Family Road Trip Guide: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Explore the snowy outdoors as a family and experience nature at its best in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Head north to the land of ice caves. Late winter is the perfect time to visit Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to get in some snow-filled fun because the weather is still cold, but not sub-zero. From snowmobiling, dog sledding and downhill skiing to hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, there are plenty of things to do for families seeking outdoor experiences, even if you’re not a native “yooper.”

Getting to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

It’s about a seven-hour drive from Detroit to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Drive north through Saginaw to Mackinaw City. Then drive across the Mackinac Bridge to get into the Upper Peninsula. Stop in St. Ignace at Sand Dune Cross Country Ski Trail, which has groomed trails (1.5 to 7.6 miles) ranging from beginner to expert. Then head north to Paradise or drive about two hours northwest to Munising, in the heart of National Park Service’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which offers a lot of caverns, caves and cliffs on the shores of Lake Superior.

What Families Love about the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

It’s a great place to get outside in nature. Think of it as a snow lover’s paradise

Ice caves are a popular draw. Head to Eben Ice Caves inside Rock River Canyon Wilderness in Hiawatha National Forest. Parking is available near private land on Frey Road north of Eben Junction. It’s a popular spot, so be prepared for lots of people parking there on the weekends. Walk about a quarter mile through a flat farmer’s field and about a half mile into the woods. Warning, the walk can be slippery and tough to navigate without the proper gear.

“It’s a beautiful walk through the hardwoods that’s kind of hilly,” says Neil Weaver, a nature photographer and native “Yooper” who regularly hosts photograph workshops in the Upper Peninsula.  “You get back there and there’s this big rock ledge that’s crescent shaped with ice.”

Technically, they aren’t “caves” because they are vertical walls of ice created by meltwater runoff that seeps through the porous sandstone and freezes. “As the winter goes on, and it stays cold, it forms these big curtains that grow and grow,” Weaver says.

The ice curtains usually have a greenish hue or can be amber colored. Walk behind the ice, which can be two or three feet thick and the light shines through and lights everything up much like a stained-glass window.

Weaver recommends wearing ice cleats “because it’s kind of a steep hill to get up to the ice cave and it’s slippery. Some people go without them, but I don’t recommend it.”

The Ice Curtains at Sand Point offer a great look at blue ice curtains. Located in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, see ice curtains between Munising Falls and Sand Point Beach. Park at Munising Falls or Sand Point Beach and walk along Sand Point Road to reach the ice formations. “There are trails that go uphill and there’s massive ice curtains,” Weaver says. “A lot of them are a really neat blue, so if you wait until late afternoon, the sun is really coming through and lights them up.”

Located across from Sand Point Beach, Grand Island Ice Caves in Munising offers some of the best blue ice curtains with spectacular ice formations, Weaver says. He suggests families make the most of their visit by hiring Scott Kusmirek, the owner of Lake Superior Ice Cave Tours, who offers family-friendly guided ice cave tours seven days a week. Travel in-tow behind a snowmobile in a plastic sled with custom bucket seats. “Scott is very careful,” Weaver says. “He monitors the ice all winter and looks at wind speeds, temperatures and checks the ice thickness.” He only offers tours when conditions are perfect.

To see frozen waterfalls, Janet Benedict, a native “Yooper,” recommends going to Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Paradise. Spanning nearly 50,000 acres over 13 miles, the park offers expansive woods and a series of waterfalls off the Tahquamenon River. The 200-foot-wide upper falls cascades down more than 50 feet with five smaller lower falls downstream. “It’s a little bit of a hike to get to, but so worth it,” Benedict says.

The park also has a track chair — an off-road electronic chair — that can easily handle trails, snow, sand and up to 6 inches of water to give accessibility to those in wheelchairs. Located at the Upper Falls’ Track Chair can be reserved for free on a first-come, first-serve basis. Reserve by emailing DNR-TFalls@michigan.gov.

In Manistique, check out Kitch-Iti-Kipi, a natural spring water that is beautiful blue green and 45 degrees year round, Weaver says.

Skiing and Snowboarding

When it comes to skiing and snowboarding, there’s a reason this is called “big snow country.”

Big Powderhorn Mountain Resort offers family-fun skiing and snowboarding. The Snow Sports School has a “Powder Cub” for kids ages 6-8, as well as semi-private, private and group lessons for 9 and older. Cross-country skis and snowshoes can be rented. There’s also onsite lodging, including condos and ski-in and out chalets.

There’s plenty of other places to go, including Marquette Mountain Resort, The Porcupine Mountains Ski Area (also called “The Porkies”), Pine Mountain Ski and Golf Resort on Iron Mountain, and Big Snow Resort, which encompasses Blackjack Mountain and Indianhead Mountain.

For a quieter adventure, head to Valley Spur Trail System inside Hiawatha National Forest to find groomed cross-country ski and snowshoe trails about five miles west of Munising.

Carl Hansen, owner of Northern Waters Adventures in Munising, says the trails here are always groomed and have snow. He suggests renting skis from South Bay Outfitters. Buy a $10 day pass online to do the trail or bring cash onsite.

Twelve trails are mapped out in kilometers and difficulty. Families should head to the upper parking lot by Trail V, says Hansen, and start with Trails W, Y and X, which “are relatively flat and gentle.” If you have some experience, Hansen suggests Trail B, a moderately difficult 4.1-kilometers (2.5 mile) to ski over three bridges past cedars, hemlocks and conifers. An expert cross-country skier, Hansen loves Trail G, the most difficult. “It’s like a rollercoaster with sharp turns like a luge run,” Hansen says.

Wolverine Nordic Trails offers eight cross-country ski trails and five snowshoe trails in Ironwood. The 24 kilometers (slightly more than 14 miles) of ski trails include loops for 1.7 kilometer (just over a mile) and the most difficult, cliff hanger trail. Snowshoe trails are marked with color-coded metal diamonds, tree blazes and ribbons, and range from the easiest 1.2-mile Snowflake Trail to the difficult 2.8-mile ​Hospital Loop Trail.

Fat Tire Biking

There’s a variety of places to go fat tire biking. Keep in mind trails should have at least 6 inches of snow and tires need to be at least 3.7-inches wide with no more than 4-6 psi for bike tire pressure.

The 32-mile Soo Strong Trail is a flat abandoned railroad corridor that’s considered a good trail for beginner riders. It goes from Sault Ste. Marie, the oldest city in Michigan (and second largest in the Upper Peninsula), and Eckerman, a tiny town of 300 people in Hiawatha National Forest.

Snow Tubing

Ski Brule a first-to-open, last-to-close family-friendly ski resort has two snow tubing parks. The Homestead Snow Tubing Park, open on Saturdays, offers a traditional “walk-up-the hill tubing” good for all ages. The Sault Seal Recreation Area in Sault Ste. Marie, has seven tubing runs and two tubing lifts. (There’s also skiing and snowboarding hill with a single lift.) For an idea of what it’s like, watch this video.

At Mont Ripley Ski’s Tubing Park, young children must ride with an adult. Snow tubing (and affordable skiing) can also be done at Mt. Zion Rec Complex, a public ski hill located on Gogebic Community College’s campus in Ironwood.

Dog Sledding

Learn to how to mush on a dog sled at Husky Haven Kennels in Shingleton. The winter tours take visitors to the kennel, includes a history overview of dog-sledding and gives instruction before doing an 8-10 mile run with an instructor or team. Nature’s Kennel in McMillian, offers trips from mid-December to the end of March. Families can choose their experience based on age and experience with 10- and 20-mile trips, including an overnight adventure.

Snowmobiling

Michigan has more than 6,000 miles of snowmobile trails and Munising touts itself as the “Snowmobile Capital of the Midwest.” Rent from Munising Snowmobile Rentals, where rates are based on availability and weather, and Grand Marais Powersports.

Where to Stay in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

The Vault Hotel in Houghton, on the Keweenaw Peninsula, is a converted 1880s bank building with art deco-inspired furnishings. The luxurious modern rooms in the boutique hotel come with minibars and refrigerators, plus a speakeasy bar in the basement. It’s recommended parents call ahead before making reservations. The hotel’s “New Money” suites have two queen-sized beds and the “Found Money” balcony suites have pull-out couches popular with families. There’s a complementary grab-and-go pantry filled with snacks, fruit, water, yogurt and soda. Have breakfast at Suomi Restaurant or Cyberia Cafe, and get lunch and dinner at The Library.

Holiday Inn Express in Munising-Lakeview in Munising has an indoor heated pool, whirlpool and fitness center. There’s also a free hot breakfast. Two rooms in the hotel offer a “kids suite” with bean bags, bunk beds, TVs to watch (or game from) and a desk.

Roam Inn, an 18-room boutique hotel in Munising, originally was the home of George Burtis, a lumber baron who owned mills throughout the Upper Peninsula and Canada in the 1800s. It offers views of Munising Bay and has an onsite restaurant, Tracey’s, that Weaver says is his go-to spot anytime he heads north.

Hampton Inn in Marquette/Waterfront is near the Upper Peninsula Children’s Museum in Marquette, and includes free hot breakfast, a fitness center and an indoor pool.

Vault Hotel in Houghton
The Vault Hotel in Houghton, on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Photo credit: The Vault Hotel

Places to Eat in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

On the south side of the Upper Peninsula, stop at Clyde’s Drive-In in Manistique, a burger-and-fries spot that’s been around for more than 50 years. Locals suggest trying the “Big C,” a ¾-pound gut buster of a burger that is hard to put down. There’s also perch baskets, fried mushrooms, chocolate shakes, and kid-friendly favorites like hot dogs, grilled cheese and chicken tenders.

In Munising, try Eh!Burger, which uses Michigan Bread Co. brioche buns for its angus cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, bison burgers and plant-based option. There’s also hot dogs and grilled cheese.

The Portside Inn in Marquette is known for its pizza and garlic breadsticks but also offers sandwiches, soups, salads and wraps. Try the smoked whitefish spread.

Head to Cap’n Ron’s Fish and Chips in Munising to grab some smoked fish dip and a white fish basket made with breaded Lake Superior trout or whitefish. Captain Ron is fifth-generation fisherman of commercial tribal fishing and serves up his fare from a food truck.

Grab brunch at Earl E. Byrds, a local favorite in Munising that serves skillets, omelets, biscuits and gravy, waffles, pancakes and a variety of salads and sandwiches. Or get a coffee and a pastry at Gallery Coffee Company, a local roastery that also hosts concerts and has a large format photo gallery.

Content sponsored by Southeast Michigan Ford Dealers.

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