As gears shifted and the red cogwheel tram began descending a hill above Houghton, Mich., I felt a little like I was in a Swiss mountain town. While there were no mountains in sight, the Keweenaw Waterway ambled below, spanned by a bridge that connects Houghton (pop. 7,650) with the outdoorsy tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, a 150-mile thumb of land hooking into Lake Superior.
My mom, Lyn, and I carefully turned our heads toward the view, careful not to dislodge our hard hats. We could imagine the valley ablaze in autumn gold and bronze. On such a beautiful and Superior-crisp day it seemed almost a shame to shrug into well-worn heavy coats for our destination: a damp, dark mining shaft at the historic Quincy Mine.
To fully appreciate the Keweenaw Peninsula — even if you’re heading here solely for mountain biking, hiking or paddling among its small coastal towns — you have to acknowledge its mining legacy, with Houghton marking the gateway to Copper Country.
Like Minnesota’s Iron Range, the Keweenaw Peninsula boomed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, humming with wealth, attracting a rich stew of Old World cultures and leaving a legacy of past prosperity.
While Quincy Mine tours offer a gritty glimpse at life underground and at engineering marvels (it boasts the world’s largest steam-powered hoist), it’s more fun to admire the discoveries at one of the nation’s top rock and mineral museums.
A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum: This museum grabs visitors’ attention quickly with its 850-pound chunk of copper and smaller delicate copper formations that twist and branch out like coral and miniature sculptures.
“This is natural art,” says museum director Ted Bornhorst.
Glass cases glitter and glow with radiant colors and shapes that range from precisely cubed or spiky to polished or bubbly. Flashy fire opals, the sparkle of a 5-foot-tall amethyst and a dark room that shows off fluorescent rocks pull people down the aisles.
A Lake Superior section showcases the whorls, bands and eyes patterned across agates, greenstone and Thomsonite, then flows into sections on Michigan copper and Michigan stones. They represent the largest public collection of Great Lakes rocks, a worthy detour for anyone who loves to troll Superior shores for treasures.
Allow at least 90 minutes to take in the 4,000 specimens on display and to check out the rock-related gift shop. Admission is free during Keweenaw Mineral Days Aug. 3-8, or $2-$5 the rest of the year for ages 8 and up (1-906-487-2572; www.museum.mtu.edu).
Keweenaw National Historic Park: Quincy Mine is one of dozens of sites that make up this national park. A timeline near the gift shop shows how copper mining dates back at least 7,000 years. If you crave more of the human story, keep driving north about 20 miles to Calumet and Laurium, the epicenter of Michigan’s copper boom.
The Keweenaw Peninsula is about six hours or 370 miles from the Twin Cities. Follow Interstate 94 into Wisconsin, catching Hwy. 29 near Eau Claire and continuing east to Wausau. Take Hwy. 51 north, then on to eastbound Hwy. 8 near Heafford Junction. Finally, take Hwy. 45 north until it becomes Michigan Hwy. M-26.
Where to sleep
If you’re lucky, Bill and Barbara Briggs of Sheridan on the Lake Bed and Breakfast will serve raspberry-topped pannukakku, a rich, creamy Finnish custard. Take a sauna and jump in Portage Lake, or settle back for sunset or sunrise views from the dock of this cedar-shake home with two suites and a loft for guests. (From $119. 1-906-482-7079; www.sheridanonthelake.com.)
Head up the peninsula to Laurium Manor Inn for a choice of two spacious Victorian bed-and-breakfast homes or three historic vacation homes in the once-wealthy community. (From $95. 1-906-337-2549; www.laurium.info).
Where to eat
Mining culture goes hand-in-hand with the pasty, a handheld meat pie pocket. Find some fresh twists — including a cranberry, turkey and stuffing version, or a breakfast pasty with omelet fixings — at Roy’s Pasties & Bakery along the canal. Order morning pastries or a bowl of whitefish chowder and grab a seat on the waterfront patio. (1-906-487-6166; www.royspasties.com).
Fans of Minnesota’s North Shore will appreciate heady whiffs of maple-smoked Lake Superior whitefish and trout from Peterson’s Fish Market, across the road from the Quincy Mine. Its 4-Suns Fish and Chips Outdoor Cafe offers a quick and casual meal. Don’t miss the Singapore chili whitefish, fish tacos and a tasty smoked fish chowder with a kick of hot sauce. The fish is caught daily, and you can take it home fresh, smoked, pickled, made into a spread or as sausage (1-906-482-2343; www.petersonfishmarket.com).
Suomi Home Bakery & Restaurant may feel like a plain old-fashioned downtown cafe, but Finnish heritage and affordable prices make it a local favorite. Order pannukakku, Finnish French toast or bubbly pancakes that spill over your plate. (1-906-482-3220).
Keweenaw Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-800-338-7982; www.keweenaw.info.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (www.lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and the ninth edition of “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path,” which was published last month.