On a recent trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we visited one of our favorite scenic spots: Whitefish Point on Lake Superior — the largest of the Great Lakes.
Located north of the town of Paradise, Whitefish Point is one of the most northeastern parts of the U.P. It sits on what is known as Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast because of the way the water and the wind interact to wreck havoc. It boasts a lighthouse that opened in 1861 that is still revered by sailors as a welcoming beacon along the shore. During the summer, you can climb to the top of the lighthouse for spectacular views.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, also located at the point, estimates that more than 6,000 ships and 30,000 lives have been lost in the Great Lakes. On Lake Superior, that includes the iron-ore freighter immortalized by the 1976 Gordon Lightfoot song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
You might recall there is a line in that song that goes, “The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay if they’d put 15 more miles behind her.” We find it impossible to not hear that song, and especially that line, in our heads when looking north from Whitefish Point. It’s kind of eerie.
The museum tells the history of the perils of maritime transport. It has many artifacts from the different ships that have sunk over the years in the Great Lakes. This includes a comprehensive display dedicated to the Edmund Fitzgerald, the largest ship to have sunk in the Great Lakes.
Coastguard Station and beach
Next to the museum is the original Whitefish Point Coast Guard Crew Quarters. All of this is closed during the winter. But from April through November, you can make reservations to sleep overnight in the quarters.
Just beyond the lighthouse, a small boardwalk and viewing deck give you a good view of the beach and Lake Superior. The boardwalk provides barrier-free access so everyone can enjoy the view.
While it may not look inviting in the winter, we recommend bundling up and heading out onto the frozen landscape. You are going to see things firsthand that are beautiful in their intricacy and really hard to describe.
Frozen beaches aren’t just cold, they’re cool
One of the many exciting things about being on the frozen beach on Lake Superior in January is getting a feel for the awesome power of the wind, the waves, and the cold. From the driftwood to the ice balls, and from the frozen logs to the icebergs, it is awe-inspiring to see what Mother Nature can cook up with some frigid temperatures.
We noticed this year that the beach wasn’t as snow-covered and the frozen layers didn’t extend out as far into the lake. We have been to this area for four winters in a row, usually during the second or third week of January. The lack of ice this year is likely because winter in Michigan started out rather mild, even in the Upper Peninsula.
Besides the museum and lighthouse, the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory also is located here. It serves as a natural migration corridor for thousands of birds each year. While we didn’t see any birds during our trip, the area does provide a nice area for snowshoeing along the Whitefish Bay side of the point.
When you go…
The parking lot at Whitefish Point is quite large. But it is a little deceiving in the winter because there seems to be so much space. In the summer, it’s a lot more packed. We’ve heard from visitors who had to park out on the main road and hike in quite a way.
Whitefish Point is 11 miles from the town of Paradise. If you are staying at Tahquamenon Falls State Park in the Lower Falls area campgrounds, it’s about 22 miles. That equates to a 30-minute drive according to Google Maps. Of course, that is dependent on the type of vehicle you’re driving and the time of year.
In the winter, you may encounter slippery or snow-covered roads. You will probably have better road conditions in the summer. However, you’ll also have a lot more traffic on the two-lane, curvy blacktop.
One particular note if visiting in the winter: keep an eye out for snowmobilers. In the Upper Peninsula, it’s legal for snowmobilers to ride on the shoulders of the roads. Of course, given the amount of snow they receive, the shoulders often don’t really exist. That means you’ll find them riding on the roads and you need to go around them carefully.
Keep road conditions and traffic in mind if planning a trip there. But also plan to take your time if you can; it’s a pretty drive. So take the opportunity to enjoy some views of Lake Superior and the natural beauty of the Upper Peninsula. And check out Whitefish Point; it’s a treasure worth seeking.