There’s something positively lonely about looking out over the cold blue expanse of Lake Superior as the waves roll in on her Michigan shore. I kept having this sense that I was standing at the end of the world.
Unlike say Lake Michigan, where on the distant shore lay Chicago or Wisconsin, there isn’t much civilization on the other side of Gitche Gumme. Just endless miles of boreal forest, rivers and lakes that stretch across the Canadian wilderness all the way to the Arctic, with few roads and fewer people.
It’s easy to settle into this perspective from a town like Marquette, the biggest city in the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula and its surprisingly dynamic cultural mecca.
My family just returned from a road trip around Lake Michigan that included a few days camping in the woods outside Marquette and exploring the city and the big lake.
It was nowhere near enough time.
I had been to Marquette twice before, both times during the winter, when the snow can pile up many feet high. The most recent visit was while in transit, for a quick dinner and house-brewed beer at the Vierling. The other was nearly 20 years ago when a friend and I rented a bare-bones cabin in the woods and spent our days cross-country skiing through the rugged, densely forested hills.
The outdoors scene
There are literally trails all over Marquette County, and the Huron Mountains add uncommon topography, like a splash of the mountain west in Michigan. This is a wonderful place to come hike, trail run or mountain bike, and indeed the town sports a strong outdoorsy scene.
Opportunities to get outside and get some exercise are easy to come by, even within city limits. We unexpectedly ran into some friends from Detroit at a local store and met them later for some swimming and cliff jumping at Presque Isle Park, a rocky peninsula that juts into Lake Superior from Marquette’s northernmost edge.
The park has an interesting pedigree. In 1891, the city approached Fredrick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect who designed New York City’s Central Park, for his thoughts on making the undeveloped 323-acre parcel into a civilized city park. He had a look around the place and responded thusly:
“You ask us what is to be done with this wild park. We answer first and last: preserve it, treasure it as little altered as may be for all time, and unquestionably all intelligent and God-fearing people who here-after may have the good fortune to see it will be enchanted, and will bless those who had the foresight and public spirit to secure the land and preserve it as nature made it.”
Today, as Olmsted advised, development is limited to a concession stand, a couple narrow, one-way ring roads and trails through the woods.
We holed up at Sunset Point, one of few west-facing vantage points in town, and found our friends holding court in a little cove framed by low rocky outcroppings, where we swam despite the occasional rough sea and the rocky footing. It felt like the Caribbean, except for the bone-chilling water.
Later, when the mood struck, we headed over to the cliffs where we joined the locals in plunging 15 or 20 feet into the deep blue-green waters. You can see my son and I, though not while jumping, at a couple points in this video below shot by a local kid who was operating a drone camera with his iPad.
Eight or so miles north of town, and sure to cause others confusion as well, is the Little Presque Isle State Recreation Area. It’s another area rife with trails and possibilities for exploring. We ventured out to the point for a view of the namesake island (despite its name — presque being French for almost — this one actually is an island) and had a quick swim on a pristine sandy beach before the hordes of infamous angry U.P. black flies drove us away.
Like a lot of burgeoning outdoors meccas, and certainly like a lot of its brethren cities in the Rust Belt, Marquette bears some scars and signs of its industrial past. There are smokestacks from power plants and massive old rusty iron ore docks that jut into the lake and dominate the main harbor in town.
But it’s also home to Northern Michigan University and an attendant youthful energy, with a hippie vibe about the town, with lots of outdoor outfitter stores, bakeries, coffee shops and craft breweries, plus festivals throughout the summer. The city’s past as a mining town and shipping port is also evident in some stunning architecture.
The downtown is small but thriving, filled with interesting stores and inviting restaurants. A friend of friends moved back there several years ago to open a taco truck, and I swore on a couple occasions I smelled pipe tobacco wafting from a few open storefront doors. There’s even a fun children’s museum if you’re in the market for one.
Marquette County, according to a Travel Marquette magazine I picked up, is in the midst of nearly $600 million in new construction. I spoke with Kevin Thomsen, the owner of Queen City Running, who told me the shop’s name harkens back to an earlier era, when Marquette was known as Lake Superior’s queen city, but also maybe to its gay scene in the 70s and 80s.
I also enjoyed listening to the student-run radio station WUPX-FM, which offers a freeform mix where I once heard The Smiths segue right into death metal, and where fellow Lake Superior denizens Low (from Duluth) are apparently in regular rotation.
Though it was an all-too-short stay for such a long drive (nearly eight hours from Ferndale, with restroom stops for the kids), it was a nice excuse to mix wilderness with urbanity. Marquette is like a more rugged, less gentrified version of Traverse City.