Long Weekend: Trails & Waters of Marquette, Michigan
Stand on a beach in Marquette, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on a typical November day, and you’ll likely feel the cold spray from raging gale waves on Lake Superior.
And then will come winter, a time that brings weeks of below zero temperatures, over 200 inches of annual snowfall, some of the best starry nights you can imagine, and great opportunities to gaze north into the dancing lights that are the aurora borealis.
Before that, though, is the best time of year in the U.P. It’s a time when the typically icy waters of Superior, having had all summer to bathe in the sunshine, are at their most swimmable. And it’s a time when busloads of Michiganders from south of the bridge flock north on their fall color tours. Any time of year is great for visiting historic Marquette and its surrounding region, but early fall is that perfect time when the changing seasons bring together the best of all worlds. Should you be lucky enough to make an early fall trip to Marquette, Michigan, here are a few things that should be atop your to-do list:
Hit the Trails
Whether the tracks you like to put behind you are made by your fat tires, skis, boots, snowshoes, snowmobile, or horse, Marquette has an abundance of trails to suit you. Miles of shoreline combine with tens of thousands of forested, rocky, and hilly acres to create some of the most scenic and varied terrain in the country. The Noquemanon Trail Network, sections of the North Country Trail, and a plethora of other trail options all call Marquette home. Here are a few of the favorites:
For mountain bikers, the South Trails are a must. Part of the Noquemanon Trail Network, this singletrack is what publications such as USA Today have referred to when ranking Marquette one of the best mountain biking towns in the country. The South Trails consist of several loops ranging from intermediate to expert, many of them venturing onto Marquette Mountain Ski Area. There are smooth, bermed-turn sections rolling through pine forests, sections of craggy technical descents, freestyle sections with a variety of built features, and everything in between. Each loop is only a few miles long, so one trip to the trailhead allows you to try several different loops. Maps are available at all local bike shops.
Hikers will find their best options north of town along Highway 550. Wetmore Landing and Little Presque Isle, both located on the Lake Superior shore, provide some of the most gorgeous and secluded hiking in the region. Places with monikers like Hidden Beach and Songbird Trail give near limitless potential for exploration. If you decide to take a break from hiking to spend a few hours on your own private beach surrounded by 100-foot rock faces, you wouldn’t be the first.
Another classic Marquette hike is Sugarloaf Mountain, which offers “easy” and “hard” route options to the top, though both have built staircases in steep sections and can be climbed by any reasonably fit person. The top offers views of Lake Superior, Marquette, the peninsula park called Presque Isle, and the surrounding Northwoods. For the more adventurous hiker, Hogback Mountain provides a longer and more intense hike, complete with a scramble to the summit. The round trip takes about 1.5 hours, depending on how long you spend on the top. From the summit you can look down on the the aforementioned Sugarloaf Mountain and have a higher point of view onto Lake Superior and Marquette. In the autumn, the colors are astounding waves of red, orange, and yellow to the horizon. Runners of the annual Marquette Trail 50 Ultramarathon ascend both of these peaks and more.
More casual walkers will appreciate Presque Isle Park, which offers several trail options full of wildlife, scenic Lake Superior overlooks, and the best sunset location in town. Presque Isle is also the location of the Upper Harbor marina and ore dock, from which you can watch the massive iron ore ships coming in to be loaded.
Huck yourself into the Lake
There’s no better way to cool off from a sweaty morning on the trails than an exhilarating jump into Lake Superior’s ice-cold waters. While Lake Superior and Marquette’s Dead River provide limitless swimming and cliff jumping opportunities, there is none more spectacular than the Blackrocks. Located on the north point of Presque Isle Park, these volcanic rocks may more resemble Hawaii than northern Michigan, and their geological significance and beauty would be worth the view even if they didn’t provide an ideal jumping platform into the crystal-clear waters. In the summer and early fall, these rocks are the place to be, and taking the 20-foot plunge is a Marquette bucket list must. Ice-in-their-veins locals have been known to jump every month from March to December.
For a more relaxed Superior experience, bring your beach blanket and picnic lunch to the aptly named Picnic Rocks or McCarty’s Cove, both located walking distance of downtown and right off of the paved bike path. These beaches epitomize the quintessential Great Lakes beach experience: sandy shore, clear water, and best of all, no sharks. During the months of September or October you’ll most likely share the beach with students from Marquette’s Northern Michigan University. Be careful while swimming in Superior, and be sure to observe all warnings and signs. Riptides are strong on this freshwater sea, weather changes incredibly fast, and every year there are fatalities.
For those who would rather spend a day on the water than in it, the Marquette shoreline on a calm day can make for excellent kayaking. A paddle from Lower Harbor to Upper Harbor and Presque Isle could be an all-day affair. Don’t count on kayaking as part of your travel plans, though, as the waves can be substantial on all but the calmest of days. Marquette’s growing fall and winter surf scene can attest to this.
Tour the Breweries
For a town of only 20,000 people, Marquette has a pretty impressive brewery scene. What better way to relax after a day in the water or on the trails than to tip back a few pints? Your first stop should be Blackrocks Brewery, which is named after those rocks you just jumped off of. Founded in 2010 in a two-story Victorian house on Third Street, Blackrocks quickly became a hub for people who enjoy life, a good brew, eclectic live tunes, and talk of fat tire bikes and local trails.
The number of bicycles parked out front is a testament to the lifestyle of most of the brewery’s clientele, and the beer, brewed in tiny batches in the house’s kitchen, is a testament to the creativity of the brewers. These guys aren’t afraid to try new things and new combinations of ingredients: coconut, agave, pine cones? Hey, that all sounds good. Throw it in!
The daily music at Blackrocks, much like the beer, is a concoction, an ever-unique blend of house band (think brewers in their aprons taking breaks from stirring wort to strum on banjos and mandolins), open mic, and percussion instruments handed to unsuspecting patrons. This perfect mix of good beer and good vibes led Blackrocks to open a full production brewery down the road, but the original house is the place to be. As tough as it may be to pull yourself from this place, there are other beers to be had.
Your next stop is The Vierling Restaurant, which houses Marquette Harbor Brewery. The Vierling has been a Marquette staple for over 100 years, and its charming location overlooking gorgeous Lower Harbor is most likely one of the reasons this place survived prohibition. It’s the ideal spot for sunset dinner and drinks, and the best libation for that purpose is its blueberry wheat ale, to which the bartender will add real blueberries that dance on bubbles of carbonation.
After dark, take a walk down Front Street to Ore Dock Brewing Company. Named after the distinctive 85-foot-tall, nearly 1000-foot-long iron ore dock that juts into Marquette’s Lower Harbor, this brewery specializes in wheat beers of every variety. It also specializes in the late-night live music scene. The bands it brings in are often folk or bluegrass acts from Lower Michigan or Chicago, which makes the dance floor of this inviting old building the perfect place to finish out your Saturday evening.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to plan your Marquette trip around the U.P. Fall Beer Festival, which takes place annually in early September in Mattson Park in Marquette’s Lower Harbor. Put on by the Michigan Brewers Guild, the Fall Beer Fest brings the best and most unique beers from nearly every brewery in the state. If Beer Fest is your reason for visiting, though, it may be a tough task to tackle much else on the list.
Drive the Coastline
Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake and has 2726 miles of shoreline, most of that southern shore meeting the Upper Peninsula. Smack dab in the middle of that shore is Marquette, making the town the ideal starting point for exploring America’s North Coast. Superior itself makes a coastline road trip worthwhile, whether you feel like driving 20 miles or 2000, but other notable sights occupy every stretch of the way.
Head north and west from downtown Marquette, and you’ll find places of interest before you even reach the county line. The quaint town of Big Bay lies just 30 miles up the road. The town offers more remote Lake Superior beaches and excellent fishing opportunities on Lake Independence. It’s also the site of the 1959 Oscar nominee, Anatomy of a Murder. Both the site of the murder that inspired the film, the Lumberjack Tavern, and the Thunder Bay Inn, which played a critical part in the movie, are still open for business.
Head further north and you’ll find the Keeweenaw Peninsula and towns including Houghton and Copper Harbor, which is mainland Michigan’s northernmost point. The Keeweenaw offers a picturesque drive and the chance to look into the U.P.’s mining history. Copper Harbor is the location of more nationally-admired mountain biking and is the primary ferry jumping off point to Michigan’s only National Park, Isle Royale.
Drive south and east from Marquette, and within an hour, you’ll be in Munising, the western border of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Pictured Rocks covers 42 miles of shoreline consisting of cliffs and dunes. Its namesake is 15 miles of 200 foot tall colorful sandstone cliffs full of rock formations, natural arches, and caves. Ferry tours of the rocks depart Munising several times daily, and are well-worth the time.
The eastern edge of Pictured Rocks is Grand Marais, a sleepy town ripe with logging history and several waterfalls and dunes worth exploring. One of those dunes, Log Slide Overlook, is a must-see. Hundreds of feet above the water, it once functioned as a slide for loggers to get their timber down to barges waiting on the lake. Now, tourists run down the steep, sandy face and take their time trudging back up. Not far from here, Hemingway spent time fishing and gaining inspiration for his famous short story, “Big Two-Hearted River.”
Catch your Dinner
Like Hemingway, you can spend your time in the U.P. reeling in lunkers. He fried his in bacon fat in a cast iron skillet; you’re welcome to do that, though catch and release is a great option too. Hemingway caught his trout with grasshoppers that he collected in the morning dew, though your options are more broad.
Trout, salmon, and steelhead abound in the Upper Peninsula. Fly anglers can get into fish in Marquette on the Dead, Carp, and Chocolay Rivers; throwing big streamers on the big lake is also a good way to find the big ones. Piscators looking for an ocean-like experience can hire a fishing charter in Marquette’s Upper Harbor. These offshore adventures are the best way to get into the largest lake trout and salmon. Perch, bluegill, and other panfish can be found in the calm waters of Harlow Lake, just north of town in the shadow of Hogback Mountain. Fishing on Harlow is best done from a kayak or canoe.
For people who want to enjoy the taste of fresh fish without putting in the effort of catching their own, Thill’s Fish House in Lower Harbor sells the Marquette fleet’s catch of the day. They also sell smoked whitefish, a staple of the U.P.
Your idea of a good day may be a relaxing fall hike, a brilliant sunset, and a good meal. Or it may be a white knuckle downhill ride atop the fallen leaves, a backflip into icy waters, and drinking and dancing until bar close. Maybe it’s something in between. Either way, Marquette, Michigan has you covered, and there’s a good chance that if you visit once, you’re going to be making plans to come back.