When I was a child, I spent every summer in Massachusetts waiting for the blueberries to ripen. Every day my dad and I would take our morning walk through forests thick with berry brambles, and I would inspect the delicate green buds, waiting for that magical day when they would ripen into a juicy, blue-black snack.
It turns out I’m not alone. Throughout Michigan, and especially in the resorts and forests that line its Lake Superior shore, summer crowds eagerly greet the berry crop with festivals, bakeoffs and all manner of pastry.
I was lured by the promise of pie, but it turns out my Michigan friends knew something I didn’t: the state’s Upper Peninsula has some of the most breathtaking coastal scenery in all of America.
Indeed, blueberries are just one of the summer attractions on Michigan’s northern arm, which juts out from Wisconsin into the cool, clear waters of Lake Superior. Car-free Mackinac Island, with its Victorian charm, is the best-known destination in these parts — but on the Peninsula’s northern shores, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is the most impressive national park you’ve never heard of.
Sprawling 17 miles from Munising to Grand Marais, it’s a coastline of startling beauty. Sandstone cliffs tower hundreds of feet above the green-blue water of Lake Superior. Wind, waves and time have worn the cliff sides into craggy sculpture; the twisting shoreline features caves, natural arches and coves, as well as miles of sandy beach.
Toward Grand Marais, the cliffs give way to some of the world’s steepest dunes — glacial vestiges that resemble mountains made of sand.
It’s a seven-hour drive up I-75 from Ann Arbor to the Upper Peninsula, which ensures that this wild green landscape will never be crowded. Cross-country drivers taking Route 80 could make it a detour, though a significant one. The Midwestern scale simply dwarfs what we’re used to on the East Coast: Pictured Rocks Lakeshore itself is five times the size of Manhattan.
The lazy way to see it is by boat. A two-hour cruise departs from the Munising city pier and glides along the cliffs’ most spectacular formations, including the famous Miners Castle, a regal aerie in jutting rock.
But those in search of a real getaway — or the chance to pick some blueberries — go deep into the park itself. Amid thick evergreen forests are dozens of natural waterfalls, streams surrounded by yellow and purple wildflowers, miles of trails, and wide golden stretches of beach. (Whether or not you’d want to swim here depends on whether you’d swim in San Francisco.)
Campsites and rest stops dot the park, as do reminders of the area’s rich history. You’ll find military installations dating to the Civil War, antique farmsteads and working lighthouses from the 19th century.
That was the era when Northern Michigan was booming with industry, drawing immigrants from Central and Northern Europe to its copper mines, fish stock and abundant lumber. Among the newcomers were numerous Jewish immigrants from Germany; having been successful merchants in the Old World, many decided to test their fortunes in the New, inserting themselves into local industries and running dry-goods stores.
Most Jews eventually coalesced around Detroit and a few other cities, though a few synagogues remain as reminders of the rich Jewish legacy here. In Marquette County, the Peninsula’s largest urban center, several dozen families are active in Temple Beth Sholom (“Home of the Frozen Chosen”), where a visiting rabbi assists with Reform worship.
Further up, on the very northern tip of the Peninsula, the Reform Temple Jacob in Hancock is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month. The small, lovely brick structure, a local landmark, boasts a copper dome that harkens back to mining’s glory days.
But today the Upper Peninsula is better known for nature than culture. Wilderness has been conserved not just in Pictured Rocks, but also in a series of state forests, parks and wildlife refuges nearby.
Munising, an unassuming, all-American town, is the jumping-off point not just for Pictured Rocks, but also for the Hiawatha National Forest to the south and Grand Island, a short ferry ride away. Hiawatha, with its rocky canyons and waterfalls, is popular with hikers and wildlife aficionados; birding and beaver glimpsing are big activities. Bikers take the passenger ferry over to Grand Island National Recreation Area, where pristine shores create a paradise for beachgoers.
Speaking of Paradise, that’s the name of a town just east of Pictured Rocks, and the site of this week’s Annual Blueberry Festival. Like me, locals wait all year for that magical moment of ripeness, celebrating with live music, horse-drawn wagon rides, juggling and magic shows.
And of course, blueberry pie.