Chilly air and colorful falling leaves always bring out a migration instinct in me. Most migratory critters go south when the air begins to cool. All I can think of is making that last trip north before the weather becomes inhospitable and flying to “up there” becomes a roll of the dice.
I had watched the forecasts and the prog-charts for days and deemed the forecasted “clear blue and a million” at about 9 AM the next morning as departure time. Metars and TAFs checked over my morning coffee early the next day told me a story just a bit different than that. A look out the back window confirmed what I had just learned. Dense fog obscured nearly everything. The gorgeous colors of fall were nearly hidden from view, everything outside was wet and clammy with its exposure to the moisture laden air, and rivulets of condensation ran down the window panes. I gave in to the inevitable and called Flight Service to push the departure back to 10:30.
Despite the gloom and gray, I loaded bags into the Mooney in the early dinginess and completed the preflight in anticipation of my impending launch. Pappy found a tennis ball in the corner of the hangar and busied himself begging me to kick it out the door and into the fog time after time. I made a cup of microwave coffee and began the business of waiting; something that pilots have to deal with fairly regularly but never really get used to.
The sun was up somewhere out there but the gray stubbornly persisted. Around 10 A.M. as I stood in front of my fog shrouded hangar I chanced to look straight up. I swear I could see blue above! I checked local metars again via my phone and discovered that several of the area aerodromes were indeed enjoying clear blue skies. Yet another call to FSS got me a void time for departure and in just a few more minutes the Mooney was pulled free of the hangar and all buttoned up with Pappy on his bed in the back. Two turns of the blade and the Lycoming awakened from its slumber.
A thorough run up and check of the panel confirmed that all things were nominal so I lined up and checked my DG one last time. Outside the windscreen all was gray and damp. Throttle up and the roll began. Airspeed alive, DG steady on 300 degrees, just the hint of runway lights sliding past in my peripheral. At 65 knots the old girl got kind of squirrely so I added a bit of back pressure and we were off into an ocean of gray. Two or three heart palpitations later we popped out the top at 800’ into a blinding blue sky. I put the big white “N” in the window and checked in with departure. Happy to hear from me, they confirmed what I already knew; “cleared as filed, climb and maintain 7000’; and I was on my way to 7000’ in thick, cold, blue air.
Seen from the air, the fog was large patches with lots of wide open spaces between and the color was ramping up the farther north I traveled. My mind wandered as I relaxed at altitude and I began to wonder why I had always written about trips to the southern US or western US but never bothered to tell anyone about the beauty and remoteness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I make many more trips there in a year than I do anywhere else so it would seem logical that I would share what I know about this remote and beautiful destination. Regular readers know that I have a small “tar paper shack” in the area of Grand Marais in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I can run and hide from life but, most of them probably have no idea how much there is to see and do in this forlorn neck of the woods.
Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore stretches from Munising Michigan approximately 30 miles east (straight line distance) to Grand Marais Michigan along the southern shore of the 31,700 square miles of frigid water that is Lake Superior. The lakeshore is owned by the people of the United States and is overseen by the Department of the Interior. It is a wilderness area and as such is just a bit difficult to get to by air. Once you find your way there though, Highway H-58 will take you along the lakeshore from one end to the other and even provides access to all the beautiful points of interest along the way. H-58 is a beautiful curvy, blacktop road these days with pull offs, scenic overlooks, hiking trails, lake access, camp grounds, good fishing streams, waterfalls; and virtually no services available for its entire length. (Remember where I said it was a “Wilderness area?”) When I first began my love affair with the area about 50 years ago the road was a rutted two track adventure and there were no signs to help you find whatever it was you were looking for. Camping areas were just that, areas where people camped. No toilet, no water, no trash containers; just camping, fishing, hiking, great scenery and fresh air.
The closest most pilots will get to the pictured rocks lakeshore area is a landing at either Munising’s Hanley Field (5Y7), or the Grand Marais Airport (Y98) on the eastern end of the lakeshore area. I say “most pilots” because one adventurous pilot, that I know intimately, has landed his Maule on the beach in this pristine area and also pulled a Lake 200 up on the sand on one or more areas of the lakeshore. The forest service takes a dim view of this type of adventure. In fact, sectional charts for this area formerly carried a request for pilots to stay above 2000 Ft. MSL and at least two miles offshore when transitioning the area. Whether through omission or oversight; this request does not appear on my current charts.
A landing at either Munising or Grand Marais would seem to put one in the middle of this great patch of outback but, as the old adage advises, “You can fly a thousand miles but once you land, you’re afoot.” Remember, it is about 30 air miles from end to end of this pristine 67,000 acre area. Factor in the curves of H-58 and the road mile distance is about 70! It should also be noted that both Munising and Grand Marais are sod runways, neither have fuel, and tie downs are sometimes a bit difficult to find in the tall grass. To say that these strips are in “good” condition would probably indicate that a landing could be made there. These strips are well suited for aircraft with good ground clearance and rugged landing gear. They are definitely not Mooney territory. Taildraggers will do fine at either airport and I flew into Grand Marais for years in Pacers and Maules and 172’s and Cherokees; and I even used to fly my 210 in and out with no problem. A warning for you though, the grass can be tall and these strips are prone to activity by Sand Hill Cranes, Deer, and Coyotes. It is advisable and probably prudent to “drag” the strip to assess grass depth and resident activity prior to landing. One should also brush up on their “rough field, soft field” technique prior to landing on either of these two strips.
According to AirNav, Munising/Hanley Field (5Y7) is 4000 feet of sod 120 feet wide in “good” condition. Munising does have lights, a wind sock with segmented circle and even an old clapboard home that is in use as a “sorta” FBO. Unicom is 122.9 but the odds of meeting much traffic here are slim. There is one tired old 172 based here. The place is attended irregularly which in recent years can been defined as hardly ever, and has zero services. Again, tie-downs are there, somewhere, in limited supply. The airport is owned by the US Forest Service which means that there will most likely never be any commercial endeavors at this airport. A quick search turned up no rental cars available in the immediate Munising area. They do however have a dial-a-ride (AlTran 906-387-4845) service in Alger County. It has also happened in the past that a call to Unicom has been answered by someone local who might at least provide a ride into town. The catch here is that the airport is not really in Munising but rather in Wetmore a sorta-kinda suburb four or five miles south of the city of Munising. If you have done some research prior to making the trip you will find a glut of motels and cabins in this area most of which would likely help you get from the airport to their place. Preplanning is a must if you are going to use this airport as your base of operations but I cannot stress enough how big the reward will be if you’ll just put in the effort. Visit: www.munising.org for more. Munising is also the home of Pictured Rock Cruises, the famous, and recommended, boat tour (since the 1940’s!) along the beautiful cliffs of the Pictured Rocks. If you are Jonesing for the boat tour, which gets an A+ rating and really is a ”must do” even if you have just toured the whole area by vehicle, you will have to find your way to Munising in order to get it. For more on the boat tour visit: www.picturedrocks.com
The Munising area has a wide variety of places to stay with many fine motels and restaurants in the walking district downtown. Fast food is available but I like the homey atmosphere found in some of the old established dining houses like the Navigator Restaurant or the Falling Rock Café. Both can be found in the mid-section of the old town area and just a block or so from the Pictured Rocks Cruises facilities and boat docks on the bay. Just a very few miles west of Munising near a little village named Christmas, sits a little park and campground at Bay Furnace (named after an old ore smelting facility that was located there many years ago) I mention Christmas mostly because there is a Kewadin Casino there and for some that represents an opportunity to rest and recreate. Whatever floats your boat. The campground will facilitate trailers or campers and has sanitary dumping facilities and pressurized water available.
The Alger County Chamber of Commerce provides this list of lodging options in the Munising area.
- Cozy Log Cabin
12797 Chapel Road | Melstrand 49884
- Four Seasons Cabins
E5190 Martin Road | AuTrain, MI 49806
- Grand Island National Recreation Area
400 E. Munising Ave. | Munising, MI 49862
- Hiawatha National Forest
400 East Munising Avenue | Munising, MI
- Jack Pine Lodge & Campground
5350N St. HWY M94 | Manistique, MI 49854
- Kouw’s Cozy Cabins
N2892 Dunklee Road | Munising, MI 49862
- North Country Ranch
Carmody Road | Munising
- Perch Bay Get-A-Ways
944 N Ash Road | Manistique, MI 49854
- AmericInn Lodge & Suites
E9926 M-28 East | Wetmore 49895
- Holiday Inn Express Lakeview
E8890 M-28 West | Munising, MI 49862
- North Star Hotel Pictured Rocks Munising
M-28 & Fed Hwy 13 | Munising, MI 49895
- Roam Inn
815 West Munising Avenue | Munising, MI 49862
- White Pine Lodge
E7889 M-28 West | Christmas, MI 49862
- Alger Falls Motel
E9427 St. Hwy M-28 | Munising, MI 49862
- AuTrain Grocery & Motel
N7590 Arbutus Street | Au Train, MI 49806
- Beach Inn Motel
H-58 East | Munising, MI 49862
- Boarders Inn & Suites
E9589 M-28 East | Munising, MI 49862
- Buckhorn Resort
N3919 Buckhorn Road | Munising 49862
- Christmas Motel
E7621 M-28 West |O. Box 756 | Christmas, MI 49862
- Econo Lodge Inn & Suites – Cherrywood Lodge
E10160 Hwy M-28 East | Wetmore, MI 49895
- Hillcrest Motel & Cabins
E9454 HWY M-28 | Munising, MI 49862
- Munising Motel
332 E. Onota Street | Munising, MI 49862
- North Shore Lodge
22020 Coast Guard Point | Grand Marais, MI 49839
- Pictured Rocks Inn & Suites
420 M-28 East | Munising, MI 49862
- Scotty’s Motel
415 Cedar Street | Munising, MI 49862
- Sunset Motel on the Bay
1315 Bay Street | Munising, MI 49862
- Superior Motel
500 East M-28 | Munising, MI 49862
- Terrace Motel
420 Prospect Street | Munising, MI 49862
- Timber Ridge Lodge
N4045 Buckhorn Road | Munising, MI 49862
- White Pine Lodge
E7889 M-28 West | Christmas, MI 49862
Grand Marais Michigan is a quiet little town on a bay at the east end of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. And the airport is every bit as outback as the one in Munising, maybe more so. Y-98 features two runways to choose from; both of them sod. One is 2800 ‘ X 100’, and the other is 2600 ‘ X 150’. They too have a segmented circle, windsock and tie downs. They too have tall grass, Sand Hill Cranes, Coyotes, and Deer. The airport is owned and maintained by Burt Township and there is but one lonely Cessna 150 stationed there. Grand Marais has no lights, and no office building at all and is unattended. There are no services. Unicom is 122.8, but again, it is rare that you find much traffic here. In the past, Grand Marais Unicom has nearly always been answered by a local who would pick you up and deliver you to the small two block village that is “downtown”. Be patient, you are seven or eight miles from the village. Smaller and homier that Munising, Grand Marais offers some rather eclectic places to stay along with cabins and home grown motels. Preplanning for a trip to this wild and wooly destination is a must, but again, the rewards are great. If in your planning you go to www.grandmaraismichigan.com you will find the local web site on which there will be a calendar of events for the summer and winter seasons. Grand Marais goes to great lengths to host events which attract visitors so there is always something brewing in the village.
Grand Marais has no fast food available at all but dining is seldom a problem. There are numerous places to grab a bite from the two main street bars, to a handful of restaurants. Given the location of this village at the end of the road and the nature of its seasonal allure, some eateries are closed for a portion of the year. One of the more popular haunts in town is the Dunes Saloon, AKA Superior Brewing Company. Old guys like me remember it as Skippers Cove but that was before multiple additions, several different owners, a small but newer kitchen, and home brew. If you are a craft beer fan the Dunes can draw you a Growler to take back to your billet. Kitty corner from the Dunes sits the Sportsman’s Bar; or rather used to sit the Sportsman’s Bar. The Sportsman’s had been a fixture in Grand Marais for decades (and as long as I have been visiting the area). After what seems like forever and owner after owner after owner, the Sportsman’s was purchased once again and this time the new owners razed the old place and installed a brand new “Grand Marais Tavern.” It is missing some of the old charm of the Sportsman’s, I mean you can’t smell the men’s room when you walk in anymore, but I’m thinking with its clean new line, outdoor patio and great bay view that the GMT will become another favorite.
A couple of more recent additions to the village are Grand Marais Outfitters and Stoney Creek Rental. Grand Marais Outfitters carries top notch apparel and gear for hiking, fishing, hunting, paddling, skiing, backpacking and most other outdoor activities and is also probably the best source for local information. Look them over at: www.grandmaraisoutfitters.net
Stoney Creek Rentals is located right behind the Grand Marais Outfitters store and rents ATV’s and snowmobiles by the hour, day, week, or longer. Grand Marais has miles of ATV and Snowmobile trails and a fun afternoon tooling around in the big bunch of empty that surrounds Grand Marais will whet your appetite for more of this fantastic area. They can also provide limited parts and service support for your machine and guide service and trail information. Check them out at: www.snowmobilerentmich.com
All lodging in Grand Marais will be locally owned. Meaning; no name brand motels are available. There are several wonderful tidy places to stay in town. Some are motels, some are rental homes, and some are rental cabins. Over the years I have stayed in most of them and have a couple of favorites from the list below. I once considered buying Hilltop Cabins. As it turned out I hesitated too long and nice family from Ohio bought the place and really brought it back to life. Visit Hilltop Cabins for more information at: www.hilltopcabins.net. My all-time favorite place to stay in Grand Marais is Sunset Cabins just east of the village on H-58. Over the decades I have watched as owner and friend Craig Winnie repaired, refurbished and enhanced Sunset into a quiet, convenient and comfortable place to stay. My own place in the woods is impossible to get to for part of the year and Sunset has always been my chosen “home away from home.” Cabins here are neat and clean, well equipped, and lodging is available for nearly any sized family or group. Then there are the awesome bay sunsets viewed from your cabin deck to help you unwind after a day of wondering the Pictured Rocks area. Visit the Sunset Cabins Website at: www.sunsetcabinsmi.net.
The Grand Marais Chamber of Commerce provides this handy batch of links to Grand Marais Lodging.
Bed & Breakfast
Houses, Cottages & Cabin Rentals
Bay Breeze Blue House
Bay Watch Cabin
Beautiful Sunset Cabins on Lake Superior
Blue Heron Guest House
Cabin Fever Cabins
Cabin in the Woods
Creekside Secret Vacation Rental
East Bay Rentals
Hilltop Cabins and Motel
Historic Hotel Grand Marais Vacation Rental
Kozy Korner Rental House
Lake Superior Vacation Rentals
Music Makers Cottage
Ridge Road Cabin
The Little House
West Bay Lakefront Rental
Woods Resort on Lake Superior
So there you have it. Everything you need to know about how to get where you are going; the middle of nowhere! Bear in mind that in between Munising and Grand Marais there is little or nothing but mile after mile of nature doing what she does best. The Grand Marais village limit sign puts it best when it says; “Nature in abundance.” Oh yes, there is the old Melstrand store down toward the west end of the lakeshore drive; fabled beverage shop, ice cream stop, gas station and emporium. But as of October or 2016 when I last went through, the old landmark has closed. All the wonders of the natural world await and the United States of America has made it more or less easy and accessible to you. What is holding you back? Well, I suppose there is that tiny little glitch about the ground transportation problem. Let’s tackle that next shall we?
I gave up on both Munising and Grand Marais airports once I became a devout Mooney driver (we’ll see how long that lasts). Neither of those facilities will work well with low ground clearance, inner gear doors and long props. But rejoice! For just 27 air miles SE of Grand Marais lies the Newberry / Luce Count airport. (KERY). Runway 11/29 is hard surface, 4300’ long and 75’ wide. They also have a fine 2850‘ grass strip that they keep in the same condition as a Marine haircut; short and tight. Newberry offers Jet A, 100 LL, ramp tie downs, lights, beacon, hangars, limited maintenance services, FBO with heat and bathrooms, phone, weather station and, a special bonus: approaches! Just the sort of place an old geezer like me would love to hang his hat. It is also attended weekdays from 08:30 to 16:00 local time, and Jay, the manager, is one hell of a nice guy with the old Marine kind of “get it done” mentality. The big plus for me is that they love my co-pilot Pappy and always offer him treats. Finally, and possibly the best reason you should consider flying into Newberry to start your lakeshore adventure is that you can find a rental car at the Newberry airport area by visiting: www.lucecountyairport.com or simply calling the FBO (906-293-2926). Launch your ground assault from KERY and tour one of the truly great wonders of the world at your leisure knowing that your airplane is properly tied down or housed. Fill your cooler with rations from one of the modern groceries in Newberry and set off for the great unknown. For more info visit: www.newberrytourism.com
Author: Tom Speerstra
Tom Speerstra has had an enduring love affair with aviation for over 40 years. Countless adventures have been enjoyed flying students, people, paper, and parcels in everything from Champs to Citations. He has held positions as both Chief Pilot and Director of Operations for Part 135 carriers and holds an ATP, MEII, SES ratings and a Citation type rating. Tom makes his home in Michigan with his wife Elizabeth and the two dogs Hess and Pappy.