We strode through an open forest of red pine onto a long beach, whipped by waves rolling off Lake Superior. We hiked the strand to the rocky almost-island for which Little Presque Isle Natural Area is named. Then we ducked back into the forest to walk along cliffs and look down into a quiet bay and a crazy-quilt pattern in the sandstone lakebed.

"This is one of the gems of Marquette," said my companion James McCommons, a journalism professor at Northern Michigan University, "to be able to drive out from town and in 10 minutes to be walking in someplace like this."

He was right to say just "one." McCommons might have been talking about Big Presque Isle. Or Sugarloaf Mountain. Or Mount Marquette. Or any of dozens of waterfront parks, waterfalls, natural areas and hiking trails within a short drive of town.

Marquette, population 20,000, has long been an industrial outpost on the south shore of Lake Superior. It remains the largest town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula -- an "edgy" place, in the words of writer John G. Mitchell, "a rawhide flap of the old frontier." You can still watch as taconite is loaded aboard 1,000-foot boats sidled up to the ore docks on the edge of town.

Now, Marquette is gracefully transforming its nitty- gritty waterfront into an appealing public space, with multiuse trails, a nearby farmers market, condominiums and good restaurants. Yet for travelers, what makes Marquette unique is its setting in the wild hinterlands of Lake Superior shore and forest.

I first saw it more than a dozen years ago. My wife and I were kayaking, by fits and starts, around Lake Superior. After a 30-mile day along the sandy beaches and craggy cliffs south of Big Bay, we landed in Marquette, loaded our boats and sneaked out of town in darkness, never a good way to first see a small town, especially one as picturesque as Marquette.

So I jumped at a chance to go back this spring as a visiting writer at Northern Michigan University.

Marquette clings to a hillside on a bay, a sweetwater maritime town. Waves pound the milelong breakwater. Gulls wheel above the marina and stake out territories on pilings. Sailboat masts bristle from the marina like porcupine quills. Thill's Fish House sells fresh-caught fish on the waterfront every day but Sunday.

Historic buildings dot town

Remnants of a once-more-vigorous iron-mining industry are also part of Marquette's charms. A hulking concrete ore-loading dock stands, no longer used, at Lower Harbor. It anchors the eastern end of what will become the 48-mile multiuse Iron Ore Heritage Trail from Marquette through points west. A waterfront walkway, city parks and ball fields, and new condos have opened the waterfront to residents and tourists.

Brick and sandstone buildings stand along Washington and Front streets, the heart of downtown. City residents still boast that the 1959 film version of "Anatomy of a Murder" (based on a murder in nearby Big Bay), starring James Stewart, was filmed in the neoclassical Marquette County Courthouse. Equally impressive is the Peter White Public Library (named for a prominent early settler, banker and businessman), with its curious collections of bells and Japanese art.

Across the street is the Landmark Inn, which opened in 1930 and has hosted, over the years, Amelia Earhart, Abbott and Costello, Louis Armstrong and the Rolling Stones. With hardwood-paneled walls and marble floors, the lobby feels cozy yet classy. The hotel is one of the best places in town for a meal and drink, whether in the dressy Capers Restaurant or the convivial Northland Pub, where I grabbed a salad and pizza my first evening in town.

Miles of trails link to nature

The university campus, though nearly deserted in summer, contributes to a hippie student vibe and led to the existence, no doubt, of the community co-op, a community garden and two yoga studios.

And skateboards. One evening I watched a young woman carve graceful curves, arching far back on her board, at full speed down the middle of a city street.

On Third Street, the commercial hub radiating from campus, a young man pumped, pumped, pumped his board, holding a six-pack in one hand, weaving down the sidewalk at high speed and then around a corner and out of sight. I even talked to a student taking videos of his skateboarding buddies, following the action with a camera suspended from a remote-controlled helicopter.

And, of course, the bikes. They're everywhere: mountain bikes, road bikes, balloon-tire bikes. One evening I came upon a crowd hanging off the porch of a yellow house on Third Street. Bikes were all over the place.

A bike shop? It was the busiest place in town on a Thursday. But it turned out to be Blackrocks Brewery, a "nano brewery," explained owner Andy Langlois. With eight fermenters, he and business partner David Manson sell a revolving variety of beers. They are cyclists and have attracted a biking crowd.

John Frye stood by the door in cycling shorts and cap, drinking a beer. He rides both road and mountain bikes and has been particularly impressed by the development of paths for mountain biking and trail running -- all by volunteers.

"In the last 10 years it's gone from a half-dozen miles of single track to well over 50 miles," he said.

Nevin Brownell, with silken beard and elfin mischief in his eye, puts the mileage even higher. "Marked there are probably 50 miles, and unmarked probably 150." And that's not counting the city multiuse trail around town (about 16 miles), or the 48-mile Heritage Trail, or routes that make use of existing roads.

Hike leads to stellar view

But the bike trails are only one link to Marquette's natural setting. Marquette is surrounded by forest -- even infiltrated by woods. Stories abound of the moose that took up residence in Harlow Park, in the residential neighborhood just up the hill from downtown.

The city's natural gemstone is Presque Isle Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted on a 300-acre knob of rock and forest jutting into Superior on the north edge of town. Peter White Drive carries sightseers around the park, to a pavilion, playgrounds, picnic areas and a 97-slip harbor of refuge. Nearly 7 miles of trail crisscross the peninsula. Popular spots to view the lake are the jagged and sinister Black Rocks and sheltered Sunset Point.

"I don't know what Marquette would be without Presque Isle," city planner Dave Stensaas told me. "It's probably the most significant feature of our city."

The shoreline, with its beaches, cliffs and scattered islands, is a thrill for sea kayakers. Pounding surf on McCarty's Cove draws surfers bundled in full-body wetsuits. Farther east, it's just a day trip to hiking, kayaking or cruising in the tour boats of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

The region around Marquette is laced with trout streams, such as the blue-ribbon Fence and Ford rivers. The Carp, Chocolay and Little Garlic get runs of steelhead and salmon. And an hour to the south, the wide, rollicking Escanaba River runs so broad and continually swift it seems to have been imported from Montana. The streams form dozens of scenic waterfalls within a half-hour drive of town.

One evening, McCommons and I hiked up Sugarloaf, a hump of rock north of town and the centerpiece of Marquette County's Sugarloaf Mountain Natural Area. The well-trodden trail is augmented by sturdy steps in the steepest sections. From the viewing platform atop the hill, we looked out over the dark, scalloped edges of Superior's waves 470 feet below.

Turning inland, McCommons pointed out Hogsback Mountain, site of another popular hiking route. And in the far distance, Mount Arvon, at 1,979 feet, the state's highest point. Along the coast to the north we could see Little Presque Isle, the mouth of the Little Garlic River and the location of Little Garlic Falls with old-growth hemlock. We could see nearly all the way to Big Bay, a crenulated coast of sand beaches, craggy headlands and kayaking hideaways. Then south -- rocky islands, like bread crumbs, all the way to the prominent knob of Presque Isle.

And there, just down the shore, sat downtown Marquette -- just a short drive away.

Greg Breining's latest book is "Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico Wilderness."