Driving Around The Big Lake

I’ve driven around Lake Superior before, but I haven’t seen the South Shore very much.  Only in bits and pieces, and often at night.

This year I decided to finally take the time and drive and see the whole thing.  And in daylight.

Approaching from  the East, here’s the North Shore of Lake Huron, at Blind River.


Here’s a glimpse of shoreline in Lake Superior Provincial Park, just North of the Soo.


These are Indian pictographs at Agawa Rocks.  They’re hundreds of years old, if not a thousand.

Those are the only two pictographs I managed to see because they’re located at the base of a slippery cliff, right at the waters’ edge.  You have to hold onto chains so you don’t fall in, and it was a bit treacherous that day.


Further along in the park is Gargantua Beach.   It’s 15 km from the highway, via a twisting gravel road through the bush.

There are no cottages or campgrounds here.   I had the whole place to myself and experience my “Moment of Zen”.

Superior’s shorelines in Ontario are often unspoiled like this.  That’s why I keep coming back.


One of my favorite beaches is Sandy Beach, just outside of Wawa.   Again, I had the entire place to myself.   Even on labor day weekend, you might only see a dozen or so people here.

It was too cold to swim at this date in late June.   Though the water temp becomes reasonable at the end of August.


Next, is the Bear having a pensive moment at Neys Provincial Park, near the town of Marathon.

 In the 1940’s, this place was so remote, they used it as a German POW camp in WWII.

I imagine that camp would have been pretty escape-proof camp, back then.   With only one train to get in and out, and surrounded by hundreds of miles of bush and black flies.


In the 700 km trek between Sault-Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, there are about 7 towns/villages of any significance, totalling about 12,000 people.

 Schreiber is one of them, with a population of 900.  It’s basically a railway town.

Notice the scrubby black spruce trees everywhere.  That’s because this is the boreal forest.

It has a very northern feel:  you dont’ see any pine trees or maples.   The only hardwoods are birch and popular.


Just a bit further down the road is Rossport.  This is more of a village, without even a grocery store or gas station.   It appears to have a small artist colony of some sort.


I took a side-trip and went North of Superior to the town of Beardmore.   Apparently its claim to fame is a giant 40-foot snowman.

Notice the Bear in the “BEAR” part.


Of course  I had to take the detour to see Lake Nipigon, for the first time.

This is a pretty serious lake.  About 60 km x 100 km, it’s almost like Great Lake itself.


Lunch was a cardiac burger at the Nipigon Drive-In.    It was awesome.

 Too bad it’s a 2-day drive from where I live.  Otherwise I’d eat there more often.


Here’s downtown Nipigon itself, population 1,700.

I notice every town in Northern Ontario has an old hotel which is always shut down.    Apparently a relic from the older railway days, before mom-and-pop motels took over.   Seems downtown hotels just don’t do well anymore in the north.


Here’s a scene just outside Thunder Bay.  It was rush-hour and there was traffic.  I wasn’t in the mood to go see the town itself.


Crossing into Minnesota:  I always like road signs shaped like the place they’re in.


I found the shoreline in Minnesota disappointing, though.   Sure, it’s a beautiful lake.  But public parks and beaches were few and far between.  Most of the waterfront was taken up by either private property or by Highway 61.


Here’s Duluth, taken from my car.  As it was a big city, I was in no mood to stop and kept on driving.   This was the furthest point West of my trip.


At least we got back to sandy beaches and trees in Wisconsin, near the Apostle Island National Lakeshore.   It was quite scenic, but somewhat busy,with sailboats and lots of marinas.


There wasn’t a decent state sign to take a photo of the Bear with in Wisconsin, but at least I got one of him entering Michigan.


The first thing I noticed with the Upper Peninsula was the population density.   Here’s the town of Ironwood, population ~ 6000.    Seems there was one town after another, like this, every 10-20 km.

 The U.P. is said to be empty, but I found this part of Lake Superior surprisingly crowded, compared to the Canadian side.


Two things fascinate me on my road trips:    One is photos of large things.   Another is finding ski hills in the middle of nowhere.

Here, near the town of Wakefield, I found BOTH.

It amazes me that someone went through a lot of trouble to build this.   Look at the craftsmanship that went into the skier.   A sculpture for the ages, this will be.

The ski hill itself was interesting.   You don’t see too many old metal double-chairlifts like these anymore.   They date back 30-40 years.


I was pretty impressed with the Porcupine Mountains.    Here is nearly 60,000 acres of virgin forest, one of the largest remaining tracts of old-grown hardwood left in North America.

This place is large enough to have wolves and moose.   It’s nice to see the state of Michigan had the foresight to preserve this area.

I managed to get a swim in there, too.   The beach was rocky..but the water temperature was do-able.


There is s definite southern feel to Superior along this part of the U.P, with the sandy beaches and hardwood trees.   The forest is totally different here.  Gone is the boreal forest from the North Shore, and its scraggly black spruce.  It’s amazing just  2-3 degrees of latitude can do.


Next  on my agenda was to drive up the Keweenaw peninsula, which is a  ~100 km long strip of land that juts right out into the middle of the lake.

One of the first towns I came across was Houghton and Hancock, across the river.   These were surprisingly big towns, with a combined population of ~ 12,000.   This alone is more people than the entire population between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay on the north shore.

Point of trivia:   It’s less distance to drive from Detroit to Washington, DC, than it is to drive from Detroit to Houghton.  (This gives you a good idea of  how far off the beaten path the U.P. is!)


At one time, copper mining was really huge in the Keweenaw peninsula.  But the industry peaked decades ago.    What remains are a lot of ghost-towns and abandoned mines, reminders of boom-years that have long since passed.

The economy is definitely not doing well here.   I came across one town after another, with closed-down stores and abandoned gas stations.  The town of Calumet seemed to be hanging on, though.

Everything was made of red brick, even the church, which you don’t see too often.


Here’s the beach near Eagle Harbor.  This was on Saturday, July 9th.     Peak tourist season, and the place was absolutely deserted, which I kinda liked.  (Though I suspect hotel and restaurant owners didn’t!)   The locals assured me that business will pick up in August.


Here’s as close as I go to the tip of the peninsula in Copper Harbor.    Of course, you had to pay money to enter the State Park to see the lighthouse up close, and I wasn’t going to do that.

It was actually downright COLD that day.   The local bookstore had the wood stove going.  This did NOT feel like July.

Heading south again, there was a nice beach at Bete Grise.  But again, too cold and damp to swim.


And of course, there was a SKI HILL!  And a pretty decent sized one, too. (Boggles my mind the places where they build these things!)


Okay…now this is just GAY.

It was strange to see a huge abandoned smoke stack still standing just outside of the town.  Probably from an old copper smelter.

It didn’t look perfectly vertical.  I reckon it’ll probably fall over one of these days.


A few hours later, I hit the town of Marquette.  (Another major metropolis, by Norther Ontario standards!)   The weather went from cold and damp to stinking hot in only a couple of hours of driving.  Summer was back.



The next day was a scorcher…hot and humid, and stagnant.    The lake was like glass.     So I put my canoe in it, and I paddled Superior for the first time.    This was at a beach along Picture Rocks National Lakeshore, another pristine area that is nicely preserved.

The water was so amazingly clear, you could see all kinds of rocks and fish, right to the bottom.


Of course, I could have taken the main highway back to the Soo, but I did one last side-trip, and ended up on some logging road, east of Grand-Marais Michigan.  It was one of the few highways I found in Michigan that was unpaved.


One last view of the Lake before heading back to the Soo, was at a picnic area off Highway 123,  next to Tahquemonon Falls State Park.

There was a sand-bar and you could wade out hundreds of meters, and only go up to your knees.  The water was incredibly warm..the warmest I’d ever seen the lake.


Finally, I was back at the Soo, crossing over to the Canadian side.

I considered that end of my road-trip.

Home was still hundreds of km away.

But as far as I was concerned, the best part was already over.

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8 Comments on “Driving Around The Big Lake”

  1. Hi Friar,

    Great photos. Many from my old neck of the woods. Ironwood, Calumet, Houghton, Hancock, Marquette. The lake is so massive, it’s amazing to think it touches so many states plus Canada.

    I saw the photo of “Gay” on your Facebook page and wondered if it was taken in the U.P. Yup!

    Looks like you had a grand time. Thank you for sharing the photos. They brought back lots of great memories.

  2. Friar Says:


    Yeah..it was a pretty good trip. I started with a 7-day fishing trip at a lodge north of Superior, followed by the circle tour

    I knew you were from around this area, roughly. I didn’t realize specifically these parts of the U.P. It’s a really nice area. Kind of out of the way, No Six-flags parks. No crowded beaches…which is what I like.

    Of course I have to do this all over again, one of these years. Now that I’ve scoped it out and know the good spots to stop.

  3. Linda Says:

    What a great trip you and Bear had! One of these days I plan to get to know the state that I live in better. It’s neat to just travel and SEE. Thank you for the wonderful geography lesson.

  4. Hi Friar – We’ll be doing the northern route – Duluth – Thunder Bay – Sault Ste Marie on our way to Michigan next month. Don’t you love the sand beaches in the U.P. And I really love the Keewanaw and Pictured Rocks.

    You were a little too early for the pow-wow and re-enactment of the traders’ rendezvous in Grand Portage. That’s pretty fun. Also, wish I’d known you were going; I’d have finagled you a native guide to the Spirit Tree. It’s hiding in plain sight along the shoreline outside Grand Portage, but because it’s sacred, you need a tribal member to take you in to see it from land. You descend into a forested glade that is reminiscent of Lord of the Rings on a rickety walkway with handholds. And then, all of a sudden, there’s a break with the icy blue water beyond, and the little tree, thousands of years old, growing out of a rock.

    I am headed up to gaze at the lake this weekend, too. Somehow, my girlfriend has managed to score an inexpensive cottage rental right on the shore for years now at a laughable rate. I will be priming myself for the larger reunion I will have with the Big Lake in a few weeks. Thanks for a great post.

  5. Friar Says:

    I’m amazed at how many people live within a days drive of Lake Superior, yet have never seen it, even in 30 years.

    You should definitely go, if you haven’t already.

    Yeah…if I had known, i would have gone to see that. I live the stuff off the beaten path that the regular tourists don’t get to see.

    As for Lake Superiour…you…definitely GET IT. Many people don’t. It’s a shame.

    Looking forward to your blog post when you get back. We can compare notes.

  6. SVC Says:

    I revisited some childhood memories. Just outside Wawa, in the 1970’s, a small tourist area was created near a historial site, and cemetary. It included a church made of glass, old wine bottles. I was fascinated by it as a child. My two sisters, and I, my father, and aunt visited the site after the death of my mother, whom lost her fight to breast cancer. I have photos of us running on the rocky beach.

    Some twenty five years later, my supervisor from the Sault, during a team visit to Wawa, informed us that she wanted to take us to a special place. It took us a while to find the road as it was badly overgrown. To my surprise it was the same site I had been taken to as a child. The area was abandoned. The glass church was toppled and vandalized. The cementary however remains. Almost returning to its original state and really so fitting. It is hard to describe the spirit of this place. A mix of true tranquility, the power of the earth / nature, and impedding presense of spirits past.

  7. Friar Says:


    I like to explore the back-roads of places like Wawa and find special places that the tourists dont’ know about. Too bad about the church…that would have been cool to see.

    I can imagine Wawa in the 1970’s. That must have really been like the “end of the world” back then.

  8. svc Says:

    If you google Fort Friendship Wawa, you can see old pictures. I was informed that the family that owns the property is attempting to rebuild. It is said that the grandparents, and original owners / builders were inspired by the tv series, the Forest Rangers. I used to ador that show. lol. The property is on Michipicotan River where is meets Lake Superior.

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