Midway along US-2’s route across far northern Michigan, Escanaba (pop. 12,616)—with picture-perfect placement where the Escanaba River pours into the Little Bay de Noc—was born in typical UP fashion, out of the country’s insatiable need for timber and ore. At one time its docks contributed to the largest ore-shipping operation of its kind in the United States, work that continues today as Escanaba feeds the steel mills of Indiana, across Lake Michigan. To get a feel for lake life, head to the renovated 1867 Sand Point Lighthouse (906/789-6790, $3) along the lushly landscaped waterfront. The annual UP State Fair, held here the third week in August, is great fun.
Hiawatha National Forest
Between Escanaba and Manistique, US-2 broadens into a fast four-lane highway along both Big and Little Bay de Noc, where you’ll pass through a slew of lakefront “resorts,” some with their own beaches and all famous for their fishing. Between the bays, the landscape reverts to trees and more trees in the chevron conifers of the 879,000-acre Hiawatha National Forest. The flyspeck communities here haven’t changed much—ubiquitous flashing yellow lights, matchbox dwellings attached to bulbous propane gas tanks, and, in a few communities, forlorn old Soo Line railcars aging gracelessly on the tracks right off the highway.
Jutting south from US-2, two quiet peninsulas stick their thumbs out into Lake Michigan. Both have forests, fruit orchards, and a few lighthouses. The best destination here has to be Fayette Historic State Park, the extant ghost of an iron smelting community with a few dozen stone and wooden buildings kept almost totally in their original 1890s condition, not renovated but preserved in varying states of repair. The park is an impressive, sometimes eerie place, situated on sheer limestone cliffs along Hwy-183, about 17 miles south of US-2 from the crossroads community of Garden Corners.
The route that US-2 follows along Lake Michigan between Escanaba and St. Ignace is one of the UP’s best autumn scenic drives. The true heart of the UP lies here, with patches of pine or birch woodland followed by brief lakeshore, then a dormant ore mine, a trailer park, or a long-abandoned fishing camp. The only sizable town between St. Ignace and Escanaba, Manistique (pop. 3,097) tends to underwhelm, apart from its Lake Michigan frontage. Mountains of gravel and mini smokestacks line the road into town on the east side, and the sweetly pungent smell of paper permeates the air.
Driving between Manistique and St. Ignace, the scenery becomes increasingly gorgeous. Bay views give way only occasionally to small towns or groves of trees, but most of the way the lake breaks through fully as US-2 skims along a beachside causeway bordered by huge sand dunes with green tufts of mixed grasses.