Vibrant blue-green water lapped at my kayak, bobbing beside towering sandstone cliffs. Seagulls squawked overhead. The water that sprayed from my paddle was ice-cold, a reminder that I was paddling the largest — and coldest — of the Great Lakes.
As I toured Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior, I could hardly believe that this dramatic landscape was part of the same lake I’ve spent my life visiting on Minnesota’s North Shore. My memories of granite outcrops and pebble beaches didn’t match the Caribbean hues and multicolored cliffs of Michigan’s south shore.
This fresh view is why I wanted to complete the Lake Superior Circle Tour — a 1,300-mile route around the world’s largest freshwater lake. As a Minnesotan, I had mistakenly believed I knew the lake and all it had to offer. But after a weeklong road trip around it totaling 1,700 miles with sightseeing, I realized how wrong I was.
Minnesota claims only part of the big lake’s western end. Go past that and the terrain varies through Ontario, Michigan and Wisconsin — from the rugged high hills and sandy beaches in Canada to the sandstone caves and rock formations in Michigan. The only constant: the frigid temperature of the lake’s waters.
Awe-inspiring scenery is likely why the Circle Tour is becoming more popular. The Duluth-based Lake Superior Magazine, which prints a travel guide, runs a “circle tour club” for those who complete the journey — at 2,500 people and counting. Its editor, Konnie LeMay, has seen an uptick in interest.
“It’s a very accessible vacation and it kind of harks back to those family road trips and there’s some nostalgia about that,” she said. “Lake Superior has a ... magnetic, mystic draw.”
Motorists, motorcyclists and bicyclists have done the trek since the 1960s, when it became possible to drive around the entire lake. But everyone from sailboaters to snowmobilers and hikers do the loop, too. By the 1990s, the magazine started publishing a tour map.
While the magazine’s guidebook recommends taking two weeks to do the drive, it’s possible to do it in one week. My deadline-driven parents and I set out on our weeklong trip in June, beating the peak crowds in July and August. While it meant layering up for cooler weather, we eluded pesky black flies.
After living in Duluth and spending years visiting Minnesota’s shoreline, we zipped by Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse. Soon, we were in new territory across the Canadian border.
In earshot of the second highest waterfall in Ontario, we pitched tents at Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park and drove to Ouimet (pronounced we-met) Canyon. A half-mile path led to platforms over the rim of the sheer cliffs that drop some 300 feet to a rocky, stark canyon floor. Already, we were amazed by a new side of Superior.
“It’s hard to believe this is the same water in Duluth,” my dad said as we passed the town of Rossport, Ontario, after gawking at two black bears tromping through roadside fields.
We skirted the shore, past islands and steep hills. At Kama Bay, the northernmost point of the lake, we snapped photos in a quick unceremonious stop. That was the downside to our one-week trek — there was little room in the schedule for long breaks or spontaneous sightseeing. We had to keep moving.
Far from major cities and reliable cell service, we dashed by small lake towns, surprised not to see clusters of restaurants and souvenir shops like those that dot the lake’s southern shore in places like Grand Marais, Minn., or Bayfield, Wis.
Instead, there were boarded up hotels and shuttered truck stops in Wawa, a 3,000-resident town in Ontario that once bustled with logging and mining — even gold. When the mines closed and the paper mill shut down, other businesses fell, a resident told us.
The town now may be best known for two massive roadside goose sculptures (Wawa is Ojibwe for wild goose). Like other cities, Wawa’s tourism seemed to rely on its natural sights — hiking trails, beaches and waterfalls. After a night at Rock Island Lodge, a cozy B&B on a craggy peninsula, we gazed at the Scenic High Falls on the Magpie River, the 125-foot-wide waterfalls spilling over in wispy streaks like a man-made resort fountain.
At Lake Superior Provincial Park, we walked a sandy beach at a horseshoe-shaped bay with 650-foot-tall forested cliffs and crystal-clear water. It felt like we were a world away from our familiar lake.
Superior has more than just postcard-perfect views, though. It’s also full of fascinating history and culture.
We stopped at Agawa Rock, where the Ojibwe people, who have called Gi chi Gamiing (“Great Lake”) home for centuries, left sacred messages. On a cliff wall, they painted canoes, fish, serpents and mythical creatures like Misshepezhieu, a horned animal that is said to be the spirit of the water. With signs warning of the dangerous climb, we made our way across the ledge, holding onto ropes fastened to the rocks. We were awed by the red-orange pictographs, which are 150 to 400 years old and visible only from a ledge that drops abruptly into aqua waters.
Back in the car, the road wound its way high above the lake, past yellow warning signs for moose and dense forests of spruce, aspen and birch trees.
“This rivals any road through Colorado,” my mom said. “It’s wilderness right up to your car.”
After crossing into the U.S., we cheated on Superior with a day trip to Lake Huron, stepping back in time on Mackinac Island. During our detour to the famous island, its 19th-century main street lined with fudge shops and horse-drawn wagons (cars are banned), we pedaled the 8 miles around it by bike and learned about British and American soldiers who had lived at the fort.
Then it was back to paradise — Paradise, Mich., where we camped at Tahquamenon (rhymes with “phenomenon”) Falls State Park under a canopy of towering red pines. The second largest state park in Michigan is becoming a popular spot in the Upper Peninsula.
Its root beer-colored river, caused by the tannic acid from the cedar and hemlock trees, led to the Upper Falls, a 50-foot-tall, 200-foot-wide waterfall — one of the largest east of the Mississippi River. Four miles downstream, mist from the smaller Lower Falls hit our faces as visitors took selfies.
With a packed day of sightseeing over, I looked for a spot to refuel: a brewpub. The Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub is the country’s only brewery in a state park, our server told us. We ordered pasties and pints of beers as clouds rolled in and the temperature fell into the 50s in Paradise.
Shipwrecks and sand dunes
Strong winds slammed against us the next day as we stood in the gallery deck atop the Whitefish Point Light Station, the oldest operating light on the lake.
“We wouldn’t even consider this windy,” a staff member at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum told us.
Whitefish Point has gained a notorious reputation as the “graveyard of Lake Superior” since more ships — more than 200 in all — have been lost there than in any other part of the lake. The narrow congested area and poor visibility caused ships to collide or run aground on the sandbars, our guide said. The museum had artifacts like the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the freighter that sank about 15 miles from the point in 1975 with 29 people aboard.
“I remember the wind that day,” a man from Green Bay told me.
Outside, visitors walked the shore, the southeastern end of Superior.
“Looks different from the north shore,” said a visitor, who I wrongly assumed was talking about Minnesota’s North Shore until I realized he meant Canada.
Following the green Circle Tour road signs, we stopped at the Grand Sable Dunes, where we sweated and trudged up 300-foot-high banks that stretch over 5 square miles. I looked at my map. Wawa, where we were three days earlier, was somewhere out there in the blue horizon.
Paddling Pictured Rocks
After spending much of the Circle Tour in remote areas, we noticed the crowds starting to grow once we arrived in Michigan.
Cars with license plates from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois and New York filled our hotel parking lot as we left for a tour of Pictured Rocks, one of four national lakeshores in the U.S.
After paddling the caves of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands, I had high hopes for Pictured Rocks — and it blew me away. We maneuvered our kayaks under arches and into caves surrounded by a translucent blue-green water. Impressive sandstone cliffs streaked with minerals seeping from groundwater — turquoise from copper, red and orange from iron and brown and black from manganese — were works of art. Like magic, fog creeping on the lake dissipated as a waterfall dropped off the cliff into the lake in the distance.
The natural beauty is alluring. The nearby town of Munising (pronounced MEW-ni-sing) is booming with visitors, to the pleasure and dismay of its 2,300 residents. One resident said tourism has increased 10-fold since he was a kid. “It’s way more popular,” he said of Pictured Rocks, adding that businesses have been renamed after its hot spot. “I hope they don’t rename the town.”
According to the National Park Service, the number of annual visitors surged to more than 780,000 in 2017 from 440,000 visitors a decade earlier.
After stopping at breweries in Marquette and Houghton in the Keweenaw Peninsula, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we joined the crowds visiting Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Michigan’s largest state park.
In the sweet cool air, we hiked past Presque Isle River waterfalls, following the river as it flowed into Superior, where waves slammed a pebble beach. I looked at my map; Lutsen, Minn., was across the way.
At the campground, people sat in the glow of smartphones outside RVs while we were mesmerized by the flicker of our campfire’s red coals. We climbed into our tents in the crisp night and I was filled with sadness that the next day would be our last, passing Ashland and Bayfield before reaching the finish line, in Duluth, after eight days of sightseeing and 1,700 total miles of driving.
But until then, I was lulled to sleep by the familiar sound of those crashing waves, the repetitive roar of the lake we now know just a little bit better.