Nestled on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s vast and beautiful Upper Peninsula (UP), Marquette combines a rich maritime history with vibrant, comfortable small-town amenities that make it the perfect base to explore Michigan’s year-round activities.
While many flee south as the mercury drops, I headed north to Michigan’s largest city in the UP (population 21,000), driving past undulating fields of pristine snow that just screamed out to be run in. Against a deep blue sky, the sun was dazzling and every ice crystal seemed to be reflecting its own image in a kaleidoscope of directions. It was President’s Day weekend in February, and Marquette was preparing to host its annual 200-mile Iditarod-qualifying dog sledding event -- the UP200.
I wanted to experience the excitement and anticipation of a sled dog race, to mix with the mushers and the dogs. I wanted to look at the unpolluted night sky, check out historic structures of a bygone maritime era, breathe in the crisp, fresh air, sample good local food and ale, and return with a bunch of new memories. I wasn’t disappointed.
Here are the experiences I recommend you seek out if you go.
1. Whooshing Sleds And Cowbells
The annual 238-mile UP200 sled dog race starts and finishes in Marquette with Grand Marais as the turnaround point. Two other shorter races are on the card too -- all of which attract top mushers from Alaska to New Brunswick and everywhere in between. This is a winter highlight for the town, which turns out in force to cheer on the mushers as they start on Washington Street, Marquette’s downtown main drag on the Friday evening of this February long weekend.
As the sun started to set, Washington Street took on the yellowy glow of the tungsten street lights. Cheery, bundled up spectators -- toddlers with only eyes and red noses visible to seniors stamping their feet to stay warm -- lined both sides of the road to where it drops downhill and banks right along Lakeshore and Marquette’s Lower Harbor. At 7 p.m. sharp, the first 12-dog team sped off down Washington Street on its way to Grand Marais some 113 miles away to enthusiastic whooping, cheering, and cowbell ringing of spectators. Eighteen teams were dispatched at two-minute intervals followed by a further 20 eight-dog teams on the Midnight Run race. As the mushers waved to the crowds -- some even high fiving the kids as they whooshed by -- the dogs were straining to go even faster, warm breath billowing from their mouths. I swear they were smiling.
Pro Tip: Be sure to pop those hand-warmers into your gloves -- this will make a huge difference. Arrive around 5:30 p.m. to walk among the dogs and sleds before officials close the trail to spectators.
2. Late-Night Comfort Dining
Gastro-pub DIGS hits the spot perfectly after an evening of standing in the cold. Located right on Washington Street, it describes itself as providing a "big city experience mixed with the small town charm.” This popular and welcoming pub (which morphs into an informal nightclub around 10:30 p.m.) offers traditional pub grub and a wide selection of local ales.
Pro Tip: It gets busy (they don’t take reservations) so get in before the last dog team has left and order the its-bad-for-you-but-oh-so-good fried egg burger.
3. Explore Marquette’s Historic Buildings
The gigantic, now-abandoned Lower Harbor Ore Dock stands like a monolith in the Lower Harbor as a reminder of a bygone industrial era. Its scale is hard to appreciate until you notice the four railway tracks on top from which iron ore was once loaded into ships crossing the Great Lakes. Take a walk down to the boatyard on South Lakeshore Boulevard to get a closer look at this magnificent structure.
The Maritime Museum and Harbor Lighthouse is closed in winter, but it’s still worth taking an easy, paved stroll along North Lakeshore to the museum grounds to get a great view of the red lighthouse.
4. Take In The Local Art Scene
Although my timing was not conducive for viewing the northern lights, I saw the next best thing at acclaimed photographer Shawn Malone’s LakeSuperiorPhoto gallery on Front Street. Most famous for her award-winning northern lights images, Shawn is often at the gallery and ready to chat about her work. Photographers will be interested to learn about her workshops, during which you will get the chance to get outside and learn night photography from one of the best in the business.
I came across simple, ingenious, and beautiful artwork in nearby Mattson Lower Harbor Park. Take a stroll and see leaves and fruits preserved in ice hung from the trees as though captured in a time capsule ... at least until spring.
Lakenenland Sculpture Park, 15 miles east of Marquette on highway M-28, is an open art space with sculptures made mostly from scrap metal. It is open year-round and has been described as the best free attraction in the UP.
Marquette’s Not-To-Be-Missed Eateries
There is no shortage of fabulous places to eat in Marquette and these are must-dos for any visit.
5. Candy With Breakfast At Donckers
This two-story eatery on Washington Street serves food upstairs and is a home-made chocolate and candy store on the first floor. You might want to skip looking at these until after breakfast. Enjoy a hearty breakfast from an extensive menu in simple but cozy surroundings -- hardwood floors, wooden tables, and just really good food.
Pro Tip: You need to be able to ascend a couple of wide staircases, but the climb, if you can manage it, is well worth the visit. The breakfast menu ends at 10:30 a.m. (11:30 a.m. on Sundays) -- arrive early.
6. Lunch At The Zephyr Wine Bar
Relax with a favorite wine at Zephyr, located on Front Street next to the LakeSuperiorPhoto gallery. This is an informal, cozy wine bar with a genuinely classy feel. The white leather sofa makes it impossible not to relax here while enjoying a charcuterie board and perfectly paired wines selected by incredibly knowledgeable and friendly staff. It was an exceptional experience and the perfect place to chill out after seeing the sights.
7. Dinner (And A Movie)
Have dinner at The Delft Bistro. With a cinematic-themed menu, this former theater still screens classic movies on its 26-foot-by-18-foot screen as you eat. There are two levels -- go upstairs if possible and select a table by the balcony for a good view of the movie. Don’t worry, there is no sound, so you can still enjoy an intimate conversation over dinner. My wife and I spent over two hours enjoying a wonderful meal (the fried Brussels sprouts with bacon and caramelized onions are a must) chatting with the owner and staff, who make the place feel like home.
Pro Tip: Delft Bistro can get busy, so make a reservation. Ask the owner to tell you about the history of this former movie theater -- he’s happy to do so.
8. Hike To Eben Ice Caves
About 30 miles southeast of Marquette at Eben Junction are the Rock River Ice Caves, commonly known as Eben Ice Caves. They’re not really caves but snowmelt that has frozen as it flowed over the edge of a small cliff. Access is through private farmland. The owner has kindly installed portaloos at the parking area and a donation for their costs is much appreciated. An easy quarter-mile walk across a field followed by a half-mile trek on a trail through the woods will bring you to the waterfall. There are some gradients that are not long or steep but can be very icy. Getting down to the foot of the falls can be done with great care.
Pro Tip: Bring or rent ice cleats, especially if you plan to go to the foot of the falls.
There is an unpretentious warmth about Marquette even in the midst of winter. It is an honest, down-to-earth, straightforward sort of place, and people here are genuinely friendly and welcoming. You can visit Marquette any time of the year and have a great time. But there is only one weekend a year when you will get wrapped up in a blanket of camaraderie and a collective love of dogs and nature -- UP200 Race weekend. But, be warned: As one returning spectator told me, “It’s addictive.”
For more Upper Peninsula inspiration, consider how to spend the perfect weekend in charming Charlevoix, Michigan, and Mackinac Island: nine things to know before you go.