Your next Upper Peninsula camping getaway should be at this incredible gem: The Hiawatha National Forest near St. Ignace, Michigan.
Our trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan started with a crisis: We could not find a pasty anywhere north of the bridge. By the time we’d crossed the famous, nerve-inducing 5-mile long Mackinac Bridge at 4:00 in the afternoon in September, the town of St. Ignace was flat-out, sold-out of its signature hand-held sandwiches.
“Don’t worry,” I reassured my husband, Tim. “We won’t head home without one … or a dozen.”
It was a rough start to our trip north, but I’m a firm believer that the best family vacations hinge on a common goal of some sort: In this case, we’d come to explore the Hiawatha National Forest—but finding the world’s best pasties is always a reason our family of four (Tim, me and our two teenage sons) braves the wilds of the Yoop.
With a few hours of daylight left, we soaked in the beauty of St. Ignace and buried our pasty-grief with peanut butter fudge (me) from Murdick’s Fudge Shop and Oreo shakes (the three guys) from Molly Moo’s Ice Cream Parlor. We walked with our goodies down to the harbor overlooking Lake Huron and watched the ferry coming back from Mackinac Island just 5 miles away. We love visiting the island: It’s back-in-time, car-free world beckoned. But this time we hadn’t come for the water.
We’d come for the woods: Specifically, Hiawatha National Forest (HNF). St. Ignace lies in the heart of HNF, and it was reassuring as we pulled onto US-2 to know that it’s an easy 20-mile trip back to town for supplies and a good meal.
Hiawatha National Forest
We headed west. As we drove, we did what we’ve done on every other trip up here: Looked to our left, so taken in by the blue-green jewel of Lake Michigan and the Mighty Mac in the distance that we failed to admire anything else.
But waiting patiently for us all these years, off to our right, were the towering timbers of the Hiawatha National Forest. The HNF stretches across the U.P., covering almost a million acres, and touches the shorelines of three Great Lakes (Michigan, Huron and Superior). The forest is broken into two sections. The east swath of the HNF holds St. Ignace in its embrace. Overall, the two sections host six historical lighthouses, 19 campgrounds and countless lakes.
I’d never explored the HNF. You might be wondering how, exactly, I missed a million acres of forest off to my right every other trip? To clarify, I’d seen it. But this time, we decided to slow down, camp out and settle in at a national forest campground.
Brevoort Lake Campground
Taking a right off of US-2, we followed an unassuming, narrow, two-lane road through the thick, green forest back to what appeared to be nowhere. However, when we pulled into Brevoort Lake Campground, the world opened up again. Tucked in along the lake, we found a loop of roomy, well-kept, spread-out campsites.
The campground is an oasis inside an oasis: It sits on a peninsula within the 4,233-acre Brevoort Lake. You can walk from one side to the other of the peninsula, catching both sunset and sunrise in the same day. Many of the campsites overlook the water and beyond are miles of national forest, broken only by backroads and hiking trails.
Brevoort Lake Campground also has a day-use picnic area and a boat launch that has canoe, kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals available through the campground concessionaire. Yes, a concessionaire—something we’d never seen before! Ice blocks were on sale in a stand-alone cooler for $2.50 and wood bundles sat in a tiny rack for $6.
As we pulled into site 10, I saw a tiny path down to our very own private beach. I leaped out of the truck and didn’t even stop until I reached the water. It was that good.
And my excitement didn’t stop there: There’s a trailhead to the North Country National Scenic Trail, fishing (walleye, pike and muskies) and even lawn games. I jumped with glee at the Lawn Darts—still legal in the U.P. apparently, or so I thought until I discovered what was offered was a modified, non-deadly version of the game. There were also giant Yard-zee wooden dice, as well as the most thrilling game of all: Mini golf.
However, there were no greens in sight. Instead, the flags were planted here and there around a little open area under the trees. We putted through hollow logs, ricocheted off moss-covered rocks and bounced off bunches of acorns. It was anyone’s game: Someone with high school golf trophies (Tim) was just as quickly put to shame as someone with no depth perception at all (me).
That helped keep the tribe happy for a good 30 minutes. By then, it was dusk. We walked over to the boat launch and watched the sun sink into the fishing waters on one side of the peninsula, before walking back over to our side, facing east, to climb into bed. The camper was toasty warm as we snuggled in for the chilly night.
By 3 a.m., however, I was awake. Was it just me or had the heater gone silent? I made it until 6 a.m. before sounding the alarm to Tim: “We’re goners!”
He woke up and confirmed my low-tech guess that the heater wasn’t on. But when we climbed out of bed to investigate, we found a spectacular show happening in the sky right outside our camper. “Forget the furnace!” I said. “Sunrise!”
With me in my winter jacket and Tim in his flannel shorts, we ditched the slumbering children and scuttled down just 20 paces to our own little sandy beach. It was 35 degrees out, and we had the sunrise to ourselves. Cookie, our Golden Retriever, sensed the moment of awe, too, and instead of swimming, she curled up next to us and we all watched in silence.
The only thing breaking the spell was fish surfacing out in the lake. That, and Tim freezing in his shorts.
“Why didn’t you wear more?” I whispered.
“I thought I was getting up to fix a furnace,” he replied.
Twenty minutes later, with the sun’s colors now spread out into a golden morning, we were back at the camper. Tim worked his magic and in another 10 minutes, we were both back under the covers.
Which is when the giggling started. It was down to 55 degrees inside the camper by then, and I was wearing a fleece jacket built for mountaineering inside my brand-new giant sleeping bag. Tim’s feet were borderline frostbitten. It was so cold that it was wonderful—our first taste of the forest’s magic and seclusion. We giggled more than we slept, like two kids at a sleepover.
North Country Trail
We awoke, warm again, around 9 a.m. It was time to conquer the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT). The trail stretches 4,600 miles across eight states from North Dakota to Vermont and crosses nearly the entire Upper Peninsula from east to west. Of those 550 miles, 70 snake through the HNF, past Brevoort Lake Campground and brings hikers to St. Ignace, a designated “trail town.”
I rustled the kids awake, told them they’d almost died of cold in the night and made a breakfast of Honey Nut Cheerios to further chill their insides. “Let’s hike!” came my morning battle cry.
The trailhead was less than a minute from the campground. The choice to drive there proved to be an embarrassment. We could have walked, but I know better than to push teenagers too hard: By “too hard,” I mean I wanted the hike to last longer than just walking to the trailhead itself.
We took a look at the map, signed our names in the tiny, spiral-bound trail logbook and took off, a family of four, into the wilderness. Towering pines, beech, maple and red oak joined up and gave way again and again along the narrow footpath. It truly was serene. There was nothing and no one as far as we could see.
It’s ironic, seeing its beauty today, that the HNF was once considered “land that nobody wanted,” according to the National Forest Service’s website. The nearly one million acres is a patchwork of once-abandoned farms, razed logging tracts and lands devastated by clear-cutting or forest fires. Now, it is a working forest that provides timber products to local communities and refuge for wildlife. Most of the red and white pine stands we passed through are thanks to reforestation efforts in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the “Pennies for Pines” project where children donated pennies to plant trees.
HNF’s comeback, you might say, has been big. Today, it is alive and well and home to animals such as bobcats, whitetail deer, black bear and even the rare timber wolf, as well as bald eagles, Kirtland warblers and piping plovers. We found out firsthand that it’s a refuge for humans, too.
As we followed the blue blazes along the trail, I noticed at a right-hand turn, that there were two blazes, and the right one was higher. When I pointed out that the blazes indicated we should turn RIGHT, I was regarded as something akin to a Trail God. I took a bow. The hike took about 2 hours, and we got back to camp happy, worn out and ready for pasties.
That we didn’t have.
The next morning, we headed out for a trip to Tahquamenon Falls. It’s about an hour-long drive from Lake Brevoort to the falls. We’ve been there at least a dozen times, but this time we’re going to do something different: Row a boat.
For $20, you and up to four other people can take a huge flat-bottomed rowboat around the base of the Lower Falls and over to a little island where you can hike. Let me tell you this: Figuring out how to turn a rowboat while a father offers directions is about all a teenager can handle after two days straight with his parents.
If you can get more out of the kids, head to the Upper Falls next. They are one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi, with a drop of nearly 50 feet and are more than 200 feet wide with a water flow of more than 50,000 gallons per second. The amber-colored water is caused by tannins leached from the cedar, spruce and hemlock in the swamps by the river. The extremely soft water, churned by the action of the falls, causes large amounts of foam to form on the surface, which is the trademark of the Tahquamenon and its “root beer” water.
After the hike, Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub is a great place for the family to regroup while at the Upper Falls: Enjoy the rustic décor, stone fireplace and microbrews. (Try the Porcupine Pale Ale on tap.) For the littles, check out Camp 33 Gift Shop—complete with a giant stuffed bear that is a perfect, scary, fun photo opp.
Another idea is to stop at The Berry Patch, a tiny breakfast-served-all-day restaurant in the small town of Paradise or check out a couple of food trucks in town. Or, hit the road and consider a stop halfway back in Trout Lake at the Corner Market for a Big Foot Sandwich and a chance to catch the freight trains coming through on the Canadian National Railroad.
The next day, it was time to head back below the bridge. But first, we pulled into St. Ignace in search of, once more, pasties.
We got to Lehto’s in downtown St. Ignace at about 4 p.m. and saw tables outside and—could it be?—families eating pasties.
The Cornish pasty arrived in the U.P. in the 1840s. When prospectors crossed the Straits of Mackinac, they discovered a wealth of iron and copper deposits beneath the land. Soon, miners from Cornwall immigrated to help develop the mines, bringing pasty-making with them. Today, the pasty—beef, potato, onion and rutabaga—is considered a hallmark of the U.P.
We jumped out of the truck and rushed inside, thinking we’d get one of every flavor. However, the clerk looked weary when she delivered the news: “Sorry, we only have frozen beef pasties left.”
Never mind, I was overjoyed. “Give me a dozen,” I said. Tim looked up, shocked, but, clearly, the woman had been hearing monster orders all day from the looks of things. At $7 each, I didn’t flinch. These things are gold. I can freeze them, gift them or barter them for a new car below the bridge.
Back in the camper, we pulled out a couple to thaw for dinner, and the family rejoiced, happy again. St. Ignace, Hiawatha National Forest, Tahquamenon Falls and pasties. Mission accomplished.
Kandace Chapple is the editor and publisher of Grand Traverse Woman Magazine. Her essays have been published in Writer’s Digest, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Literary Mama, Motherwell and more. She loves to mountain bike on Northern Michigan trails, hike with her dog, Cookie, and spend time with her husband and two sons. kandacechapple.com