By Mary Bergin
This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of experience MICHIGAN.
Water steals the show in Michigan, and there is a lot of it to lure visitors. Four of the five Great Lakes help form the state’s boundaries. About 11,000 inland lakes are each at least five acres in size.
And then we have waterfalls; the elegant and powerful spectacles of nature that transfix travelers because of their height, width, force and picturesque locations. To see a waterfall after a long hike is a beautiful reward. To feel a waterfall’s splash or mist is a relief on hot days. To stand before such a moving curtain of nature can seem like a miracle.
Within Michigan are at least 150 waterfalls, says the state’s Department of Natural Resources, and almost all are in the Upper Peninsula, above the Straits of Mackinac. That is thanks to the Munising Formation, a longstanding geological environment that stretches more than 100 miles along the southern shore of Lake Superior. It also is referred to as the Northern Michigan escarpment.
People who say the state has closer to 200 or 300 waterfalls likely are counting tempestuous rapids or seasonal surges. As heavy snow melts in spring and water engorges rivers, even some of the tamest come to a roar, temporarily.
What’s the difference between a waterfall and rapids? Steepness of descent is one factor. Another is where and how the water plummets. The transformation from trickle to waterfall, through erosion of soft rock, takes thousands of years.
U.P. counties that touch Lake Superior are awash with waterfalls. Some waterfalls are beauty marks within unique geological formations, such as Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which stretches 40 miles along the southern shore.
Michigan’s DNR says Black River in Gogebic County contains at least 11 waterfalls, plus rapids. Marquette County’s tourism office provides a guide that describes the physical exertion required to view its dozen waterfalls.
Ocqueoc Falls: Accessible to all
The only major, publicly owned waterfall in the Lower Peninsula is Ocqueoc Falls, described as the nation’s first universally accessible waterfall. Since 2012, people in wheelchairs can move to tiered rocks at transfer stations, then climb or slide to the waterfalls.
Access to Ocqueoc River also is possible by ramp, and a short, paved trail connects from the parking lot.
“Our biggest challenge was making the bluff, the historical route to the river, accessible,” explains Brenda Curtis, state forest recreation planner. “We installed transfer platforms at the top and bottom of the bluff and strategically placed cut rock in between to create three routes” of varying difficulty.
Steepness of incline, height of risers (the rock steps) and tread surfaces account for the difference between the routes. The waterfall is part of Ocqueoc Falls Bicentennial Pathway and Ocqueoc Falls State Forest in Presque Isle County.
Tahquamenon: Queen of all falls
During spring thaw, the upper level of Tahquamenon Falls spurts up to 50,000 gallons of water per second. At 50 feet high and 200 feet wide, this waterfall is Michigan’s biggest and one of the largest east of the Mississippi River.
Four miles downstream is Lower Tahquamenon Falls, the little sister that splits into two cascades, each 22 feet tall and 100 feet wide. Both falls are inside the 50,000-acre Tahquamenon Falls State Park, Michigan’s second largest, and 70 miles west of Sault Ste. Marie, in Chippewa County.
The nickname “Root Beer Falls” applies because tannic acid from the park’s trees tends to tinge the water. Access points include a paved, wheelchair-accessible trail at the Upper Falls parking lot. It leads to a wooden observation deck. Stairs at the Tahquamenon River Trail lead down to the water; the same trail meanders through old-growth forest and ends at the Lower Falls (also easily accessible from a nearby parking lot).
Narrowing the list of must-see Michigan waterfalls is difficult, but here are a few of the more diverse destinations.
Bond Falls, near Trout Creek, Ontonagon County: Follow a 600-foot-long boardwalk for easy viewing of the 40-foot-tall waterfall that grows as wide as 100 feet while spewing over broken rock. Nearby is Agate Falls, whose best views come at your own risk, by climbing up to an old railroad bridge or down to the Ontonagon River, as fishermen do.
Manabezho Falls, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Gogebic County: The route to Lake Superior, when following Presque Isle River, ends with a mile of rapids and this 25-foot-tall waterfall. Get the best view by following stairs near the parking lot. Add a short hike downstream, to a suspension bridge whose view reveals how the river is leaving its mark on this gorge. Also in the immediate neighborhood are Manido and Nawadaha falls.
Eagle River Falls, Eagle River, Keweenaw County: Near the village limits, water plunges over the remains of a dam at the original Lake Superior Fuse Company. It’s 60 feet wide and a 60-foot drop, easily visible from a parking lot and pedestrian bridge.
Sable Falls, Grand Marais, Alger County: Elevation changes 75 feet, over several levels of sandstone cliffs, before water tumbles into Lake Superior. For the best view, descend 169 stairs to a viewing platform that is part of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The lakeshore’s six other named waterfalls include 50-foot-tall Munising Falls, inside Munising city limits.
Agawa Canyon, from Sault St. Marie, Chippewa County: The popular Agawa Canyon Tour Train whisks travelers 114 miles north of Sault Ste. Marie, into wilderness that includes several waterfalls. A highlight of this one-day excursion into Canada is Agawa Canyon Wilderness Park, which is only accessible by train or hiking. www.agawacanyontourtrain.com, (800) 242-9287.
This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of experience MICHIGAN. Some of the written details have changed since the article was published.
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