The Big Splash: Waterfalls Abundant in Michigan’s U.P.

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.

shutterstock_80324401-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).

Other showstoppers
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., (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.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.

Touring on Two Wheels

By Amy S. Eckert

This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN.

Overhead, a million leaves rustle in the autumn breeze, the foliage of towering maple, beech and oak trees turned orange, yellow and scarlet and glowing in the morning sunshine. To the west lies a nearly unbroken, forested ridge, the backside of a row of dunes that shelters visitors from autumn’s chilly winds. Here and there breaks in the dunes allow momentary peeks of the shimmering surface of Lake Michigan. And up ahead, there’s nothing but easy pedaling as far as the eye can see.


More than 100 miles of paved bike paths traverse the wooded landscape around Holland, crisscrossing the city and leading outward to Saugatuck, Grand Rapids and Grand Haven. Fully paved and generally flat, the network makes it easy for cyclists to cruise through West Michigan.

But the star of Holland’s bike paths is the Lakeshore Trail, a 20-mile multi-use path connecting Holland and Grand Haven. Open only to non-motorized traffic, the trail parallels Ottawa County’s Lakeshore Drive and makes it possible to travel in a continuous, scenic route between two of Michigan’s most popular state parks, Holland and Grand Haven state parks.

Big Red To The Tunnel
Holland’s iconic lighthouse, Big Red, stands guard over the harbor at Holland State Park. In warm weather the park is a beach bum’s paradise with waterfront parking and sugar sand beaches that squeak under bare feet. Year-round the park’s breakwater is as popular with early-morning fishermen as it is with romantics looking for rainbow sherbet sunsets.

It’s a gentle, flat ride from Holland State Park east, past the park’s popular campground. Make a stop at the Ottawa Beach General Store, a mom-and-pop shop famous for its ice cream, before taking a quick jog north on 168th Avenue to Lakeshore Avenue and the bike path’s route north.

Quiet residential neighborhoods line the Lakeshore Trail as it snakes its way to Tunnel Park. A steep, grass-covered dune separates the park’s picnic and play areas from Lake Michigan. But a quick hop off your bicycle allows a walk through the tunnel that burrows through the dune for unbroken views of golden beach sand and pounding whitecaps.

Pigeon Lake and Kirk Park
The Lakeshore Trail becomes slightly hillier as it nears Camp Geneva, a religious retreat. Admire million-dollar Lake Michigan homes if you can see them — they’re scarcely visible beyond sprawling, meticulously-landscaped lawns. And keep your eyes open for the occasional red trailside kiosk, “Little Free Libraries” that keep cottagers supplied with books and bicyclists stocked with trail maps.

A short wooden boardwalk passes over the wetlands near Pigeon Lake. From here, a tunnel of brilliantly-colored maples and beeches mark the route to Kirk Park, home to 68 acres of sandy beach, high bluffs and spectacular Lake Michigan views. If time allows, enjoy lunch at one of the park’s picnic areas or follow a nature trail through wooded dunes and over stairways to one of several beach overlooks.


Lakeshore Trail

Grand Haven At Last
There’s no way around it. A trip along the Lakeshore Trail requires cyclists to get familiar with the Port Sheldon Power Plant. Keep pedaling onward and your route will wind through familiar scenery: stretches of West Michigan’s colorful fall foliage, lakeshore residences and occasional glimpses of the Big Lake.
Finally Lake Michigan’s bicycle trail ends in Grand Haven, just blocks away from the city’s state park. Grand Haven State Park is known for its gregarious beach atmosphere. Expect families, sand volleyball and the scent of grilling nearly all year round. On pleasant days it seems as if all of Grand Haven is at the beach.

At the state park you’re just a short walk from downtown shops and restaurants (take the riverfront boardwalk or the harbor trolley). You’re also right by the Grand Haven pier and the city’s own red lighthouse, its catwalk lit with white lights after dark.

It’s the perfect end to a perfect bicycle ride.

This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN. Some of the written details have changed since the article was published.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.

The Sunrise Side is for the Birders

By Bill Semion

This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN.

Mary McKinley is an example of the one-fifth of Americans who call themselves birders. she says she’s still just starting out after three years, but you wouldn’t know it if you met her as we did, on the Sandy Hook Nature Trail at Tawas Point State Park on Michigan’s eastern “sunrise side” along the Lake Huron shore.

Sporting a sun hat and daypack with requisite binoculars slung around her neck and notepad in hand, McKinley says that during May’s annual Tawas Point Birding Festival she saw more than 15 types of warblers and added 50 species to her birding “life list” (the tally a birder sees).

Whether you’re a backyard bird feeder viewer, a beginner like Mckinley, a “twitcher” who searches for rare birds or someone in between, have we got a birdwatching spot for you.

Or, actually several spots, collectively known as the Saginaw Bay Birding Trail. When combined with the even newer sunrise Coast Birding Trail, you’re talking about one of the best places to enjoy the changing of the seasons — literally on the fly — in North America.


While migrating and nesting birds have used it for untold generations, the trail wasn’t known to most humans until 2013.

It was then when bird lovers, volunteers and others with the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy decided to map the 142-milelong trail, a sweeping arc of land and water ringing lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, the longest contiguous freshwater wetland system in the country. now, one of the continent’s most active migratory flyways is gaining recognition and attracting birders from across the nation.

The trail, and the eons-old migratory bird routes surrounding it, runs from the forest low dunes of Port Crescent state Park in Huron County near the tip of the Thumb, to the curling sand spit that is Tawas Point State Park at Tawas Bay, recently named an Important Bird area by the National Audubon Society.

There are 20 official birding locations on the trail, with more to follow, says Lauren Sequin, community engagement lead for the Land Conservancy. The trail has already added a younger partner to the north, the Sunrise Coast Birding Trail, which was dedicated in time for the 2015 spring migration.

Saginaw Bay Birding Trail
“Birding is an up and coming sport, and the trail is a collaborative effort with the Michigan Audubon, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and other groups who helped develop, map and sign the trail,” says Sequin. “Saginaw Bay is this amazing resource, and even people who live here don’t know how incredible it is.” For birders, it’s a life list paradise.


Photo by Phil Odum

On a short, springtime trip in Iosco County at the trail’s northern end, sequin’s group saw 143 species. “you can go to any of the places [listed] on our website and see hundreds of species.”

Sequin explains that the bay area is so important for migrations because both the Thumb area and Tawas Point provide refuge for birds that may be heading farther north after using up fat reserves crossing parts of southern Lake Huron.

“People arrive here from all over the nation to see some of the special species that pass through here because it’s the only place many can be seen,” she adds. Birds such as the once extremely endangered Kirtland’s warbler heading for interior Michigan from the Bahamas, magnolia warblers making their 2,000 mile journey to Canada from Central America and endangered piping plovers nesting along its shores.

The list also includes the increasingly rare indigo-colored cerulean warbler flying in from South America’s Andes Mountains. All are counted among the approximately 290 species known to use the few acres available at Tawas Point.

“Of course, it depends on the day, and what came in on the wind in the night, and time of day. We went to Tawas Point State Park and only spent two or three hours there and racked up more than 80 species. I mean, you can stand in a little grove of trees and see 20 species of warblers right in front of you. It’s incredible,” says sequin. She recommends these spots as good places to start:
•  Discovery Preserve, Euclid Park, Bay City: at this 12-acre preserve with paved walkway and wetland you’re likely to see heron, egrets, colorful wood ducks and other waterfowl.
•  Nyanquing Point State Wildlife Area, off highway M-13: Its 1,505 acres feature a wheelchair-accessible observation tower for viewing waterfowl, wading and shore birds, and raptors.
•  Sand Point Nature Preserve, in the Thumb north of Bay port: Five miles of trails and habitat variety, from wetlands to coniferous forest.


Photo by Peggy Ridgway

Sunrise Coast Birding Trail
Starting where the Saginaw Bay Birding Trail leaves off, Peggy Ridgway was inspired to create the 145-mile-long Sunrise Coast Birding Trail. Working with Michigan Audubon, Consumers Energy and others, Ridgway and fellow Au Sable Valley Audubon members incorporated 27 birding sites along Highway 23 from Oscoda to Mackinaw City. She recommends that you take your field glasses to these spots:
•  Westgate, the western end of the River Road National Scenic Byway, Au Sable River: especially in winter near Foote Dam pond you can see as many as 1,000 trumpeter swans, plus warblers and bald eagles.
•  Harrisville State Park and Sturgeon Point State Park: Great shorebird viewing and nesting merlin in Harrisville’s campground.
•  Highway 23 between Rogers City and the Mackinac Straits: a known raptor viewing area for golden eagles, and hawks practicing “kettling” (circling high on thermal updrafts).

Go on a Birding Quest with Johnny Panther
Looking for a unique way to view some of the Saginaw Bay’s wildest birding areas in comfort? ask Wil Hufton, operator of Johnny Panther Quests, to reserve a spot on one of his 10-seat, shallow-draft boats for trips into the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. For 19 years Hufton has been taking tours into what he calls “Michigan’s Everglades.”

Depending on the season, you’re almost guaranteed to see dozens of bald eagles, thousands of ducks and geese, plus beaver, deer and other critters. “On a standard trip, if my guests don’t see seven to 10 eagles I blame it on them, saying they’re just not living right,” Hufton says with a laugh. Most amateur to intermediate birders add at least three species to their life lists. about 280 bird species are known to inhabit the refuge.

This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of experience MICHIGAN. Some of the written details may have changed since the article was published.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.