A Bit-Too-Fast But Awesome: Great Lakes VanLife Circle Tour

Great Lakes VanLife

We’re just back from a Great Lakes VanLife adventure that provided an excellent and memorable start to experiencing the region. They call them the Great Lakes for good reason. In our Tellaro, we did our own tailored version of the acclaimed Lake Michigan Circle Tour. The trip was rich and rewarding.

Call it a start because there is a so much to see and do, and it will draw you back. And a bit-too-fast because we had a schedule to keep, yet we still experienced five milestone sites in the course of eight days.

We departed west from Detroit and looped down and around Chicago, then north through Wisconsin and further on into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; there we traversed both the eastward and westward stands of the Hiawatha National Forest. Paula and I did in fact circle Lake Michigan, and spent time sampling the majesty of Lake Superior.

Here is what we did, how we prepared, and what we learned.

A Lovely Madison, Wisconsin Marriage

We were among the attendees at the wedding of Kyle and Amanda. This inspiring couple met at the University of Wisconsin, and returned to Madison to be married. A doctor of pharmacy and a compassionate educator. Oh, for a million more of these!

Madison was new to Paula and I, and immediately it struck us as distinctively clean. We stayed at a hotel with others in the party, but had we known the peaceful beauty of the rural venue, we might have boondocked out there.

Biking options abound in and around Madison and its two prominent lakes. The bride advised us to embark from Hennessy Park, where we had parking space for the van and access to the network of paved and natural trails. Madison is the state capitol and hosts a phenomenal farmer’s market on its square.

Fort Wilkins Historic State Park at the Tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula

Route 39 North out of Madison and up through Wausau is an uncrowded smooth four lanes. We connected to smaller routes while experiencing warm clear weather, and entered Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the UP, home of the Yoopers). The Keweenaw Peninsula is a distinct part of the UP, a jut of land out into Lake Superior, the most north and westerly of the “Water-Winter Wonderland”. 

U.S. Highway 41 takes you up Keweenaw to Copper Harbor, where you come to the Fort Wilkins Historic State Park. Camping options there will accommodate most setups. We scheduled in on-the-fly. So, we were lucky to get one of two remaining sites, which had only electrical support. It is the busy season and we might have had more options with better planning. Still, it was a nice site, adjacent to a decent clean comfort station. Trails were mostly oriented to hiking.  

Keweenaw is rich in history, especially as relates to copper mining. On the way back down the peninsula, we stopped at a charming lighthouse; back in the day, they guided copper-laden freighters. The town of Calumet was central to the copper industry; it was the site of an epic life-and-death battle over worker conditions and wages. You might read this recent piece of historic-fiction: “The Women of Copper Country”; it’s the Great Michigan Humanities Read of the Year for 2022.

Along the way we occasionally saw waterfalls and people picking berries. I sampled the red berries and they were sweet, ripe, and good.

Otter Lake Campground Near Munising (Pictured Rocks!)

We were still ad-libbing the schedule, and once again got our pick of the last two remaining sites, this time at the Otter Lake Campground. Ellen, the nice hostess, revealed that she and her husband are the new proprietors. It’s a sweet spot, about ten miles from Munising and the Pictured Rocks.

The only otter we saw was Otter, the owner’s majestic silver Labrador. A distinctive coat. Though we came late and the place was full, it was clean and peaceful. The only sound in the evening was from two young boys who frolicked over the entire lake; they owned it.

It had reportedly been two very rainy days, but we awoke to a clear sky and slowly rising temperatures. Ellen and crew are actively refurbishing the grounds, but there was competition for the showers, and the potable water hose had been cut (no connector). As we broke camp I noticed off road vehicle (ORV) trails that would have been good fat tire biking.

Pictured Rock Cruises offers the classic cruise for $42. They keep a tight schedule and in nice weather, they typically sell out. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour ride (open air if you sit up top) that takes you past spectacular cliffs, waterfalls, and a lighthouse. The narrative talks about the mineral sources of the colors, such as the blues and greens that come from copper seeping through the striations.

Lake Superior is 33K square miles of surface area. The guide mentioned that all the other Great Lakes combined have less water volume than Superior. He said the waves often go twenty and thirty feet tall. Our tour was great, on nice smooth water.

It’s difficult to rank the stops we made on this Great Lakes VanLife adventure. But a case can be made for Tahquamenon Falls. Free and so well managed by the Michigan state park service. The water has high mineral content and some old timers call it “root beer falls”.

Tahquamenon Falls was one of the highlights of this Great Lakes VanLife adventure.

In and Around Mackinac Island

Our last days were spent with family near the intersection of US Highway 2 and Interstate 75. We boondocked at a vacation house; it had an isolated majestic view over Lake Michigan.

The main grocery store for the area is right by the cloverleaf of these highways, a Family Fare Supermarket. It was like camper van central. Locals and campers all shop there. It’s actually the town of St. Ignace, one of the main places providing ferries out to Mackinac Island, another feature attraction.

Mackinac is known for its grandeur and shopping, island life and fine dining, beautiful flower gardens and interesting architecture, and carriage rides (no cars). What we appreciated most was the history and its preservation: respecting the indigenous peoples and the fur trade, and the strategic military position it has held, sitting at the intersection of Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior.

Preparing for the Great Lakes VanLife Adventure

Our van packing now subscribes to a tighter strategy of everything having a defined place and purpose; I say we are better and need to continue to improve.

Specific van preparations we made before this trip: Paula custom cut inch-and-a-half thick high-tech foam toppers to supplement the standard mattresses; we added floor mats and rugs to further protect the floor surface; soft-sided storage containers are inserted in the overhead bins for better organization; and I attached a different phone stand.  All of these adjustments worked nicely, with the exception of the phone stand, which I had to change again.

On the Great Lakes VanLife adventure we tested out a few recent van packing adjustments.
The Tellaro shakedown continues. This is, after all, just our second time out. These soft bins helped keep the overhead storage better controlled and organized.

Summary and Lessons-Learned for this Great Lakes VanLife Adventure

The options and attractions of the region seem endless. Each leg of this journey provided excellence, grandeur, and beauty. So, all together, call it sublime.

Great Lakes VanLife takes you to many beautiful places in the upper reaches of the state.

This, our second VanLife adventure, made us more competent and comfortable. There are more Tellaros and ProMaster vans than I realized before we had one. And there is a notable comradery (like, wave and say hi) among them.

There’s a little pride in circling Lake Michigan. Also, between this and our previous (first) trip, we have covered the entire I75 North-South corridor. In the last month we sliced down the middle of the country. This revealed the great ongoing surge in VanLife.

It’s only because we wanted to spend more time at the awesome nature sites that the trip seemed a bit-too-fast. This was a successful trip that showed the flexibility and nimbleness of traveling in a Class B van. We couldn’t have done it with complicated camp setups, or in a cumbersome recreational vehicle (RV). Our Tellaro enabled this Great Lakes VanLife adventure, for sure.

We were blessed with nice weather. Even as much of the country suffered under heat watch, we learned you still need to anticipate cool nights in the UP. I found myself wearing the only long pants I had, my suit pants from the wedding.

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