A beginner's guide to travel across Michigan's two peninsulas

Whether you’re looking for city style, iconic towns or lakes that feel like oceans, the staggering diversity of Michigan’s two distinct peninsulas are sure to impress.

Michigan boasts the world's longest freshwater coastline (more than the entire country’s Atlantic coast), two Dark Sky Reserves and a host of towns and cities, from quiet, car-free havens to the bright lights of Detroit. 

Photograph by Pure Michigan
By Brian Thacker
Published 18 Aug 2022, 11:29 BST

Visit the Midwest state of Michigan, set in the heart of the Great Lakes region, and you’ll find two unique peninsulas to explore, each with their own unique character. Divided by the five-mile-long Mackinac suspension bridge, the Upper Peninsula is a beautifully raw and remote wilderness, while the Lower Peninsula is home to the burgeoning art, music and foodie hub of Detroit. The state has the world's longest freshwater coastline (more than the entire country’s Atlantic coast), lakes that feel like oceans (there are 12,000 lakes to choose from) and two awe-inspiring dark sky reserves.

The Upper Peninsula — rugged and remote

The UP (as it’s locally known) is a destination best described in numbers. It has over 1,700 miles of rugged shoreline and 90 percent of the inland area is covered in forest, with 150 waterfalls and almost 700 animal species (including wolves, bears, moose, deer, and skunks). It is as wonderfully backwoods as one can still get in America, and when you’re not reconnecting with nature you can go skiing, fishing, mountain biking or hiking.

Upper Peninsula’s quaint rural towns retain a friendly, old-school atmosphere, with highlights including the 20-minute ferry ride to Mackinac Island, where the perfectly preserved 19th-century community is fixed firmly in the Victorian era. Founded in 1780, time seems to stand still here, and as cars are not permitted on the island, horse carriage, bicycle, and your own two feet are the only ways to get around. Amble down Main Street to enjoy brightly coloured and intricately detailed historic houses, snack on slabs of rich, buttery-soft fudge (the island specialty), and finish at the Revolutionary War-era Fort Mackinac. 

Visit Tahquamenon Falls, dubbed ‘the Root Beer Falls’ due to their distinctive brown hue, derived from the mineral content of the surrounding soil, before ending your trip in Paradise. The town of Paradise that is (there is also a Hell in Lower Michigan). On the shores of Lake Superior, it’s close to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and the Whitefish Point Lighthouse.

Michigan is home to two international Dark Sky reserves - Headlands International Dark Sky Park and Dr. T.K. Lawless Park, both of which offer incredible night-time experiences. 

Photograph by Pure Michigan

The Lower Peninsula — cities and sights

The centrepiece of the Lower Peninsula is undeniably the spirited city of Detroit. Here, local artists have no limits, visitors can trace the city’s great history through cars and music, and gastronomes can devour a Coney hot dog in the afternoon and then dine in award-winning, farm-to-fork restaurants in the evening.

Detroit's music scene certainly packs a mighty punch on the world stage. The city has birthed stars such as John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, the White Stripes and Eminem, but it’s most famous for being the home of Motown. Drop into the Motown Museum to see where music legends Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, The Four Tops and Smokey Robinson recorded.

You can’t visit Detroit without also paying homage to the motor car that put it on the map. The expansive Henry Ford Museum is a multi-faceted complex that not only has a replica Model T Ford assembly line, but also showcases American innovation and history, including the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and a replica of the Wright brothers' 1903 plane.

For an alternative urban experience, head to the town of Holland. This former Dutch settlement could easily be mistaken for a town in the Netherlands, with tulips, windmills, European-style architecture, and plenty of poffertjes (delicious Dutch pancakes) to sample.

Active travellers don’t need to venture far to find quaint towns and scenic outdoor pursuits, either. Soak up the scenery of the delightfully named Pinckney-Potawatomi Trail or go kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding on the turquoise waters of the Detroit River.

Indeed, visitors to the Lower Peninsula will find more than just Detroit. Towns such as Traverse City, Holland and Grand Rapids — known as the beer capital of the US — promise hours of exploration, fantastic fine wines and delicious local produce.

Detroit has had a few monikers in past decades, including Hitsville, USA, City of Trees and the latest and most poignant, America’s Comeback City, reflecting what is now a thriving urban metropolis. 

Photograph by Visit Detroit

Plan your trip

London Heathrow has direct daily flights to Detroit (12 per week) and there are multiple one-stop options from a number of airports across the UK and Ireland. 

For more information, visit michigan.org and visitdetroit.com 

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