Planning a trail riding adventure with awesome, endless riding in a beautiful location? You’ll have a hard time finding a better place than Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s an outdoor sports paradise with over 200 waterfalls, endless forest, and it’s bordered by three of the world’s largest lakes and countless smaller ones. And did we mention more trails than you can explore in a lifetime? Every off-road lover needs to find their way here at least once, and once will not be enough.
END TO END BEAUTY
Bordered between the rugged and rocky shore of Lake Superior to the North and beautiful, sandy beaches of Lake Michigan and Huron to the South, it’s nearly 400 miles from end to end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or U.P, as it is called. There is terrain of every kind to explore, from sandy, open trails to rocky in the west, with most areas heavily forested and thousands of miles of trails connecting every bit of it. No matter which trails you choose you’ll never be far from water. Just to get here you’re going to cross the stunning Straits of Mackinaw at St Ignace, through Canada at Sault St. Marie, or Wisconsin. From any direction you won’t be disappointed.
PICK A PLACE AND DIRECTION
One of the hardest parts of planning a U.P. riding adventure is where to begin. You really can’t go wrong and for our latest adventure we would be riding one of the most remote areas, the Keweenaw Peninsula.
The Keweenaw Peninsula is a vast, heavily forested strip of land that reaches out into the pristine waters of Lake Superior. The terrain ranges from sandy trails to marshy areas along lakes or swamps, to rocky climbs culminating with spectacular views. Logging is an important part of forest management here but 100 years ago copper was king. This part of Michigan sits atop vast reserves of copper the Native inhabitants had been harvesting for 9000 years and when copper veins were discovered relatively close to the surface mining companies and towns sprang up. Shafts as deep as 9000’ bored through the rock and even out under the Lake but today the mines have mostly been capped. The remaining stone and steel structures stand silent but are fascinating places to explore. You can still see copper veins though, especially along the lakeshore where relentless wave action scours the rock and the bright copper vein shows through. Local ATV club members warned us to be aware of any old mine test holes, and if stopping for a stroll in the woods don’t accidently plummet into a long-forgotten hole.
Like most of the U.P. there are countless two-tracks that meander off into the woods, and only the locals know where you would come out. Thankfully, the Keweenaw has a very active ATV club that has made the entire trail system a reality.
THE KEWEENAW ATV CLUB
Winters are long in the Keweenaw and the region gets a LOT of snow. An average winter is about 250 inches! That makes it perfect for snowmobile riders but they can’t ride in the summer. With sales of ATVs and Side x Sides exceeding snowmobiles by more than 15 to 1 there were a LOT of riders looking for a place to ride when the sleds were parked. That’s where the Keweenaw ATV Club picked up the trail, or more accurately, put the system together.
The Keweenaw ATV Club is a well-organized, highly dedicated group of riders who are responsible for creating the Keweenaw trail system. Since the land is owned by both private owners and the State of Michigan this was no small task and took considerable time, with input from land owners, state and local officials, and even emergency rescue and law enforcement agencies. Still, the dedication of club members made it happen and today the Keweenaw trail system is a true gem but also a year-round boost to the local economy. Well done Keweenaw ATV Club!
We began our adventure at one of our favorite places to stay, Wildlife Refuge Cabins near South Range. To say this place is a convenient location is an understatement. The cabins are new and well equipped, they’ve got a huge parking area, and the Bill Nichols trail goes right through the property! There are also a couple places to eat within walking distance and plenty more within a few miles, along with two powersports dealers and stores for anything else you could need.
Any time we get to explore the U.P. trails is fantastic but our favorite season is fall when the leaves burst into an amazing range of colors. It was a crystal clear and cool morning – exactly what you would expect for fall in the Keweenaw - when we climbed into our small fleet of Kawasaki’s new KRX4 1000 Side x Sides and headed north for the tip of the Keweenaw.
It’s incredibly easy to follow the main trails in the U.P. They’re very well mapped, marked and maintained. Where there’s trail work or logging operations plenty of warning is usually given, and if necessary, an alternate route available. Within a few miles we were rolling into the college town of Houghton and one of the most unusual river crossings on any ATV trail in the country.
Riding an ATV or Side x Side in most towns generally gets you the wrong type of attention. Not in the U.P. though where many towns offer trail access or designated routes leading to fuel stops, restaurants, places to stay, etc. It’s one of the big advantages of riding the U.P! The towns of Houghton and Hancock take that one step further. An enormous double deck lift bridge – at one time the world’s largest – is the only crossing over the canal between the towns and its actually part of the trail system. Just follow the trail into town and to the bridge, arrive at a predesignated time, and the local police will escort you over. A friendly officer picked up our group, lead us through downtown streets, and then with lights flashing stopped all traffic while we made our crossing. Driving past the shops on main street, it felt like we were a very small parade, and it’s not something we’re at all used to. We have to compliment the officers and police departments on both sides of the river for their friendly assistance. Once over the bridge we picked up the trail through Hancock. Inside the town limits the trail is almost like an off-road sidewalk and is paved to prevent erosion but is also well marked at every intersection. Still, we were happy when it turned to dirt and we could let the KRX 1000 run. We were many miles from our destination.
There are trails of every type in the Keweenaw but the main trail we would follow was created from a mix of two-track and repurposed railroad grade. Mining and logging created a lot of temporary railroad spurs here and they’ve been put to good use. As we made our way north the trail passed lakes, marshes, long abandoned mining buildings, and generally followed a former railroad grade. Most of the trails offer sandy terrain with a few scattered rocks but don’t be surprised to find mud or standing water. The trails wind through woods rather than high speed runs across open terrain, and since the area gets a lot of moisture dust won’t usually be a problem but it is possible during summer months. You also won’t meet a lot of other riders. We did encounter a couple gloriously if not overconfident SUV drivers that somehow escaped deep water holes, no doubt thanks to a rocky bottom, and we helped a couple wayward mountain bikers find their way back to Copper Harbor once, but for the most part you’ll see few others.
Arriving at the tip of Keweenaw’s High Rock Bay is a thrill! Our friends from southern California quickly hopped out of the Kawasaki and drank in the view, as did we. This place never gets old, especially on a perfect day like this one, and as one stated, it’s hard to imagine that such an expanse of water isn’t actually an ocean. It’s unspoiled, raw, and the water and sky are crystal clear. It’s perfect here. We could stay here all day but we needed fuel for both man and machine. The trail took us to both in Copper Harbor, and after lunch we made our way up the long, winding climb known as Brockway Mountain Drive.
The view from the top of Brockway Mountain drive is unforgettable. Down below the rapidly changing leaves turn the forest to natures fireworks display, with the only unforested section being a large, blue lake. To the opposite side the impossibly blue waters of Lake Superior expand to the horizon under a cloudless sky, and a huge freighter plowed through waves in the distance. It was one of those views of a lifetime. Rather than backtracking through trail we had already covered we made our way down from the peak in the opposite direction, wound our way through the woods on a seldom used two-track trail and crossed the peninsula to pick up the main trail back to town. Arriving back at our South Range cabins, the KRX display showed we had covered exactly 150 miles. The Kawasaki was ready for more. We were ready for a shower and dinner but it was definitely a day to remember.
KEWEENAW TRIP PLANNING
Before heading deep into the U.P. trail system you’ll need a map. The Keweenaw ATV Club helped create a very good ATV trail map of the area and we carry that as well as the snowmobile map. Both have valuable information. For this ride we also counted on the Polaris Ride Command App on our phone and it remained connected at nearly all points. Other companies such as Magellan offer high-quality GPS based maps that cater to off-roaders.
There are dozens of places to stay near Houghton but many riders prefer a slightly shorter ride and stay near Calumet. We’ve stayed at Trailside Lodge, (right on the trail) and were surprised to find our picture on the cover of their brochure! Another great place is Lac LaBelle Lodge which also offers fuel, food, and a small store. There are the typical chain hotels as well, but we prefer the local variety.
It can be a long way between fuel stops here but there are several places to fill both your machine and you, and both types are marked on the maps. Many places will offer a “pasty” on the menu and it’s similar to a very high-quality Hot Pocket. It was a hearty favorite for the miners and timber crews long ago, and while the miners have passed into history, their beloved pasty is timeless. Since the Keweenaw is basically surrounded by water the weather can change quickly and 10 days after our ride they had 18” of snow on the ground. This area gets more of it than anyplace east of Yellowstone! The yearly average is almost 24 feet!
Should you encounter machine trouble, two very good local dealers are ready with parts and service for most brands, but they’re also knowledge about the trails and can help with questions. You’ll find friendly people wherever you go in the U.P. They live wrapped in the beauty of nature, and it’s their nature to be friendly.
ONE FOR THE BUCKET LIST
What Moab, Utah is to rock crawlers and the Glamis dunes of California are to sand lovers, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Keweenaw Peninsula are every bit as spectacular for trail riders. It’s vast, pristine, welcoming, and there are thousands of miles of trails to explore. You’ll never explore it all, or tire of the waves crashing against the red, iron-rich shore, the scent of cedar trees, or the natural, unspoiled beauty of the U.P. It’s a paradise for all types of outdoor activities. One adventure here won’t be enough.
COME PREPARED - A PLANNING CHECKLIST
It can be a long way to help in the U.P. and you may have to rely on yourself. Being prepared is a very good idea. We suggest bringing a basic medical kit, snacks, water, possibly a warmer jacket, and a lighter or dry matches. For our machine we bring a tire repair kit, some basic tools, tow strap, zip ties and electrical tape. You’ll probably have a cell phone in the group, but with spotty coverage a GPS is a useful tool. As mentioned above, both the ATV and the snowmobile maps are handy. It all comes down to using common sense and being prepared.
- STICKERS and PERMITS. This is pretty easy. You’ll need both the ORV, and the TRAIL permit. You can pick them up practically anywhere in the U.P. including gas stations, retail stores, and anyplace that sells hunting licenses. Total cost is about $36
- ROAD TRAVEL. Travel along most roads in the U.P. is legal as long as you ride along the shoulder and obey traffic laws. The only roads you are not allowed to travel on is I-75 (the only interstate in the U.P.) and M roads, which are state highways. You are allowed to cross them however.
UPPER PENINSULA TRAVEL
KEWEENAW ATV CLUB
WILDLIFE REFUGE CABINS
101 WILDLIFE LANE, SOUTH RANGE, MI 49963
PHONE: (906) 482-1001 OR TOLL FREE (888) 510-1001
M & M POWERSPORTS
90 NAVY STREET, HANCOCK, MI 49930
PHONE: (906) 482-9990
RIDE NORTH – HOUGHTON
18006 ERICKSON DRIVE, ATLANTIC MINE, MI, 49905,
PHONE: (906) 356-3330