Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is an often overlooked travel destination. Sandwiched between three of the Great Lakes, the U.P. is a remote and rugged wilderness that features hundreds of miles of trail, incredibly dense forests and more solitude than anyone could ever ask for. Outdoor enthusiasts will love the options for hiking, camping and backpacking, while other visitors will enjoy the scenic beauty and laid back lifestyle.
That vast expanse of wilderness is occasionally broken up by quaint and inviting Midwestern towns populated by friendly and accommodating people. The largest of those towns is Sault Ste. Marie (pronounced Soo-Saint-Marie), which is located on the southern banks of the St. Mary’s River on the eastern side of the Peninsula, just a stone’s throw away from Canada.
You wouldn’t know it while passing through the sleepy little town but Sault Ste. Marie (Pop. 15,000) is home to the busiest lock system in the entire world. Completed in 1855, the Soo Locks connect Lake Superior and Lake Huron, allowing ships to safely traverse the 21-foot drop that separates those two bodies of water. Each year more than 10,000 vessels pass through the locks, despite the fact that they are closed between January and March, and in 2008 alone, the locks saw more than 80 million tons of cargo come and go.The Great Lakes have served as shipping lanes for centuries and the Soo Locks are vitally important in keeping that traffic flowing today. As such, most of the ships that pass through Sault Ste. Marie are freighters, barges and tugboats. Some of those vessels are capable of steaming straight out of the Lakes and directly into the ocean itself, delivering as much as 72,000 tons of cargo to the rest of the world. It is not unusual for the locks to see the occasional tall sailing ships, cruise lines or even military vessels too.
During the summer travel months the Soo Locks are amongst the most popular tourist destinations in all of Michigan. Visitors actually come from around the world to take in the sights of a large ocean-going vessel passing through Sault Ste. Marie. The transfer process between the two lakes is a fascinating one and watching the locks in operation is a unique experience. That process can be observed from a lovely park that sits alongside the locks, which is the perfect place for spotting the large ships as they approach. Better yet, visitors can actually pass through the Soo Locks themselves by booking a local boat tour.
The Soo Locks Visitor Center is also a great place to learn more about the locks while visiting Sault Ste. Marie. The center provides a contextual history of how and why these modern wonders were built while also offering a large observation deck for watching the ships “lock through.”
When you’re finished enjoying the locks, be sure to spend a little time exploring Sault Ste. Marie as well. As Michigan’s oldest city, it has plenty of unique aspects to discover. And whatever you do, don’t leave town without trying the fudge!