In October of 1999, a friend from Chicago and I took one of my favorite vacations ever – we drove around Lake Superior!
We left the night of September 30th from Minneapolis in my brand new Chevy Silverado truck that had less than 200 miles on it. We drove all night straight to Thunder Bay, Ontario, with a short stop in Duluth at Canal Park to ‘officially’ kick off our Circle Tour. We skipped touring any of the North Shore as we both had been to the area numerous times and wanted to have more time around the rest of the lake. Oh, I must mention the two moose we saw around Lutsen, Minnesota, on our drive. What a great start!
Day 1 – We arrived early in the morning to our hotel in downtown Thunder Bay, Ontario. After some sleep, we explored the marina area before heading out to Kakabeka Falls and Mount McKay. Both are great parks that deserve ample time for hiking around. That night we wandered around the downtown area and found a few people out enjoying the evening.
Day 2 – First stop was at the Terry Fox Memorial just outside of town. Then we made our way to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park where we hiked around for a few hours. We quickly recognized that we needed more time to do this park justice. (This won’t be the last time we make this discovery!) One memorable moment was that morning when it started to snow like crazy at the Sea Lion in Sibley. The red fox that wanted to jump in the truck and join us for the rest of the trip was funny, too. Moving on we made our last stop at Ouimet Canyon before dark. On the way into the park we startled a black bear on the road coming around a curve. Our stop for the night was in Nipigon, Ontario.
Day 3 – Being this close to the legendary Lake Nipigon meant we started the day with a side trip up Route 11 to a park on the east side of the lake. It was a windy, blistering cold day, but our excitement of seeing the lake kept us warm – along with coats, hats, and gloves. After a windy picnic by the huge splashing waves similar to Superior’s, we headed back to the Circle Tour and drove to Marathon with a stop at Rainbow Falls Provincial Park. The park hosts a series of falls and trails worth a visit.
Day 4 – The next day we had dedicated to Pukaskwa National Park. Should have been a week! We hiked around the Hattie Cove area close to the entrance for a while and started down the Coastal Hiking Trail just a short way. We quickly grasped just how large this park truly is! Realizing that we still had a little drive ahead of us, we reluctantly left and drove to Wawa for our next night’s stay.
Day 5 – This trip was full of many awesome memories, but this day would stand out a little more. It started with us hiking around Old Woman Bay on the north end of Lake Superior Provincial Park. Next, we drove a beautiful but slow and rugged gravel drive from the main road to Gargantua Bay. It was a nice remote location, though there were a few other 4X4s in the small parking area. We started up a coastline trail and were hit again by another dose of geographic reality. Hoping to make it to Devil’s Chair landmark, we had to settle for just going a little ways when we saw a posted map with further than expected distances.
As we trudged along in the rain with no milestone in mind now, we both joked about how far we were from civilization and the fact we were probably not alone in the woods. Not more than five minutes after spotting some fresh tracks we heard the loudest noise I’ve ever heard in the woods – a spooked moose. The sound of this animal running away from us (thankfully!) while knocking over and crushing anything in its way must have made me jump three feet. It was like a car wreck and happened so fast. We quickly were able to see it after it stopped and eyed us up from deeper in the woods. After our hearts got back down in our chests, we slowly backed away and we were silent for a few minutes until we felt safe enough to show our excitement. With the rain constantly coming down we had put our cameras away and were too awestruck and shocked to get them back out. So we don’t have pictures from the experience, but it is one that we will never forget.
We did stop at Agawa Bay in the park to hike around a bit before ending a wonderful day at Batchawana Bay. It was here where another memorable event took place – our first poutine dinner.
Day 6 – We headed out to Sault Ste. Marie and felt like we were in the big city! We drove back out to Gros Cap where the lake ends and channels its way towards the locks in town. We drove around the city, including a stop on the Michigan side at a history museum and the Tower of History with nice views of the area. The evening ended with a short drive down to the Mackinac area with a ride across the massive bridge.
Day 7 – The entire day was spent on the Agawa Railway tour. Another highlight of the trip, but be advised to move quickly when given time off the train. Skip the stores and head for the waterfalls and giant staircase to the overlook because the hour goes by very quickly.
Day 8 – Started our trek along the south shore with a stop at the Iroquois Lighthouse and a trip to Whitefish Point with its lighthouse and shipwreck museum. Though it was another rainy day, we didn’t seem to mind at Tahquamenon Falls State Park where it seemed kind of fitting with all the colorful leaves covering both the trees and ground. We ended our day at Munising, Michigan.
Day 9 – We began the day with a boat tour along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This was definitely another highlight of the trip, though the afternoon tours probably have better lighting along the shore than in the morning. We wanted to get going in the afternoon, however. We did stop at an overlook of Grand Island before making our way to Marquette, Michigan. There we hiked around Presque Isle, which was a very neat park with many spectacular views of the lake. Even better views were up the road at Sugarloaf Mountain, where we climbed to what felt like the top of the world. We drove to the end of the road, though night had fallen, only to find nothing open in Big Bay, including the lighthouse/B&B closed to the public.
Day 10 – This day was a milestone of sorts as I’ve always wanted to visit the Keweenaw Peninsula. After going through Houghton, Michigan, we took the south roads to get to Copper Harbor. Once there we drove up to Brockway Mountain for a bird’s-eye view. That evening we drove to Eagle Harbor to see the operating lighthouse. As we sat on the shore we watched a ship cruise by slowly in the distance. Little did I know at the time, but the next morning we heard how a sailor had slipped off the ship into the 46 degree water. He swam for 7.5 hours to the shores of Eagle Harbor through waves guessed to be 6-8 feet high. Imagine our surprise finding that out the next day!
Day 11 – On the day we heard that news, we wandered around town a bit and hiked around the lakeshore for a long time. It was hard to leave and we wished we had yet another day to just burn around on the tip of the Keweenaw. We left town but by way of Brockway Mountain again for another look from above. It was a clear enough day that one could see Isle Royale way off in the distance. Even with our late start and long distance to Bayfield, we made time to visit the Porcupine Mountain area. The well known highlight of Lake in the Clouds was worth it. We also found some other trails with overlooks in the area before getting back in the truck for Bayfield, Wisconsin. It was fairly late when we arrived and not much was open in mid-October.
Day 12 – We hopped a ferry to Madeline Island of the Apostles Islands and drove around most of that island that day. We visited both the local and state parks, which were equally impressive. One had long, sandy beaches and the other had the picturesque rocky shoreline that Lake Superior is known for. We ferried back to the mainland and drove up and around the Bayfield Peninsula with numerous viewpoint stops along the way. We also had two separate black bear viewings along the road towards the city of Superior, Wisconsin. When we rolled into Duluth that night we were so excited as we had completed the Circle Tour! We were supposed to drive back to the Twin Cities that night, but decided to extend the trip one more night and stay in Duluth and celebrate an incredible trip!
As it is probably obvious, I could go on and on about this trip and the shores of Lake Superior. I mentioned some highlights and places where more time is needed. I hope to do the tour again someday with those places in mind when planning the trip. I really enjoy the time of the year as there were days where we saw no one in the parks. Yet places were still open for a couple more weeks until the winter season.
Steve Crumley, Minneapolis, Minnesota