Last time we met, we finished the first leg of a 1,500-plus-mile drive around the world’s largest lake, Superior. We drove our Leisure Unity from the eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to just south of the border at Grand Portage, Minnesota. Now it’s Canada’s turn.
We’ll head to the lake’s less-populous side, the stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway running from historic Thunder Bay, where 18th-century fur traders opened Western Canada and the U.S. to Europeans, to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, at Superior’s eastern terminus, site of the world’s busiest locks, and the bridge back to Michigan.
And we’ll discover some of what makes this side of the lake great, from a reconstructed voyageur fort and its importance as a water highway then and now, to its home for some of Canada’s most famous artists and of course, lakeside beauty.
A few tips: Once you cross the border, you won’t be wandering much off Highway 17. That’s the Trans-Canada, which bends and weaves east to west along Superior and around the glacier-exposed, rocky-topped hills, the basement of North America that have been dated to more than four billion years old. You’ll pass through some of the most remote lands on the continent near major cities. There are only a few major routes leading off it, especially going north. What you will find there ranges from history to scenic views, to fishing and kayaking opportunities, and great lakefront campsites that will bring you back for closer, longer, looks.
Just before the Ontario border, Minnesota’s Grand Portage National Monument is worth a visit. It was once the center of the 17th-century voyageur and Ojibwe fur trade, located on a strategic portage between rivers and lakes that allowed exploration and exploitation of much of the now-western U.S. and Canada. It was the center for furs exported via Lake Superior to the east and Europe, spearheaded by the North West Company and its more well-known but lesser rival, the Hudson’s Bay Company. Exhibits in the Great Hall visitor center detail its importance before it moved to our next stop, Old Fort William, in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The trappers proved so efficient, they just about wiped out the continent’s beaver, which fortunately are doing just fine now.
After an easy border crossing with our cats Muka and Sadie, who remembered to bring their necessary vaccination papers, we headed to the Thunder Bay’s historic Old Fort William. Things quiet down at this reconstructed 1800s trading post after Labor Day. The re-enactors and First Nations Ojibwe who tell the fort’s story are gone for the season, but you can still go through the fort, and take part in activities like we did, a nighttime astronomy program, and stay at its few campsites with water, electric and showers in a trailer in an open space near the headquarters.
After we paid for our campsite, we drove west only a few miles to Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park to see what’s nicknamed the Niagara of The North. The 130-foot falls and river are also part of the historic voyageurs route that Fort William was built to serve. The rock walls here contain fossils dating to 1.6 billion years ago. You’re on the western edge of the Canadian Shield, the geological core of North America. The park also has 160 nice wooded campsites near the falls in three units. Riverside sites do not have power.
We picked staying at Fort William, however, mainly for the astronomy event presented by park interpreters the night we arrived. They’d hoped for a repeat of the Northern Lights (which were visible the night prior) but unfortunately, they didn’t re-appear. There are other events throughout the year at the fort including living history exhibits prior to Labor Day, also celebrated in Canada.
I hiked a bit in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park years ago but never camped. Our first view this time of this granite promontory of the Sibley Peninsula resembling a, well, sleeping giant, was from the Fort William Indian Nation Pow Wow Grounds high above Thunder Bay.
We saw its clear outline again at the Highway 17 rest stop dedicated to Terry Fox, a cancer victim who was running across Canada to raise money for research, only to stop near here shortly before his death in 1981 after completing more than 3,300 miles.
Slip off Highway 17 into Sleeping Giant to stay at one of 200 campsites on Marie Louise Lake, about half with electric. There are 49 miles of hiking trails, but we drove to two spots, one at the end of the park’s only paved road to Silver Islet, site of a former famous silver mine. The next day, we headed up the 5-1/2-mile (9K) gravel road that ends atop the giant itself at the Thunder Bay Lookout.
The last quarter-mile or so, you’re driving on bare rock, the base of North America, before getting to a wide section with a wooden fence on the right that only resembles a parking area.
A path leads onto a metal platform, where you’re rewarded with a spectacular, soaring perch beyond the sides of the giant with nothing but air beneath you, as the lake waves run ashore a hundred feet of so below your feet. It’s an experience you won’t find anywhere else in the park and definitely worth the slow trip.
If you’ve brought your mountain bike, there’s also a great seven-mile (12K) bike trail in the park around Marie Louise Lake’s west side, and other hiking trails where you’ll meet back-country campers heading into 40 trailside sites.
I visited Rossport, about two hours east of the giant, once before, and it charmed me. The entire town consists of less than a dozen B&Bs and other businesses on an island-protected harbor sometimes called the Peggy’s Cove of the North. Canada’s most famous artists, the Group of Seven, drew upon the area for many of their landscapes. If you’ve brought your kayaks, this is a great, protected area to explore the shoreline at this 18th century voyageur stop and former fishing village. Or, rent from Superior Outfitters and take a guided float, or see it aboard a fishing charter or an island tour boat here.
We treated ourselves to my birthday dinner at Serendipity Gardens on a hill looking over the harbor, a great spot for two reasons. It features both indoor and garden dining, and it was just down the road from our campsite at Rainbow Falls Provincial Park. You’ve got a choice of two separate campgrounds there, and we chose the Rossport unit because it again is on Lake Superior. Electric is available at 23 of 36 sites. Before dinner, we arrived in time to grab a site across from the water and explored the park’s beach and rock outcroppings, and it’s falls too, a few miles east on Hwy. 17.
Park information advises it is a strenuous walk down a wooden staircase along the falls, but it wasn’t hard for us and led to great views of the cataract, the river chasm and a bit of Whitesand Lake. We turned around at the bridge over the Whitesand River, a brook trout stream, instead of continuing to another Lake Superior overlook.
We could have extended our trip a few days to stay at Pukaskwa National Park, or 600-square-mile (1,550 sq. kilometer) Lake Superior Provincial Park, where you can walk along a rocky trail while hanging onto a cable next to the lake to view ancient pictographs at Agawa Rock that can be seen only when Superior is calm. But instead we just stopped for a look there and drove Highway 17 as it wends its way through the glacier-carved valleys and rock-topped hills to Pancake Bay Provincial Park, on picturesque Batchawana Bay.
We arrived in late afternoon, chose a non-electrified beach view site—there are multiple cost point sites here, depending on campsite location and services, including “preferred,” on the lake with electricity; expect to see this at more U.S. parks in the future—we headed across the camp road with our chairs and dipped our toes first into the warm sandy beach, then the lake, to enjoy the day’s last rays.
From here, you can just make out the U.S. shoreline in Michigan. Peer across the lake from here, where about 17 or so miles into Superior, also lies the ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in a November storm with all hands in 1975. There’s also a trail to a lake lookout here.
When we left the next day, we were only 60 or so miles from Sault Ste Marie, Ont., on the banks of the St. Mary’s River and Soo Locks, the world’s busiest lock system.
You can take a guided trip into the rapids from the Canadian side after what some term North America’s best and most publicly accessible Atlantic salmon fly fishing if the water levels allow. Or head across the International Bridge to historic Soo, Michigan, from where, among other things, sprang the inspiration for Longfellow’s epic poem, Song of Hiawatha. On this side of the river, take a boat tour through both Canadian and American locks, see ships entering and leaving up close from the U.S. side, or visit a retired Great Lakes freighter, and have a great dinner at spots like The Antlers in town. Just don’t judge it by its “up north bar” exterior. Try the dessert poutine, a different take on that French-Canadian national side dish.
From here, you can head west a bit to towns like Brimley, with its state park and casino campgrounds, or farther west. Or, turn south, like we did, on I-75. That’s one of the best parts of this tour. There are so many choices, you can do it again to see what you missed on your first visit. Ready to go back with us?
Canadian provincial parks do not take reservations after Labor (spelled Labour in Canada) Day, so get to your chosen park earlier in the day, then sightsee. Most parks provide water taps to fill fresh water tanks, as most do not have on-site water. The Lake Superior Circle Tour Guide presents a good overview of trip highlights, but is not a complete, “turn here, go there” guidebook. Consult the Internet version for various points of interest as well. We found a day-by-day itinerary we prepared a good guide.
Canada prices are higher, but as of this writing, the U.S. funds exchange rate is still a favorable 25 percent. There was no problem finding non-biofuel diesel anywhere. Don’t forget your passport/proper ID, as well as any pet vaccine records as needed. See any other restrictions on U.S. and Canadian Customs websites.
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.