Fall peaks quickly in the Upper Penisula of Michigan, lasting a brief four weeks usually from mid-September to mid-October. It's a magnificent burst of pure autumnal foliage that makes for a spectacular weekend destination. Lucky for you, I have a killer agenda for an ideal three day getaway.
No one told me about speckled cliffsides with bright oranges, vibrant yellows, and intense auburn leaves from the local trees that would crash against the fierce waves of Lake Superior. No one told me about the peaceful scenic drive along the shores of the iconic lake, towards Copper Harbor filled with overlooks and downhill mountain biking. No one even mentioned the charming towns with hard-working locals buzzing to bring commerce and industry to the UP. No one had ever mentioned Keweenaw Peninsula to me in all of my travels.
Sure, I knew locals loved Michigan, but I thought it was rooted in the same state pride that brings me to defend my home state, albeit, tiny and often overlooked. I wasn't aware it was truly because Michigan is one of the most picturesque and diverse states in the US with miles of trails, fantastic craft breweries, mom and pop inns, and fun college towns. I didn't know it was that the shores of the great lakes are positively as scenic as the best spots along our bordering coastal highways.
To break down a quick weekend in the UP hunting out the best fall foliage, I would start, just as I did in Marquette, taking in hikes through the day at the local parks for some seriously breathtaking views, just to warm you up for the road trip ahead. After a cruise on the Iron Ore Heritage Trail with locally rented cruiser bikes, connecting the local towns head back into town for supper at the Marq, being sure to drink like a local on the chairs out front of Blackrocks Brewery or upstairs at Ore Dock. Grab a beer and chat at the neighborhood hangouts about their favorite spots to discover along your way.
In the morning, grab breakfast from the hip soda fountain shop, Donckers, but save room, because some insight from a local led me to Hilltop for the world's biggest cinnamon roll. It is the perfect to nibble as you cruise up Highway 41 towards the Keweenaw Penisula, but truly, don't expect to finish it all. Be sure to stop along the way just once more at Roys for traditional pasties, a typical food of the hard working laborer from Europe as the area was being mined, before making the time to visit the Quincy Mine. Let the tour guide fill you with a brief but knowledgeable education on the hardworking miners and a little more insight to local economy before making your way up to to the town of Laurium to set up camp for the night. Find yourself sleeping in charmingly anachronistic rooms at the Laurium Manor Inn and look forward to the amazing spread your hostess will arrange for breakfast.
Set out for another day of fall foliage and breathtaking overlooks cruising your way along the route up to Copper Harbor. Stop and enjoy the view from the Eagle Harbor Lighthouse and sit out for a picnic. There isn't much distraction from strip malls or big box stores along the way, so be prepared to enjoy the drive. Strike up conversations with the locals about rally car racing, mountain biking, and the fast approaching winter sports, because everyone seems to love being outside here in the UP and the pending snow storms only excite them into talking more about snowshoes and four wheel drive. What others may consider a winter burden, the locals seem to anticipate with joy.
If you do make it in time for peak colors, have a local take you out to Fitzgerald's for some of the best barbecue and slices of pie you are ever going to get you hands on before calling it a night and heading back out on your drive home. They close down the inn shortly after that colors fade from the trees as the brutal waves and harsh winds coming off the lake already foretell of a hard winter to come. The light sprinkle of snow on your boots is a sure sign that the colors won't be lingering much longer on the trees, and it is time to pack it in for the weekend.
With the sun setting in the distance and a two terminal airport ready to get you to your next flight, it's hard to leave the UP. After sitting and chatting with the locals, their love for this almost rustic and forgotten region of the states, with some of the most underrated views and landscapes, it is easy to be charmed. Who knows, you may even take them up on the invitation to witness a real dog sled race in the dead of winter.
My friend and I only had a few full days to make the most of a drive from the city of Marquette to Copper Harbor and back, and I can say without a doubt that it wasn't enough. No one told me about the Upper Penisula when I started traveling a few years ago, filling Pinterest boards with destinations and adventures, and as I plan a trip or two back to the region, I kind of wish they hadn't.