A Tale of Two Lakes: Riding the Great Lakes Circle Tour

Great Lakes Circle Tour

I’m a careful planner, but the key to this journey was decided by the flip of a coin. Heads, clockwise, tails, counterclockwise. It was tails, so my journey would take me on part of the Great Lakes Circle Tour — up the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, across the top of Lake Superior, and back home along Lake Michigan’s western shore.

My fascination with the these two Great Lakes and the vast north woods that surround them was shaped by Gordon Lightfoot’s song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and the novels of Jim Harrison and William Kent Krueger. So, early on an August Sunday morning, I strapped a bag to the back of my Harley-Davidson FXR and headed north from my home outside of Lexington, Kentucky.

Great Lakes Circle Tour
The Straights of Mackinac bridge soars over the junction of Lakes Michigan and Huron. Steel decking and gusty crosswinds make for a white-knuckle crossing.

Cruising up I-75, the green, rolling hills of Kentucky gave way to the flat, featureless corn fields of Indiana. The first day’s trip was uneventful, save for a bit of puckering when the gas tank ran dry while passing a semi on Michigan’s I-94. No harm, I switched to reserve, and made a mental note to better monitor my miles.

Dawn on Monday in Kalamazoo, Michigan, promised a beautiful day. The morning ride up the eastern shore of Lake Michigan on US-31 reminded me of the Oregon sea coast: wide sandy beaches, blue water, and grassy sand dunes. I visited the Muskegon waterfront, then cruised north through the coastal towns of Ludington and Traverse City, up to the charming lakeside village of Charlevoix where I stopped for a slice of cherry pie and a cup of tea. Sweet Michigan cherries rank among the best in the world. At Petoskey, I veered left on MI-119, and followed the shoreline through the towns of Harbor Springs, Good Hart and Cross Village. This is a road you want to ride again and again. The glimmering lake is at your left. Above, roadside trees meet at the center of the road, creating a natural tunnel. Alas, the day passing, it was back to I-75 for the run north to Mackinac City.

Find all of Rider‘s Michigan motorcycle travel features here.

Great Lakes Circle Tour
Only 60 miles east of the bustling Duluth waterfront, Bark Bay, Wisconsin, provides a serene escape.

Crossing the Straits of Mackinac bridge was an adventure. Opened to traffic in November 1957, the five-mile toll bridge soars 200 feet above the water at mid-span. The view is breathtaking. Lake Michigan is on your left; Lake Huron, and Mackinac Island, is on your right. From the bridge it was a straight shot north, and I high-tailed it to Sault Ste. Marie for the night.

Related: Northeastern Michigan and Lake Huron Lighthouses Loop | Favorite Ride

Once through customs and the Canadian border crossing in the morning, I found Route 17 and sped northwest. Also known as the Trans Canada Highway, Route 17 is in remarkable condition for a road so far north. Unfortunately, Route 17 is also very slow. The maximum posted speed limit is 90 kph (about 56 mph), and speeding fines in Ontario are particularly severe.

Great Lakes Circle Tour
The border crossing into northern Minnesota was a snap, but don’t forget to bring your passport.

With the FXR dialed in at 60 mph, feet up on the highway pegs, I soaked in the remarkable scenery. The northern shoreline of Lake Superior is reminiscent of the coast of Maine: rocky, and studded with densely wooded islands. The area is mostly undeveloped, but small, lakeside towns—like Wawa, White River and Terrace Bay—offered interesting side trips.

Related: Great Lakes Getaway: Touring Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan

I pulled into Thunder Bay at dinner time, and discovered a tough and gritty little port city. Its roots trace back to the 17th century when it was an outpost for fur traders. The city of 120,000 has since evolved into a key transportation hub for grain and other products. At the local Harley-Davidson shop I picked up a “Circle Tour” pin and toolbox decal. The Circle Tour concept was developed by a consortium of tourism agencies to promote travel around the Great Lakes. The Ride Lake Superior website suggests routes and offers information on roads, hotels, restaurants and local attractions. Along the way, key roads and turns are marked by distinctive Circle Tour signage.

Great Lakes Circle Tour
Grassy sand dunes line much of the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

Up early, I made a quick tour of the Thunder Bay waterfront, and then rode southbound for the U.S. border crossing at Grand Portage State Park. My entry into Minnesota was smooth, and the lakeside run to Duluth was picturesque. The sky and the water were complementary shades of deep blue, interrupted by the emerald pines and rugged gray-white rocks of the shoreline. A picture-perfect day has a way of slowing down time. There’s no compulsion to hurry. Any schedule is forgotten. Just settle back, and let your mental camera snap away.

Great Lakes Circle Tour
Wildlife abounds in Bark Bay’s horseshoe-shaped inlet.

East of Duluth I motored through small towns like Cornucopia. These are scenic and quaint villages, but watch your step—the speed limits in them frequently step down from 55 to 45 to 35 to 25 over a half-mile or so. Two-lane state highways, like WI-13, weave through golden fields and fragrant forests. For much of the ride, there were simply no other vehicles in sight.

I spent the night in Bayfield, gateway to the Apostle Islands, wishing that I could spend a full day here. It’s a great little waterfront town with ferries for day trips to the islands. I had a memorable dinner at Maggie’s, and returned to the Harbor’s Edge Motel, where a nice lakefront room could be had for about $100.

Great Lakes Circle Tour
Lake Michigan near Ludington, Michigan, home of the SS Badger, offering daily ferry service to Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

I was up early and made my way along the south shore of Lake Superior. The destination buoyed my mood. Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula is a spit of land that protrudes some 45 miles from the south shore of Lake Superior. The peninsula (actually an island, since it is separated from the mainland by the Portage River) is enriched by deep veins of copper, so it was a hot bed of mining earlier in the century. Riding on Route 41 along the spine of the landmass, you can see the copper in the stone used to face buildings. Pick up a roadside pebble, and you find tiny threads of copper. At the tip of the peninsula is Copper Harbor, a tiny village that had the best restaurant of the trip, Harbor Haus.

Great Lakes Circle Tour
The Quincy Mining Company operated between 1846 and 1945, when copper was king on the Keweenaw Peninsula.

An early departure gave me Route 41 all to myself, and what a road it is. Smooth and twisty, with just enough undulations to make my stomach dance and put a smile on my face. The temperature varied significantly along the first 20 miles. I rode through waves of chill and warmth that repeatedly fogged and defogged the mirrors.

Great Lakes Circle Tour

The FXR took me east to the lakefront city of Marquette, west to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, then south to Escanaba, on the northwest corner of Lake Michigan. It had rained on and off all morning, but now the skies opened up and nasty weather followed me south all the way to Green Bay, Wisconsin. After a night there it was a cool morning run east to the lakeside village of Kewaunee, then south on local roads along the western shore of Lake Michigan, past the famed Whistling Straits golf course and eventually to Milwaukee, home of the new Harley-Davidson museum. This is a terrific place for motorcyclists of any stripe to visit. I particularly enjoyed studying the moped-like design of the early Harley singles. Their utilitarian engineering reminded me just how far modern motorcycle technology has evolved. After a great burger at the museum’s Motor Cafe, it was back on the road. I sped south on I-94 to make time, skirting Chicago on the I-294 bypass.

Great Lakes Circle Tour
The Harley-Davidson Museum complex, on the banks of the Milwaukee River, opened to the public in July 2008.

The Chicago rat race morphed into the flat terrain of northern Indiana. Rolling down I-65, surrounded by acres of crops, I came across a farm the likes of which I had never seen. Hundreds of giant windmills stretched across the landscape from the highway to the horizon. Farther down the road, I learned that the Meadow Lake Wind Farm is comprised of more than 300 wind turbines generating 500 megawatts, enough to power about 137,000 average homes.

Great Lakes Circle Tour
Giant wind turbines seem to grow out of the cornfields of northern Indiana.

After a final night in the college town of West Lafayette, Indiana, I was back on I-65, riding south with 250 miles to go. The sun was just rising over the Indiana farmland. Eight days, 2,700 miles, and memories to last a lifetime. I just may do this trip again next August, but view the special world of the Great Lakes from a new perspective: clockwise.


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