get in the water. We met a pair of kayaking guides, Colleen and Hayden, in the town of Munising, who loaded us into a van that vibrated over dirt and gravel roads. They unloaded us at Lake Superior and pointed to a trail. We waddled down it in our life jackets—a row of bright red ducks.

With one smooth shove, our tandem kayak launched from the beach to the lake, which was so clear we could see every detail of the lake floor, 20 feet below us. We rounded the cliff that bounded our cove, and the dramatically streaked sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore towered above us. Over the years, the cliffs have slowly eroded into the lake, leaving a skyline of standing sculptures, caves, and arches painted with ribbons of red, pink, green, and white. Cityscapes can be dramatic, sure, but this was grandiose on a geologic scale.

In one of the caves, a small, rocky beach waited in the dark. The groundwater rained in like a waterfall, working its way through the sandstone above us. Just outside the cave, where the sun hit the water, Lake Superior shimmered as blue-green as the Caribbean. We felt lucky that we had such smooth water and sunny weather for our trip, but Hayden commented that the lake was mesmerizing in any weather. ‘Honestly, the coolest day I had out here was in the fog,’ he said.

He showed us pictures of that day when we got back to shore. We'd seen the same formation on the water—hundreds of layers of sandstone stacked in a towering cylinder atop a cliff, painted in iron and manganese. In his photo, it emerges from mist and fog, seeming to guard the lake with mysterious grace.

Just outside the cave, where the sun hit the water, Lake Superior shimmered as blue-green as the Caribbean.

We set up camp at Jack Pine Campground in the center of Hiawatha National Forest, expecting a thunderstorm that never came. Instead, the next morning started with a light, cleansing sprinkle that cleared in time for us to explore the town of Munising for the day. After coffee at Falling Rocks Cafe and Bookstore, we set back out toward Pictured Rocks, but stayed above the cliffs this time. We walked a mile through bare and spindly tree trunks topped in a cathedral of green. After about 15 minutes, a small wooden platform overlooking the 40-foot Miners Falls emerged through the trees. A staircase led us down to the middle of the cliff, where we met rainbows dancing in the spray.

That night we didn't camp. We glamped, at Uncle Ducky's Paddlers Village, a place with a name as unusual as its grounds. On a small beach just outside Munising are two tidy rows of cabins, yurts and platform tents with porches and rocking chairs, laced together with string lights. We piled our sleeping bags onto the first mattress we'd seen in days, listening to fire pits crackle as each porch filled with couples and families.

In the early morning, we shuffled down to the village's beach, and let Lake Superior lap gently against our feet. The string lights were still on, glowing against the purple sunrise. Like that first morning on Lake Michigan, the water kissed the horizon, but I'd gotten used to not smelling salt water. The whole scene was pure and clean and iridescent in the sunrise. It was hard to believe that I'd be getting off the plane in New York later that day--to its congested subway cars and steaming asphalt. Maybe we'd just stay. How much does an RV cost, anyway?

Start planning your Michigan vacation here.