When you think of America’s greatest highways, it’s easy to make a list of numbers that evoke a sense of wonder and desire for exploration: 66, 101, 1, 6, 50. But I’d like to suggest adding one more to that list: the venerable U.S. Highway 41. Sure, it doesn’t get the glamour of skirting the Pacific Coast, and as far as I know, no one has ever written a song about it, but this highway is still mighty impressive. And the best way to pay your respects to 41 is to see where it starts. You’ll find the beginning of U.S. 41 all the way up at the very top of Michigan, just outside of Copper Harbor.
Copper Harbor is located at the northern end of the Keweenaw Peninsula, in the middle of Lake Superior, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. US 41’s northern terminus is just a few miles beyond Copper Harbor.
It’s hard to imagine tropical Miami, Florida when you’re standing in a light drizzle outside of Copper Harbor, Michigan. It’s also hard to imagine that the same road connects the two, and what begins here continues for nearly 2,000 miles. US 41 begins where the pavement does, at this loop around a road sign, about as far north as you can drive in Michigan.
That sign explains that Native American footpaths eventually became routes for explorers and missionaries, then traders and settlers, carving out a path through Michigan which eventually received a federal highway designation. US 41 is one of the original routes commissioned in 1926 to connect a country that was trading horse-drawn carriages for petroleum-fueled machines.
41 crosses through eight states, finally ending at another highway on my list of awe-inspiring numbers, U.S. 1, in Miami.
The pavement really does end at the end of 41, although you can drive further towards the tip of the Keweenaw, if you’re so inspired.
The Beginning of U.S. 41
Turn around and you’ll see the first (of thousands, probably) South 41 route shield. It’s not as impressive as the Mile 0 sign in Key West, I guess, but it still commands some respect.
Michigan’s Department of Transportation also provided an official recognition of 41’s long route to Florida. A few miles from the beginning of U.S. 41, in Copper Harbor, the highway makes a left turn to head down the peninsula — and this is where we learn that Miami is just an easy 1,990 miles away.
I love to geek-out on highway trivia, so here are a few more interesting facts about US 41:
- It’s longer than it used to be. The original 1926 route ended in Naples, Florida, and another route, U.S. 94, crossed the Everglades to Miami. U.S. 94 was decommissioned around 1950, and 41 was extended to Miami, and later to Miami Beach.
- The southern end of U.S. 41 is known as the Tamiami Trail, because it connects TAMpa and mIAMI.
- U.S. 41 is officially a north-south highway, but it’s signed east-west between Naples and Miami.
- In Wisconsin, much of U.S. 41 has been upgraded to Interstate status, and in 2015 it earned the designation of I-41. As far as I know, it’s the only place where a U.S. Route has transformed into an Interstate route with the same number. In most places, this would violate the highway numbering scheme. Interstate numbers go from low to high as you go from west to east, while U.S. Route numbers go from high to low (for example, I-95 is near U.S. 1 on the east coast, and parts of U.S. 99 became I-5 on the west coast). But in Wisconsin, I-41 is properly positioned between I-39 and I-43, just as it should be.
- In addition to Miami, U.S. 41 passes through several other big cities, including (from south to north) Tampa, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nashville, Chicago, and Milwaukee.
- Even though 2,000 miles is pretty impressive, there are fourteen other U.S. highways that are longer than U.S. 41. But, only one of those fourteen, U.S. 1, is primarily a north-south route, as is U.S. 41.
Okay, that’s enough trivia.
Just a couple of miles from the beginning of U.S. 41, the highway enters Copper Harbor.
This town is big enough to have one flashing red traffic light, at the junction of 41 and M-26. There are a handful of motels, restaurants, and gift shops here.
One of them has this beautiful neon sign, lighting up the town’s big intersection.
If you choose to head west at the light, you can follow M-26 along the coast to Eagle Harbor and Eagle River. You can also turn off M-26 onto Brockway Mountain Drive for a scenic route along the top of a ridge.
Or, you can head south on U.S. 41…
through a “covered road” portion of the highway. Here, the forest is so dense, the road is completely shaded by the trees. And as you can see, the fall colors were starting to show, during my visit on the second week of October, 2017. One week later, and this drive would have been even more spectacular.
Unfortunately, there are a limited number of turnouts along this stretch of the road. If you can find a place to park, you’ll need to be very careful to dodge traffic. There aren’t a lot of cars up here, but visibility is limited around curves and hills, so vehicles appear quickly.
There’s one more attraction that deserves a mention along U.S. 41, about halfway between Mohawk and Phoenix. A towering snow stick provides some perspective on how much snow falls on the Keweenaw Peninsula each year. On an average year, the area receives about 184 inches, enough to reach about halfway up the measuring stick. In the record-setting winter of 1978-79, the area received 390.4 inches, or 32.5 feet of snow. In 2017/18, starting just a few weeks after my visit, the Keweenaw received 303 inches of snow, according to pasty.com.
Here’s a look at the drive up the Keweenaw Peninsula, from Hancock to Copper Harbor and the end of US 41:
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The Bottom Line
The drive to the beginning of U.S. 41 feels like quite an accomplishment, and it’s an essential part of the Keweenaw experience. Nearby Copper Harbor provides all the necessities, and the scenery as you head south is superb.