How to: Ride around Lake Superior

Older motorcyclists love educating fellow riders, providing directions on where to ride, what to see, what to eat and even how to ride. Sometimes it’s welcomed, even encouraged. But I can’t count how many times I’ve grown so tired of nodding with feigned interest at a well-meaning but long-winded stranger that I shoved in my earplugs, strapped on my helmet and fired up the bike while they carried on yammering.

So, let me tell you all about where to go and how you should approach circumnavigating Lake Superior. Wait, where are you going?

There are smooth roads with long stretches through virtually uninhabited landscapes; the ride spans thousands of kilometres through three states and one hell of a big province. I suggest leaving enough time for leisurely mornings, photo ops and food.

Which direction is best?

The reality is that there’s no bad way to do it. You get unique views either way you travel around the lake. However, if you do it clockwise then you’ll be on the side of the road closest to the water when the two come together.

The roads on the Upper Peninsula, including Hwy. 41 here, are waiting for you…
Wind in your hair, sunshine on your face

When I crossed the border into Minnesota down Highway 61, I seemed to be the only rider wearing a helmet. They are optional for riders with a full licence and older than 18 in the three US states that surround Lake Superior: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. So, if you are the kind of rider who likes to do so without head protection, you’ll be happy as a clam riding around parts of the big lake. Don’t even think about it in Ontario, of course.

It doesn’t matter if you’re riding a Harley or a Honda, just as long as you’re riding.
Get Lost

Crossing over the Canada/US border on Highway 61 on my way from Thunder Bay to Duluth, I gave the satellite navigation a rest in favour of letting the wind guide me. It led me to one of the coolest experiences of that particular trip.

If I’d been following point-by-point directions from A to B, I wouldn’t have noticed how close I was to Hibbing, Minnesota. That name likely won’t ring a bell for many, but it’s the town where Robert Zimmerman spent his formative years, learned to play guitar (kind of), sing (not really), and performed his first concert at the local high school. Then he became Bob Dylan. The street where his childhood home resides is now named after him and there was a restaurant in town called Zimmy’s that was something of a Hard Rock Café but dedicated to all things Dylan. It’s now the site of a new establishment called the BoomTown Brewery & Woodfire Grill.

Take your time

Sitting at a picnic table enjoying a cold drink in the sunshine during one trip, a grizzly old guy pulled up on an Electra Glide to ask about the “German bike.” Reminiscent of an American Keith Richards, Jack had travelled all the way from Orlando to circle the greatest of the great lakes and was wondering where the best place would be to “crush a six’er” with his old lady. “No wonder they call it Lake Superior,” he said. “This is some of the best scenery I’ve ever seen in my 30 years of riding!”

There are many interesting towns you’ll want the time to enjoy: Calumet has a National Historic Landmark District, and Marquette features a funky downtown core right on the water, and I could have spent a week at the Shipwreck Museum in Paradise, MI. The spectacular views of the pristine shoreline are occasionally interrupted by quaint lakeside towns like Gran Marais, where you can apparently find the World’s Best Donuts, so be sure to stop and smell the cake batter when the opportunity presents itself.

There will always be other riders to meet, and new places to eat.

Not to be missed….

Sault Ste. Marie

Sault Ste. Marie makes for a great home base for day trips, to explore some incredible roads. I always make a point of visiting the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre, which has some impressive hardware and interactive displays that tell the tales of the people who explored and surveyed the vast, unforgiving wilderness from above.

Thunder Bay
Terry Fox, Canadian hero.

Terry Fox ran for 143 days and 5,374 kilometres across Canada in his Marathon of Hope to raise money for cancer research; he’d already lost a leg to cancer, and ran this whole distance with a prosthetic limb. In Thunder Bay, the cancer returned and ended his Atlantic-to-Pacific dream, but the hope for a cure was never lost. The monument dedicated to his honour outside the city offers an opportunity to pause for reflection and appreciation while enjoying the beautiful view.

The McVicar Manor B&B is a diamond in the rough. Residing on a full acre of beautiful property that takes up an entire city block in downtown Thunder Bay, most locals don’t even know the century-old mansion exists and I’m glad they don’t. Proprietors Tom and Dorothy are friendly, accommodating and incredibly hospitable. Every local I talked to in the area had recommended Hoito Restaurant as a must-do for breakfast the next day, so naturally I had to see what all of the fuss was about. I’ve become a convert to their traditional Finnish pancakes,

Wawa

Chances are good that you’ll need fuel, rest or a restroom once you get to Wawa, Ontario from either direction. The Wawa Motor Inn hosts riders in the summer and snowmobilers in the winter so they are familiar with this plight. Their main rooms have dual access into the hotel and the parking lot and their cabins overlooking the golf course all allow you to park your pride and joy right outside your door. They even provide extra towels specifically for cleaning your machine – presumably because they’re tired of patrons ruining their good ones.

Chances are that Young’s has what you need, and a whole lot of stuff you don’t need, too.

Young’s General Store includes everything from grocery store and gas station to bait and gift shop. They also happen to feature great summer sausage. And yes, I saw the goose.

Duluth

Rolling into the Canal Park Lodge in Duluth, I gave the bike a quick clean in their motorcycle parking area and wandered down Canal Park Drive. The former industrial area has been revitalized and was alive with bars, restaurants and coffee shops. I saw a margarita the size of my head on the patio of Little Angie’s Cantina, so stopped there for a bite and a couple of cocktails while being a fly on the wall in a strange city. Any given night in the summer months is like a classic car show. On this September night in particular, I saw a handful of vintage Corvettes, a Chevelle SS, a Gran Torino, several Mustangs, a chopped and stripped rat rod and plenty of motorcycles of all kinds.

It’s not easy to get to the Split Rock Lighthouse.

The Enger Observation Tower has stood on the hill overlooking Duluth since 1939, offering a great view of the city. There’s another interesting view north of Duluth, up Highway 61, of Split Rock Lighthouse. It began construction shortly after a particularly treacherous storm was responsible for the loss of 29 ships. When it opened in 1910, it was the most remote lighthouse on the Great Lakes and wasn’t accessible by road so materials had to be raised up its 40-metre cliff by crane.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

This area was once the booming epicentre of the copper industry, but when the resources dried up, so too did the economy and everyone left. Calumet would have become just another ghost town, but it was named a National Historic Landmark District and now houses gift shops, restaurants and a small but fascinating museum.

The ride from Calumet up Highway 41 to the Keewanaw Mountain Lodge was free of stop signs, side streets and traffic, and the road winds up to Copper Harbor in a more entertaining fashion than I’ve experienced on some racetracks. Once at the Northern tip of the Upper Peninsula, I followed Highway 26 west over to Eagle Harbor, where the roads become rougher but no less entertaining and with better scenery. Remote and virtually uninhabited, the area is beautiful, but weather can turn quickly.

Summer or fall, the weather on the lake can change almost in an instant.
When to go

There’s no time like the present to start planning. The lake can take as little as two days or as long as two weeks to circumnavigate.

Rally some friends or don’t. Pick a direction – clockwise or counter-clockwise. The reality is that there’s no wrong way to do it. Book the time off work, pick a direction, get on your bike and ride. You’ll be glad you did. And once you do, be sure to pass along your best bits of wisdom to anyone who will listen.

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2 thoughts on “How to: Ride around Lake Superior”

  1. Living on the lake I would make some suggestions. 1st bring electric gear if you have it, even in summer, Superior is a pretty large fridge at times. 2nd make a hotel reservation in Sault Ste Marie. 3rd visit Ouimet Canyon and Kakabeka Falls. 4th don’t stay in canal park, stay just outside where you can easily walk to the bars, restaurants and other attractions. Driving in and out of it can be slow and frustrating. – bring a sweater for that area also, remember the fridge thing.

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