COPPER HARBOR, MICH. — Don’t be surprised if your ears pop as your car climbs ever upward along Brockway Mountain Drive.
Call it an altitude adjustment — a hint at the height you’re gaining as you trace the spine of an ancient fault through the rugged northern reaches of Michigan’s remote Keweenaw Peninsula.
At its rocky peak, Brockway Mountain stands more than 700 feet above the surface of Lake Superior, where it serves up sweeping views of the surrounding forests flanked by the greatest of the Great Lakes. The spot is a stunner any time of year, but especially so come autumn, when the rolling Keweenaw wilds light up with the reds, oranges and yellows of changing trees.
As fall color drives go, Michigan has plenty of icons: the Tunnel of Trees and Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive come to mind. But as the highest above sea-level scenic drive between the Rockies and Alleghenies, Brockway is in a category unto itself, perched so tall above the landscape that as you stand there surveying the unfathomable scenery, a hawk might fly by on an air current below you.
The nine-mile drive is a must-stop for Keweenaw travelers, and has been for nearly a century. It’s more than just a great view, though — it’s also a piece of Michigan history.
When local mining operations ground to a halt in the years following the stock market crash of 1929, Keweenaw County saw some of the highest unemployment numbers in the nation. But through federal funding and the deployment of Depression-era programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, Copper Country families found work again through a variety of fresh projects, including the creation of a scenic drive.
At the time, Keweenaw roadways were necessarily utilitarian, built for miners, loggers, travelers and traffic to the historic Fort Wilkins outpost, which by then had been named a Michigan state park. The idea for a strictly scenic drive up to the top of craggy Brockway Mountain had been pitched in the 1920′s, and in 1933 the Keweenaw County Road Commission made it a reality, using federal highway construction funds and employing hundreds of out-of-work laborers from local communities.
When the drive finally opened to the public roughly a year later, it helped put Copper Harbor on the map as a scenic destination, while becoming a destination unto itself for anyone seeking an eagle’s eye view of the spectacular surrounding countryside.
There’s another secret to Brockway Mountain; the drive is also a portal to other spots worth exploring. Along the roadway you’ll find trailheads for hiking and mountain biking, and a number of Michigan Nature Association preserves featuring unique plants that thrive in the mountain’s unique, Alpine-like ecosystems. The place is also a birding hotspot, as tens of thousands of North American raptors funnel overhead en route to their destinations each year during spring and fall migration.
But Brockway’s scenic peak is still the paramount attraction, drawing visitors all day long. On a recent September morning, a handful of folks milled around at the summit — basking in the scenery, reading the iconic map signage, resting against the parking lot’s short cobblestone guard rails, which are relics from the site’s CCC construction days. By late afternoon the crowd had swelled a bit, with families lingering for photos against a forested backdrop just beginning its fall blush, and one couple happily seated along the western edge of the ridge in camping chairs, admiring the view.
Some would stay all the way until nightfall, as Brockway Mountain not only offers up incredible sunsets, but is a popular spot for the Keweenaw’s unparalleled stargazing and, when conditions are just right, the Northern Lights.
As fall lends an extra layer of beauty to the Brockway Mountain experience, it’s also the drive’s annual swan song — a colorful outro to wrap up the year, as the seasonal road typically closes to car traffic in late fall or early winter, depending on the weather.
If you’d like to cruise Brockway Mountain Drive, there’s still some time before the snow flies.
Learn more and find maps and guides through the Keweenaw Convention & Visitors Bureau in Calumet, and at Keweenaw.info.