For most people, it takes a long drive to reach Marquette, on Michigan's wild and watery Upper Peninsula—and that's exactly the allure.
Marquette's Lower Harbor
Marquette's Lower Harbor
| Credit: Aaron Peterson

A crowing rooster wakes me early in the foothills of Hogsback Mountain on Michigan's Upper Peninsula (aka the UP). I'm in a rustic cabin, one of two that make up Bear Tree Homestead. They're true-blue Yooper cottages, free of folksy trappings or signs reading Say Ya to da UP, Eh?. Instead, I find cast-iron skillets, enamel dishware, fresh cookies under a bell jar and hand-hewn everything. Outside, a duck glides across the pond so gracefully she barely leaves a furrow. The city of Marquette is just 8 miles southeast—but you'd never know it.

"The energy is different up here," David Manson says that afternoon on the patio of Blackrocks Brewery. He and co-owner Andy Langlois jumped from corporate careers in pharmaceutical sales into the world of brewing a decade ago and never looked back. "As soon as I cross the Mackinac Bridge [from the Lower Peninsula], I can feel it. Lake Superior just has this..." Manson makes a tugging gesture at his chest. "I don't know."

Like many UP towns, Marquette owes its very existence to the lake. A shipping port for iron and hematite since the 19th century, now it's an outdoor rec hub and college town—home to Northern Michigan University, a rich arts scene, and more solid bars and restaurants than you'd expect in a city of 20,000. It helps that this town is the biggest city on a 16,000-square-mile wedge of land. For context, that's larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut and Delaware combined, with an average of 19 people per square mile. Translation: There's a lot of wilderness for hiking, biking, swimming and even surfing. (Yes, lake swells can reach 20 feet.)

Black Rocks, Marquette
Black Rocks
| Credit: Aaron Peterson

My ambitions are more modest. I point my car north, following signs pocked with buckshot toward Presque Isle Park, Big Bay and Hidden Beach (which you won't find on a sign or Google Maps). Peter White Drive coils among the dunes and bedrock banks like unspooled videotape. Manson's words ring in my ears. Superior does hold a certain power, an energy that draws me around each coastal curve. I park at Wetmore Landing and hike along storm-torn shore to a break in the tree line. As I tiptoe across a downed cedar, a flushed mallard flails like a tossed book. I straddle the log, look out at the lake and listen.

Black Rocks, Marquette
Black Rocks in Presque Isle Park
| Credit: Aaron Peterson

The UP has a culture unto itself, a pride in its far-flungness, a rugged independence and a comfort with woodsy eccentricities. But in Marquette, that's changing a bit. Downtown has become a bar graph of hotels and condos (some available for short-term rental).

Credit: Aaron Peterson

The DeVos Art Museum houses an impressive collection of Japanese woodblock prints. At the Roam Inn, a boutique hotel in nearby Munising, the chef prepares whitefish with citrus-braised chard and beurre blanc. Farther east, in Hiawatha National Forest, Michelin-starred Chicago chef Iliana Regan and her wife, Anna Hamlin, opened the seasonal Milkweed Inn. An all-inclusive weekend for two (multicourse meals featuring foraged ingredients and rustic lodging) can run $1,800 or more. They're often booked solid.

You can eat a dynamite dinner without trekking to the UP, or find a good IPA too. But people make the trip because it's hard to find country this remote anymore, or a town this size with such unique character. After my log-sitting sojourn, I meet poet and essayist Matthew Gavin Frank, who teaches creative writing at the university.

"The dynamism of the lake can make Marquette seem like seven different places in a week," he says of his adopted home. "There are few better places to watch the dragonflies couple."

Lower Harbor Ore Dock, Marquette Michigan
Lower Harbor Ore Dock
| Credit: Aaron Peterson

What to Do

Craig Lake State Park one of the most remote parks in Michigan, is 40 miles west of Marquette. You can explore a vast network of backcountry trails and some of the UP's best fishing in six lakes. Bring a tent or rent a roof. (Yurts and basic cabins are available.) One of the best options for outdoor gear rentals in Marquette is Northern Michigan University's Outdoor Recreation Center. Options include disc golf sets, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and more.

Devos Art Museum Marquette Michigan
Devos Art Museum

The campus also houses Devos Art Museum and Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center, a museum with clothing, domestic curios and other rare UP artifacts. Both stops are free.

Catch a stage show at Forest Roberts Theatre or Wolf's Head Theater Company, home to the summer Upper Peninsula Shakespeare Festival. Or see one of the Marquette Symphony Orchestra's performances.

Noquemanon Trail Marquette Michigan
Noquemanon Trail
| Credit: Aaron Peterson

On Two Wheels

Mountain biking has exploded in northern Michigan, with trails in Marquette and beyond earning international cred. Surrounding Marquette, north and south sections of the Noquemanon Trail Network encompass 75-plus miles of scenic single-track.

A massive volunteer effort built Ramba, a 77-mile network 15 miles west of Marquette in Ishpeming.

Drive three hours from Marquette to reach Copper Harbor and one of the world's top 25 trail systems, ranked by the International Mountain Bicycling Association.

Blackrocks Brewery
Blackrocks Brewery.
| Credit: Aaron Peterson

Eat and Drink

In a yellow house on the street corner, Blackrocks Brewery serves beer on tap and in colorful cans—ideal for your cabin or tent.

At Lagniappe Cajun Creole Eatery, chef Don Durley and his daughter Nichole Durley-Rust bring the Deep South to the far North. Start with Fried Garlic Cheddar Grit Cakes or Alligator Bites; finish with a slow-poured absinthe.

Plastered in party photos full of road-rashed leather, Wooden Nickel—the self-proclaimed oldest bar in Marquette—is a local favorite that has resisted gentrification.

Where to Stay

Since the 1930s (with a stint of disrepair from the '70s to the mid-'90s), The Landmark Inn has been one of Marquette's cultural hubs, hosting the likes of Amelia Earhart and the Rolling Stones. Jazz-age flair still paints the interior, with views of Lake Superior and downtown outside.

Ken and Sue Schauland mixed their own natural stain (in Swedish falu red) when they built the lakeside Nestledown Bed and Breakfast. Adjacent to Picnic Rocks Park, the Scandinavian-inspired inn offers a hot-rocks sauna and traditional breakfasts of pannukakku and ebelskivers (the Finnish and Danish takes on pancakes).

Just beyond Marquette, two remote cabins at Bear Tree Homestead offer divergent experiences. One is off the grid (no running water or electricity); the other is a cozy home for eight with a piano and fully equipped kitchen.