The Road Ends: It's what we were hoping for the entire time. Even though a huge portion of the most beautiful places in the world can be seen from the pavement—it's often the more remote, less traveled places that end up being the most memorable. So far in our Keweenaw trip we were plagued by trail closures and most importantly, the lack of local knowledge. While we found a way to travel "on dirt" the entire length of the Keweenaw, there's something very un-romantic about driving on a ATV and Snowmobile trail next to the main highway—which according to our research are open to Secretary of State registered vehicles—but we found it in bad taste. Luckily, once you get to the tip of the Keweenaw, there's plenty of adventure to be had, and most of it is accessible to a stock vehicle like ours—so there's no excuse to not get out there and travel.
"The Pastie Incident"
The entire peninsula is a bit of a "man getaway" for snowmobile enthusiasts, as area receives an average of 220 inches of snow a year—with the record being set in 1979 at 390 inches. Winter cabins stocked with snowmobiles, beef jerky, and beer are a pretty common site, as are plenty of shady (but friendly) looking bars. I guess this is why I sort of assumed the wrong thing when my Father asked me if I knew what a "pastie" was... I replied with an incredibly awkward "yes..." I'm going to ask that you place your mind firmly in the gutter in order to mimic where mine was on the approximately 150 mile drive across the peninsula. The "main drag" of the area is U.S. Route 41, which is more-or-less paralleled by a snowmobile trail (which again, is an incredibly big deal in the area) I saw countless signs outside of bars listing "Cold Beer" "Ladies Night" "Liquor" and most importantly "Pasties."
"I'm really curious about these pasties" said my Father—I kept my mouth shut. There's some things that you do with your Dad: Road trips, baseball in the front yard, fishing. Not bars with incredibly scantily-clad women wearing only the "pasties" I thought he was refering to.
By the time we made it to Copper Harbor, the terminus of paved roads for the region, I had finally figured out that a "pastie" is. It's a somewhat-delicious (depending on how hungry you are) pastry with a "meat and potatoes" type filling served traditionally with cole-slaw and brown gravy that was popular with the region's copper miners in the mid-to-late 1800's.
The entire crisis could have been averted if I had a stable internet connection on my iPhone.
Considering that I've watched Anthony Bourdain's TV show "No Reservations" a bit too much, and that I've even read some of his books—I forced myself to eat "local."
Anyways, about the pasties—let's just say I'm not a fan of beef and rhubarb pastries made at a tourist restaurant in the middle of no-where. Within a mile or two of heading north out of Copper Harbor we saw the much less awkward sign we've been waiting for..."Road Ends." Soon we were greeted by dirt, and we were quite happy.
The goal with heading to Copper Harbor was simple—to reach the end of the Keweenaw, we'd come all this way, spent the entire day before attempting to find some trails in the south end, and we weren't leaving without hitting that point. Naturally, my Dad jumped at the first sight of trail that went off of the pretty tame path we were on.
A sign with "Horse Shoe" was marking the road, which I'll admit did look fairly appealing, and I believe it conjured memories of simple signs which mark rather extreme trails on the west coast. He put it in 4WD and we went off the twisty path.
The road which I'm calling "Horseshoe" started off sandy, with a few muddy spots and a bit of accumulated water. It was the first time my Dad had been on a trail like this in some time, and most importantly, the first time on the entire trip.
I think it really killed his ego and sense of adventure when we ran into a Nissan Sentra that was coming back on the trail, which at the beginning leads to a nature conservancy.
Luckily for us—and now both of our egos the trail began to get a bit rougher. We weren't exactly looking for the Rubicon trail—but I wanted to get some cool driving in for my Dad.
There might be a little bit of angle added here for effect.
Coming around a turn and down a little bit of mildly technical terrain (remember, we're not talking the Rubicon here) led us to our first little muddy water crossing.
Since I had zero experience on this trail, and we had limited recovery equipment in a stock Jeep Wrangler with mild-AT tires, I found a stick to make sure it wasn't a bottomless bit of muck and nasty things.
My Dad successfully rolled up all of the windows—except on the passenger side, and managed to get us to the other side of the baby water crossing.
A few miles, and a few small obstacles later (some which require a bit of mindful driving) we ended up at this remote rocky beach. The trail continues on from here, but I wouldn't recommend following it for too much longer, while it does go along the lake for a bit, it didn't connect to the end of the Keweenaw like we thought it would. A word of advice would be to turn around at the beach, and follow the trail all the way back until you see a major trail that heads toward the inland. It takes you back to the main route to the tip of the peninsula.
We may, or may not have sat on the beach and enjoyed one of Wisconsin's finest beverages, New Glarus Brewing Co's Spotted Cow, which is only available in Wisconsin. Since I'm only in the Midwest for so long, I may have smuggled a case into Michigan...
Sitting there for an hour or so provided some fantastic views.
The beach is made up of rocks that are constantly being smoothed and polished by the clear waters of Lake Superior. I can't stress how much of an amazing camp site this would make, it also appeared that there was definitely beach access for a vehicle.
We only continued down this dead-end trail for a bit longer, as it provided some great views of the lake. Shortly after we headed back to the main route to the tip.
Before you reach the tip of the peninsula, you'll have an opportunity to turn off and check out Schlatter Lake which you'll be driving alongside. I highly recommend it.
The water is peaceful, clear, and as you might expect—cold. There's a great campsite here that you could drive to which is right alongside the lake. I'd warn that the path is made of loose rocky soil and if you lose traction, you'll end in the lake. We just didn't want to take the chance as we had a lot of things to see.
Alongside the route to the tip there's plenty of little water crossings, which could be traversed by a Nissan Sentra when it's not raining—but could get a bit nasty of weather comes in.
We even saw a lovely bird, which our resident ornithology-enthusiast tells me is a quail.
Shortly after the lovely bird we reached the tip which offers some striking views.
It seems when I reach some point of driving, or geographical significance, it's always rugged, and there's always dead (or dying) trees. It reminded me of Cape Spear, minus the lighthouse and bunkers...and icebergs.
There's a small map that shows you where you are. If interested the trail can take you all the way to the incredibly popular town of Gay.
The crystal clear waters on the tip were some of the cleanest I've ever seen in the Midwest, but it's not a place you'd want to take a swim.
Manitou Island lies a short distance off the coast where there are two historic lighthouses.
Again, this is about 10-12 feet down (approximately)
Named after it's founder, Joseph E. Gay, the town was famous for the stamp mill which the Mohawk Mining Company built there in 1898. Several ruins are still present from the towns history, including most interestingly the Gay Beach, which is created entirely of residual stamp sand from the mill.
Additional parts of the mill were built after, we couldn't tell what this was, other than that it was obviously used in mining and built in 1927.
The best part about the Gay Beach is that you're allowed to drive on it. Locals had built a few motocross jumps, and you could tell that it would be easy to have some fun back here on a motorcycle or ATV. We didn't do any donuts or get the Jeep airborne—that would be irresponsible.
You can only describe the area as being incredibly desolate to the point of almost lunar.
My friend David recommended the famous Gay Bar to us, and suggested we try their foot long hot dog. We did not follow his culinary advice.
After leaving Gay Beach, It was an odd way to end an adventure with your Dad.
So yes, there's overlanding in the Midwest, don't tell me there isn't. We found hundreds of miles of off-road trails in the Keweenaw Peninsula alone, and there are hundreds more in the rest of the Upper Peninsula and the rest of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Most of the trails we drove were easily conquered by a completely stock 4-door Jeep Wrangler, honest, a lifted vehicle would have made most of the trails a bit boring, plus on the drive to and from Chicago, along with about 100-125 miles of random trail driving, we averaged over 20mpg. The challenge might not be as large as the Rubicon, the sense of adventure is still there, and it's right on your doorstep.
You might be a little hard pressed to find anything in Illinois though—I've tried.
A special thanks to U.P. Overland and the Expedition Portal Facebook community for helping us find trails and point out some of the little places that really made the trip.