6 Spots for an Affordable Family Vacation in Eastern Upper Peninsula

 Tahquamenon Falls
Photo Courtesy of earthlifeskyproductions

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Michigan's Upper Peninsula is still the kind of place where “family vacation” and “affordable” go together. We would add a third descriptor: memorable, for when a trip is based at a classic cottage (board games required) or unusual option like a former U.S. Coast Guard Crew Lifesaving Station perched along the Lake Superior shoreline. There, howling winds occasionally whip up the waves and put you into the correct historic mindset.


1. Stay in Paradise

For trip convenience, base yourself in Paradise, home to the state's annual Wild Blueberry Festival. Harmon's Birchwood Resort offers cabins with room for the family (from $100/night and a three night minimum in summer) along Whitefish Bay Motel & Cabins. Both kids and adults love taking the provided inner tubes for a lazy float in the protected bay waters. Some cottages offer wood-burning fireplaces, perfect for cool evenings in.


The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum & Whitefish Point Light Station also offers nightly stays in a restored 1923 Coast Guard lifeboat station where the crew used to sleep. The $125 per night fee includes admission to the museum, where artifacts from the Edmund Fitzgerald fascinate all ages. The lodge also offers a lending library of videos, including some featuring lighthouse hauntings that are perfect fodder for future campfire tales.


2. See the Owls at the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory

As a treat, head into the gift shop at the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, which shares the point, to view the participatory nightly banding of owls. The summer banding program, July 1 to mid-August, is part of a research project designed specifically to track the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl, and children are often asked to set the owls skyward after researchers take the needed measurements.


3. Support the Oswald's Bear Ranch


From Paradise, continue southwest on M-123, then west on H-37 to Oswald's Bear Ranch where wild rescue bears (none are bred or purchased) roam to and fro. Oswald’s provides a lifelong home for young bears whose mothers have been killed or mature bears who, for a variety of reasons, can’t be released into the wild. Admission fees ($20 per vehicle or $10 for lone traveler) help fund the bears’ diet of fruit and meat purchased by the ton. Oswald's is open Memorial Day through late September, and then the bears begin preparation for hibernation.


4. Plan an Early Morning at Tahquamenon Falls


Next stop is Tahquamenon Falls State Park where the state's recreation passport ($11 annually, paid with car registration) secures entrance. On a busy summer day, bypass the entrance to the Lower Falls and continue to the Upper Falls. This is the river’s marquee cascade, a 200-foot-wide wall of frothing amber fury. It’s even more majestic when you have the viewing platform to yourself, so it pays to get there early.

Then, backtrack to the Lower Falls or, better yet, talk someone in your group into shuttling the car and hike the four-mile River Trail to the Lower Falls where you will enjoy surprisingly quiet trails that lead to century-old white pines and wilderness lakes, hiking, fishing, nature programs and camping. You can even rent rowboats or canoes in the Lower Falls concession area.

When it's time for a break, on-site Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub serves up homemade root beer (for the kids) and actual beer (for the grownups) as well as affordable local flavors like homemade pasties, wild rice soup and whitefish sandwiches in a stunning timber frame building with a deck.


5. Learn the History of Lumbering at Tahquamenon Logging Museum 

Nearby, also in Paradise, is a must-stop in a museum sure to capture the imaginations of everyone in the family, the Tahquamenon Logging Museum. This chronicles the region’s 19th-century lumbering era, with displays on life in the logging camps, the evolution of logging equipment, and fun old photos and newspaper clippings from the region. If you can, schedule your visit to coincide with one of the famous Lumberjack Breakfasts cooked on a wood stove in the old Cook Shack. The all-you-can-eat feast runs $8 for adults and $5 for children ages 6-12.


6. Catch the Tahquamenon Falls Riverboat Tours & Toonerville Trolley

If there's time in the schedule, also catch the Toonerville Trolley at Tahquamenon Falls Riverboat Tours & Toonerville Trolley. The classic Upper Peninsula attraction combines a narrow-gauge, open-air railroad ride with a boat tour to the Upper Falls. The combination train/boat tour runs six or more hours, but the train-only trip is only two hours.