Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: Autumn’s Hidden Gem

by Kerry Leibowitz | September 30, 2016

Copyright Kerry LeibowitzThere are a number of outstanding fall photography destinations in North America, but most of them are well-known and heavily visited. Perhaps the best under-the-radar autumn photo location is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. While it has a devoted—but small—following in parts of the upper Midwest, its lack of development and remoteness mean that it’s never particularly crowded, even at peak color. I’ve been to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the fall numerous times over the past 15 years, and have used that experience to co-author a photographer’s guide to the region.

There are no true cities in the UP (pronounced YOU-pea), as the Upper Peninsula is known locally; the largest community, Marquette, has fewer than 30,000 year-round residents and the 16,000 square miles of the UP support a total population of little more than 300,000. This is a large, mostly empty, mostly undeveloped region.

As for the aforementioned peak color, in the UP it will take your breath away. The region is covered by a mixed hardwood and coniferous forest, with the former made up largely by maple, birch and beech; this is a true North Woods ecosystem. Top that off with countless waterfalls, undeveloped forest lakes, acres of wetlands and large stretches of Great Lakes coastlines (complete with multiple lighthouses) and you have an outdoor photographer’s paradise.

There are too many outstanding photo locations in the UP to cover in a short article, so I’ll focus on five of my favorites, from the western edge of the peninsula to the east.

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park

Covering 60,000 acres in the far western part of the UP, the “Porkies” represent the hilliest part of the peninsula, as part of the Iron Range. Much of the park is filled with virgin timber—one of the largest such stands in the entire Midwest. The park is crossed by 87 miles of trails and contains hundreds of waterfalls, several rivers and numerous creeks, miles of Lake Superior coastline and a number of unspoiled lakes. Photographic highlights include the Lake of the Clouds Overlook and the Presque Isle River section of the park and its three large waterfalls.

Little Carp River, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park

Lake of the Clouds Sunrise, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park

Bond Falls Scenic Site

A wide, 50-foot waterfall on the Ontonagon River, near the tiny town of Paulding in the western third of the UP, Bond Falls lends itself to an almost limitless number of compositions. As attractive as the waterfall itself is, the river rapids above the falls are arguably even more interesting. Look for reflections of colorful foliage in the river.

Bond Falls

Ontonagon River Rapids, Bond Falls Scenic Site

Hiawatha National Forest

Encompassing nearly 900,000 acres, running almost the entire north-south dimension of the central part of the UP, the Hiawatha National Forest is one of the best, if one of the least known, fall color woodland regions in the United States. When the forest is at peak color compelling photographic opportunities exist almost literally everywhere you look. The northern third or so of the forest is strewn with dozens of mostly undeveloped small lakes and ponds, surrounded by a kaleidoscope of color. The forest also includes several rivers and some open meadows, providing additional opportunities.

Council Lake, Hiawatha National Forest

Red Jack Lake, Hiawatha National Forest

Red Jack Lake, Hiawatha National Forest

Red Maple and Birches, Hiawatha National Forest

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Including more than 40 miles of Lake Superior shoreline from Munising east to Grand Marais, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore may be the crown jewel of the UP. In addition to some outstanding beach locations, the Lakeshore includes numerous waterfalls, tens of thousands of acres of forest, shipwreck remnants, creek and river estuaries, overlooks, a lighthouse, and the stunning sandstone cliffs that give the lakeshore its name.

Au Sable Point at Sunset, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Elliott Creek at Miners Beach, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Miners Beach at Sunset, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

White Birch Forest, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Tahquemenon Falls State Park

In the eastern portion of the Upper Peninsula, the Tahquemenon River empties into Lake Superior. The highlights of the 47,000-plus acre park are the impressive 50-foot wide Upper Tahquemenon Falls and the series of cataracts and cascades downriver that collectively make up what is referred to as Lower Tahquemenon Falls. An island splits the river at the Lower Falls area and a boat rental concession will allow you to access the island—including unique perspectives of the Lower Falls—directly.

Fall color season is just weeks away. If you’re looking for a great location devoid of crowds, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is the place for you.

Lower Tahquemenon Falls, Tahquemenon Falls State Park

Upper Tahquemenon Falls, Tahquemenon Falls State Park

About the Author

Kerry Leibowitz is a Midwest-based photographer with a particular propensity for the landscape. He is the co-author of the ebook Photographing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: A Photographer’s Guide. His work has appeared in numerous publications, both traditional and electronic, and his prints hang in commercial and private collections throughout North America. To see more of his work and blog, visit his website.

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