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Vacation spot is exotic yet near



Published: Sun, September 22, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



At a lighthouse in Ontonagon, Mich.,I found a Youngstown connection.

By JON BAKER

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

Michigan's Upper Peninsula was the ideal destination for my summer vacation this year.

Because of its out-of-the-way location, it gave me the feeling that I was traveling to someplace exotic. Yet it was little more than a day's drive from Youngstown, perfect for someone wary of flying after Sept. 11.

The U.P., as it is known, has plenty of attractions for people who enjoy nature and history. The peninsula is heavily forested. It has an unbelievable number of beautiful waterfalls, and wherever you travel on the U.P., you're never far from Lake Superior or Lake Michigan.

Plus, it has a great shipwreck museum and a ghost town that's also a state park.

I began my trip at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, on the Lake Superior side of the peninsula. This small museum chronicles the fate of some of the 6,000 ships lost on the Great Lakes over the last three centuries.

The museum gives special emphasis to the most famous shipwreck on the Great Lakes in recent memory, the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. The ship went down just 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point.

Visitors can see the ship's bell, which was recovered from the wreck in 1995, and a short film on the history of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Another highlight is the restored home of the lighthouse keeper for the Whitefish Point Light Station. The home, built in 1861, shows what life was like for a lighthouse keeper and his family during the era of 1890-1920.

Waterfalls

Nearby is Tahquamenon Falls State Park. The main attractions here are two beautiful waterfalls on the Tahquamenon River. Both are easily accessible to visitors. The upper falls are 50 feet high and 200 feet across, and the lower falls are a series of five smaller cascades.

First-time visitors might think that the water is polluted because it's brown. Actually, it's that color because of tannin leached from trees in swamps drained by the river.

The next day, I traveled to Fayette State Park, on the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula. Fayette is a ghost town, the remains of a once-thriving iron-smelting community. It's beautifully situated on a spit of land that juts out into Big Bay de Noc.

Many of the buildings in use during the town's heyday in the 1870s and 1880s are still standing -- the iron furnaces, the company office, the hotel, the town hall and opera house and the superintendent's home. Some of the buildings have been restored, but all have been preserved and are open to visitors.

A must-see for any visitor to the U.P. is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The pictured rocks are multicolored sandstone cliffs that rise up abruptly along the shores of Lake Superior. They stretch for about 20 miles along the lake, just east of Munising, Mich.

Minerals have stained the cliffs a half-dozen colors, and erosion by wind and water has sculpted parts of the sandstone into bizarre formations.

The only way to see the cliffs is to hike along a lakeshore trail, or go on a boat tour. I chose the latter option.

Pictured Rock Cruises in Munising offers daily tours that last approximately 2 1/2 hours. It was well worth the $24. The boat captain gave a guided tour, and he slowed the boat near any interesting rock formation that his passengers might want to photograph.

More sights to see

I spent an entire day at the park, and barely saw half of it. There are some places in the park that are accessible by car.

Hiking trails lead to two waterfalls, Munising Falls and Miners Falls. Visitors can also drive to a rock formation known as Miners Castle, which rises over Lake Superior. A short trail leads to an overlook, where you can get an excellent view of Miners Castle and look out over the lake.

For the last part of my trip, I headed to the western U.P. and the Porcupine Mountains. The "Porkies," as they are known, contain one of the few remaining large wilderness areas in the Midwest.

The centerpiece of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is the Lake of the Clouds. It's one of those places that photographers for bank calendars can't resist. It's a small lake that sits at the bottom of a mountain valley, surrounded by forest.

Most visitors are content to walk the short distance to an overlook and gaze down on the lake and the surrounding wilderness. But since I had been staring at a picture of Lake of the Clouds in a Home Savings calendar in the months preceding my trip, I had to see it up close.

The trail is only about a mile long from the overlook to the shores of the lake, but it goes straight down, winding its way along the side of a steep mountain.

On the way down, I met an older couple who lived in the area. As we hiked down the trail, the husband told me that he and his wife had been hiking to Lake of the Clouds every year for 40 years. I left them when they stopped to take a break. When I got to the lake, I saw the couple's children and grandchildren waiting for them.

Standing on the shores of Lake of the Clouds, I was less impressed than I was when I was viewing it from the overlook. But it's still a beautiful place.

I also found time to visit a lighthouse in Ontonagon, Mich., a small town on Lake Superior near the Porcupine Mountains. The lighthouse, built in 1866, is now the property of the Ontonagon County Historical Society. The society isn't large, and it doesn't have the money to restore the lighthouse.

The society offers daily tours of the lighthouse. The day I saw it, my tour guide was an older man who lives in Florida most of the year and spends his summers in Ontonagon.

Link to home

The lighthouse keeper's house still looked like it did when the last family moved out in the 1970s, but the paint on the walls was fading and the linoleum was coming up.

But it was an interesting tour, especially when we climbed a steep, narrow metal staircase to the top of the lighthouse and looked out over the harbor.

When we toured the kitchen, my guide pointed out that it was still furnished with metal cabinets made by Youngstown Kitchens. After I mentioned that I was from Youngstown, my tour guide and I had a long discussion on the fate of America's steel industry.

The intriguing thing about the Upper Peninsula was that you could drive for miles and not see another car on the road.

But when you got to one of the popular tourist attractions, it was always crowded. I guess travelers known where the good destinations are.




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