Blazing trees and Lake Superior lore color the quiet of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

A dash of lonesome can add a nice edge to a vacation, especially in fall. We're talking Johnny-Cash-singing-about-trains lonesome. Rain-pelting-the-window-while-the-coffee-brews lonesome. Good lonesome. The kind Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula delivers in just the right dose.

Like when you stand, collar up, on the beach outside Fitzgerald's, a restaurant named for Lake Superior's most famous shipwreck. It marks where the forest, already painted by autumn in late September, gives way to sand, which angles down into the forever of Lake Superior. A cool breeze here at dusk feels right when your mind is braced by sailing stories and you know that warming up is as close as the window glowing behind your back.

Keweenaw Peninsula
Keweenaw Peninsula

Such moments are the specialty of the Keweenaw, the outlier of the outlier, the farthest reach of the Upper Peninsula, which is already practically a state unto itself. There will be no crowds when you get there (or cell service, for the most part). Just the land and the lake and a constant sense of the past making the present all the more compelling.

Every visitor passes through Houghton/Hancock, hub cities on the shipping canal that cuts across the Keweenaw (KEY-wuh-naw). The cities' population-about 13,000-is a shadow of the 60,000 opportunists and dreamers who flocked to the copper mines from about 1900 through 1920. Standing outside the cities as a monument to the boom is Quincy Mine's angular elevator shaft, maintained by the Quincy Mine Hoist Association. Tourists rifle through canvas-and-wool coats and yellow hard hats looking for a good fit. Robed like pseudo-miners, they ride a red cogwheel tram steeply downhill until they feel the mine's breath: musty, 47-degree air seeping from the entrance. Boarding a tractor-pulled trailer, they putter into darkness seven levels below the surface.

The mine is one of 22 sites around the peninsula that make up the Keweenaw National Historical Park, collectively revealing the story of how the area once provided most of the nation's copper. Sites include a quiet cabin at Old Victoria, a copper baron's opulent mansion at Laurium Manor, a restored fort in Copper Harbor and a variety of local museums, including a visitors center in Calumet.

Thirty thousand people once lived within walking distance of Calumet, which dreamed of dethroning Chicago as capital of the Midwest. Today, less than 1,000 souls remain, surrounded by the faded Gothic glory of ornate brick buildings and looming copper works. In a church-turned-art-center, women gather to make copper jewelry. Down the block, Peter Hahn hammers the metal into bracelets and glittering ornaments. And on the outskirts of town, glassblower Richard Dana's vases, bowls and wall art made from melted bottles seem to waver, bubble and catch the light like a cold ripple on the lake.

"There were over 33 nationalities here," says Kathleen Harter with the National Park Service, ticking off Cornwall, Ireland, Canada, Italy, Greece, China and others that sent workers here until a 1913–14 labor strike, the Great Depression and war conspired to turn the copper boom to bust. The melting pot evaporated as families migrated to Detroit to build cars, but the Finns clearly stayed. Blue-and-white flags fly from homes and docks, and businesses and street signs sport the tongue-tripping double vowels of Finnish heritage.

Northeast of Calumet, the Keweenaw's go-to scenic drives await. M-26 traces the shoreline past rocky outcrops, pebbled beaches and Fitzgerald's (which lures diners with smoked meats, microbrews and a notable lineup of whiskeys). The northernmost 11 miles of US-41 wind through a kaleidoscopic tunnel of trees toward the hamlet of Copper Harbor on a road barely wide enough for two cars to shoulder by one another. The town (one hour from Houghton/Hancock) represents the edge of civilization in Michigan and provides a base for biking, hiking and kayaking excursions through the Keweenaw Adventure Company. Many active days end with a meal at the Harbor Haus, where windows provide passing views of the ferry to Isle Royale National Park and dishes include expertly sauced fish and chocolate soufflés drizzled with crème anglaise.

The Harbor Haus in Copper Harbor looks out on ferries traveling to Isle Royale.
The Harbor Haus in Copper Harbor looks out on ferries traveling to Isle Royale. 

Just west of Copper Harbor, a bumpy paved road heads uphill through the forest. The 9-mile scenic drive built in the 1930s meanders along the spine of Brockway Mountain, topping out at West Bluff. From the peak, neon birch, electric maples and metallic oaks spread in every direction, circling an inland lake and running out at Lake Superior's shore. If the copper market had held up, you might be looking out at suburbs from this spot. Instead, rock, water, wind and forest are still in command. And they're welcoming hosts to anyone willing to trade autumn crowds for a few whispered legends.

Trip Guide

What to do

Keweenaw Adventure Company The peninsula's premier outfitter rents mountain bikes (the trails on Brockway Mountain are among the nation's best) and leads kayaking trips. (906) 289-4303;

Scenic drives Two of the top drives for fall color: M-26 north of Calumet to Copper Harbor (watch for pullouts to see waterfalls and coves) and US-41 from Copper Harbor to Lac La Belle Road.

Fort Wilkins State Park Visitors can explore 19 historical buildings at this restored 1844 fort along Lake Fanny Hooe in Copper Harbor. Fun interactive exhibits make history feel relevant. (906) 289-4215;

A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum An 850-pound chunk of copper and a rainbow of minerals and gems draw visitors to this museum in Houghton. Look for nondescript boulders that glow neon under black lights. (906) 487-2572;

Quincy Mine Hoist Association Tours of a pre-Civil War copper mine in Hancock illuminate the gritty process of claiming copper and getting it to the surface. It's interesting, but focused on mechanics. (906) 482-3101;

Quincy Mine

Hahn Hammered Copper In this small shop in downtown Calumet, Peter Hahn crafts unique copper trinkets and jewelry.

Calumet Art Center A former church in Calumet now contains a concert venue and, in the basement, two art galleries, a ceramics studio and workshop. (906) 934-2228;

Calumet Visitor Center In the beautifully restored 1800s Union Building, a museum puts the region's melting pot and mining heritage into context via interactive exhibits. Free.

Where to eat

Fitzgerald's Smoked meats, craft brews and an epic collection of whiskeys star at this restaurant on a sandy beach on the peninsula's northern end in Eagle River. (906) 337-0666;

4-Suns Fish and Chips Outdoor Cafe Grab a fish taco or a bowl of smoked-fish chowder in the casual cafe on the porch of Peterson's Fish Market in Hancock. (906) 523-5733

Harbor Haus Get ready for seriously fine dining with a hint of Deutschland flair. The menu changes daily; we enjoyed ahi tuna steaks with avocado-pepper sauce and mushroom risotto. Windows showcase stunning Copper Harbor. (906) 289-4502;

Suomi A homey Finnish cafe serves down-home comfort food in Houghton. Pancakes overflow the bounds of their plates, and the UP's iconic pasties are filled with rutabaga. (906) 482-3220

Where to stay

Sheridan on the Lake B&B Three guest rooms look out at Portage Lake near Houghton; Adirondack chairs encourage relaxing. Breakfast might include nisu, Finnish cardamom bread. (906) 482-7079;

The Vault Hotel This boutique hotel in Houghton promises a unique stay in an 1887 sandstone building that once housed the Houghton National Bank. Three levels of guest rooms blend luxe modern amenities with classic building features like high ceilings, arched windows and foot-thick walls. Teller windows, a massive vault and bank boxes recall the building's former life.