The rain was bringing the leaves down, their vibrant colors brightening what otherwise could have been a dismal, gray day. Pulling out of Tahquamenon Falls State Park, we were on the last leg of our U.P. tour. The trip was almost over, the majority of our adventures behind us; but we were hoping to find a few activities yet to be had. We were headed for St. Ignace, known as the Gateway to the Upper Peninsula.
Michigan’s second-oldest city founded by Europeans and the third oldest continuously inhabited city in the U.S., St. Ignace is a small town of about 2,400 that swells with tourists in the warm-weather months. It is one of the two points of embarkation for Mackinac Island, with passenger ferries running almost constantly in the tourist season, less frequently during the other months. All freight for the island is shipped from St. Ignace and the island residents use the town for resupplying their needs and other vital services.
It was a short drive of little more than 60 miles to arrive at St. Ignace. Our campground was in Straits State Park, which is located within the city limits and very convenient for seeing the sights. An outstanding feature of the facility is its proximity to the famous Mackinac Bridge, which spans the Straits of Mackinac. Indeed, the campground itself is located adjacent to the beach that provides a fantastic view of the bridge. Being late in the season, and probably due to the inclement conditions, we found the campground sparsely populated. Taking advantage of a lull in the rain, we quickly set up.
We thought touring the town, checking out points of interest and getting a good warm lunch would be the perfect way to prevent the chill of the day from dampening our activities. We found the town located in a very picturesque spot, as it was built up the side of limestone bluffs, from which one had superb views of the Mackinac Straits. There were plenty of little shops to satisfy just about any tourist’s needs and desires. We found a couple of good ones interspersed with all the others. A good hot bowl of soup and a sandwich also fit the bill. The small downtown diner with a classic soda fountain and vintage look more than sufficed. Homemade pie for dessert was a highlight of Melinda’s day.
The other highlight would come much later. In the meantime, we headed back to camp, revved up the furnace a few degrees and began to revise our upcoming itinerary. With the rain socking everything in, and the windy chill adding a bite to the air, it was decided that an excursion over to Mackinac Island, especially in view of biking being the intended activity, might not be in the cards for us this trip. Not ready to head home quite yet, we began making alternative plans.
As afternoon turned into evening, Melinda began dinner preparations. Chris stepped outside to string up some lights, and then came back in to report a slight change in the weather conditions. Seeing the clouds beginning to break slightly, could a photo op be in the making? Melinda took no chances . . . gearing up . . . heading out . . . the beach was merely a few steps away. There was a landmark bridge to play the starring role. Moreover, the skies did look promising.
Before November of 1957, getting to the U.P. from down below required a 45-minute car ferry ride, plus the extra time waiting and then loading vehicles onto the ferry. In summer that might mean a 3-4 hour wait. Hunting season was even longer—5-mile backups were common, a 20-hour wait not unknown.
The Mackinac Bridge turned the ferry trip into a 10-minute drive. And opened up the U.P. to unprecedented tourism. A new era had been born.
There is a fine line (and frequently a short time span) between overcast skies and a brilliant sunset. The trick is to be ready . . . the moment is just as quickly passed. Not only did the colors come out, but after the golden glow subsided, another one came on after that. The afterglow can sometimes be as equally photogenic as the sunset. It takes hanging around and being patient. Sometimes, but not always, your wait will get rewarded.
As predicted, the morning skies were just as gloomy as the day before. If anything, the wind had increased. It made our decision to head “down state” that much easier to accept. After packing up and pulling out, we took a slight detour to Bridgeview Park for one last lingering look at that famous bridge.
It is affectionately known as “Mighty Mac.” Today the Mackinac Bridge is the 5th longest suspension bridge in the world and the longest in the western hemisphere. The longest suspension bridge is in Japan, the next longest in Denmark. Both were built in 1998. The total length of this bridge is just under 5 miles; the length of the suspension segment is about 8,600 feet. Besides the length of the span, a unique engineering challenge was dealing with the tremendous forces that operate against the base of the bridge. During winter, the two lakes freeze and enormous stress is placed on the bridge structure by large icebergs. Another interesting fact is that painting the bridge takes 7 years, and when it is completed, it is time to begin again.
And then we drove out. Crossing the bridge officially brought our U.P. Tour to its conclusion. We were taking with us lots of good memories and rewarding experiences . . . we were leaving behind the best of the fall color.
Fall comes later to Lower Michigan, especially along the lakeshores. But what we might be sacrificing in fall color might just be recompensed in sunsets. And a girl with a camera can’t get too many of those.
Petoskey State Park has an ideal location, in many respects. It is midway between two of northern Michigan’s prettiest small towns, Petoskey and Harbor Springs, where there are plenty of interesting things to do. It is also positioned near one terminus of a 26-mile paved bike trail, the Little Traverse Wheelway, that provides a very scenic ride (Chris was ready). And then there was the view from the heavily vegetated, sand-duned beach. Positioned on the far western edge of Little Traverse Bay which is an inlet of Lake Michigan, the state park’s beach makes for a prime sunset spot, in any season. Unfortunately, the last time we camped here, several years ago, we spent 4 futile evenings waiting to see one of those appear. Heavily overcasted skies prevented any breakthroughs. We knew someday we’d be back. And, if nature had any sense of fair play, we were due a payback.
We were giving it two days. Two nights and one full day, to be exact. Melinda would be ready with her camera, and Chris intended to check out that bike trail. Our campsite was perfect . . . maybe the best yet. Enveloped by the woods on three sides, it fronted that west-facing beach. Chris looked forward to a blazing campfire. Melinda looked forward to some color in the sky.
The evening was still windy and the surf was up. It made for an exhilarating walk along the sandy beach. As evening turned to night, the light didn’t turn brilliant, but she was content with the captured mood.
A brisk, clear morning dawned. A hearty breakfast after a campground walk. A tour of downtown Petoskey, checking out some of the very good shops. And then Chris was off on his bike, leaving from the lake’s edge. Following the gentle undulating trail, his destination was the town of Charlevoix, the eastern trail terminus. Melinda would meet him there for a late lunch. And the weather couldn’t be more perfect.
Later, back at camp, sunset #2 would be of a totally different flavor, both in color and mood. The lake was as calm as bath water and the clouds hung around just enough to add the flair. Tonight she got her color, both in the sky and in reflected water. Nature had finally paid her back.
Just to balance things out, she was back on that same beach the following morning. With the sun rising behind the hills to the east, she really didn’t expect much of a show. Nevertheless, the sky became painted with a full palette of colors, making it worth the early rise from bed. It is no wonder that lakeside land is prime real estate around these parts.
Traverse City wasn’t all that far away, albeit not exactly on the route home. But the fair weather was still hanging on and this was one idyllic place to be. We packed up and left Petoskey, driving west just 60 miles or so.
One of our favorite aspects of Traverse City (and there are many) is the picturesque Old Mission Peninsula. We have never tired of exploring every segment of that place. It is one part rural countryside, with old barns and rolling farmlands, cherry and apple orchards. Another side is seen in all the vineyards covering the hillsides inland from the bays. The quaint village of Old Mission with its old store, simple wood homes and several white-sided churches is reminiscent of a New England town.
An 18-mile long tongue of land jutting out into Lake Michigan, the peninsula is flanked by the East and West Arms of Grand Traverse Bay. The clear blue waters can easily be seen from many vantage points on the land. A main road runs down its spine, with many paved and unpaved side roads branching from it, generally leading to water’s edge. It is an ideal place to bike, with several substantial hills adding challenge. It was a perfect way for Chris to spend the day.
Melinda took her camera and the truck. What she was losing in exercise, she hoped to be gaining in photo ops. Although the fall foliage wasn’t so apparent, other roadside color seemed to be filling in.
The many vineyards added a very pastoral atmosphere to the land. Ironically, here in northern Michigan where the winters are notoriously long, it makes for some good wine production. The moderating effect of the lake water helps to extend the fall season. Winter sets in and stays, no false, premature spring to bring out early budding. Deep snows blanket the vines, offering satisfactory insulation. The summer growing season is moderately warm and generally drought-free. All-in-all, a good place to have grapes growing.
The drive up the peninsula always ends at the lighthouse at Mission Point. Built in 1870, it’s right on the 45th Parallel, halfway between the North Pole and the equator. Protecting ships leaving West Grand Traverse Bay loaded with lumber, iron or agricultural products from the bay’s shoals and reefs, it was active until 1933. Automation of a light on the actual shoal now replaces the light from the tower.
A good dinner at the Apache Trout Grille (highly recommended!) ended our stay here in Traverse City as well as our entire travels UP North. Back at the Airstream we packed up, preparing for an early departure.
But Melinda had one more outing in mind . . . slipping out before the dawn of day. A last sunrise caught on a lonely beach, empty now but still retaining late summer memories. It seemed a fitting way to close out this trip . . . blessed by good weather and fortunate experiences. We lived each day as it came, and captured many good places in photos.
Heading home from an UP North adventure . . .
Chris and Melinda