We visited Houghton in late May 2016, as part of Big Trip #1.
Raise your hand if you can point out Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on a map. Anyone? Yeah, I couldn’t either. Michigan is often referred to as the Mitten State, because, well, look at it and you’ll see the mitten and thumb. But look closer and you’ll notice that there’s another piece of Michigan on the north side of Lake Michigan; that’s the Upper Peninsula, and the mitten is the Lower Peninsula.
Houghton (“HOE-ton”) is a little college town on the Keweenaw Peninsula (“KEE-wuh-naw”), which juts out from the very top of the Upper Peninsula into Lake Superior. The Keweenaw Peninsula is pretty remote–it’s a longer distance to drive from Houghton to Detroit than from Detroit to Washington DC! Houghton sits on the Portage Lake/canal/river body of water that cuts across the peninsula, close to Lake Superior beaches, historic copper mines, and a few tiny fishing towns, with trees as far as the eye can see. Plan your travel carefully, though: winters are brutal and long, and summer brings mosquitoes and black flies. The skeeters were starting to buzz around in late May when we were there, and the locals told us the black fly invasion was only a few weeks away.
Our site at the City of Houghton RV Campground is in the running for our favorite of the trip. We were lucky, again, to not have many neighbors, and we got a sweet waterfront spot, with a shaded picnic table and enough space to set up Bugsy’s fenced-in yard. The campground is adjacent to a public park with a little beach, and a running path that follows the water for 4.5 miles through town and past the University. Wifi didn’t work, but no surprise there. If you go there, make sure to ask for a waterfront spot!
Exploring the Keweenaw Peninsula
Houghton is compact and easily explored by walking up and down the few main streets. We didn’t explore the University at all, but there’s a display of giant copper ore boulders in the lobby of the Environmental Sciences and Engineering building, if you’re into that sort of thing. We also heard there are “student snowmobile parking only” signs on campus, which I kind of wanted to go hunting for.
Water Front Trail
For a workout with views of town, the water, the super cool bridge–the world’s heaviest and widest double-decker vertical-lift bridge, which is kept in a partially-raised position during the summer to allow regular boat traffic to pass (it is occasionally lifted higher for big boats), and lowered in the winter so snowmobiles can use the lower deck–across the river/canal/lake to Hancock, hit the paved Water Front Trail.
Quincy Copper Mine
The Keweenaw Peninsula has a rich copper mining history. The Quincy copper mine, just north of Houghton, is open for tours of both the surface equipment, where you’ll learn about the world’s largest steam-powered hoist engine, and the subsurface, down to the dark and dank seventh level of the mine. If you go for the last tour of the day on a Sunday early in the season, you might be the only tourist and get a private tour! Yeah, that was me. It was a fascinating tour, especially the parts about how the miners worked deep within the mine, and how the hoist operator, up to two miles away on the surface, communicated with the miners down below.
Upper Keweenaw Peninsula
Copper Harbor is a small summertime resort town at the very top of the Keweenaw, and the gateway to Isle Royale National Park, which we couldn’t visit because it’s only accessible by a hours-long boat ride, and since it’s a National Park, dogs aren’t allowed. We spent a half day driving up the peninsula to Copper Harbor via the Bete Grise Preserve and Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary, stopping to hike in both places. At the nature preserve we left the wetlands trail to walk down a deserted Lake Superior beach, much to Bugsy’s delight. The Estivant Pines hike was pretty lame, but the old-growth white pine forest was pretty. We returned to Houghton over Brockway Mountain Road, the highest paved road between the Rockies and the Alleghenies, with big Lake Superior views, and stopped at Jampot near Eagle Harbor. Jampot is a little bakery run by Catholic monks, selling all sorts of candies, cookies, breads, cakes, and jams for not-cheap prices. The goodies we bought were delicious. Caution: in late May, no roadside food was to be found anywhere in the little towns we passed through, except treats at Jampot.
Eating and Drinking
- Joey’s Seafood & Grill for delicious seafood (including several fish taco options!) in a kind of cheesy atmosphere
- Neat scene and so-so beer at Keweenaw Brewing Company
- Beer and a hilarious Saturday night out-on-the-town crowd at Downtowner Lounge
- Good sandwiches and wifi on the dog-friendly patio at 5th & Elm Coffeehouse
- Breakfast pasties (as we learned in Durango, it’s “PASS-tees”) and wifi on the dog-friendly patio overlooking the water at Roy’s Pasties and Bakery