Fort Wilkins

Dive into Upper Peninsula History at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park

While each of Michigan’s state parks presents something unique, Fort Wilkins Historic State Park near Copper Harbor may be in a class all its own.

Michigan’s northernmost state park, is a well-preserved example of a 19th-century American military outpost. Nestled in the heart of Copper County, the park offers a unique glimpse into the life and times of early American soldiers and their families.

There are plenty of good reasons to visit the Keweenaw Peninsula, but Fort Wilkins appeals to outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs alike, transporting visitors back to a unique time in Upper Peninsula history.

Fort Wilkins Historic State Park-Copper Harbor
Fort Wilkins Historic State Park | photo via ericjimagery

Getting to Know Fort Wilkins

Established in 1844, Fort Wilkins was built during the height of the copper mining boom in the region, initially designed to keep peace in this remote frontier. It was named for William Wilkins, a former US Secretary of War.

The fort was intended to provide a military presence to deter unrest between copper miners and the local Ojibwa (Chippewa) tribes and to enforce law and order in an isolated part of Michigan, which achieved statehood in 1837.

The US Army built 27 structures on the site, including officers’ quarters, barracks, mess halls, a bakery, a quartermaster’s store, a slaughterhouse, and a guardhouse. Ultimately, the fort proved unnecessary as the miners were law-abiding and the local tribes accepted the influx of soldiers.

By 1870, the US Army abandoned the fort and it became a Michigan State Park in 1923. Restoration efforts at the park took place during the 1930s and 1940s.

Fort Wilkins Historic State Park-Copper Harbor
Fort Wilkins Historic State Park | photo via ericjimagery

Exploring Fort Wilkins State Park

As a piece of living history on the Lake Superior shoreline, Fort Wilkins State Park offers a unique look into Michigan’s past and offers plenty to do.

Historic Structures and Exhibits

The park features 19 original buildings from the group of 27 originally built.

The remaining buildings include the officers’ quarters, hospital, bakery, and guardhouse, among others. These buildings have been restored to reflect their 1840s conditions, providing an authentic historical experience for those who appreciate Michigan’s history.

Period furnishings and exhibits inside the buildings help illustrate daily military life in the 1840s. This includes displays of the typical gear and personal items of soldiers who were stationed there.

Fort Wilkins State Park-Copper Harbor
Fort Wilkins State Park | photo via home_bound2

Living History and Reenactments

Fort Wilkins Historic State Park is known for its living history programs, which often include reenactments with actors portraying life at the fort, demonstrating period cooking, blacksmithing, and military drills.

During the summer, visitors can interact with dozens of historical interpreters who wear period attire to portray real people who lived there and offer guided tours and demonstrations, enhancing the immersive experience.

DID YOU KNOW: For nearly three decades, U.P. students involved with the Future Historians program have participated as reenactors at Fort Wilkins.

Scenic Natural Setting and Amenities

Located at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, the park is surrounded by the stunning natural beauty of Lake Superior and dense forests. This makes it a popular site not only for history enthusiasts but also for nature lovers.

DID YOU KNOW: There’s an excellent beginners bike trail (The “Fanny Hooe Trail”) that connects Fort Wilkins to Copper Harbor.

The park includes a modern campground with facilities for both tents and RVs, picnic areas, and hiking trails. The lakefront location offers opportunities for fishing, boating, and swimming. Visitors of all ages can enjoy Lake Fanny Hooe, a section of rocky Lake Superior shoreline, and a section of sandy beach on Lake Manganese.

Fort Wilkins State Park is just 15 minutes from Brockway Mountain Drive, offering another chance to take in scenic views of the Keweenaw Peninsula

Fort Wilkins State Park-Copper Harbor
Fort Wilkins State Park | photo via marcobrugnoli

Educational and Recreational Activities

Park visitors can also enjoy educational programs about the history of the fort. These programs often focus on the early mining industry, local ecology, and cultural history of the Upper Peninsula. Annual events at the state park include:

  • Battery D — Civil War Encampment: The roar of Civil War cannons can be heard each summer as Battery D of the Michigan Light Artillery demonstrates drills, cooking, and period pastimes.
  • Astronomy in the Fort: Visitors are invited to view planets, stars, and more through high-powered telescopes.
  • Geocaching at Fort Wilkins.
  • Programs for Memorial Day and Independence Day.
  • From Flintlock to Cartridge: Visitors can see and learn about firearms used at the fort between 1844 and 1870.

The park also serves as a gateway to exploring the larger Keweenaw National Historical Park, which preserves many sites associated with the region’s copper mining history.

Preservation and Archaeology

Ongoing archaeological investigations at Fort Wilkins help uncover artifacts and provide deeper insights into the everyday challenges faced by soldiers stationed at this remote U.P. military post.

Preservation efforts are continuously made to maintain the integrity and authenticity of the historical structures and artifacts within the park.

Fort Wilkins State Park-Copper Harbor
Fort Wilkins State Park | photo via omgandrewsmith

A U.P. Resident’s Perspective on Camping at Fort Wilkins

Upper Peninsula resident Jesse Land shares a unique perspective of his experiences camping at Fort Wilkins State Park.

Fort Wilkins is a pretty cool campground because it’s part of the Fort Wilkins Historic Complex, a well-maintained 19th-century military outpost. Many of the fort’s buildings are open for exploration, complete with recreations of what life was like back when the fort was fully operational.

If you peruse the grounds and read the signs, you’ll learn the following:

  1. The winters were harsh, and pretty much no one wanted to be there.
  2. Many of the soldiers were immigrants.
  3. One soldier was meant to be tried for “General Worthlessness” and “Habitual Drunkenness”, but he escaped. (Go figure.)

(I laughed out loud at that last one).

The campground is situated on the north bank of Lake Fanny Hooe, a long, skinny (and deep) lake that’s just a few hundred yards inland from Lake Superior. It’s a great lake for paddling, or fishing if you’re so inclined.

Fort Wilkins also has a good-sized playground for the kids and some nice walking and biking paths around the campground. This is a super family-friendly place. Heck, they even have on-site laundry!

While there are a few campsites with some nice elbow room (site #10, for example), many of Fort Wilkins’ campsites are packed together like sardines. When my wife and I visited there in early summer, the campground was only at about 20 or 30% capacity, which meant that everyone had plenty of room. Breathing room is good!

However, if you’re there during the peak of summer when they’re closer to full capacity, I can easily imagine being woken up by the sound of some guy snoring in his tent the next site over. If you’re a light sleeper, bring earplugs.

I’m told that they always fill up Memorial Day Weekend and Labor Day Weekend, and they’re often nearly full most weekends of the summer.

I should also note that Fort Wilkins has two “loops.” The “east loop” is a little more open and the “west loop” has more trees between campsites. Most of the sites in both loops are close together, but hey, if you’re camping in Copper Harbor, life is good!

All in all, I’m sure we’ll camp here again, but next time I’ll try to get campsite #10 or one closer to the water. Next time we’ll also bring the kayaks!

Fort Wilkins State Park-Copper Harbor
Fort Wilkins State Park | photo via robertalexander482

Plan Your Visit to Fort Wilkins State Park

Fort Wilkins Historic State Park is a fascinating destination for anyone interested in American military history, the early mining era of the Upper Peninsula, or simply looking for a picturesque spot to enjoy outdoor activities amidst a rich cultural backdrop.

Thank you to Jesse Land for his contributions to this article.