In Sault Ste. Marie Michigan, you will find one of the state’s most famous tourist attractions — the Soo Locks. Widely heralded as an engineering marvel, these locks transformed transportation through the Great Lakes nearly two centuries ago.
To this day, the Soo Locks play a critical role in the United States transportation and shipping industries, ensuring that cargo reaches its destination in a timely and efficient manner.
In any given 42-week shipping season, an average of 7,000 vessel passages occur through the locks. In addition, more than 500,000 tourists come to see the magnificence of the locks for themselves.
Whether you are an annual visitor who simply loves to watch the freighters pass through the Soo Locks, or you have never had a chance to see this incredible feat of engineering for yourself, now is an excellent time to plan your trip.
Fun Facts About the Soo Locks
- Gravity is the only force that moves ships through the Soo Locks.
- There is no toll to use the Soo Locks. However, there’s a tax based on the cargo value, which funds the operation and maintenance of Great Lakes and coastal navigation projects.
- More than 95% of the iron ore in the United States passes through the Soo Locks.
- The Poe Lock requires 22 million gallons of water to lower and lift vessels into the locks.
- The largest freighter to utilize the Poe Lock spans more than 1,000 feet long and is more than 100 feet wide.
Things to Do at the Soo Locks
The Soo Locks are so much more than a photo opportunity. These are a few of the best things to do at the Soo Locks.
Sit Back and Watch the Freighters Go By
Naturally, the most popular activity at the Soo Locks is to simply sit back and watch the world go by — quite literally. There’s something captivating about watching a massive freighter effortlessly navigate through the locks, thanks to human creativity and modern engineering.
To guarantee that you will see a freighter during your visit, you can rely on the Sault Ste. Marie Visitor Center. Call its hotline — 906-202-1333 — between mid-May and mid-October to get up-to-the-minute information about marine traffic in the locks.
TIP: You can also check MarineTraffic.com to get a live glimpse of the freighters that are navigating the Great Lakes. You can hover over a ship to see its name and track it.
Stop By the Soo Locks Visitor Center
The Soo Locks Visitor Center is located within Soo Locks Park. Boasting free admission, it is open for guests between Mother’s Day and mid-October each year.
At the visitor center, you can learn more about how the locks were created as well as how they are used today. It is one of the best places to start your trip to the Soo Locks, largely because of the interactive and informative exhibits that are on display.
Make sure to watch the 30-minute movie about the formation of the locks and the role that they play today. It will give you a dose of insight and perspective before you witness the wonder for yourself.
Embark on a Voyage Through the Locks
Of course, witnessing the power and might of the locks is memorable — but there’s nothing quite like traversing through the locks yourself. For more than 60 years, the Famous Soo Locks Boat Tours has been providing educational and enjoyable voyages through the locks.
The boat tours typically begin in mid-May and end for the season in mid-October. Cruises along the Soo Locks last for about two hours, and along the way, you are treated to historical information about the locks while navigating the waters.
On each cruise, the boat goes through both the up-bound and down-bound lockage system, giving you a chance to experience both mechanisms. Not to mention, you will have the opportunity to go underneath the International Highway Bridge and sail past the larger-than-life freighters that are traversing the Great Lakes.
Spend Some Time at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society Museum
Just steps from the MacArthur Lock, you will find the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society’s Soo Locks Park museum.
It’s housed in the historic U.S. Weather Bureau Building, which was built in 1899, and contains a variety of informative exhibits about the history of the U.S. Weather Service in the Great Lakes region and the work of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.
Also, there’s a souvenir shop if you are hoping to support the work of the society and grab a special memento to take home from your trip to Soo Locks Park. The museum is open on weekdays during the peak summer travel season.
12 Facts About The Soo Locks For Trolls & Other Novices
Thanks to Rebecca Calkins for sharing her experience with Awesome Mitten.
So I have a confession to make… I am a lifelong Michigander, and I’ve never been to the Soo Locks or the Upper Peninsula.
Whew! That feels good to get off my chest.
I’ve done plenty of trolling around the Lower Peninsula, but for some reason, this troll never made it across the bridge as a child. My parents even stopped at the Soo Locks on their honeymoon! What’s romantic about watching boats go up and down?
Well, I had to do some research to find out, and it inspired me (as it will for you) to make a trip Up North.
Here are 12 facts about the Soo Locks that make me want to visit:
1. The Soo Locks are the largest and one of the busiest waterway traffic systems in the world.
2. There is a 21-foot difference in elevation between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, creating a three-quarter-mile set of rapids over sandstone that blocked shipping freighters before the canal and locks were built.
3. The first modern lock in this location opened in 1855. That makes for more than 160 years of safe passage and a vital shipping connection within the Great Lakes.
4. The Soo Locks do not have pumps. All of the water movement is 100% gravity-fed.
5. During its first year of operation, the canal was navigated by 27 vessels. Now, more vessels pass through, accounting for up to 10,000 passages through the Locks annually.
6. You can witness the path of a 1,000-foot freighter aboard a tour boat, or you can watch the action from the free and accessible observation platform located within Soo Locks Park.
7. The Soo Locks welcome half a million visitors annually.
8. About 95% of the world’s iron ore moves through the Soo Locks.
9. The United States Army Corps of Engineers currently oversees four locks — Davis, Sabin, MacArthur, and Poe. The MacArthur Lock (800 feet long) and Poe Lock (1,200 feet long) are currently active, while the Davis Lock and Sabin Lock are being replaced by a new, larger lock.
10. From January 15 to March 25 every year, the Locks are closed for maintenance, repair, and inspection. When emptied, the Locks can be used as dry docks for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers vessels.
11. The Soo Locks Visitor Center is only open from the beginning of May to the end of October, but Soo Locks Park is open year-round. This includes the historic 1899 U.S. Weather Bureau Building, which houses the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society office, a museum and exhibit, and the Great Lakes Images and Papers Collection.
12. On Wednesday evenings in the summer, Soo Locks Park hosts a free public concert series. You can bring a lawn chair and a sweater (this is the UP we’re talking about) and find a grassy vantage point to see the music, the water, and the ships. There’s even a fountain with colorful, dancing waters — not unlike my hometown’s Cascade Falls — to provide the ambiance for your romantic photo op.
I’m ready to hit the road, but maybe you need one more reason. Well, here you go — #MIAwesomeList has a bunch of fun stuff to do in Michigan this summer, and Watch the Soo Locks in Action is part of that list.
You can even make a whole weekend of it and visit other nearby UP destinations like one of Michigan’s nearly 200 waterfalls and Log Slide Overlook at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. If a nature-averse troll like me can do it, you can too!
What to Know Before Visiting the Soo Locks
The Soo Locks are open daily and accessible to visitors during the shipping season. With free admission and free parking nearby, it’s one of the most valuable tourist experiences that you can enjoy in the Upper Peninsula.
That being said, there are still a few important things that you should know before you plan your visit to the Soo Locks:
- The Soo Locks are owned and operated by the federal government. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from the Detroit District operates and maintains the locks, and there’s additional security in the area.
- You can watch the locks from an observation platform, but there are other nearby activities and attractions to enjoy as well. You can easily make a day trip out of your stop in Sault Ste. Marie.
- Sault Ste. Marie rests along the northeastern tip of the Upper Peninsula, so the weather can be chilly — even in the summer months. You will want to dress in layers, particularly if you plan to spend a good amount of time on the observation platform.
The History of the Soo Locks
While the Soo Locks as they exist today were first built in the middle of the 19th century, the concept of utilizing the natural current of the waters in this region began prior to European settlement.
The Ojibwa Tribes that occupied the region had long used the rapids that existed along the St. Marys River to reach the icy waters of Lake Superior. This part of the Upper Peninsula had long played an important role in trade and commerce.
The tradition continued even after European settlers arrived. The first lock on the St. Marys River was built in 1797, but it was destroyed during the War of 1812 by American forces.
It wasn’t until the 1850s that Congress granted the State of Michigan public lands to create a lock system for efficient transportation between the Great Lakes. The State Lock was the first lock built, and it was completed in 1855. In subsequent years, several more locks were created, including:
- 1881 — The Weitzel Lock
- 1896 — The original Poe Lock
- 1914 — The Davis Lock
- 1919 — The Sabin Lock
- 1943 — The MacArthur Lock
- 1968 — The rebuilt Poe Lock
At this time, only the MacArthur Lock and the updated Poe Lock are operational, and the vast majority of ships utilize the larger Poe Lock.
In 2019, construction began on a new lock, and that project is expected to take about a decade to complete. Once it is operational, it will be similar in size to the Poe Lock.
FAQs About the Soo Locks
Are the Soo Locks worth seeing?
The answer to this question is a simple and resounding yes! The Soo Locks are an intricate system that allows freighters, ships, and other vessels to pass through the waters of the Great Lakes.
There are many vantage points to stop by to witness the movement of the locks.
Where is the best place to view the Soo Locks?
The observation deck located inside Soo Locks Park is considered — by both locals and visitors — to be one of the best places to watch the locking system in action.
If you want to spend more time watching freighters and other vessels pass through, you can always relax on the grassy areas in the park and enjoy the views for as long as you like.
When do the Soo Locks operate?
The Soo Locks operate during the shipping season, which typically begins in late March and ends in the middle of January.
How long does it take a boat to go through the Soo Locks?
The journey for a freighter that is passing from Lake Huron to Lake Superior on the St. Mary’s River takes about 40 to 60 minutes from the approach to the departure. However, the vessels are only secured in the locks for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Experience the Grandeur of the Soo Locks
The Soo Locks are a working representation of the inventiveness and resourcefulness that Michiganders have long been known for.
For more than 150 years, the Soo Locks have been unlocking the power of the Great Lakes in a way that allows humans to traverse the rugged waters more easily and effectively, ultimately keeping the rest of the country connected.
Instead of marveling at the Soo Locks from afar, plan your trip to experience the wonder and might of these powerful locks for yourself.