Emmet County, Top of the Mitten

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Why Emmet County: 

After visiting my cousin in Ann Arbor and spending a day on Mackinac Island, I had 24 hours before my flight left from Detroit. To pass the time, I decided to explore the region near Mackinac City, the mainland stop for the Mackinac Island Ferry. 

The region is split between Emmet County and Cheboygan County with the Mackinac Bridge and the old highway leading to it being the dividing line. As it would turn out, everything I planned to see would be on the west (Emmet County) side of this divide. 

September 17, 2023: Top of the Mitten

After returning from Mackinac Island to the mainland and checking into my hotel, I still had some daylight to burn. I drove 5 minutes over to McGulpin Point, the northernmost point on Michigan´s Lower Peninsula. Michiganders often refer to the peninsula as a mitten, using their right hand as a makeshift map when explaining to outsiders where they are from. McGulpin Point would be the very tippy top of that mitten. It is here where Lake Huron meets Lake Michigan. 

The point itself is demarcated by the large McGulpin Rock, a navigational aid used by the French to measure the lake level. Local tourism officials and historians call this rock the Plymouth Rock of the Midwest. While the rock itself is bigger than Plymouth, I would say this is an overstatement. That said, the view of the Straits of Mackinac are beautiful!

McGulpin Rock and the northern extremity of the Upper Peninsula

Above the lakeshore is a short trail lined with plaques explaining the region´s long history as a center of trade dating back more than 1,000 years. At the top of the short trail is the McGulpin Point Lighthouse, built in 1869. 

For dinner, I ate at Darrow´s Family Restaurant. While it looked like a Denny´s, the restaurant was founded in 1957, before the construction of the Mackinac Bridge. It was and still is famous for serving whitefish from the Great Lakes as well as its large selection of pies. Having eaten my weight in fudge earlier today, I got only the whitefish.  Mackinac City and the region have many outstanding historic restaurants and I wish I had time to eat at them all. 

September 18, 2023: Tunnel of Trees

This was my final day in Michigan. I started the day by driving on Mackinac City´s most famous attraction, the Mackinac Bridge. Opened in 1957 as one of the longest suspension bridges in the world, Big Mac connects the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. It is considered to be an engineering marvel.

On Big Mac

The bridge costs $4 to cross. After driving to the St. Ignace on the Upper Peninsula, I quickly turned around and drove back to begin my sightseeing. 

Just below the southern landing of the Mackinac Bridge is Michigan´s second state park, Fort Michilimackinac (the first is Mackinac Island). The park contains the reconstructed French and British fort.  

The original Fort Michilimackinac (a tough one to pronounce) was built in 1715 by the French as a fur trading post. The French and the local Odawa and Ojibwe tribes generally had a positive relationship with both sides united in their economic goals. In 1761, the French ceded the fort to the British due to their defeat in the French & Indian War. The British were not as friendly to the natives and stopped the local custom of gift giving. This angered the Ojibwe so much that they attacked the British in 1763. They caught the British off guard by staging a lacrosse game outside the fort entrance and then, on cue, stormed the fort, killing most of the British. A year later, the British retook the fort and restarted the gift giving practice. 

In 1781, amidst the American Revolutionary War, the British moved their forces to Mackinac Island where they built the stone fortress that still stands today.

While all the wooden buildings were destroyed by the British during the move, archaeologists have been able to rebuild it based on 50 years on in-situ archaeological research and historical records. The current fort is 80% complete. However, some building sites are still being excavated. While the reconstructed buildings all look like the originals, many houses secret (quite expansive) museums in the modern basements. 

This area is currently being excavated, although they have covered it up for the winter

Historic reenactors run regular programs throughout the day. My favorite was the cannon firing by British soldier reenactors. Before lighting the fuse, the guy yelled “God Save the King!”. The fort actually has 4 different types of cannons that are fired throughout the day. 

Incredibly random but also interesting was the house of the first Jew in Michigan, Ezekiel Solomons, who was a fur and slave trader during the British period. He was captured during the 1763 Ojibwe attack and was forced to canoe naked into the Straits of Mackinac. After 18 miles of paddling, he ran into the Odawa tribe. The Odawa were upset that they were not consulted on the attack and ransomed Solomons back to the British.  

After spending almost two hours at the fort, it was time to move on. I drove for 30 minutes down country roads until I reached the town of Cross Village. Here, I got an early lunch at the legendary Legs Inn, rated Michigan´s second most-iconic restaurant according to this article. 

The Legs Inn was built by Polish immigrant Stanley Smolak in 1930´s. He enlisted local Odawa craftsmen to construct an inn. Smolak added in fantastical carvings into the furniture and fixtures. The combination is a unique structure that looks like a combination of a giant log cabin and Native American art museum.  

The restaurant, open for walk-ins only, is very popular. When I arrived at 10:50, there was already a 30-person line ahead of me. That line doubled by the time they opened at 11. Luckily it was able to be seated without a wait. 

The food is Polish. I ordered the “Hearty Polish Lunch” which consisted of a golabki, 3 pierogis, sauerkraut, and a hunter´s stew. It was delicious. 

Cross Village marks the northern terminus of Michigan State Highway 119, best known as the Tunnel of Trees. For much of the 20 miles from Cross Village to Harbor Springs, the trees create a canopy over the road. M-119 is most popular when the leaves change in the fall. I was there a couple weeks early. While it was beautiful, there are many other side-roads in the region where this phenomenon occurs. I can imagine that in peak season, M-119 is a huge traffic jam. 

Eventually, I reached Harbor Springs, the southern terminus of the road. Harbor Springs has the deepest natural harbor in all the Great Lakes, making it a popular spot for rich Detroiters to have a second home. Many of the boats in the marina were stunning. 

The town itself was very cute with lots of colorful buildings. Since I already had lunch, I instead got dessert in the form of a chocolate cookie at Tom´s Mom´s Cookies. 

While I would have loved to keep exploring including visiting the town of Petosky and trying out a winery, I needed to head back to Detroit 3.5 hours away to catch my flight home. 

Final Thoughts:

While Mackinac Island is the gem of the region, the northern extremity of the Lower Peninsula has plenty to see: nature, cute town, numerous iconic restaurants, and the ability to get out on the water. As someone not from the Midwest, I would not plan a trip around Emmet County but it is a nice add-on if already going to northern Michigan. 

Had I had more time, I would have liked to explore Petosky, visit some of the wineries and eat at more of the restaurants up here. When compared to northern Wisconsin which I think has a similar culture, this area is more upscale, more developed, more focused on the water and easier to reach. However, there is also less wilderness and publicly accessible nature.  


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