The thought of dropping 21 feet in a kayak in the matter of minutes sounds daunting. You’d expect to be cascading down rapids, paddling furiously to stay upright as water careens about you, right?
Well, this is a different kind of thrill ride—it’s one through the Soo Locks. Instead of traversing currents, you’ll be bobbing in a kayak, holding on for this engineering marvel to lower you the necessary 21-feet so you can continue your journey on through the St. Marys River and into Lake Huron. Floating past enormous shipping freighters, paddling between two countries in international waters, and witnessing how the Soo Locks work firsthand, all in a kayak. It’s just one of the many unique aquatic (and land-friendly, too) activities that Sault Ste. Marie has to offer.
The country’s third oldest settlement has a little bit of everything for the perfect “Up North” weekend getaway. There’s an array of local restaurants, breweries, wineries, and coffee shop. They all focus on sourcing local and fresh ingredients for dinners and drinks alike. Kayaking, paddle boarding, and biking are all at your fingertips for any kind of outdoor adventure. Then of course, there’s the abundance of history. The town is named after the rapids in the St. Marys River and was visited by some of the first explorers in the Americas. You can tour the Locks by boat or kayak (don’t worry, you won’t actually be paddling through whitewater rapids) or immerse yourself in the shipping history of the city and the Great Lakes at the Museum Ship Valley Camp. Better yet, you can park yourself at the Soo Locks Park and watch the ships roll in.
For many of us downstate, a quick weekend trip to the Upper Peninsula can seem out of reach. Sault Ste. Marie sits only less than an hour away from the Mackinac Bridge. Factor in the recently increased speed limit to 75 mph on I-75 (thanks, MDOT!) and that jaunt up north to The Soo for a perfect early fall road trip is now more attainable than ever.
Where to stay.
The Ramada Ojibway Hotel is conveniently nestled on Portage Avenue, one of the main arteries in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. Built in 1927, this historic venue offers plenty of charm and comfort as well the famous Freighters restaurant. With its proximity to the Soo Locks Park (which is directly across the street), Michigan-centric shops, restaurants, and breweries, the Ojibway is the ideal epicenter for a weekend on foot.
Where to eat and what to drink.
Renovated from an old dive bar, Wicked Sister is a modern take on the bar and grill experience. In addition to its lineup of tap and draft Michigan beers, the menu offers an array of soups, salads, sandwiches, gluten free options, and starters, many with playful names (see: The Smother-In-Law) to satisfy your hunger after crossing the Mighty Mac. Its laid-back atmosphere maintains the charm and character of an old “Up North” saloon—all without the sticky floors.
Imagine stepping into a cabin with the spoils of a big game hunter adorning the walls. Now multiply that by about 100, and throw in some of the tastiest burgers in the state. Now you have The Antlers. A stone’s throw from downtown, The Antlers got its start as a ice cream parlor, when it was really a front for a saloon during Prohibition. Horns would be used to alert patrons and workers when authorities were close to snuffing out the false soda fountain facade. The tradition still carries on at the restaurant today, although it’s now implemented to welcome new visitors from far away—the most sincere form of Yooper hospitality. Try the Rudyard Burger, made from locally raised bison in nearby Rudyard, Mich, and take in the sights (and thankful, not the smells) of this tastefully taxidermied tavern.
If you’re looking for fresh, sustainable, and locally sourced meal with an Upper Peninsula flair, look no further than Karl’s Cuisine. A family run outfit with food partially sourced from the owner-owned Wildwood Farm. The restaurant also works with local farmers for much of its ingredients—a glowing example of the community and resourcefulness of the people of Sault Ste. Marie. A byproduct of some of the ingredients from Wildwood Farms is Superior Coast Winery and Brewery, the restaurant’s in-house winery and brewery. The pecan encrusted chicken, that day’s special, stuffed with ham and melty gouda cheese was worth the five-hour drive from metro Detroit. I’m contemplating making the return trip now just for seconds.
Soo Brewing Company
Nestled a block from the Locks, Soo Brewing Company pays homage to Upper Peninsula brews while carrying on the namesake of the original brewery. Owner Ray Bauer incorporated bricks from the pioneering Soo Brewing Company building, after it was demolished in the 1980s, into the aesthetic of his pub. Empties of vintage beer cans line the walls, while board games are stacked tall next to the church pew benches. Sip on the 810 Brown and take a breather in the laid-back atmosphere of this homey UP brewery.
What to see.
Bird’s Eye Adventures
“Coffee, Beer and Gear.” Its tagline just about covers it all. Owner Ken Hopper transformed an old divebar into a micro incubator of food, drink and adventure. Superior Café provides the freshly roasted coffee (plus a number of rare Michigan brews on tap on the other side of the hand-crafted bar), Flannigan’s Goat serves up the BBQ, pulled pork and succulent dishes, while Bird’s Eye Outfitters supplies the necessary gear for the excursions that Bird’s Eye Adventures will guide.
In addition to stand-up paddleboarding and fat tire bike rentals, Bird’s Eye offers the aforementioned guided tour of the Canadian Lock, as well as a more low-key kayak trip near Rotary Park. While the seven-mile kayak tour may seem daunting at first, the knowledgeable and experienced guides while help traverse the St. Marys with ease. As an alternative, The Soo Locks Boat Tour is a lower key opportunity to see the Locks up close by boat, but there’s nothing quite like paddling through them in a kayak. Better yet—you won’t need a passport for this trip through international waters.
Soo Lock Park
Until you see the Soo Locks in person, it’s hard to describe why it’s so intriguing to watch a boat lower or raise in 21 feet of water. The scale and magnitude of these freighters can be experienced firsthand at the Soo Locks Park. The welcome center offers a detailed look at the Lock’s past (the Locks use gravity to raise and lower the water level, the same concept used from the first Locks built in 1855) as well as a running list of which boats will enter the Locks and at what time. The two-level observation deck is lined railing to railing with visitors whenever a boat enters the Locks. You could probably skip most of this list (just kidding, don’t be that brash) and only watch the boats come and pass all day through the Locks—it’s something you have to witness firsthand to truly appreciate.
Iroquois Point Lighthouse
Calling all Lake Superior sunset seekers: this is the place to be. An easy thirty minute drive northwest of Sault Ste. Marie, Iroquois Point Lighthouse houses the boardwalks, benches, and sweeping Superior views essential for settling into a gorgeous evening. Its location is named for the spot where the Chippewa Indians, native to this region, defeated the advancing Iroquois Indians in a battle to stop them from controlling trade routes on The Great Lakes in the 1600s. The lighthouse now serves as a museum and traces the histories of the lighthouse keepers that have called it home.
Museum Ship Valley Camp/Tower of History
For the avid history buff, these are two can’t miss attractions. Housed in the belly of a retired Great Lakes Freighter, Valley Camp, The Soo’s famous floating museum highlights the city’s rich shipping history. In addition to the over 100 exhibits, many portions of the captain and crew’s quarters have been kept intact for an inside look at what life was like on a freighter. The Edmund Fitzgerald exhibit is a must see—listen to some Gordon Lightfoot before you venture in. The Tower of History offers a panoramic view of the city from 210 feet above, all the way to our Canadian neighbors to the north. The base of the tower presents a history of the area and highlights some of the missionaries that have made their way through the Soo.
While the Locks make Sault Ste. Marie a destination, there’s even more to discover in this community-centric international city. Residents of The Soo volunteer and rally around beautification efforts in the downtown district; painting crosswalk and wall murals while also maintaining colorful flower gardens at the Soo Locks Park. It provides visitors that small town, “Up North” feel they seek when escaping suburbia summers, but with a unique blend of cuisine, history and outdoor adventure.
Did we miss your favorite thing in The Soo? Let us know in the comments why you love this city.