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Michigan Travel Guide

Variations on a sunset #1: Parallel universes

When people think of Michigan, they think of the birthplace of the automobile and the industrial manufacturing giants of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Certainly, Michigan has had a longstanding heritage of car manufacturing. But few people realize how important tourism is to Michigan and how popular it is as a tourist destination. In fact, each year visitors spend an estimated $18 billion in Michigan, supporting close to 200,000 tourism jobs. And there is good reason. Michigan is the only state to be bordered by as many as four of the five Great Lakes, giving it the richest and lengthiest stretches of lakeshore beaches in the mid-west. Add to that 11,000 lakes found inland, the largest network of national and state parks, which provide millions of acres of forests and hunting grounds, the cultural attractions of Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor, and the various casino destinations like Motor City, Casino Windsor, and Greektown – and it easily explains why Michigan is one of the most popular tourist states in America.

Geographically, Michigan is split by two peninsulas: the Upper and Lower Peninsula. The Upper Peninsula is sandwiched between Lake Michigan in the south and Lake Superior in the north, and features both swampy marshes, rivers streams filled with trout, verdant green forests, mountainous ski resorts and rugged bedrocks formed from volcanic eruptions that occurred some three billion years ago. Connecting the Upper Peninsula with the Lower Peninsula is a five-mile long suspension bridge called the Mackinac. The Lower Peninsula has a completely different personality to it. Its shores are fringed by Lake Erie in the southeast, Lake Huron in the east, and Lake Michigan in the west. It is comprised of Michigan’s most productive and fertile farmlands and boasts sandy white beaches, meadows, and lakes. The Lower Peninsula is also home to most of the state’s industrial and population centers, including Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Michigan was inhabited by Algonquians who survived by fishing the state’s lakes and rivers. In the 17th century, French explorers and colonists penetrated the region and used it to further their fur trading ambitions. The French and the Native tribes later allied with one another to attempt a conquest of British forts in the area. They were unsuccessful. The British, however, lost its forts, including Fort Detroit, to the Americans after losing the American Revolutionary War. During the War of 1812, the Canadians and the British briefly conquered and occupied Michigan before returning the territory to the Americans after the war.

When the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, the access it provided to the Atlantic Ocean brought a wave of immigration to Michigan. It also made the state’s natural resources more easily exportable, ushering boom years especially from 1850 to 1880 based on logging. In the 1840s, rich deposits of iron and copper were also discovered. Michigan soon became one of the largest suppliers of iron ore and copper in the U.S., a position it maintained well into the early 20th century.

When mining declined beginning in the early 20th century, Michigan’s economy relied on its burgeoning automobile industry led by Henry Ford and his innovative assembly line manufacturing. Today, while the state is still a major producer of automobiles, it has diversified into other sectors such as biotechnology, life sciences, and information technology.

Michigan is an outdoor wonderland that attracts recreationists year-round. Not only will you be able to enjoy sailing, fishing, and motorboating at four of the Great Lakes – Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Erie – but there are some other natural attractions that will leave you in awe. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, for instance, is one of them with its 130-foot sand dunes, lake bluffs, and sandy beaches. Even more stunning is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore whose perched dune formations rise as high as 275 feet above the lake, and matches well with the park’s waterfalls, sandstone cliffs, and shallow caves. At both Pictured Rocks and Sleeping Bear Dunes, besides climbing the dunes, there are myriad opportunities for backcountry camping, hiking and backpacking, kayaking, canoeing, tubing, swimming, scuba diving, fishing, hunting, and in the winter, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and ice climbing.

If you are more interested in just camping, hiking, and bird-watching, Isle Royale and Tahquamenon Falls might be better bets. Both feature extensive campgrounds set amidst abundant wildlife and birds, numerous hiking trails, and scenic natural attractions like waterfalls and lakes.

Mackinac Island offers a more quiet retreat. Set in a beautiful island in Lake Huron where cars are prohibited, Mackinac has long been a popular summer cottage escape for the wealthy. The island is a historic landmark for its prehistoric fishing camps that date back thousands of years and for being the center of the fur trade from the 17th to 19th century, fought over a number of times by the British, French, and Native Americans.

In the winter, skiers enjoy visiting the numerous ski resorts in the Charlevoix and Grand Traverse region to enjoy both downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, and even bob-sledding.

For more cultural and urban tourism, visit Lansing. As the capital of Michigan, it is lined with important government and historic buildings, including the State Capitol. Grand Rapids is Michigan’s second largest city and features the Gerald R. Ford museum, which chronicles the life and office of the only ever unelected President. Or you can visit Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan there. The town is known for its public murals and sculptures and its museums and exhibits hosted by the university and open to the public.

Detroit, on the other hand, is Michigan’s largest city and most popular destination. It hosts four major casinos in its metropolitan area as well as an array of museums, including the Henry Ford Museum, the Arab American National Museum, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. You can enjoy the performing arts as well as the city offers symphony and a thriving theatre scene. Car enthusiasts should visit in January when the annual North American International Auto Show is held.

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