Photo: Johnny Motley

Winter Is Actually a Great Time To Visit Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Insider Guides
by Johnny Motley Jan 25, 2023

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the rocky landmass jutting out from Wisconsin and constituting the southern coastline of Lake Superior, is one of the most untrammeled, wild regions of the Lower Forty-Eight. Devoid of large cities and sparsely populated, the UP has long beckoned hikers, fly-fishers, and skiers. Ernest Hemingway, who always gravitated to places with more wilderness than people, adored this rugged country as much for the trout fishing as the quirkiness and hospitality of the “Yoopers,” those who call this chilly peninsula home.

While winters are no joke this far north, the cold months summon an ethereal, icy beauty to Lake Superior and the historic town of Marquette, the largest settlement in the UP. When chilly weather sets in, Yoopers gear up for outdoor activities like ice-fishing, skiing, snowshoeing. And the snowy season is when that delightful Midwestern ideal of gemutlichkeit, roughly translated from German as “cozy camaraderie,” finds its fullest expression. Germutlichkeit may be hard to define, but you know it when you feel it. It’s that warmth in the heart when you’re staring out the window at a blizzard while sitting in a snug bar — perhaps Blackrocks Brewery or the Crow’s Nest in Marquette — drinking and laughing with friends.

Upper Peninsula hiking

hiking trail in winter in upper peninsula michigan

Photo: Johnny Motley

Riveted with mountain ranges and covered with vast stretches of forests, the Upper Peninsula is a haven for hiking and camping. The jagged coastline of Lake Superior, better characterized as fresh-water ocean than lake due to its size, is honeycombed with coves, cliffs, and beaches where, during the winter, you’re more likely to see bears or wolves than other hikers.

Presque Isle Park offers miles of hiking trails through woods and along sea cliffs. From the cliffs, you can catch stunning views of Superior and the ships pulling in or departing from the nearby iron dock. The Presque Isle trailhead is only about a mile from downtown Marquette, and the main loop in the park takes around an hour to complete.

Slightly farther from Marquette, 45 minutes by car, is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Named for the coastline’s iridescent cliffs, Pictured Rocks is home to crystal-clear water and postcard-worthy geological arches, enormous stone parabolas rising out of the lake. During the summer, Pictured Rocks is a favorite for kayaking and boating, but during the occasional mild winter days, when trails are dusted with white and the park is well-nigh empty, is arguably the best season for hiking.

Michigan Iron Industry Museum

History buffs should make time to visit this small but fascinating museum in the one-time mining town of Negaunee, about a 15-minute car ride from Marquette. The Upper Peninsula, once the beating heart of the nation’s iron-mining industry, fueled the American Industrial Revolution. During the late 19th century, the steel that built America’s railroads, cars, and skyscrapers came almost entirely from UP iron ore.

The Michigan Iron Industry Museum speaks to the history of mining as well as the stories of the miners in the UP — intrepid pioneers hailing fromFinland, Ireland, China, and Italy. The museum’s exhibits take about an hour to see, including a fascinating 17-minute movie about the region’s early mining communities. And if you’re looking for a souvenir, the museum’s gift shop has a plethora of quirky jewelry, paperweights, and sculptures made from Michigan-mined copper and iron.

Upper Peninsula ice fishing

The time-honored UP tradition of ice fishing is essentially just a grand excuse for drinking with your buddies and basking in the majesty of Lake Superior. Ice fishing excursions are big commitments: all-day affairs that begin before sunrise and conclude around sunset. Around 5 AM, guides pick you up at your hotel and shepherd you via snowmobile out onto the frozen expanses of Lake Superior — up to 10 miles from the shore, depending on the ice density. After boring holes in the frozen lake and setting up fishing rigs, all there is to do is kick back, maybe pass around a good bottle of whisky, and wait for bites.

For an unforgettable adventure out on the ice, book an ice fishing guide through Superior Outfitters. Their expert guides will take care of all the logistics, from packing lunches, to picking you up at your hotel, to constructing a lodge on the ice if you’re up for an overnight trip. While you can enjoy the thrill of pulling in lake trout, salmon, and walleye, Superior Outfitters adheres to an eco-friendly catch-and-release policy.

Upper Peninsula skiing

Just a few minutes by car from downtown, Marquette Mountain offers 170 skiable areas. Day passes cost around $60 for adults, and you can rent skis, snowboards, helmets, and other gear on-site. While mountains in the UP might be smaller than those in the Rockies, they’re generally less crowded than the big boys out west. To unwind after shredding the slopes, head to TBar, a mountainside watering hole with an impressive selection of Michigan beer, or Iron Moose for a more substantial meal.

Marquette Farmer’s Market

Looking to sample local jams and pastries, buy UP-made crafts, or just take a break from the cold for an hour? The Marquette Farmer’s Market is a fantastic place to find souvenirs, talk to locals, and support UP farmers and artisans. The indoor farmer’s market convenes every Saturday at the Marquette Commons during the summer and fall, with a special holiday market taking place until mid-December. Depending on the weekend, the market hosts between 20-30 vendors. If you can find it, try anything made with thimbleberry, a cold-climate fruit related to the blueberry but far tastier, according to Yoopers.

How to take a brewery tour of the Upper Peninsula

Michigan, home to Two-Hearted, Founder’s, Bell’s, and a dozen other nationally renowned breweries, ranks as one of the great craft-beer states up there with Colorado, Oregon, and North Carolina. Chalk it up to the long winters or the deep-rooted Finnish heritage, the tiny town of Marquette punches well above its weight for seriously good beer. You could spend a week in the Upper Peninsula just sampling breweries, and every Yooper holds strong opinions about the best taprooms in town.

Ore Dock Brewing

ore dock brewery beers

Photo: Johnny Motley

Ore Dock Brewing, just a stone’s throw from Marquette’s iconic iron ore dock, is another beloved watering hole. With old wood paneling and exposed brick walls, Ore Dock is the perfect refuge on a frosty night. The Reclamation IPA, the brewery’s flagship brew, is well-balanced and crushable; for a hint of distant spring, order the Bramble on Rose, a fruity Belgian-style ale infused with raspberry and rose hips. After a pint or two, take a walk to the Lower Harbor Ore Dock, where, in bygone days, barges transported innumerable tons of iron ore to smelters across the Midwest. Also within easy walking distance of Ore Dock Brewing stands the statue of Father Jacques Marquette, the first European to extensively explore the Upper Peninsula.

Blackrocks Brewery

With two separate bars and an outdoor patio, the spacious Blackrocks Brewery is a popular haunt among the young scholars at Northern Michigan University. Stone fire pits make Blackrock’s patio, decked out with long beer hall-style tables, as enticing in the winter as in the warmer months. The barrel-aged scotch ale is a standout and, for staving off the biting cold, so are the heavier stouts.

Blackrocks Brewery:424 N 3rd St, Marquette, MI 49855

The Vierling

The Vierling is more of a restaurant that makes its own beer than a brewery per se, but both fare and suds are top-notch. Inside a century-old historic building, the Vierling is one the oldest breweries in Michigan. Whitefish, a light, flaky delicacy from Superior’s cold waters, is the house specialty — try it in fish n’ chips, sauteed with Cajun spices, or whipped into a smoky dip. Whichever way you order your whitefish, pair it with the Vierling’s flagship Blueberry Wheat, a white beer brewed with the Upper Peninsula’s famous blueberries.

The Vierling: 119 S Front St, Marquette, MI 49855

Ore Dock Brewing: 114 W Spring St, Marquette, MI 49855

Restaurants to try in the Upper Peninsula

Third Coast Pizzeria

third coast pizzera in marquette michigan

Photo: Johnny Motley

Detroit-style pizza, pies baked in square trays and sporting cheesy, caramelized crust, is having a moment: Motown slice shops are popping up and thriving even in pizza strongholds like Brooklyn and Philadelphia. Like Detroit, the Upper Peninsula saw a huge influx of Italian immigrants in the early 20th century, with most seeking work in the iron mines. Third Coast Pizzeria stays true to the classic Detroit pie: perfectly browned, crunchy crust; bright red tomato sauce on top of the cheese; and a generous covering of cup pepperonis. Thick and bready like Sicilian-style square slices, the medium pizza at Third Coast is enough for a least two hungry diners. Their cocktail menu lists Italian classics as well as some more experimental concoctions, and the baked brie appetizer, served with a side of pizza sauce and focaccia, is a crowd-pleaser.

Third Coast Pizzeria: 227 W Washington St, Marquette, MI 49855

The Delft Bistro

Located inside a vintage movie theater, The Delft Bistro is buzzy and chef centric. The menu showcases Midwest classics (think cheese curds, burgers, and fried chicken) but with a gourmet twist (e.g., the cheese curds are tempura fried and the pickles on your burger are made in-house). The Delft’s tight cocktail menu combines the tried-and-true pre-Prohibition standbys along with a rotating selection of creative seasonal libations.

The Delft Bistro: 139 W Washington St, Marquette, MI 49855

Velodrome

In a town buried in snow for much of the year, good coffee is as essential as kerosene. Marquette has half a dozen excellent cafes, where the baristas, many of them students at Northern Michigan, take their craft seriously. Velodrome, a sleek coffee shop that recalls Scandinavian aesthetics, is the go-to for expertly poured cappuccinos or cortados, and with large wooden tables and a quiet ambiance, is a great place to crush work or read. If you want to try a different cafe each morning, Contrast Coffee and Provisions MQT are both fantastic as well.

Velodrome: 519 W Washington St, Marquette, MI 49855

Iron Town Pasties

pasties shop in upper peninsula michigan

Photo: Johnny Motley

The Upper Peninsula’s iconic food, the pasty originally served a utilitarian function: miners could easily carry baskets of the flaky, sealed pastries into the subterranean corridors where they worked. Nowadays tourism is more prevalent than mining in the UP, but the pasty, kissing cousin to the empanada, remains a regional favorite. Iron Town Pasties serves the traditional take — pasties filled with steak, rutabaga, and carrots — but also creative variations with cream cheese, jalapeño, and chipotle. Iron Town’s homemade spicy ketchup is delicious, too. Note that pasties are deceptively filling. Only order more than one if you’ve got the appetite of a hungry miner.

Iron Town Pasties: 801 N Teal Lake Ave, Negaunee, MI 49866

Donkers

No small, quaint town in middle America is complete without its beloved local confectioner. In Marquette, locals and tourists alike flock to Donkers for artisanal chocolates, caramels, and long shelves of old-school candy. Looking for a great gift to bring back from Marquette? You can’t do better than a box of chocolate truffles from Donkers. Upstairs from the heavenly aromas of freshly made fudge and butterscotch swirl, Donkers has a restaurant that serves one of the most scrumptious breakfasts in the UP.

Donkers: 137 W Washington St, Marquette, MI 49855

Where to stay in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

The Landmark Inn

Located at the top of Front Street, Marquette’s main avenue, the historic Landmark Inn is a stately structure of brick and sandstone. The hotel is within easy walking distance of Lake Superior, the Iron Ore Dock, and the town’s best restaurants, cafes, and breweries. The Landmark is home to a popular pub on the lobby level and a craft cocktail bar, The Crow’s Nest, on the 6th floor. The bartenders at the Crow’s Nest, mostly local college students, will not only pour you killer drinks but will give you the lowdown on where to hike, eat, and party while in town. Rooms at the Landmark, usually around $120 per night in the winter, are comfortable and well-maintained, and if you need to take a Zoom meeting, each room has a desk.

Landmark Inn: 230 N Front St, Marquette, MI 49855

How to get to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Direct flights to Sawyer International Airport in Marquette are about an hour from Detroit and Chicago (usually about $250 roundtrip). While there are no direct flights from major East Coast hub like New York, DC, or Boston, you can easily connect through either Chicago or Detroit. Driving from Milwaukee, another major hub, takes about six hours, with the city of Green Bay roughly on the halfway point.

Once you’re there, Marquette’s charming streets and lakeside promenade are eminently walkable. From the Landmark Inn, you can walk to any of the businesses listed above within 10 to 15 minutes. You can even hoof it to Presque Isle Park if you’re willing to schlep about 30 minutes each way. Lyft and Uber are available in Marquette, but you may have trouble finding a driver late at night. Locals are so friendly in Marquette, it’s not uncommon to just ask around for a ride home. The city is inevitably cold during the winter and snow and ice can cover walkways; make sure to bundle up accordingly and wear a good pair of boots.

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