The big draw for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is the land itself, and its abundance of natural resources. The landscape and lakeshore are pristine, rugged and very photogenic. Its isolation and remoteness can be another attribute—it is easy to find yourself alone here, with the wilderness and the water. We had spent nearly two weeks exploring some of the highlights of the U.P. and had not been disappointed. With another couple of destinations yet waiting, could our anticipation be rewarded still? With the fall colors building toward a final climax, today’s route would take us to one of the U.P.’s most popular and visited spots.
The “rushing Tahquamenaw” is mentioned in Longfellow’s Hiawatha, and now that river is encompassed by Michigan’s second largest state park. But before the explorers and fur traders came to the area, the abundance of fish and wildlife along its shores attracted the Chippewa Indians, who camped, farmed, fished and trapped here. In the late 1800’s came the lumber barons and the river carried their logs by the millions to the mills. The lumberjacks who harvested the tall timber were among the first permanent settlers in the area.
The centerpiece of Tahquamenon State Park is its waterfalls, the biggest attraction of which is the Upper Falls. Spanning 200 feet across with a drop of about 48 feet, it is the third largest waterfall east of the Mississippi. In fact, during late-spring runoff, it is the second most voluminous waterfall this side of the Mississipppi. It is a dramatic sight and several observation platforms have been built at strategic locations for viewing it.
The flowing water has a rich, golden-brown color, giving it the nickname “Rootbeer Falls.” This coloration is the result of tannic acid produced by decaying hemlocks, cedars, and spruces that grow along the river’s banks.
The state park wasn’t the only lure to this region. In the early morning light we were headed down the highway towards Whitefish Bay. Being a somewhat protected inlet of Lake Superior, Whitefish Bay had a scenic draw bordering its shores. With the skies a heavy shade of gray, it wouldn’t be a deterrent to our planned activity. When the road met with the water, we hung a right and followed the route of Whitefish Bay Scenic Byway.
The scenic drive is 27 miles in length, and has several auto turnouts, scenic viewpoints and points of interest. Before 1971 it was a muddy, unpaved, sandy mess.
Before we even experienced many of the highlights of the drive, we caught a couple of eye-catchers of a somewhat different variety. It seems we have found ourselves in somewhat of a unique location. Two small towns on each end of Tahquamenon flaunt themselves as being unique capitals of a sort. The village of Paradise, population less than 400, claims blueberries as its signature attribute . . .
But through it all, from start to finish, there was one constant in this drive. Perhaps the wetness of the day or the lack of contrasting shadows helped give emphasis to the foliage. We were having an outstandingly colorful experience.
It shouldn’t be any surprise at all to learn that a lighthouse was one of the drive’s points of interest. For more than 100 years, its light guided ships through the channel between shallow Point Iroquois and the rocky shore of Canada’s Gros Cap. But it’s the lighthouse’s setting that is its biggest selling point today. Situated on a bluff, set back from the water in a stand of hemlocks, it is fronted by a beautiful driftwooded beach that is covered in colored, water-smoothed stones. It is the iconic Superior scene.
To make the experience all the more enjoyable, to entice travelers to linger more than a short while, a boardwalk has been built between the lighthouse and the water. Intertwining through the lakeshore vegetation, a walker is suspended between land and lake. With a variety of dune plants turning colorful autumn hues, time is well-spent taking advantage of this path.
The lighthouse itself is a museum open to the public (that is, if the federal government hadn’t been closed down). Composed of more than one living apartment, the house is furnished to give an idea of the lightkeepers’ everyday lives. Families lived here from the 1890s until its closing in 1962. It has been very nicely restored.
Before turning around and heading back, there was one more highlight to view. Actually, it was a scenic overlook that had a spectacular view. However, first we were required to take a side road, a narrow, one-way one-mile route up a steep hill.
“Spectacle Lake Overlook offers one of the U.P.’s most memorable panoramas.” Those words had been applied more than once or twice to various sights during the course of this trip, and I’m sure there were some that we missed. Nevertheless, I must honestly say, that as far as our travels went, this was the view most memorable.
Standing on the top of a steep sand dune, Spectacle Lake spans below me. In the distance are Whitefish Bay and the mouth of St. Mary’s River. Freighters come and go regularly through this channel, about to enter or departing from the Soo Locks. A plaque nearby remembers Herman and Frances Cameron, an Ojibwa couple from the nearby town. They liked to come up here “for contemplation and renewal,” and hope that others would follow their example.
The end of day was approaching when we turned back towards our state park campground. The drive was still as colorful as before. It was one of the rare times when Chris didn’t seem to mind how many photo op stops we made.
The campground at Tahquamenon is quite nice and nearly filled up. We met the young couple camping next to us, who are starting off on an adventure of their own. Recent college graduates from Wake Forest University, they are off on a 40-day trip to the West Coast, with plans to swing through several national parks. We wished them good fortune and shared some personal advice from our travel experiences.
And then it was time to settle in for the evening. We have not yet tired of the campfire experience. Twilight turned to dark, and the flames from the fire and our torches gave us the light to eat dinner by.
From the deep woods and rushing waters,
Chris and Melinda