When Michigan got a sudden burst of springlike weather in mid-April 2023, our family needed a Michigan spring break adventure. And nothing makes for a better adventure in Michigan than a spontaneous spring road trip to the Upper Peninsula.
So that’s exactly what we did — we packed the kids in the ‘Burb, and we headed north for a spontaneous 24-hour spring break Upper Peninsula road trip!
Stay Overnight in Mackinaw City
While it’s not in the Upper Peninsula, Mackinaw City is as close as you can get to the Upper Peninsula without crossing the Straits of Mackinac, and it became our first destination as we escaped Lower Michigan.
Since this was a spontaneous road trip, we left downstate mid-afternoon, stopping for a quick bite along I-75 before stopping in Mackinaw City for the night. Booking a Mackinaw City hotel in the off-season was an easy feat, and we managed to score a room overlooking Lake Huron for our whole family for around $115/night (and that included breakfast in the morning)!
While we weren’t there to explore (most of the town was still shut up for the winter), we did enjoy spending a few minutes on the shore of Lake Huron while doing one of our family’s favorite lakeshore activities… skipping rocks.
Watch Spring Freighters at the Soo Locks
In the morning, we packed up the ‘Burb after breakfast at the hotel and a quick stop for coffee, and we punched Sault Ste Marie into our GPS.
Since it was a spontaneous trip, we didn’t really have a plan or even know what to expect. We just showed up and hoped we’d see a boat or two going through the Locks.
When we arrived, it took us a minute to get our bearings as spring at the Soo Locks is a lot quieter than summertime, and there are fewer gates open.
We parked in the angled pay-to-park spots along the main street outside the gates of the Locks ($.50/hour — pay by coin or on the app — maximum of two hours), and found an open gate at the far right end of the park.
Once inside the park, we ventured over and up to the observation deck where we watched a boat that had already entered the Locks and was headed downriver.
The process was SLOW, and other than the few plaques in the observation tower, there was little to no explanation of what was happening. My kids were more excited about seeing the bridge to Canada and the shores of Canada across the Locks than they were about watching the boats move through the Locks.
As that boat made its way out of the Locks, we decided to wander around the grounds. We found a few employees and asked them if they knew of any other boats scheduled to go through the Locks — they directed us to a maritime app that would show us the location of any commercial vessel in the world at that moment.
That app alerted us to another boat that was ready to head through the Locks — going up to Lake Superior this time — so we wandered back over to the observation deck. Once again, the process was SLOW and the kids quickly lost interest.
Overall, we were underwhelmed by the Soo Locks in spring, BUT we’re hoping to go back this summer to take a boat tour THROUGH the Locks, as that will likely be a much more “hands-on” and exciting experience!
See Spring Runoff at Tahquamenon Falls
After our hour at the Soo Locks, we decided that Tahquamenon Falls would be next on our spontaneous spring road trip through the Upper Peninsula. Another item on my personal bucket list since working for Awesome Mitten, I was especially excited.
We punched the address (or what we thought was the address) into the GPS and started driving. It’s about 1.25 hours from the Soo Locks to Tahquamenon Falls, and there’s not much to do or see between the two during spring in the Upper Peninsula.
When we arrived at the address we’d punched into our GPS, the DNR office was closed for the winter, but there were self-registration forms for anyone who didn’t already have a State Park Pass for the year.
There was a gate across the road just past the office, but a few vehicles were sitting alongside the road through the gate. I walked up and asked one of them if they knew why the road was blocked.
Turns out, it was the Lower Falls entrance, and they were only accessible via a 1-mile hike during the off-season.
So, we got back in the ‘Burb and drove another mile or so down the road to the Upper Falls (which is where we wanted to be all along — we just didn’t know it). This parking lot actually had vehicles in it (less than a dozen or so), and people were milling around.
Note: The Upper Falls parking lot has a bathroom facility that’s open year-round, and the walking trail is maintained throughout the winter and spring months.
This stop ended up being one of the highlights of our entire trip… the kids immediately took off down the path (they love exploring nature) and ran from lookout point to lookout point, excited to get a glimpse of the powerful spring runoff.
We lingered at the park for over an hour — and had our stomachs not been hankering for lunch, we could have lingered longer — before loading the ‘Burb back up and getting back on the road.
Eat Lunch at Timber Charlie’s in Newberry
We’d hoped to eat lunch at Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub, but it was closed for the off-season (late March to late April), so we had to find another option.
Having helped to research the details for the M-123 Tahquamenon Scenic Byway article, I knew that we’d find our way back toward Newberry if we kept driving west after leaving the park. That was good knowledge to have as our cellphones had no signal in Tahquamenon Falls State Park or for the first several miles after leaving the park.
Once our phones regained a signal, we used them to find a few different restaurant options in Newberry that were open. Timber Charlie’s ranked high with recent reviews, and when it was the first place we saw in town, it was an easy choice for eating local in the Upper Peninsula.
We loved the “Up North” decor and small-town feel of this Upper Peninsula diner, and the food blew us away. From the big-as-your-head soft pretzel appetizer to the huge plate of pulled pork nachos smothered in housemade beer cheese, everything we ordered was delicious and filling!
Our late lunch filled us all up enough that we didn’t need another meal that day — just a quick ice cream stop before bedtime.
Sleep Overnight in Escanaba
And speaking of bedtime… while there were several other stops we would have loved to explore on our spontaneous Upper Peninsula spring break trip, we had some tired kiddos and needed to get to our hotel in Escanaba so that we could rest for the night.
I sadly drove past the turn-offs for Fayette Historic State Park and Kitch-iti-kipi as we made our way westward on US-2. We’ll have to plan another trip soon to revisit those beloved Upper Peninsula destinations!
When traveling along US-2 in the middle of the Upper Peninsula, our family’s favorite place to stay is at the Sunset Lodge in Escanaba. It can sometimes be difficult to find a room big enough for our whole family, but its family-sized room (three beds) is a great fit for us.
Eat Breakfast at The Family Inn
And the best part about staying at the Sunset Lodge is that The Family Inn restaurant is next door. While most of us aren’t morning people, knowing that we get to eat breakfast at The Family Inn when we stay in Escanaba is motivation for us to get out of bed and pack our bags in the ‘Burb.
The portions are huge, the food is delicious, and the waitstaff is always super friendly. While we have some great breakfast places in our hometown, we still look forward to eating at The Family Inn when we pass through Escanaba.
Head Home Again
Our time in the Upper Peninsula this spring was definitely not long enough to experience everything we would have liked to do and see, but alas, our 24 hours were up and real life was calling.
While some people might think that there isn’t anything to do in spring in the Upper Peninsula, we know better, and we’re excited to explore again next spring (and hopefully between now and then, too!).