Ultimate MotorCycling Goes North for the Fourth

Mt. Zion in Michigan motorcycle touring
Atop Mt. Zion: The view north from atop Ironwood’s Mt. Zion is nothing short of incredible; best part is, you can ride your bike right to the top!

Far northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have special appeal year round but it is particularly strong in the summer.

For some, it may be the cold, clear lakes, rivers and streams for fishing, swimming and boating. For others, it is the lure of cool, dark hardwood forests with endless trails to hike, hidden places to camp and explore.

It may be the Penokee Range, said to be one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world now reduced to picturesque bluffs after the punishing of glacial ice, at one time a mile deep thousands of years ago.

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Others relish the area’s deep history of hard rock underground iron mining, big-timber logging and rough-and-tumble boom towns; now most evolved into quiet rural communities while some towns have vanished altogether.

It is a land where the natural beauty comes with a rugged, ragged edge. The delicate beauty of road side flowers on the back roads stands in stark contrast to jagged rock bluffs. The vastness of shimmering Lake Superior is in contrast with the intimacy of parts of the woods so thick the view is reduced to a few yards.

Quiet, small rivers are roused to a roar in falls that tumble over granite, basalt and conglomerate rock. Hot, humid days can give way cool, freshwater lake breezes and chilly nights. For motorcyclists, it can be all of these things and more.

This summer, a trip north for the Fourth of July consisted of a week of family, friends, fireworks, parades and the chance to do some day-trip touring to some of my favorite places in my old home area.

Ironwood’s 52 foot tall Hiawatha statue
Ironwood’s 52 foot tall Hiawatha statue dwarfs my Yamaha Seca.

One of the first places I headed for in the saddle of my 1981 Yamaha Seca 750 was Saxon Harbor on the south shore of Lake Superior. Located about 10 miles west of Hurley, north of USH 2 on STH 122 and left on county trunk A, Saxon Harbor offers the launch point for deep sea fishing, camping and swimming on the largest fresh water body in the world.

About 350 miles long, 160 miles wide, averaging over 480 feet deep and covering nearly 32,000 square miles, Lake Superior is the inland ocean created at the end of the last ice age.

In winter, the lake slowly gives up the heat it stored all summer as evaporation with the cold north winds gathering the moisture, lifting it above the northern highlands where it turns to snow as the winds move inland.

This creates some monster snowstorms and results in great snow base for skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and all winter sports. In summer, the water keeps the offshore breeze cool, making the lake a magnet for folks looking to beat the summer heat.

To take in the view, no hiking is necessary; you can ride your bike to the shoreline parking areas. There is even a great little restaurant called Harbor Lights.

Heading east from Saxon, USH 2 takes you toward Hurley and if you slow down about four miles west of town, you’ll come across Park Road in Kimball Township. Turn right on that and the first right off that is a short gravel road that takes you to the Kimball Town Park.

A single-lane bridge my grandfather, August Ilminen, helped build many years ago takes you across the west branch of the Montreal River, right over the tumbling waters of Kimball Falls.

Land for the town park was donated by Kimball township residents, John and Mary Sola back in 1955 and it is a place of quiet beauty and lots of memories for me. I grew up only a couple miles away and spent many an afternoon fishing there. The first and only musky I’ve ever caught came from the river at the base of the falls way back in 1971. In all those years since, the river seems unchanged as it flows north to Lake Superior. In a world where change seems to be the only constant, it’s good to know that places like that go on, preserved for future generations, just as the Solas had intended.

Only a few miles away, historic Hurley offers great dining, night life and lodging as well as the Rollin’ Iron Bike Fest coming up July 21-23. I graduated from High School in Hurley and later served on the district school board, so the Hurley school system is a special place to me.

Back in the mining and logging days, Hurley had a reputation as a very tough town; not entirely undeserved. Today, it is a focal point for great family vacations and an increasingly popular destination for motorcycle touring.

Across the east branch of the Montreal River is Hurley’s neighbor in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Ironwood. Ironwood has a unique park of its own, set aside to honor Native American tribes that inhabited the northland for countless generations—and still do—as well as the area’s iron mining heritage.

Following Burma Road south from Mcleod St. in downtown Ironwood takes you to the foot of the 52 foot tall statue of Hiawatha. From USH 2 (Cloverland Drive), take Douglas Boulevard to downtown and Suffolk St. to reach McLeod St.   Crafted of fiberglass and erected in 1964, it is the centerpiece of a small park that includes mining gear on display from the old Norrie Mine.

Mining was tough, dangerous work; in the years the Norrie mine was in operation, 43 men were known to have lost their lives in that mine alone. From the time iron ore was discovered in the region in 1882 until the underground mines shut down in the 1960s, millions of tons of ore were shipped from mines in both Wisconsin and Michigan.

Backstreet Cycle in Michigan for motorcycles
If you find yourself in need of parts or mechanical help on tour, check out Backstreet Cycle in Ironwood, MI.

In downtown Ironwood, one of the area’s best custom and repair shops is located at 220 E. McLeod Ave. Backstreet Cycle, as it is known, features the master mechanic skills of Bill Penrose and his staff. It boasts several award-winning customs and stocks pre-owned bikes, parts, accessories, has a machine shop, leather goods, welding and fabrication with special emphasis on V-twin products and vintage bikes.

Across town to the north lies the campus of Gogebic Community College. It is my alma mater, having graduated from there three times! I guess I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to be when I grow up.

There is a ski hill on campus; the only college campus in the nation that has one, which is operated by the college’s Ski Area Management program students. The hill itself is known as Mt. Zion and apart from its role in higher education, it can take the motorcycle tourist higher above the area than almost any point easily accessible by motorcycle.

From atop Mt. Zion, the view is spectacular putting the “big” in the phrase Big Snow Country. Rugged, forested country spreads north to Lake Superior, recreating what the early explorers and fur traders might have seen from that same spot a few hundred years ago.

Getting to the summit of Mt. Zion is via a short, curvy and in places pretty rough black top road. But since you’re there to enjoy the view, taking your time to the top makes the poor pavement a minor inconvenience. Greenbush Street from USH 2 takes you to a long curve at the base of the hill. In the middle of the curve, a single lane paved road exits to the top.

From atop Mt. Zion, one of the most spectacular man-made structures in North America is visible in the distance: The ski flying tower known as Copper Peak.

Copper Peak takes what winter Olympic ski jumpers do to the next level; so much so that it literally is referred to as “ski flying” not ski jumping. In the winter Olympics, the largest venue in competition is a 120 meter hill—Copper Peak is a 170 meter venue. With that added size, flights in the range of 700 feet are possible! While you can’t catch any ski flying action there in the summer, you can take a chair lift to the top of the bluff the scaffold is built on and then take an elevator and stairs to the top of the scaffold, about 26 stories above the top of the bluff. Altogether , you’ll be about 600 feet above the landing below.

Copper Peak is accessible by taking Lake Road north from U.S. 2 in Ironwood, Mich., take a right on Airport Road, and left on Black River Road north and watch for the signs for the exit to the site on the right. It is also accessible from USH 2 from Bessemer, Mich., by following N. Bessemer Road north from the stop lights to CTH 513 to Black River Road.

Copper Peak is only a few miles away from Black River Harbor Recreation Area on Lake Superior and is in the Ottawa National Forest.

Great Conglomerate Falls on Black River
Great Conglomerate Falls is one of five the Black River has on the way to Lake Superior.

Easily accessible along Black River Road are the five waterfalls Black River has on its way to the big lake: Great Conglomerate, Gorge, Potawatomi, Sandstone and Rainbow. Potawatomi Falls is the easiest falls viewing area to access, and includes barrier-free handicap access from the Gorge Falls parking lot.

Great Conglomerate Falls requires a hike of three-quarters of a mile with about the last quarter mile descending into the river gorge. Steps are constructed in some of the steeper places and having some good hiking shoes, insect repellent, a bottle or two of water and your camera along is a good idea. The hike back up out of the gorge will be your cardio workout for the week, but spending time on the observation deck over that ancient river is worth it.

Further east along USH 2 is Wakefield, Mich. Wakefield’s Sunday Lake Park is an excellent location for motorcycle camping, but for touring riders who prefer less rustic digs, there are other great lodging and dining options in the area, as well.

Well, that’s a quick trip north for the Fourth. There are a lot of other sights to take in and things to do up north so next time you’re looking for a touring destination, you might want to include some time up near Lake Superior, even if it’s not on the Fourth of July!

Post Script

A week after the Fourth of July, some of the fiercest storms to hit the northland in decades; flooding, high winds, at least one tornado and 9 inches of rain ravaged the beautiful Saxon Harbor that was one of the great places featured in the article. The marina and park area was heavily damaged. Damage extent is still being assessed, but it is likely to be some time before the place is back to what it was when I rode there and photographed it. Other parts of the area up there were also damaged.

In addition, many area roads including USH 2 were washed out and are closed until repairs can be made. Wisconsin State Highways 169 and 122 along with County Highways A and B remain closed for repairs, some of which are mentioned in the article. Wakefield, MI also had roads washed out, trees down, power outages as did northern Wisconsin.

Worst of all, a friend of mine from years back, Mitchell Koski was reportedly killed in the flash flooding at Saxon Harbor. At present, no other fatalities or serious injuries have been reported in the news resulting from the storm.

Ultimate MotorCycling offers condolences to the Koski family, and others affected by Mother Nature’s fierce force.

Photography by Gary Ilminen

North for the Fourth – Ultimate MotorCycling Tours Michigan Photo Gallery

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