The Great Northern Route

US-2: Crystal Falls

At the eastern edge of the vast Ottawa National Forest, Crystal Falls (pop. 1,370) is a charming, postcard kind of place built into a bluff near a rivulet waterfall on the Paint River. Time seems to stand still here, the town sporting original (read: old) street signs still pointing the way, and huge trees overhanging US-2 as it slowly hairpins through town. The only “sights” here are the local courthouse, won in a poker game in the 1880s, and a water-filled old pit mine outside of town.

Southeast from Crystal Falls, US-2 passes numerous rock and ore formations jutting out of the hillsides. The road sweeps into the Copper Country State Forest, which gives every appearance of symmetrical reforestation, then flits through 15 mi (24 km) of northern Wisconsin before reentering the UP just west of Iron Mountain.

Iron Mountain and Norway

Though separated by a half-dozen blacktop miles of US-2, the sister towns of Norway (pop. 2,767) and Iron Mountain (pop. 7,353) both grew up with the lumbering and iron-mining industry, producing over 300,000 tons annually from three big mines. The larger of the two towns, Iron Mountain, backs up against the easy grade of its eponymous mountain and seems casually strewn about in parts: The east side is mini-mall sprawl, while the west side is the older traditional “downtown.” The must-see here, everyone will tell you, is the Cornish Pumping Engine and Mining Museum (906/774-1086, daily June-Sept., $5), two blocks off US-2 on Kent Street. This comprehensive local-history museum has as its star attraction the most enormous steam-driven pump engine you could imagine—it’s 54 ft (16 m) tall and weighs over 700 tons. There are also displays about the old Ford Motor Company factory complex in Kingsford, which fabricated such innovations as the “Woody” station wagon, charcoal briquettes, and World War II gliders. The real must-see is the freebie, the Pine Mountain Ski Jump, west of town off US-2 along Pine Mountain Road. This 459-ft (140-meter) jump hosts annual international competitions in late January or early February and is the site of the current U.S. distance record.

The mines at Norway were so close together and so active that the village once caved in and they had to rebuild it down the hill. Gritty Norway once produced more wood shingles than anywhere else, as shown by the numerous houses still coated with them. Norway also boasts the beautiful Piers Gorge, a few miles (4.8 km) south via US-8, where the raging white water of the Menominee River scraped out this fascinating 70-ft-deep (21-m) gorge on the border between Michigan and Wisconsin.

Map of the Great Northern through Michigan.
Map of the Great Northern through Michigan.

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