Denise and I have been camping together and separately for much of our lives, most recently in our Unity MB, which makes being on the road, including our latest eight-plus week adventure across the northern U.S and all Canadian provinces west of Toronto, easy. We’ll write about those adventures in a series of articles very soon.
Along the way, we’ve discovered some neat little things that we’ve not only heard about, but many of which we’ve also tried, and wanted to pass them along so you can not only plan to bring a few along next trip, but which would make great holiday gifts, or to put in your RV permanently.
Some items I’m sure will have you thinking, “now why would I need that?,” but others might just have you heading to Amazon or even your local dollar store. Either way, we hope you consider them. Here we go!
Racquet-style insect zapper—We’ve had one stored away in the back of our Unity for a while, but our visit to Banff National Park’s great campgrounds was the first time we’ve used it. Now we won’t let it out of our sight, and wished we’d remembered we had it aboard earlier. Powered with two AA batteries in the handle, just push the button and wave it towards a stinging wasp (I’m seriously allergic) or a pesky mosquito and seek revenge or a pre-emptive strike. They’re available at many dollar stores and other outlets and are inexpensive. We’re still on our first set of batteries, and will switch to rechargeables when these go.
Another mosquito wars weapon we won’t be without is our Thermacell Patio Shield. Screw in the butane cartridge, put in a repellent pad, and give it a click. Check the small window to make sure it’s lit and the butane will heat the pad to give off enough repellent to cover a 15-by-15-foot zone, depending of course on the wind (try putting it upwind if there’s a breeze).
The pad lasts about four hours and when it turns white, you know you need to replace. Thermacell also makes personal skeeter’ repellers you wear on your belt or elsewhere, as well as ones that are placed on a post that also acts as a lamp. Great products. In fact, I used a Patio Shield at Banff’s Johnston Creek Canyon campground. Since I fired it up, I’ve not had to use our electric swatter. The unit, new pads and butane are available in many big box, some hardware, and other stores.
Newest from Thermacell is a Lithium battery operated system, providing up to 40 hours of protection. No more butane cartridges. Cool!
Ready to spend some big bucks? How about an electric assist bike? There are a lot of makes out there these days and more will be joining the fleet. One e-bike version is called a cargo bike, and one type is the Electric Boda Boda by Yuba (around $3,000). This type of electric pedal assist bike is extremely useful as it can haul up to 220 lbs—hence the name—excluding the driver, for trips to the local market or brewpub, or to haul up to two young passengers.
One LTV owner reports that while boondocking in a Walmart recently, their electric bike was stolen right off their rear bike rack. Here’s one maker with a built-in anti-theft system: It’s the Vanmoof. The rear wheel locks using your phone, will sound a piercing built-in alarm, and the company will replace or find it if it is stolen. Lights are even integrated into the frame. Around $3,400.
Another compromise is the Copenhagen Wheel, developed by MIT, which retrofits an existing bike into an e-bike. The company also makes entire bikes. It also has some anti-theft capability.
Best advice, however, is like purchasing your Leisure Travel Van, do your research. Try several at e-bike stores, and read reviews of the various styles.
And of course, decide whether you need, or just want, an e-bike, and what you’ll use it for. After all, one of the biggest reasons for riding a clunky old-fashioned 27-speed carbon-framed mountain bike, or your 27-speed carbon frame road bike, that only cost $2,000 each rather than $3K and up is, E-X-E-R-C-I-S-E.
Our own human-powered bikes work just fine. They’re not flashy. My Trek 4500 is nearly 20 years old, therefore not thief-attracting! And only recently have I changed the tubes due to run-ins with goatheads, aka puncture vines, in Denver. They’re named that for good reason. Hope you never find out why. Especially with these expensive—and heavy, up to 50lbs—e-systems.
Along with that bike, also buy a big “U” lock and chain to secure your expensive rides to the rack. Then lock that bike rack to the hitch with a locking hitch pin, available at most hardware stores.
Once you settle on your bike, get brimmed. With cancer from sun exposure an increasing concern for many, here’s one more way to mitigate your risk. Da Brim fits over your bike helmet to provide a wide area of shade while you ride. Recumbent users can add an accessory to keep the brim from riding up on your ride. Brims come in three different shapes and range from $35 to about $45.
Whether you’re an urban or forest hiker, you may be using hiking poles on your treks. These modified ski poles not only provide balance the way a stick does but on both sides of your body. They also provide an extra workout benefit as you swing your arms. The best we’ve found are made by a Michigan-based company, skiwalking.com. Available in models from aluminum to carbon, these poles are custom-fitted to your height. Unlike cheap import poles that often collapse when you don’t want them to–yup, we’ve got those too, the main reason we went with ski walkers–these are one piece. We use these instead.
When we travel to Florida for our mid-February break, we bring our bikes, and by the time we reach warmth, they’re covered in crude and have been bombarded by everything from slush to salt.
Here’s the ultimate in bicycle maintenance kits. Muc-Off comes in its own storage container and is just about the most complete kit I’ve seen. There are four crud-removing brushes including a specialized “claw” to reach every hard-to-reach spot on your bike after a day on the trail, or on the back of your rig. Also included is a one-liter spray bottle of biodegradable general cleaner, and a half-liter of protectant spray, for about $70.
A lot of folks have asked us about our Luci Light when they see it in action, so I’m also including it in this collection. It’s been around a few years but remains one of the coolest lighting products I’ve seen, and it has a bonus impact when you buy one. It’s a compact, inflatable solar-powered LED light that we use all the time. There are three light settings including a blinking mode, and now the makers have even included a charging station for your phone if you’re boondocking.
They offer up to 12 hours of light before needing recharging, which involves simply putting it on your dash. Now here’s the bonus: buy one Give a Luci Light at its website for $10 when you purchase yours, and its partners will send it to someone with no electricity access. Since the program began in 2012, the company has sent lights to more than 100 countries, positively affecting more than three million lives across the world.
Here’s another. The Button Lamp is a quick LED mini-light with an adhesive back that attaches anywhere and lights up those dark places in your LTV, such as the under-sink cabinet. These little guys are waterproof, about the size of a quarter, have a battery life of 17 hours, and cost $9.99 for a six-pack. They come off easily, too. Just gently pull it off, says the maker. They’re available at lots of stores including Walmart.
We’ve all got our favorite backpacks. One I’ve got is so well-used the straps are beginning to fray. Here’s one to consider if you’re in the same situation as me: the Xpedition by Bag Smart is modular so you can even build your own for whatever your needs, be it photography equipment, carrying electronics, or day hiker.
Here’s a great–albeit pretty expensive for a pair of pants–way to keep your valuables secure from pickpockets when you’re traveling. These “Pickpocket Proof” pants are lightweight and have multiple layers of protection, from button closers over zippers, to hidden zippered pockets within zippered pockets, so if you’re in close company in a city, you’re armored. Both mens and womens sizes are available.
You may have a favorite style of water bottle. Mine is a stainless Contigo, purchased at Costco. I’ve not seen this style anywhere else. These bottles usually appear in late winter or spring in our area, and aren’t around long. They’re stainless with a positive “click” seal. By pushing a button on the side, and it keeps my water cold all day, and inside the bottle regardless of position. But here’s another.
Rootblue’s bottles feature double-wall vacuum style and say it keeps cold items cold for 24 hours, and hot liquids hot for 12. The Nevada-based company sends 10 percent of its profits to the Tahoe Fund to help protect and preserve the Truckee River and Truckee meadows near its headquarters.
Don’t want to use the inside shower (ours is usually storage), or too shy to use your Leisure’s outside shower (I’m not)? Check out the new Geyser portable shower system.
Ok, you’ve just emptied your tanks, and although you’ve used your gloves, you still need to clean your hands. Clean Trek is what we use. It comes in a pump foaming dispenser that cleans without water and contains aloe and vitamin E.
You may have heard the tip to drain out your home water heater every so often from the bottom spigot to get rid of the crusty hard water scale deposits that often form, and reduce the life of your heater as a result. Well, the same could be said of your LTV water heater if you have the older tank style system. There’s a solution from Camco, the company with literally myriad solutions to issues from water hoses to sewer hose supports to lots more. It’s a water-pic-style hose attachment that reaches inside your heater to give it a high-pressure rinse. I just bought one. It makes sense.
Here’s a product to try for anyone affected by motion sickness. The Relief Band is a watch-like affair that delivers pulses to the median nerve on your wrist. It’s a mite pricey at $175, but if you’re constantly worrying about getting sick and aren’t able to enjoy the scenery going by outside your LTV, it may be for you.
The Instant Pot has become a go-to staple for many who now cook with the six-quart version at home, including us. However, try stuffing one into your LTV storage area. Fortunately, we’ve found that the three-quart version fits in our back closet and is very handy for cooking under pressure when plugged into shore power. Each pot comes with a recipe book, and there are more online, along with accessories.
Worried about your non-stick pans when they begin peeling? We are too. We’re now refitting with ceramic-lined pans that fit above and under the sink. We found ours at an outlet mall kitchen store, and they’re also available online and stores like Target.
One more item. Many at the LTV owner’s Facebook site have recommended various sleep sacks rather than normal sheets, which we still use. Here’s another alternative from braveera.com. Its silk sleep sack also features an attached pillow.
On our travels, many people love wearing flip-flops even while hiking. Well, I like my boots, but if you still like flips and can do without the slips, then FlipRocks could be for you. These flips have lug soles and grippers to help you stay on the trail instead of flipin’ and slippin’ off. They also could be the answer for your canoe/kayak needs.
Here are two ideas we picked up at our most recent Leisurely Great Lakers fall rally, from owner Willis Gray of Concord, North Carolina, who stopped by our event in Holland, MI.
He’s had one robin with nest and eggs found in his engine air cleaner and is taking no chances. Using large-mesh screens so it won’t impede airflow, and perhaps a bit of metal duct tape, he fashioned and installed a guard at the front of the engine air intake behind the driver side grill, and at the cabin air filter box to keep critters out. He also put one across the “intake” of his Truma hot water heater for wasps. Great idea!
That’s it for this edition of Gotta Have It. We’ll have more soon.
Note: The recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Leisure Travel Vans.
It began with a simple goal: put Depression-era men and women back to work. Quickly.
In the early 1930s, the world’s economy had collapsed. Unemployment in the U.S. alone stood at 25 percent. Many states, even higher. As they viewed the shanty towns and “Hoovervilles,” as homeless communities were then called, many feared that a revolution was coming if something wasn’t done.
Then some forward-thinkers, including a then-young Army officer named Dwight Eisenhower, had a transformative, and innovative, idea. Why not change America’s highway infrastructure from mud-rutted roads to paved highways as a way to put people back to work?
From the CCC and the ERA to the WPA, Congress and the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration worked through their differences together and saw to it that the men who would move the rock and dirt, and lay the concrete and steel to create what began as the Appalachian Scenic Highway, came from the poverty-ravaged “hollers” and mountains from Tennessee to Virginia that the road’s route would take.
When it was finally completed in 1987—yup, it took that long—this work of beauty winding through, around and over the country’s eastern mountains that became the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) would rank as one of the greatest public works projects in American history.
The world’s longest, at 469 miles, and narrowest—as narrow as 200 feet—national park would be free except for camping. A free national park that today is the most-visited in the National Park Service, mainly because stretches are often used by locals. It is ranked No. 3 in one list of Great American Drives, and should be on yours, too.
Linking two great other eastern national parks, Shenandoah, and Great Smoky Mountains, it may not be on your radar to visit. But it should be. And, last fall, we headed “Lucky Us,” our 2015.5 Leisure Unity MB south from our Michigan home base to first spend some time in the Smokies, and then at Cherokee NC, hop aboard the Blue Ridge at its southern end/beginning.
I was aware of some of what we’d see and do driving the bottom 200 or so miles on this trip. Denise wasn’t. But following spectacular vista after spectacular vista, interspersed with craft shops and Appalachian towns through three states that tempted with both scenery, history and food, we both were convinced to plan another trip to do the top half, plus a bit more. More on that in an upcoming article. We’ll also concentrate on the Smokies in a near-future story.
This is about The Blue Ridge.
Most printed guides you’ll pick up actually begin at Milepost 0, logically enough, at Shenandoah National Park, to the north. Since we began in the Smokies, we went backwards, but we didn’t care. You shouldn’t either.
You’ll enjoy the journey, and the incomparable mountain overlooks, quiet trails leading from eight rustic (your $20 nightly fee–$10 with a senior access pass–buys no power; our 200w of rooftop solar kept us going), but all have flush toilets, and some with showers, albeit some a bit dated, victims of years of federal park service de-funding, campgrounds conveniently built about every 58 miles, and glimpses of the lives of some of the residents here, from moguls to mountaintop nearly self-sufficient farmers, who gave up their lands to create this park.
On the first day, you’ll quickly gain an appreciation for those reservable campgrounds—there are private camps also sprinkled along the way too, if the national park sites are filled. And those incomparable views. You’ll soon be doing an “ohh, let’s stop here….wait, pull over here…how about pulling off here…I need to get a shot of this…” to each other as we did, as the changing overlooks of the blueish ridges of this part of the Appalachians ripple and fold before you. Among other things, you’ll be seeing, passing or going through:
And hundreds upon hundreds of scenic pullouts, so many that after Day 1, you’ll be simply overwhelmed at what you’re seeing. That’s the reason to take your time.
Remember this above all: most drives get you to your destination. On the Blue Ridge, the drive IS the destination.
Plan on about 50 to 110 miles a day to stop, poke around neighboring towns, walk trails, and light a campfire or two. The BRP’s speed limit is 45, but considering the multiple stops you’ll be making, plan on a 30 mph average. Or, even less.
Don’t rush this. Because by the second day, you’ll begin hearing the history encased in these ancient ridges whisper to you, from the waterfalls and trout streams, to hooting owls and eagles, to the echoes of voices of the fathers, mothers and children in the lone cabins still standing, where mountain families lived out their lives a long wagon ride from any town.
Here are our highlights on the southern half.
We hopped on the southern end of the BRP at Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Oconaluftee Visitor Center, at Mile 469.1, near the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the area’s first human inhabitants. The guides quickly caught our attention: height restriction warnings about some tunnels in the first 50 or so miles from that entrance.
No worries for us, however, at least after we double-checked at the lowest tunnel, at 10 feet, 6 inches. That’s because it’s measured from the side of the tunnel, not the center. So with me walking behind just to be sure, we were feet below the tunnel’s rounded side, where many large RVs would be in danger of ripping the roof off if they didn’t stick to the center. One more advantage of a smaller RV.
Once that was out of the way, we got down to some serious rubbernecking. I was familiar with the BRP, but Denise was wondering what all the fuss was about. She quickly found out. As soon as we hopped on, we were climbing. Through, around and alongside mountains upwards of 6,400 feet. Not high by western standards, but in the east, almost Everest-like. At Mile 451, is Waterrock Knob, named for a spring that quenched travelers from the Cherokee onwards. You’ll be looking at four states from here.
Once past those low tunnels, we climbed another 20 miles to Richland Balsam Overlook, highest point on the parkway at 6,047 feet, or 6,400 feet, depending on the source, and who’s counting.
Looking out at the vistas of the Nantahala National Forest ahead and the Smokies already miles behind, we realized why we were here. “The layers of mountains and valleys, with the blue hue of it all, is simply spectacular,” Denise said. Well put.
While we could have camped at private and state parks neighboring the parkway, we chose to stay within the park, at, for us, $10 per night with our senior parks pass. And we could have first stayed in the ridges at 4,900 feet at Mount Pisgah, formerly part of the vast Biltmore Estate of the Vanderbilt family, but the weather in September-October can be tricky that high. We opted instead to only take in the views. Besides, we just had to stop at the Parkway Visitor Center, mile 384, with exhibits about the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area we were traveling through.
Typical of the park’s campgrounds are Julian Price Park and Doughton.
Located just off the parkway, they, like other campgrounds, are well-marked, and we had no problem finding a site in early fall. Julian Price at mile 295 or so, features 193 sites. Price Lake, with canoe rentals and a hiking trail, is across the parkway from the campground. There are also other hiking trails in the area.
Doughton, near mile 239, has 31 sites. Our paved campsite featured a natural rock barrier between the circle drive and our spot, which overlooked more of the BRP’s beauty.
Take the mile or so walk through fields and woods, or drive instead, to Brinegar Cabin, where the Brinegar family literally carved out a farm homestead atop the mountain here in 1876 to raise crops and livestock. Martin and Caroline built the cabin around 1889, raised flax, and had an apple orchard and a granary.
The sound of water still trickling from the homestead’s springhouse is just a sample of what it must have felt like to live here, miles from anyone else, with just the trees and wildlife for neighbors. In summer, the National Park Service uses the site for interpretive programs.
Laurel Springs, NC is about as quirky little stop as you’ll find along the Blue Ridge. Catering mostly to motorcyclists who find the parkway’s corners, dips and overlooks as appealing as we do, it’s a great little diversion near Doughton campground. Here are two places to duck your head into:
Wild Woody’s. Think Sturgis Rally year-round with a campground attached. Park yur hawg—or LTV– step inside for a brewski or two. Woody’s was empty when we visited in October, but I’m sure it’s packed in summer.
If it’s still there, check out the custom crystal metallic blue Caddy-turned RV parked nearby, replete with a chopped travel trailer bolted behind the front seat. It may still be for sale unless some lucky adventurer put a ‘sold’ sign on it after his or her fifth Bud. There’s also a campground, and you can preview your visit here.
New River. You’re close to the New River at Laurel Springs, which is a misnomer. It’s recognized as the world’s second oldest river, 10 million to 360 million years new. You can take a leisurely canoe trip on the New—It’s also famous elsewhere for sphincter-tightening whitewater raft trips—at Dusty’s Trails Outfitters, which also has primitive camping.
Everything from bluegrass and country, to rock-n-roll, owes its heritage to what happened in these hills, when Scots, English and others came to live here and brought their music and cultures. Those broadsides and ballads evolved over the centuries into the mountain tunes many of us know, then changed again by greats, including the man considered the father of modern bluegrass, Bill Monroe, and others like Doc Watson and the Stanley Brothers.
It’s all told at the Blue Ridge Music Center at mile 213 on the parkway. If you’re lucky after touring the museum stick around for a concert (at least July through October), or take part in one of the free, local mini-events from noon to 4 p.m. every day the center is open. Which basically is every day.
Do you play? Maybe they’ll even let you sit in.
If you’re either a fan of NASCAR, or mountain music and bluegrass, come to Galax, VA, pronounced ˈ’ɡeɪlæks,’ maybe 15 minutes from the music center and about seven miles from the parkway.
The town, named for an evergreen groundcover found across the Blue Ridge, is considered to be the center of “old time” mountain music, has a type of dulcimer named after it, and carries on that tradition with Friday night concerts at the theater downtown. It also is a destination for strummers and pickers following another famed route, The Crooked Road, a.k.a. Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail.
The annual Old Fiddler’s Convention has taken place each August here since 1935. The annual Leaf and String Festival takes place in mid-June. Downtown’s Rex Theatre broadcasts a music show weekly live and online. If you get the idea that music is in the town’s soul, you’re right. So’s barbecue. The state BBQ championship, Smoke On The Mountain, takes over downtown in mid-July.
If you can’t make it, a good place to sample what’s cookin’ at the festival is downtown’s Galax Smokehouse. Where? Just follow your nose to the corner of Main and Grayson. St. Louis-style ribs, pulled pork, smoked brisket, chicken and the like are all on the menu in this unpretentious and tasty stop. Parking your LTV is easy downtown. Check out the NASCAR memorabilia, and also if the Wood Brothers, the oldest active team in stock car racing, are checking out the menu. They’re regulars here.
This was the last piece of the parkway to be completed and was also the most complicated. In fact, when it was built it was considered the most complicated bridge ever attempted. The main issue: How to protect Grandfather Mountain, one of the world’s oldest peaks, and around which the viaduct bends.
Started in 1983, its only 1,243 feet of precast concrete pieces on piers, but it took four years to build. Stop at the Visitor Center to understand the hows and whys of its construction. It affords sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, as well as making for great photo ops at either end, where you can park while your partner stands by to snap a perfect shot of your LTV rounding the “S” curve.
Plan a stop at the Park Service’s Visitor Center at mile 384, and the Folk Art Center near Asheville, NC at mile 382. It’s not only a museum of mountain crafts but you can also buy to your credit card’s limit here. During the tourist season, talk with local craftsmen.
Hiking is another draw. At almost every stop and overlook there’s a trail, including the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which runs, well, from these mountains, to the Atlantic coast, leading to the woods, a trout stream, or other feature.
Asheville’s Biltmore estate, built by the Vanderbilts from 1889-1895, opened for tours in 1930 to increase tourism which crashed like everything else during the Depression. There’s even a hotel there now.
That’s just a preview of the parkway’s southern half. We’ll be sure to take you along when we do the rest.
Yup, Hurricane Florence had its way with the entire southern Appalachian area. So before you go this year, check for updates by calling the park, or monitoring its website, or other associated sites.
We found the parkway’s reservable campgrounds most accessible in fall despite expected the fall color rush. Camping is open mid-May through October for $20 a night, but $10 with a National Park Service senior lifetime pass. There are also lots of private campgrounds within a few minutes of the route
For information on many of the spots mentioned, just click on the provided links.
Circling World’s Largest Freshwater Lake, From Soo to Shining Soo
It’s been sung about, and wept over, from the time the Ojibwa were its only sailors to the present. It’s immortalized in poems as the world’s largest sweet sea. It’s sent sailors into rapture at her beauty, and unimaginable terror only hours later, and some even to their deaths aboard the 6,000 ships that lie beneath the waves of this, the world’s largest lake, Lake Superior.
While the lake may be treacherous at times, a trip around it on land is one of the easiest, most beautiful and varied drives you’ll ever point your LTV towards, on The Lake Superior Circle Tour. On Labor Day weekend, 2017 we turned our 2015.5 Unity MB north from our base near Roscommon, Michigan, to see what we could see along this lake that’s so big, at 350 miles long and 160 wide, some say should be re-classified as a freshwater sea.
It was a 1,100-mile, 10-day adventure taking us to national parks on both sides, and on hikes along rocky shorelines still strewn in spots with the wooden skeletons of century-old shipwrecks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.). It took us down paths to lighthouse beaches so deep with wave-smoothed pebbles we sank ankle-deep in them, to rivers that in spring and fall see spawning trout and salmon, and too out-of-the-way campsites feet from the beach near brook trout streams.
We spent hours stargazing at another campground at the western end minutes from the lake’s largest Canadian port, and drove atop the shoulders of a giant, then gazed into the water from a charming restaurant in a former fishing village.
Our trip took us along Canada’s coast-to-coast Trans-Canada Highway and waterfall parks, with almost always, Lake Superior as our companion out our right side.
One doesn’t need to begin circling Superior anywhere because there is no official beginning. You just need to start, and September is a great time to do it. Campsites are more available at Ontario provincial parks before they close in October, as are their stateside counterparts. And the weather is usually still good.
Now, because this is such a big trip, we’re breaking it into two parts: The U.S. side, then the Canadian side. Here’s the first.
We headed across the Mackinac Bridge about two hours north of Roscommon and turned our Unity’s tires onto the back of U.S. 2 before grabbing the next-to-last site at the U.S. Forest Service Brevort Lake Campground, which juts into that big lake, prime water for walleye, bass and panfish.
We’d hoped to get on Lake at another forest service campground just to the west, but it had filled. It was still Labor Day weekend, remember. Next time.
It was a short drive the next day, past historic general stores like that at Hog Island, where we bought this trip’s first tastes of two U.P. food traditions, smoked whitefish and beef pasties (more on those later), and the beautiful Lake Michigan beachfront arcing along U.S. 2 heading west.
We then turned north on M-77 (the “M” designates a state highway) for a brief stop at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest east of the Mississippi, created by the Depression-era CCC. A great visitor center introduces you to the importance of this and other national refuges for migratory and other birds, which fill with ducks, raptors, and others each spring and fall. Some 211 species have been seen here. If you have a tow a car, drive the seven-mile scenic route, or park your Leisure and hop aboard a small tour bus to ride along past eagle nests, ponds of migrating waterfowl, and other critters.
Now, drive toward your first encounter with Superior at Grand Marais, the eastern gateway to the Pictured Rocks, America’s first national lakeshore. The town is replete with a brewpub, small store, and great lighthouse harbor views.
From there, turn west to enter the lakeshore. Tip: Head in early, especially in summer. All three of the lakeshore’s drive-in campgrounds are first-come, first, serve.
If you miss out, there are Michigan State Forest campgrounds nearby as well as a couple of private campgrounds. The night prior, you may even want to stage between the once-notorious lumber town of Seney and Grand Marais at the East Branch of the Fox River state forest campground, where on a trip after returning from World War I, a young Ernest Hemingway stayed and drew inspiration for one of his most famous short stories, Big Two-Hearted River. And, uh, if you find a red Contigo water bottle there….uh well, let’s just say, please contact Denise.
If you’ve planned right, you’ll arrive like we did and can choose a site at Hurricane River, or a bit west at Twelve Mile Beach campgrounds.
Hurricane has two units, one on the lakefront and the other, “upper” campground, in the treed ridge above. From our “lower” site, we strolled the beach, wading with others in the Hurricane as it gurgled into Lake Superior in the late afternoon light.Come here later in fall and you may see spawning salmon or “coaster” brook trout at the mouth.
The next morning, we hiked the shoreline trail, which also is part of the 4,600-mile North Country Trail, to the Au Sable Light. Don’t miss following the small signs directing you on detours to the rocky beach below, where remnants of wooden ships wrecked here during storms still litter the shore. The lighthouse area also has great views of the Grand Sable Dunes, five square miles of sand bluff diving into Lake Superior to the east. A great sight in the morning light.
Because of the day prior we knew we needed that campsite, we then backtracked a few miles to Grand Sable Dunes overlook that we had passed by the day before, a sweeping vista of sand to the east, and the lighthouse we’d just visited, to the west. If you’re up to it, make the steep walk to the water’s edge, but prepare for a climb-two-feet-and-slide-one effort coming back up.
You’ve now got a choice when coming from the park into Munising, about 15 miles west. Camp at the Munising Tourist Park on the lake, and the next day board the Pictured Rocks Cruises for two-hour close-up views of these multi-colored sandstone cliffs, pillars and arched formations formed by water, wind and time that are the reason it became a national lakeshore. They leave daily mid-May through mid-October. Or, drive to the most accessible spot, Miner’s Castle overlook, and then head west like we did, through Marquette, the U.P’s largest city.
Regardless, somewhere along the way, you’ll have to try that Yooper national dish, the pasty. Brought to the peninsula by Cornish miners, it’s a crusted meat pie with a root vegetable combo, but always traditionally including rutabaga. Some of the best are made in the Marquette area, and two to try to include Lawry’s and Jean Kay’s. The other North Country delicacy is smoked whitefish, and Thill’s Fish comes highly recommended by locals we know.
We could have headed from there into the historic Keweenaw Peninsula, which we’d visited many times before, and its national historical park to stay along the lake at F. J. McClain State Park. But chose to head farther west to overnight at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, west of Ontonagon, delaying long enough to stop at the Sturgeon River Canyon Falls and gorge, one of nearly 300 falls in the U.P.
Another gem on Superior,“The Porkies,” Michigan’s largest state park at 58,000 acres, offers three park campgrounds two of them rustic. Union Bay, at the park’s east end, with electricity, flush toilets a dump station and showers on Superior, was our choice. Most sites are in partial shade, with some butting against the rocky shore. Our visit began after a thunderstorm, then a calm moonlit night, followed by a glimpse of what Superior can whip into in a matter of hours, a full-blown gale.
See the park and, if you’ve timed it right, a spectacular fall color show, best on the drive to the Lake of The Clouds overlook, and at the cliff-side overlooks the road’s end. You’ll be looking at the most extensive stand of virgin hardwoods in America west of the Adirondacks, home to everything from gray wolves and black bears to eagles, and possibly a cougar or two.
Now head back and turn southwest on S. Boundary Road to link up with other spots to visit, including the old Nonesuch copper mine, Copper Peak sky flying complex—it’s ski jumping on steroids—and waterfalls on the park’s west flank, especially on the Black River and its National Scenic Byway, which eventually flows into Superior at a beautiful 40-site national forest campground, semi-rustic, with flush toilets. The park includes a picturesque pedestrian suspension bridge across the river.
No trip along Superior’s Wisconsin coast is complete without a boat tour of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, 21 rocky cliff-faced islands off the New England-style town of Bayfield.
To stage, we stayed 12 miles south in Washburn, WI, at the city’s lakefront Memorial Park Campground, making it an easy trip the next morning.
Apostle Islands Cruises boats leave Bayfield multiple times daily and depending on the tour, you’ll see wind- and water-formed cliffs, caves, pinnacles and other formations similar to those at Michigan’s Pictured Rocks, described by onboard narration. There is plenty of free, city-provided, RV parking near city hall down the street. Just ask at the office.
Following our four-hour tour, we continued north and west on Hwy. 13, the Wisconsin Lake Superior Scenic Byway, to an out-of-the-way community campground at Herbster, WI. We grabbed a spot with a Superior sunset view across from the beach. It more than makes up for its simple facilities of two one-stall showers, dump station, water and electric hookups with the location.
Minnesota’s Superior shoreline holds some of the best lake views of the U.S. side. Swing through the port city of Duluth and take Highway 61, sprinkled with signs denoting it as the road made famous by Bob Dylan’s song, Highway 61 Revisited. It’s also a designated scenic route, and it’s easy to see why, with lots of opportunities to stop for beautiful lake views that may include a passing ship heading towards the grain and ore terminals at Duluth.
It’s a 47-mile trip from Duluth to one of the western lake’s most scenic and historic spots, Split Rock Lighthouse.Called one of the most photographed lights in the U.S., it’s easy to see why. Perched on a volcanic outcropping 130 feet above the water, it was built after a series of November 1905 storms lashed the lake, sinking or damaging 30 ships on Superior alone, including The Maderia, which went down below the rocks where the light now stands.
After paying your admission fee, just $8 for ages 65 and up, visit the gift shop, climb to the light, and head along an easy dirt path for iconic post-card views.
Walk-in tent camping only is available at designated sites, so we headed seven miles south, back to Gooseberry Falls State Park, and one of its 70 non-electric sites near the mouth of the Gooseberry River.
There are showers. Three cataracts make up the falls, viewed from an easy hiking trail alongside the river that will take you almost to the falls brink, and the end of Part One of our Superior tour.