By Makhayla LaButte
Few public lands rival Fayette Historic State Park and its rich combination of Michigan history and natural beauty. Seated on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan’s Big Bay de Noc in the Upper Peninsula, this park boasts over 700 acres of public land just waiting to be explored by historians and outdoor enthusiasts alike.
Best known as a preserved 1867 historical townsite that was once home to a bustling iron-smelting village, visitors are given the opportunity to go back in time and catch a glimpse of post-Civil War industrial life in Michigan while taking in the stunning natural views of the Garden Peninsula.
Although the Jackson Iron Company ceased operations at Fayette in 1891, new life was breathed into the abandoned village in 1959 when the State of Michigan acquired the land and turned it into a state park. More than 20 historical buildings and features have been preserved through the dedicated efforts of Michigan DNR Parks and Recreation staff and the Michigan History Center. A majority of these buildings feature interpretive displays and signage which provide visitors with an immersive experience that few other historical sites are able to accomplish.
Some visitors and campers are intimidated by the rural setting of the park and how isolated it feels from society, but trust me when I say that is a key part of this park’s charm. If you’re looking for an original state park experience that encapsulates the very best Michigan’s natural resources have to offer and aren’t afraid to stray from the beaten path to experience it, Fayette Historic State Park is the destination for you.
Experience the iconic Sheldon House at the center of the townsite, where prestigious town visitors and poor laborers alike found temporary refuge during their time in Fayette. Or explore the beautifully-preserved remains of the furnace complex along the harbor where pig iron was cast and shipped out across the Great Lakes region. Enter the preserved ruins of the kilns and look up at the sky above you before walking through the company office, schoolhouse, opera house and machine shop to further capture the experiences of Michigan settlers and immigrants from years long passed.
Above all else, look northeast across the harbor and take in the iconic dolomite bluff that sits proudly above the shimmering waters of Lake Michigan. This bluff evokes a sense of awe in all who view it, but its significance far exceeds the beauty of the white cliff face. The bluff overlooking Snail Shell Harbor (aptly named for its shape) holds geological, cultural, ecological and economic significance in Michigan’s history. Part of the Niagara Escarpment, a geological formation that arcs across the entire Great Lakes region, this bluff hosts some of the oldest trees in Michigan alongside other rare vegetation and wildlife. The dolomite that makes up the bluffs also served as a key ingredient in the furnace complex during the iron-smelting process that sustained the town during its 24 years of operation. Furthermore, portions of the escarpment that are exposed along the western shores of Big Bay de Noc have yielded evidence of Native American occupation on the Garden Peninsula.
The historical significance of the landscape doesn’t fade as you leave the limits of the townsite. While hiking portions of the five miles of trails that wind throughout the park and nearby picnic area, visitors with a keen eye may also observe the remains and ruins of other buildings, churches, kilns and cemeteries that were unable to escape the weathering of time. Pair these observations with epic views from the top of the dolomite bluff, a stroll among 1,000-year-old cedars and all the wildlife viewing and birding opportunities you could ask for, and it becomes increasingly clear why the Michigan State Park system has so much to celebrate during its centennial.
If you would like to plan a visit to Fayette Historic State Park, please familiarize yourself with their accommodations and recreational opportunities. Whether you’re interested in camping, hiking, biking, swimming, boating, angling, hunting or simply exploring the history of the townsite, Fayette is the destination for you. As with all Michigan State Parks, a Recreation Passport is required for entry.