The Michigan Day Trip Tour, No. 5: Sault Ste. Marie & The Soo Locks

In service on the Great Lakes until the middle of the 20th century, the Valley Camp now serves as a floating museum

In service on the Great Lakes until the middle of the 20th century, the Valley Camp now serves as a floating museum

*The Michigan Day Trip Tour is a series of posts all about the Great Lakes State and the many natural and physical wonders it contains. Most destinations included in the series are located within a two-hour drive of Grand Rapids, though some, like St. Ignace and the Soo Locks, are a little further. Hopefully, these posts will encourage you to go out and do some exploring of your own — or at least prove to be mildly entertaining. Enjoy!

It seems odd for a city to be 150-plus years older than the state within which it’s located, but that’s exactly what you get with Sault Ste. Marie, which was founded — get this — 169 years before Michigan joined the Union in 1837. By virtue of its founding in 1668, the Soo is the oldest city in the Great Lakes State, while fellow Upper Peninsula stalwarts St. Ignace (founded in 1671) and Marquette (1675) aren’t too far behind.

While its age certainly makes it notable, that probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the area. That’s because Sault Ste. Marie is, of course, home to the world-famous Soo Locks, which allow ships to pass from Lake Huron into Lake Superior (or vice-versa) via the St. Marys River which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border. More than 11,000 vessels carrying up to 90 million tons of cargo, mainly iron ore, coal, grain, and stone, pass through the locks each year, making it one of busiest locks systems in the world.

The main locks, including the MacArthur Lock, named for General Douglas MacArthur, as well as the Poe and Davis locks, which are named for Detroit District engineers of old, ferry major ships through on the U.S. side, helping them navigate around the previously unnavigable St. Marys Rapids, which fall 21 feet from the level of Lake Superior down to the level of the lower Great Lakes. The single Canadian Lock, meanwhile, is used to assist anyone attempting to get personal watercraft from one side to the other. And all of this, believe it or not, is carried out free of charge to the vessels passing through.

You can check out the locks for free as well — from the viewing platform located alongside the river, that is. If you want to experience a ride through the locks, now that’s going to cost you. To make it happen, you need only visit one of the docks owned by Soo Locks Boat Tours along Portage Avenue. Purchase your tickets at either Dock #1 or Dock #2 ($31 for adults, $12 for kids ages 5 to 16), climb aboard, and enjoy a relaxing cruise, narrated by one of the crew members.

The typical tour route will see you through the MacArthur Lock, where your boat will rise up 21 feet to the level of Lake Superior; underneath the International Bridge that connects the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; past the site of Algoma Steel on the Canadian side; and, finally, through the Canadian Lock, which will lower you back down to the Lake Huron level.

Following your boat tour through the manmade marvel that is the Soo Locks, it could be a good time to check out the S.S. Valley Camp, a massive, decommissioned freighter that now serves as a floating museum. Also located along Portage Avenue, the museum ship holds 20,000 square feet of exhibit space. Inside, you’ll find all you ever wanted to know about Great Lakes maritime history, including plenty of artifacts, models, and paintings. What’s more, you can head up to the open-air deck and check out where the captain, first mate, and all of their good pals used to stay while out on the water, truly getting an idea of what life was like for those who braved the sometimes unforgiving waters of the Great Lakes back in the day.

One of the museum’s most prominent exhibits is centered around the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in Lake Superior back on Nov. 10, 1975. All 29 crew members lost their lives that day, and each is now immortalized in the Valley Camp’s exhibit, which includes a timeline of the fateful day, as well as a pair of damaged life boats that were recovered from the ship (with no one aboard) and a short film that recaps the tragic incident.

A peek inside Museum Ship Valley Camp

A peek inside Museum Ship Valley Camp

If you’re thirsty for a little more of the area’s history, you could also choose to visit the Tower of History, a structure that rises 210 feet above Sault Ste. Marie, offering sweeping views of the city and the locks, and plenty of its own history lessons. If you’ve had your fill, however, it could be time to grab a bite to eat. It would be pretty difficult to go wrong (unless you’re a total food snob), but my suggestions would include The Palace Mexican Restaurant and Saloon, Lockview Restaurant, or Karl’s Cuisine, all of which are right on Portage, or The Wicked Sister on Ashmun.

As far as shopping goes, there are plenty of little souvenir shops right in the downtown area, but you might be hit with déjà vu walking into some of them, as they tend to sell pretty similar items. If you’re looking for something a little different, the Haunted Depot Halloween Shop is definitely a cool spot. Google will tell you it’s a costume shop, but they have t-shirts and other souvenirs, as well. Bibliophiles will also want to check out Island Books & Crafts, which has a decent selection of new and used books, and all of you coffee fans out there would likely feel right at home at Superior Coffee Roasting Co. Cafe, which sits right next door.

In need of more adventure? Go ahead and bring that passport along — the Canadian version of Sault Ste. Marie is five times bigger.