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.
As new owners of our gently used 2015.5 Unity MB, it was an easy decision to attend our first-ever Leisure Travelers Club Chapter Rally. We expected to meet a group of like-minded people, exchange ideas, and check out other rigs. We didn’t expect, however, to meet a famous couple within the LTV family, or realize a rarely used appliance we left at home was on nearly everyone’s “must have” list in their LTV kitchens. Best of all, we discovered some of the yummiest ice cream in the state, made right nearby. Will we go again? Absolutely!
Since we live in Michigan, we joined the Heartland LTVers Chapter (now the Leisurely Great Lakers Chapter), which includes owners from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. Headed by co-chairs Paula Allen and Cristi Swauger, they have held three rallies so far: fall, 2016; and spring and fall, 2017. The Kal-Haven Outpost Campground, near South Haven, Michigan, provided the venue for this Sept. 21-24 rally, with 10 LTVs and their owners in attendance.
Meet the owners, and why they attend local rallies:
Cristi and Sam Swauger, of Dayton, Ohio, with their 2016 LTV Unity MB “Waverly” come for the people and the stories. “A local rally is much more informal, lots of conversations and less structure,” says Sam. They went to Winkler in 2016 and 2017, and have attended all three local chapter rallies. Waverly is the street Sam grew up on.
Rod and Paula Allen, of Huron, Ohio, with their 2015.5 LTV Unity MB “no name.” They’ve been to the Winkler rally twice, and all three local rallies, and also attend Jeep Jamborees. They like meeting people “from everywhere.”
First-time attendees Frank and Ann Meier, of Lexington, Michigan, decided to come so they could meet people with the same rig and learn from them. After owning three diesel pushers, they downsized to a 2017 LTV Unity Twin Bed, naming it “Junior.”
Romaine Broughton, of Shumway, Illinois, traveling alone since 2002 when her husband passed within the first year after they bought a new 30’ rig. She downsized in Marc 2016, to “My Playhouse,” her 2014 LTV Freedom SS. She’s been to two Dixie rallies, and all three Heartland rallies. “I learn how to use it, and get some new tips all the time. When my husband died, I thought ‘I can sure drive it five more years’…I’ve been going by myself since then.”
Newbies Mike and Pam Orth, of Clinton Twp, Michigan, with “RV,” their 2017 LTV Unity Twin Bed bought January 2017. Recently retired, this was their second rally. “We want to get more information on maintenance, the whole shebang,” said Mike. “I’d like to go to Winkler if we can get on the list, to get information, learn technical upgrades, different ideas.”
Johnnie and Mila Johnson, of Chicago, Illinois, with their 2016 LTV Unity Corner Bed named “J. Runner II.” They returned to this, their second local rally, for the camaraderie as well as being around owners with more experience on the road. “I really admire her independence, traveling alone and she handles that rig like a teenager,” Johnnie said of Romaine. “I said to myself, ‘Wow I hope I can get to that point. I can do this, this can be a lifestyle for us.’”
Becky and Roy Brown, of Highland, Michigan in their 2012 LTV Unity Island Bed “U-Nice.” “We like the way everyone shares and helps each other, plus seeing how everyone modifies their rigs,” said Becky, who along with Roy, also attended the spring rally.
Mary Nelson and Steve Zoller, of Cincinnati, Ohio in their 2015 LTV Serenity “Beagle 2.0.” They attended the Winkler rally primarily for the technical seminars and came to their first local rally last fall. Steve posts regularly on technical topics on Facebook, and prides in the technical knowledge he has gleaned researching social media outlets, Google and YouTube. He headed up our nightly “tech talks.”
Ann and Andy Dudler, from Iowa City, Iowa, in “The Pugmobile,” their 2017 LTV Unity MB. Ann heads up the Heartland LTVers Travel Club chapter (formerly Leisurely Great Lakers), covering Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri. They have attended several local rallies along with Winkler to glean ideas for their chapter’s first rally coming up in June 2018. They like meeting people, listening to their stories, and seeing how others personalize their rigs. “I hope more people take the initiative to register their unit and become involved,” said Ann. Traveling with pugs Chorgia and Chalala, they were attending a “Pug Jam” after this rally.
And us, Bill and Denise Semion, with homes in South Lyon and Roscommon, Michigan, victims of “two-foot fever,” healed when upgraded this spring from a 20-foot Sprinter to “Wanda-er” our LTV Unity MB dream.
Each day, early risers practiced yoga, hiked nearby trails or gathered around the fire for a cup-a-Joe and conversation. Later, some bicycled the nearby shady Kal-Haven Trail State Park, while others explored the area including South Haven, a Lake Michigan beach town just five miles away, or stayed at camp to chat.
After our first morning bicycle ride, Bill and I ate lunch at camp and then headed for the lake and an ice cream treat; South Haven did not disappoint. The Lake Michigan water provided the relief we needed in the 90-degree heat, and my phone directed us to nearby Sherman’s Dairy Bar for ice cream. Once we arrived, and took a quick look at their menu, we knew what we wanted: one Tour of Sherman’s please, a dish of six golf-ball sized scoops of some of the tastiest flavors we had ever had, just right to share between two ice cream lovers. We knew we would return the next day and revealed our newly-found treasure back at camp.
Evenings, we gathered for dinner: LTV rally funds provided our main dishes (thank you, LTV), with everyone else bringing a side dish or dessert to share. Although we heard stories of five different baked bean dishes served at a previous rally, we seemed do all right with a good variety of salads, veggies and desserts.
A campfire and “tech talk” followed the dinners. Thursday night’s topic centered on system upgrades (sway bars, bump stops and shocks/struts); Friday night focused on leveling and chassis maintenance. Saturday night’s discussion morphed from favorite trips to goofs and gaffs, like driving away before bringing in the slide and forgetting various items at the last stop. Offenders shall remain nameless. Lesson learned seemed to be: Always review your checklist before you drive off, even if you only stopped for lunch. (We call it “airplane check” when we make sure all cupboards and drawers are locked in place.)
During our conversations at the rally, I realized that Sam Swauger wrote the winning story in the 2017 LTV Calendar Photo Contest, “LTV, Elvis & Wedding Bells!” His blog of how he and Cristi flew out of Dayton, Ohio to Vegas on Leap Day, February 29, 2016, purchased and picked up their LTV, and they were married by Elvis by day’s end, was incredible to hear from our local LTV celebrities first-hand.
How to cook on the road and favorite dishes were also a frequent topic; nearly everyone chimed in on how they use their Instant Pot to cook soup, pulled pork, hard-boiled eggs and more. After I asked what is an Instant Pot, and this multi-use appliance was explained to me, I recalled have one at home collecting dust. Maybe we will rethink that one!
Saturday afternoon, Bill and I, along with Becky and Roy, headed for South Haven for a swim, followed by daily visit to Sherman’s. As we were finishing our treats, most of our LTV group came in for one last end-of-summer scoop. Later that day, the guys got together to watch and help Bill change out our propane grill to a quick-connect coupler to hook up directly to our RV, and most of us took a tour of Johnnie and Mila’s showcase vehicle boasting Johnnie’s personalized touches, including custom exterior paint, chrome exhaust tip, and custom grill and dashboard. They even bring an outdoor kitchen sink and a motorcycle among the items stashed in their tow garage.
According to co-chair Paula Allen, the Leisurely Great Lakers LTV Chapter has 41 member units, with about one-quarter in attendance at this event. Bill and I hope to meet other members at future rallies and will be watching the LTV website to see if we can fit any other local rallies into our travels. In the meantime, check the LTV website to join a Travelers Club, and see you at a rally!