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Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Is The Place For Outdoor Recreation

James and Dorothy Richardson
March 27, 2012
Filed under Camping Destinations, Midwest Camping

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Miles of inviting water — including lakes, rivers and waterfalls — abundant wildlife and thick green forests, numerous trails on which to explore the beautiful landscape, and a bounty of recreation opportunities are all there. This is exactly what we were told to expect of the Upper Peninsu­­la of Michigan. It didn’t take long after our arrival to learn we had come to the right place.

On this particular trip, we explored the eastern end from Munising to Sault Ste. Marie and southward to Lake Huron — the U.P. is just too big to tackle all at once, even on an extended outing. One of the first things we discovered was the main difference in the east and west is the terrain; the west is mountainous whereas the eastern portion is flatter, has more marshlands, but also offered up some outstanding attractions.

Pictured Rocks

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is located along the south shore of Lake Superior, between the towns of Munising and Grand Marais. The park contains nearly 40 miles of lakeshore in its 72,000 acres and is divided into two zones. One is the Lakeshore Zone, which is managed by the National Park Service. The other, the Inland Buffer Zone, consists of federal and state forest land, and some private land where development has been allowed. Sandstone cliffs, beaches, sand dunes, waterfalls, lakes, forests and rugged shorelines are all features to explore at the National Lakeshore.

There are also well-maintained campsites and hiking trails. The park offers three drive-in campgrounds with a total of 55 campsites (all are pet-friendly) but there are no reservations. Many of the campsites are lakeside. For more primitive tastes, check out Little Beaver Lake Campground in Beaver Basin Wilderness area, at the end of a steep and narrow 3-mile unpaved road. The North Country Trail runs along the shoreline and the edge of the cliffs throughout the park.

Although sea kayaking is popular in the park, a scenic boat tour leaving from the city dock in Munising is one of the best and easiest ways to see the Pictured Rocks from the water. The cruise takes visitors along the shoreline to get close-up views of the sandstone rock formations such as Indian Head, Miners Castle and Battleship Rock.

Sable Dunes and Falls

Grand Sable Dunes

Grand Sable Dunes

Grand Marais, at the eastern end of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, is the most convenient gateway to the Grand Sable Dunes and Sable Falls in the Lakeshore. The parking lot for the trails to the dunes and the falls is off Highway 58 about one mile west of Grand Marais. The half-mile trail to the dunes passes through an old orchard, over a creek, and through a jack pine forest. Only hardy plants like marram grass can take hold in the sandy dunes that cover a 5-mile stretch between the Sable River and Au Sable Point. Sable Falls is a short one-half-mile walk from the parking lot. If you continue past the falls, you can hike down to the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior.

Tahquamenon Falls

Tahquamenon Falls State Park Upper Falls

Tahquamenon Falls State Park Upper Falls

Tahquamenon Falls State Park should be on your list of must-see spots when you go to the eastern Upper Peninsula. The centerpiece of this 50,000-acre mostly undeveloped woodland park is the Tahquamenon River and its waterfalls. The Upper Falls is one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River and has a drop of nearly 50 feet. It is more than 200 feet across and a flow of more than 50,000 gallons per second has been recorded. A paved pathway of less than one-half mile leads from the parking lot at the Upper Falls through an old-growth forest to observation platforms at the crest of the falls. There are also steps leading to the bottom of the Upper Falls enabling visitors to view the water as it plunges into the Tahquamenon River. A trail connects the Upper and Lower Falls. The Lower Falls is a series of five smaller falls cascading around an island, but they are not nearly as dramatic as the Upper. The Tahquamenon River proceeds to flow 17 miles from the Lower Falls into Lake Superior.

The park also contains 25 miles of hiking trails. The 4-mile trail along the Tahquamenon River, also part of the North Country Trail, is the most popular in the park. Black bear, coyote, otter, deer, fox, porcupine, beaver and mink are just a few species that can inhabit the park. The abundant bird life includes spruce grouse, sharptail grouse, pileated woodpeckers, kingfishers, and a variety of waterfowl and songbirds. An occasional eagle may also be spotted. Plants along the way include joe-pye weed, jewelweed and many species of fern. While hiking the trail, the handiwork of beaver is also apparent. Downed trees, and those in progress of being downed, dot the landscape.

Water Everywhere

Miners Castle at Pictured Rocks

Miners Castle at Pictured Rocks

With so much water around, it’s only natural that kayaking and canoeing, as well as other forms of boating are among the most popular activities along the Lake Superior and Huron shorelines, in the rivers and among the islands off the mainland of the eastern Upper Peninsula.

While the Tahquamenon River’s waterfalls attract the crowds and cameras, the remainder of the river offers paddlers a number of options for trips through the remote wilderness. The river flows wide and deep through thick forests, plains and marshy flats for nearly 100 miles between the towns of Paradise and Newberry in the eastern Upper Peninsula. Much of the shoreline is still untouched by development; and the river is well known for its pike, muskie, walleye and panfish. Any number of outfitters in Paradise and Newberry offer angling or paddling accommodations.

The Two Hearted River is a short river, approximately 25 miles long, and also empties into Lake Superior. At its mouth is a Michigan Department of Natural Resources campground with 39 rustic sites that are first come, first served. It’s a popular place with anglers and paddlers because of its wild and remote surroundings and trout-filled waters.

A 36-island archipelago along 12 miles of the Lake Huron shore, just off the southeastern tip of the U.P., the Les Cheneaux Islands were frequented by Native Americans and French explorers as they made the passage between the lakes, the Straits of Mackinac and St. Mary’s River. The islands are still a popular boating and kayaking area because they provide sheltered bays and channels where small boats are better protected from the Great Lakes’ winds and larger waves. Some of the islands are built up with homes, while others are still uninhabited.

These islands along the coast of Lake Huron are also migratory stopover sites and nesting areas for many bird species. The diversity of habitat, along with the changing seasons, provides a variety of birds, as well as many other types of wildlife for visitors to see. Woods and Water Ecotours, located in the town of Hessel, is an excellent resource for kayak tours of the Les Cheneaux Islands.

Tahquamenon Falls Along the Trail Beaver activity

Tahquamenon Falls Along the Trail Beaver activity

Another great trip resource for those looking for adventure in the eastern U.P. is Trailspotters. The company offers a shuttle service for outdoor recreational pursuits, and its area of operation includes the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Tahquamenon State Park and the North Country Trail. Reservations are suggested. For long hikes or canoe and kayak trips, Trailspotters will meet you, haul you and your gear to the trailhead or put-in, then pick you up down-trail or downstream, and return you and your equipment back to your vehicle.

There are a number of Forest Service, state park, and private campgrounds in the eastern U.P.. The eastern section of the Hiawatha National Forest is contained in this part of the U.P. and offers an abundance of campsites to select from. Tahquamenon Falls State Park has choices from rustic to modern. The City of Sault Ste. Marie has a couple of campgrounds: Aune-Osborn Campground and the Soo Locks Campground, both are on the St. Mary’s River and have full amenities.

Outdoor adventurers visiting this part of the country will find plenty of campgrounds, innumerable trails for multiple activities, and miles of water for boating or fishing. Your recreational opportunities will only be limited by the number of days you can spend in Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula.

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