U.P. road trip: Exploring the scenery and history of Grand Island

Explore Michigan

GRAND ISLAND, Mich. (WJMN) – Grand Island National Recreation Area, located west of Munising in Alger County, offers visitors beautiful outdoor scenery, recreation and stories of days past.

The island is 13,500 acres, making it the largest island on the Southern shore of Lake Superior. Brian Hinch, West Zone Recreation Specialist with the National Forest Service, says the island was inhabited by Native Americans starting around 500 B.C. followed by European settlers around 1840. Abraham Williams was one notable European settler.

“He settled the island and worked with the Native Americans and then in about 1901 William Mather of Cleaveland Cliffs Iron Company bought the island began what we call the resort era, where there was actually a hotel not too far from our location here at Williams Landing,” said Hinch. “That was in business until about 1959 and then from about the mid-50s to about the early 80s the island was logged and then around 1984 the island was put up for sale and at that time there wasn’t a lot of interest in the island, I mean there was a little bit of local interest but in 1989 the trust for public lands and the U.S. congress bought Grand Island for $3.5 million.”

There are still buildings left standing from the early settler days on Grand Island. Visitors can go inside the Stone Quarry Cabin while on the bus tour ran by Grand Island Ferry Service. The cabin was built around 1845 and has housed permanent residents as well as been used as a rental during the resort days.

Hinch says the island is also home to the North light, one of the tallest lighthouses in the United States.

“It’s the highest lighthouse above sea level,” said Hinch. “So I think that’s a notable thing and folks can enjoy that via pontoon boat, Riptide Ride or via kayak.”

In 1990 the island was designated as a National Recreation Area and is now operated by the Hiawatha National Forest. Hinch says one notable fact about the geography of the island is that it used to be two islands.

“The thumb and then the main part of the island about 4,000 years ago, actually were two separate islands and then as the lake levels dropped it became one island and created what’s called the tombolo,” said Hinch.

A tombolo is a connecting sandbar between two islands. Today delicate ground cover; jack, red and white pines and some red maple, paper birch and hemlock trees all grow on the island. Any wildlife you might see on mainland, you could also see on Grand Island.

“On the cliffs you may see perregrine falcons, there’s a bald eagle population out here and then most notably for campers and recreation users there is a black bear population out on Grand Island,” said Hinch. “It’s hard to say from time to time how many black bear are on the island because it fluctuates but we do have mechanisms in place at the campsites that include food lockers and bear poles for campers to utalize to limit that human to bear interacation.”

Mountain biking, hiking, backpacking and kayaking are all popular activities on the island.

“Overall just taking in a lot of the overlooks that are on the island,” said Hinch. “I think one of the most pristine places to get away from it all is the north beach and then also Trout Bay is another beautiful location on the island where you get to really see those sandstone cliffs and take in the beautiful scenery.”

There are 18 campsites available for reservation between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, which is when the ferry service runs. There are also 3 first come first serve sites on the thumb of the island.

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