After an early start we left St Ignace at the break of dawn, continuing north across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Our first destination was Tahquamenon Falls State Park. There are very few towns on the UP though the last one before the park was called Paradise. The centerpiece of Paradise, Michigan is a mini mart/gas station with a 12′ high wooden carving of a bear with a rifle.
The park is just west of Paradise. This park follows the Tahquamenon River over the Tahquamenon Falls, and eventually into Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior. The upper falls has a single 50′ drop, while the lower falls has more of a cascade. Both are very scenic and impressive, as in the springtime the river drains as much as 50,000 gallons of water per second, second only to Niagara Falls in the eastern United States.
Tahquamenon Falls is also called “Rootbeer Falls” because of its golden-brown color, caused by tannins from cedar swamps that drain into the river. In winter, the ice that accumulates around and in the falls is often colored in shades of green and blue. The waterfalls were impressive and had a nice boardwalk trail. Climbing down 94 steps to the falls and also 116 steps down to the gorge offered a bit of exercise for us. We asked a park ranger how to pronounce the name of the falls and he said the way to remember is that it rhymes with phenomenon. So now Tah qua me non, is easy to say.
Next stop on the trip was the small town of Grand Marais, at the eastern end of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Once we arrived we stopped for lunch at Breakwall Bakery & Cafe in Grand Marais, where the local specialty is an olive burger made with a special green olives and mayonnaise sauce. It was tasty and strictly an upper peninsula thing!
The first highlight of the National Park is Sable Falls. The waterfalls were very pretty but the dunes were closed due to erosion from that point. We drove to the log slide overlook at Sable Falls Park, towering 300′ above the lake. People walked down the steep sand dune and trekked back up. The view was beautiful along the coastline of Lake Superior but we are too familiar with how hard it is to climb dunes and passed on the climb.
Arriving closer to Munising, and the park headquarters, we hiked the trail to Miners Castle. The cliffs here are gorgeous with 200′ + drops to Lake Superior. Divers dove off the cliff as kayaks floated below. Caves at the bottom of the cliffs attracted swimmers into the clean and clear water.
The small town of Munising (population 2500) is the center of activity for Pictured Rocks. In addition to being the park headquarters it is the harbor that all of the tour boats leave from. Before our cruise however we attempted to find dinner, eventually settling on sandwiches at the Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore. It was literally a counter in a bookstore with tables scattered throughout.
We took the 6 pm Sunset cruise, which is so popular they sent out two boats at the same time. As we left the harbor we first passed Grand Island, and the historic lighthouse on the southern end. Continuing further out we passed Miner’s Castle, this time on water which provided a very different view than that from the cliffs. It is strongly recommended that if you are going to Pictured Rocks you take the cruise as it is difficult to get a true view of the cliffs from land.
The cliffs and coves of the park are amazing as they seem to change based on the sunlight. They were created from groundwater and springs rich in minerals such as iron, copper and lime that leak out of the cracks and down the face of the cliffs.
There are a few rock arches that extend from the shoreline to an outcropping in the lake. One of the more famous arches is Lover Leap, as with all places named that for the lore that two lovers jumped when they couldn’t be together. In addition to the arches there are numerous caves, including Rainbow Cave, which has significant mineral stained walls with the forest just above the top of the cave.
Another of the arches, Grand Portal, gives you a sense on how massive they are as our boat looks tiny when going past. Just beyond we reached Chapel Cove – a tight cove that the boat went into far enough you felt you could reach out on 3 sides and touch the cliff walls. Finally we went past Chapel Rock, the most photographed location in the park. It’s towering cliffs punctuated by a single tree from the rocky top. The sun setting and casting light on the rocks and sandstone cliffs throughout the trip provided many different effects. Shades of white, purple, blue and black were seen. The narrated boat tour lasted about 2-1/2 long and traveled nearly 40 miles round trip, returning to harbor in the dark.
As we returned to our hotel we concluded this was one of the best days we have had in many years, not knowing how much more was to come on this trip.