My girlfriend Jenna and I set sail in her 2020 Toyota Sienna van for a two-week Upper Peninsula of Michigan waterfall adventure. After working in the morning, we drove east from Minneapolis on Friday, July 15th with eight hours to go. The weekend traffic loosened in central Wisconsin and we made a caffeine stop in Wausau at a coffee shop named Biggby Coffee. Here I had the worst cold brew of my life and the taste of dirt and armpits lingered for an hour through the small farm towns and Amish countryside to the east.
It was a beautiful summer day and once we made it to the upper peninsula, we hugged the north side of Lake Michigan moving east. After sunset heavy fog rolled in from the lake at times obscuring the road and soon enough we found our way moving north on small highways towards Paradise, Michigan in the far northeast corner of the state. As we approached our campground at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, the big moon shined a bright reflection on Lake Superior to our right and we both smiled and were excited for our adventure to start.
Tahquamenon Falls is impressive
In the morning I was up early and we had a light breakfast, showered, then drove to the center of the state park to hike around Tahquamenon Falls. We passed over the Tahquamenon River near Lake Superior with kayakers below maneuvering the bends of the river. It was a perfect summer day and the lower falls parking lot was nearly full when we arrived late in the morning.
We could hear the lower falls in the distance but didn’t know what to expect. As we walked closer, the rush was louder and we found our way to the first lookout. Afterwards, we hiked across an aluminum bridge and down to the river where many families enjoyed the water that was comfortably warm. On the way out, we contemplated hiking the distance to the upper falls but instead opted to drive so we could move on to Sable Falls later in the day.
We drove to the upper falls parking lot which was also very busy. The hiking trail is paved before a large flight of stairs that we took down to the lookout next to the upper falls. This waterfall is the largest in all of Michigan and also one of the largest east of the Mississippi River. The brown stained water from the forest tannins was more evident here and the upper Tahquamenon Falls were stunning and moving with a lot of force and sound. It is an impressive waterfall.
Sable Falls in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
I drove us west on HWY 123 then north on HWY 407 through desolate towns and thick forest until we reached Lake Superior where we pushed west on a loose gravel logging road towards Grand Marais. When we finally hit pavement again I was happy and we soon found our way into Picture Rocks National Lakeshore. Jenna had a list of waterfalls we were going to target and I was most excited to see Sable Falls.
It is a short hike down a set of stairs to the creek where a wooden overlook stands. When we arrived, four young women had jumped over and were walking up the falls to a pool on the second tier. Jenna and I hiked further down the trail but there wasn’t much to see so we returned to the lookout then climbed down low to the creek. The water was invigorating and we took our time before walking the rocks up to the falls once the young women moved on. Sable Falls kicked up a delightful mist up close and I took a few photographs, wiping my lens between each shot.
We didn’t have a campsite reserved for this day so ventured forth confident that we would find something even though it was a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the summer. On the drive to Sable Falls, we passed several national forest campgrounds inland but I knew the bugs would likely be bad and wanted something closer to Lake Superior. It was getting late in the day, and after striking out at three national campgrounds in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, we moved west and were willing to take anything.
Just outside of the national lakeshore I drove by Kingston Lake State Forest Campground and saw the sign for it late and missed the turn. We turned around to have a look and I followed the small loop through the rustic campground. The sites were spacious with mature trees and views of the lake, and to our delight one site was open and already paid for after the previous occupants moved on a day early. When you know in your heart that things will work out, they always do.
Chapel Rock on Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
I made pourover Ethiopian light roast coffee from UP Roasters in Minneapolis in the morning and it was superb along with our breakfast. After leaving the campground and getting back to the national lakeshore, the gravel road to Chapel Falls trailhead was extremely rough and the van bounced along slowly before we made our way to a full parking lot that overflowed up the road.
We were very excited to get out on a longer walk in the woods and the 3.1 mile hike to Chapel Beach on Lake Superior was perfect. Soon after we got into the forest we saw a doe off of the trail, then we made our way past Chapel Falls which is a large rock face with trickling water. I didn’t feel it was worth photographing and kept my camera in my Peak Design backpack and we pushed on through the dense hardwood forest filled with tall maple trees and song birds singing in the late morning.
Chapel Rock stands at the end of the trail and we admired it before hiking down to the popular Chapel Beach where the white sand burned hot in the mid-July sun. We laid out towels on the beach and swam in Lake Superior which was cold and uplifting while kids and dogs ran around and boats floated by admiring the beautiful turquoise water and picturesque lakeshore. We spent a few hours at the beach before hiking back to the van and driving west to Munising.
Munising and Horseshoe Falls in Munising, MI
Munising Falls is within Munising city limits and the Picture Rocks National Lakeshore and we made a quick stop here when we got to town. There is a short and easy paved trail to get to the falls which drop 50 feet. From the lookout, there are not many options other than photographing the falls straight on and I found them to be unremarkable so we didn’t stay long and drove down the road to see Horseshoe Falls.
Horseshoe Falls is outside of Picture Rocks National Lakeshore on private land and is a delight. As soon as we got out of the van, jug-band banjo music filled the air from the speakers at the gift shop and we had a little dance in the parking lot before going inside the shop full of polished rocks and random spiritual mementos. We looked around then paid the $10 fee to follow the trail out back to Horseshoe Falls. Once on the trail, we realized we were in the land of gnomes and fairies and had a splendid time reading about the different plants and finding gnomes hiding behind trees and in plain sight.
Horseshoe Falls is small spring fed waterfall that cascades down a series of rocky shelves. The waterfall had a wonderful energetic vibe and Jenna and I had a good time here although it was the first time either of us has ever paid to see a waterfall. At the end of the trail we stopped by a pond full of trout with some overfed ducks swimming nearby.
We moved west into the early evening sun on HWY 28 with Lake Superior to our right towards Marquette where we stayed at the Tourist Park campground for four nights and worked remotely. Marquette is a great town with a nice historic downtown area and we had a nice time overall camping at the park with its adjacent reservoir that we swam in several times.
On Thursday we packed our camp up late in the morning and had lunch and worked the afternoon from a cafe in downtown Marquette. Although Marquette was nice, we were both ready to move on to a new destination. But before leaving, I wanted some local coffee beans so I walked up 3rd Street to Contrast Coffee and bought their Colombia Sotará single origin to try.
Fun at Bond Falls
As we moved west once more, clouds built outside of Marquette and we drove for nearly two hours through intermittent rain before getting to Bond Falls Flowage near Paulding in the heart of the Ottawa National Forest. Jenna knows this area very well and we scoped out her favorite campsites which were already taken before heading to the southeast and finding a great site off of Bond Falls Road. Here we set up camp for several days and the sunset was moody and beautiful the first night.
We hiked from our campsite to Bond Falls the next day. It was a lovely summer morning and Jenna was the ultimate guide, sharing fond memories of visiting these falls in the past. Out of all of the waterfalls we saw thus far, Bond Falls was the most unique. Water moved out of the flowage over many sets of rapids before dropping magnificently at the main falls that spanned out wide. We hiked back up the side of the falls along the creek edge and it was a wonderful day.
The next day we filled Jenna’s Bote paddle board and got out on the lake before making a nice dinner in the evening. A mallard hen and her ducklings swam to our site several times and waddled up the sandy shore looking for food which entertained us. That night we once again had a beautiful sunset.
Magical Lake Superior light near Porcupine Mountains
I first heard about the Porcupine Mountains several years ago from a backpacker on the Superior Hiker Trail who told me how beautiful they were in the fall. Having not experienced them yet, I was excited when Jenna and I talked about hiking there on this trip. We drove northwest in the morning from our campsite at Bond and an hour later were in the Porcupine Mountains hiking to Lake of the Clouds.
We stopped at the large rocky overlook with the lake sitting below in the forest before hiking down a relatively steep trail to its shore. It didn’t take long for the mosquitos to find us and I struggled to stay in the moment as we reached the weedy easterly edge of the shallow lake. It was calm, warm and cloudy, and I was impatient due to the bugs so we hiked out quickly and drove up to the Pinkerton Creek Trail.
Deep in the hardwood forest with no breeze, the mosquitos once again found us and we only hiked half of the trail that follows above a marshy creek bed to Lake Superior. After hiking out quickly, I drove us back to Lake Superior and we stopped at a beach facing straight west near Silver City. The filtered afternoon light was absolutely magical and we spent an hour here wading in Lake Superior enjoying its calm energy on this day.
Copper Harbor and Hancock in the Keweenaw Peninsula
The next day we had a campsite reserved for us in the middle of the Keweenaw Peninsula in Hancock. After breakfast, we packed camp and bid Bond a farewell before driving north through the Ottawa National Forest and up the peninsula. This was new territory to both of us and Jenna’s father recommended that we take the scenic route on HWY 26 to Brockway Mountain on our way to visit Copper Harbor before setting up camp. It was a beautiful day and we followed Lake Superior northeast after turning north at Eagle Harbor. When we finally made it up Brockway Mountain Drive to the exposed peak, we stopped for a look with the wind howling.
It was great to learn about this area and how it once was the copper capital of the world. The forest spanned out below with a fault line carved low through the trees with noticeably different trees there. We were in fine spirits and moved on down the backside of the mountain and stopped at the lookout just above Copper Harbor that provided a beautiful expansive view of the charming town, its harbor, and Lake Superior. When we finally arrived to town, we walked around and had dinner, and just as we got back to the van, rain began falling and followed us south down HWY 41 to Hancock where we were camping.
Driving south in the rain through the many small towns with old signage and boarded up buildings, I felt a little sadness knowing that these once bustling communities were now barely surviving. When we got to Calumet, Jenna asked me to drive through town and I am glad we did. Calumet is full of mining history and many of the buildings downtown were restored wonderfully. With the sky grey and rain falling steadily, we took our time driving through town and we both thought that we should return here once again someday.
Our campsite at Hancock Recreation Area Campground was on an exposed corner of the shore of Portage Lake. We set up camp and attached our Carsule tent to the back of the van which acted as our office for working. We worked the next three days from here and spent one evening in downtown Houghton on the other side of the lake having dinner. On our last evening in the upper peninsula, we drove northwest to McClain State Park on Lake Superior and laid out a blanket on the beach and watched the sun set.
It was a calm evening and the horizon was covered in a layer of clouds. After seeing the moon reflect over Lake Superior on our first night in the upper peninsula, it felt appropriate that we were watching the sun set to conclude our adventure. I snapped a few pictures but sitting on the blanket in the sand next to Jenna while gentle waves lapped calmly on the shore was the most memorable part. The next day we packed camp and had a Finnish breakfast at Suomi Restaurant in Houghton before taking our time to drive home to Minnesota. With its forests, waterfalls, and genuine charm, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was better than I ever imagined and I was happy to have explored it with Jenna.