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Brockway Mountain Drive: Scenic & Historic

Posted on September 3rd, 2017

At MichiganTrailMaps.com we’re celebrating high places and great views of which both can be enjoyed from a series of ridges and treeless balds in the western Upper Peninsula. In this Trail Talk, guest blogger Eric Freedman writes about Brockway Mountain Drive and its long history as one of Michigan’s most scenic drives in an article that first appeared in Great Lakes Echo.  In the latest issue of Trail Mix, our monthly e-newsletter, Jim DuFresne goes ridge walking to the peak of Mt. Baldy and one of the most impressive panoramas in Michigan.

For other scenic ridges head to Isle Royale National Park (Greenstone Ridge, Minong Ridge and Feldtmann Ridge) or Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (the Escarpment) for foot trails with alpine views. Need help planning a trip to these great Michigan parks? In our e-shop we have the guidebooks to help you out every step of the way no matter where your Michigan adventure takes you.

Brockway Mountain Drive. Image: Copper Harbor Improvement Association

Brockway Mountain Drive. Image: Copper Harbor Improvement Association

By Eric Freedman

One of America’s most scenic stretches of road, Brockway Mountain Drive in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

The National Park Service recognized the 9-mile road built by the Keweenaw County Road Commission in 1933 for its historic importance in recreation, entertainment, transportation, social history and landscape architecture.

“Brockway Mountain Drive is unique in Michigan as a scenic highway built expressly as a scenic drive through rugged country to provide access to grand scenery for the public’s enjoyment,” according to the nomination.

It runs between Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor on the Keweenaw Peninsula and has nine overlooks that “provide incomparable views of Lake Superior to the north and expansive, forested valleys and hills to the south,” the nomination said.

One of them, West Bluff Overlook, stands about 725 feet above the surface of Lake Superior “and offers Brockway Mountain Drive’s widest panoramic views.” It’s also the place where the Skytop Inn gift shop operated from 1935 until 2013. The building has been razed.

The view of Copper Harbor from Brockway Mountain Drive.

The view of Copper Harbor from Brockway Mountain Drive.

“Its construction during the Depression era represents a concerted, and successful, effort to initiate a much-needed public works project, develop the local tourism industry, and provide relief to the unemployed,” the nomination said. The Depression hit Keweenaw County hard with copper mine closings, subsistence farming and high unemployment, and unemployed miners accounted for many of the hundreds of workers on the road project.

Before Brockway Mountain Drive, most of the county’s roads were used for logging, mining and military purposes, and the improving transportation for the less-populated northeastern reaches of the Keweenaw Peninsula “was not a priority during the first decades of the twentieth century, as the Keweenaw Central Railroad provided adequate passenger and freight service to the area.”

The economic hardships of the Depression sparked a push to develop opportunities for automobile tourism. And it worked. For example, between June 16 and June 30, 1939, about 9,800 cars entered the the Keweenaw Peninsula through the village of Ahmeek.

“Since opening in 1934, Brockway Mountain Drive has been a leading attraction for visitors to the Keweenaw Peninsula, offering unparalleled views of the picturesque region of Michigan,” the nomination said. “The scenic road, together with two other Depression-era projects, Lakeshore Drive and the Keweenaw Mountain Resort and Lodge, helped Keweenaw County to diversify its economy and emerge from its dependence on mining.”

The road is open only seasonally, and Gregg Patrick, the road commission’s engineer manager, said traffic is busiest in the fall.

Use can spike at 1,000 vehicles a day, but at other times it’s 200 or fewer vehicles, Patrick said.

Property bordering the road includes mountain biking and hiking trails, as well as nature sanctuaries.

Eric Freedman is a Michigan State University professor and Director of the school’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. This article first appeared in Great Lakes Echo, the award-winning environmental publication produced by the Knight Center.

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