Sea kayaks are no misnomer for navigating the waters of Lake Superior. And you’ll need one to reach some of the ‘magic spots’ around Copper Harbor, Mich.
Sea kayaks are the best way to explore the world’s largest freshwater lake around Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. The loop around the peninsula contrasts rocky shore bluffs and remote nature preserves with small-town harbors offering refuge from rough waters and a chance to rest tired arms.
We follow local guides Brian Rajdl, Nathan Miller, and their Chevy Silverado on a day’s kayak-based adventure on the peninsula. The trip encapsulates the spirit of combining multiple pursuits to unlock new experiences outdoors.
The Keweenaw Peninsula is the northernmost part of Michigan, and thus the uppermost shoreline of the continental U.S. As the name suggests, the rocky terrain was full of copper deposits, and its discovery in 1843 created the country’s first mineral boom.
The area has become a well-known hotspot for outdoor activities like kayaking and off-roading as well as mountain biking, hiking, and trail running.
The tip of the peninsula is called Copper Island because a cut-through waterway separates it from the larger peninsula. The Keweenaw Water Trail is a water-based loop around the island utilizing that waterway, which also includes Portage Lake, an inland refuge when waters or winds become foreboding on Lake Superior.
On land, mountain bikers come for nearly 40 miles of technical singletrack on varied terrain. In 2012, the International Mountain Bike Association designated the trail system as a Ride Center.
The area’s uneven terrain often drops sharply on its way to the shore, creating dozens of waterfalls in the area. And waterfalls are indeed worth chasing, especially in the summer when the pools they create at their terminus make for inviting swimming holes. In fact, that’s exactly where our guides took us.
“The iconic Keweenaw adventure is to put in the kayaks and paddle out to Montreal Falls. See the falls, hike back to upper falls, swim, and just make a good long day of some of the wilderness here,” said Brian Rajdl, a kayaking and ice climbing guide.
Explore Copper Country
We followed Rajdl and his family as they went off the map with Nathan Miller, a director of the Copper Harbor Trail Club, for a day of play on land and in the water.
Some established roads lead out onto the peninsula, but there are a few more only accessible with an off-road vehicle. It’s important to have a reliable and capable vehicle with high ground clearance to climb over rocky terrain.
“If you like the quiet, you’ve got to go a little further,” Rajdl said. “The roads are rough, and you need to be prepared. No tow truck is going to come and find you.”
From there, the group paddled into the waters of Lake Superior to access a more remote shore to start their hike toward waterfalls for swimming. While this is a well-known destination for locals, it represents a loose blueprint for similar adventures in the Keneewa.
Going off the established routes is a great way to find hidden gems among an area full of small caves and scenic arches, as well as home to a variety of birds and wildlife. Even local experts can discover new favorite spots.
“I found a new top 10 site this summer just exploring around. I never know what I’m going to find,” Miller said. “Nobody would have found it without trying that extra distance to get there.”
Kayak Safety for Lake Superior
A guided tour can help you navigate and make sure you’re prepared for a day on the water. Even experienced paddlers may lack some of the equipment more common on Lake Superior and can rent or buy new gear from a local outfitter.
“Lake Superior — she’s the queen and she’s in charge,” Rajdl said. “If you’re not ready, she’ll let you know.”
Yes, you’ll need a sea kayak with front and rear flotation to safely navigate Lake Superior. Winds can create large chop in the water, and weather can move in suddenly and intensify the waves. This can slow your progress back to shore. We also recommend a rudder or skeg to resist weathercocking in high winds. Paddlers should return to shore if lightning or thunderstorms develop.
Hypothermia is a legitimate risk, even in the summer months. If the air and water temperature added together equal less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, you should wear a wetsuit, as some part of you will inevitably get wet while kayaking. Consider packing a layer of clothes in a dry bag for use if you get blown off course and need to traverse land to seek shelter or return to your launch site.
Sam Raymond, the owner of Keweenaw Adventure Company, has a thorough rundown to prepare kayakers for Lake Superior. In it, he recommends “paddlers wear a wetsuit 2-3 millimeters thick during the summer months” even if they’re sleeveless shirts or cut-off shorts. A dry suit or thicker wetsuit is advised for cooler seasons.
Paddling out on the Big Lake requires other safety and communications gear as well. A VHF radio or GPS communication device is needed to communicate with other vessels or call in help. There’s little to no cell service in the area.
Allow enough time in your day’s itinerary for changes in the environment and be realistic in setting goals for the day. You want to have energy left for unforeseen conditions.
Adventuring on Public Lands
The area’s landscape offers sandy beaches and geological structures like rock arches, sea stacks, and waterfalls. Manmade structures like harbor lighthouses are popular destinations as well.
The peninsula and its shoreline are a mix of public and private lands. Consult a local map or trail guide before landing a kayak (much less camping) on someone’s property.
There’s a 12-mile portion of Lake Superior shoreline that’s part of a state forest where only primitive camping is allowed. Campers should pick up a no-cost permit from Fort Wilkins State Park in Copper Harbor before venturing out.
When exploring area trails on foot, hikers have the right of way. But they should be aware that they’re sharing the trails with runners and bikers, so spacing out and keeping an ear out is good trail etiquette.
Drive Deeper Into Adventure
There’s nothing wrong with sticking to a solid itinerary when you visit an area. But sometimes a big part of getting away from it all includes crowds of people. And with more people exploring the outdoors these days, one of the best ways to get further out on trails is to go off-road.
Before you go, make sure you know your terrain and have an off-road vehicle ready to tackle rock, snow, mud, and sand. You never know what you’ll encounter.
Whether you come for a mix of paddling and overland adventuring, there are several ways to get to the Keweenaw area. As the locals showed us, sometimes it’s more fun to drive beyond where the pavement ends and set up a base closer to the waterfalls and tucked-away beaches.