Jazz up your summer with six truly unique Michigan destinations
By Susan R. Pollack
Some vacationers enjoy visiting the same beloved spot year after year. But if you’ve got that “been there, done that” feeling, here are six off-the-beaten-path attractions you just might add to your list of Michigan favorites.
Raft across a natural spring
Tucked away in the forest of the Upper Peninsula’s Palms Book State Park, 12 miles west of Manistique, Michigan’s largest natural spring is a bit tricky to find and even harder to pronounce. But Kitch-iti-Kipi — “The Big Spring” — is a family-friendly attraction that’s worth the effort. Boasting the dazzling blue-green colors of the Caribbean, KITCH-i-ti-Ki-pee (with short i’s) is 200 feet across, 40 feet deep and a constant 45-degree temperature, whatever the season. More than 10,000 gallons of fresh water per minute gush year-round from fissures in the underlying limestone.
Aboard a wooden raft, youngsters and grown-ups delight in turning the big steering wheel that pulls it along a cable across the pond. Everyone oohs and ahhs looking through viewing windows at the fat trout and bubbling sand visible in the crystal-clear water below. No wonder Native Americans called it “Mirror of Heaven.” Credit for this natural treasure goes to John I. Bellaire, owner of a Five and Dime store in Manistique, who discovered the spring among fallen trees in the thick wilderness. He persuaded the Palms Book Land Company to sell it to the state of Michigan for $10 in 1926 and preserve it for public recreational use. uptravel.com
Go to Hell …
Elayne and Harvey Urnovitz of suburban Detroit say they had ‘a helluva good time’ when they went to Hell to celebrate her birthday last year. “If you blink, you’ll miss it,” Harvey says of Hell, a tiny crossroads 15 miles northwest of Ann Arbor. Attractions include Screams Souvenirs and Helloween, where a favorite Screams Ice Cream treat is bananas in the form of a gravedigger with coconut shavings for hair and multiple scoops of ice cream drizzled with chocolate or fruit sauce. Anyone who eats a whole “Gravedigger” wins a death certificate, says Judi Wilcox, shop manager.
At the post office, every letter is burned around the edges and stamped with a Hell postmark. The Hell Hole Diner has new owners and a new name this season. Other activities in Hell include a wedding chapel (“nowhere to go but up,” Wilcox says), an 18-hole mini golf course that’s handicap-accessible, canoe and kayak rentals and access to Pinckney’s highly rated Potawatomi hiking trail. On Sept. 19, the 14th annual Hell Hearse Fest, sponsored by the Just Hearse’N Around car club, will try to beat its 51-hearse record set in 2011. Or, visit in winter when you may find that Hell freezes over. You can buy a square inch of Hell for $6.66 any time. Some visitors travel hundreds of miles, Wilcox says, to say they’ve “been to Hell and back.” gotohellmi.com, 734-878-2233
… or discover Paradise
If the idea of Paradise sounds more appealing than a trip to Hell, head in the opposite direction, some 340 miles north, to the Upper Peninsula on Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay. The little town of Paradise — population 471 — is just over an hour north of the Mackinac Bridge. With a history of shipping, logging, fishing and blueberry and cranberry crops, Paradise is best known today for wild blueberries, thanks to the great 1922 fire that destroyed the land’s natural growth and laid the groundwork for one of Michigan’s most productive wild blueberry regions. In fact, most of the land north of the Tahquamenon River is covered with wild blueberries — along the roads, in the fields and out in the open. Be sure to BYOB — bring your own bucket.
Each summer, on the third full weekend of August (Aug. 21-23 this year), crowds of visitors get the blues in Paradise in the form of homemade pies, muffins, buckles and pancakes — mounds of them. The food, including a daily Blueberry Brunch and pie-eating contest, is complemented by an arts and crafts fair, horse-drawn wagon rides and entertainment — from jugglers, magicians and storytellers to strolling musicians and the Blueberry Jamboree.
From Paradise, it’s an easy drive to Tahquamenon Falls State Park, various fishing sites and Whitefish Point to tour the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, lighthouse and bird observatory. michigansparadise.com
Whether paddler or fan, brace yourself for an all-nighter
Sometime during the long, dark night, participants wonder what the heck they’re doing pulling an all-nighter in a canoe on the Au Sable River across Northeast Michigan. But mostly they focus on paddling in a grueling 120-mile marathon canoe race marking its 68th anniversary July 25-26. North America’s longest and most difficult nonstop canoe race, the Au Sable River Canoe marathon is also an exciting event for fans who revel in its reputation as “America’s Toughest Spectator Sport.” After partying much of the day, they line the riverbanks in Grayling, in mid-Michigan, for Saturday night’s thrilling, 9 p.m., LeMans-style start when some 75 two-person teams jostle for position as they run through downtown streets, carrying lightweight canoes atop their heads. After the chaotic, shotgun launch, many fans drive all night, stopping to cheer favorite paddlers as they pass under bridges or portage canoes over six hydroelectric dams. The race typically takes anywhere from 14 to 19 hours.
Teams of “bank runners” or “feeders” scramble to supply the paddlers with cups of food, beverages and other necessities. By Sunday morning, camera-brandishing crowds grab riverside seats before 11 a.m. in Oscoda, near Lake Huron, to watch the weary winners. Cheers erupt as canoes glide across the finish line to the blaring sound of the “William Tell Overture” and paddlers in varying conditions make their way to the massage tent. ausablecanoemarathon.org
Good evening star shine
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. residents live where they can’t see the stars of the Milky Way at night, and most students never learn about the night sky in school. That’s what inspired Mary Stewart Adams, author, storyteller and stargazer, to spearhead the effort to create the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, two miles west of Mackinaw City. With more than two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, the 600-acre forested preserve along the Straits of Mackinac is in the vanguard of a growing international movement to protect exceptional starry skies and nocturnal habitat from light pollution. Since its official designation in 2011 as one of the world’s first 10 Dark Sky Parks (there are 20 now), the Headlands has offered visitors an array of starry-sky experiences — from viewing constellations, shooting stars and meteor showers to glimpsing the occasional comet, eclipses (both solar and lunar) and the Northern Lights. The latter, though unpredictable, tend to be most prevalent around the Equinox — late March and September, Adams says.
As the Headlands’ program director, Adams has initiated such projects as the Dark Sky Discovery Trail, a mile-long paved path and self-guided smartphone tour highlighting cultural and astronomical discoveries. Next up is a waterfront observatory under construction this summer. The Headlands is open 24 hours a day, every day, rain or shine, free of charge. Visitors may stay through the night for dark-sky viewing opportunities. Though camping units are not permitted, star buffs are advised to bring blankets, sleeping bags, chairs, food and beverages — and to dress for temperatures 10 degrees cooler than expected. emmetcounty.org/darkskypark, 231-348-1704
Details about special narrated “sky cruises” can be found at sheplersferry.com/cruises.
Step into quirky Legs Inn
In a world of predictable, cookie-cutter chain restaurants, Legs Inn, 20 miles southwest of the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, offers a refreshing, one-of-a-kind Up North experience. Described on its Michigan Historical Site marker as “exuberant and unusual,” the rustic stone-and-wood structure, a Cross Village landmark, is named for the old-fashioned cast iron stove legs lining its roof. It’s all the vision of Stanley Smolak, a Polish immigrant and self-taught artist who enlisted the craftsmanship of Native American Odawas to construct the restaurant from local materials in the 1930s. Décor includes fantastical creatures and carvings Smolak fashioned from limbs, tree-roots and driftwood. Smolak called them “nature’s oddities.”
On a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, surrounded by lush gardens, the bustling outdoor patio is a popular spot for sampling the house specialty Polish fare — from pierogis, potato pancakes and stuffed cabbage to a berry crumble cake called Polish Berry Szarlotka. Favorite starters include the Polish vodka-infused Bloody Mary and smoked whitefish spread. legsinn.com