Fall Travel: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

With two national forests, America’s first National Lakeshore, and dozens of state parks and woodlands, Michigan’s UP offers as many beautiful fall locales as anywhere in the U.S.

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The Sep/Oct issue of The Saturday Evening Post features Editor-in-Chief Stephen C. George’s family memories of scenic New Hampshire in “Living Colors.” New England’s autumn is world renowned, but other places in the U.S. have equally impressive vibrant fall colors, picturesque landscapes, and enchanting forests. Here, we explore Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the first of a series profiling autumn destinations off the beaten path. Do you have family memories of fall foliage travel? Let us know at [email protected].

The Upper Peninsula’s Porcupine Mountains. Photo by Jeffrey Foltice, courtesy michigan.org

With two national forests, America’s first National Lakeshore, and dozens of state parks and woodlands, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula offers as many beautiful fall locales as anywhere in the U.S. Furthermore, it is one of the most isolated places in the mainland. The UP makes up one quarter of Michigan’s land area but is home to only three percent of the state’s population, making it secluded enough that visitors can enjoy natural serenity without getting overrun by “leaf peepers.” Here are some of the most notable places in the UP.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Lake Superior waves meet cliffs at the Pictured Rocks’ Battleship Row.

This destination in north central UP on Lake Superior is worth visiting at any time. There are hundreds of miles of trails, sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, a seemingly endless beach, and sparkling turquoise blue water. Unlike most Great Lake beaches that are simply sandy, Pictured Rocks’ shoreline is strewn with literally billions of small rocks, each a different color, and a reminder that Superior sits on much more rocky terrain than its cousins. Spring brings a myriad of wildflowers, summers are a pleasant 70 degrees, and winter affords snowmobiling and cross country skiing opportunities.

Chapel Rock, a famed sandstone formation at Pictured Rocks. Photo by Joel Feenstra.

However, Pictured Rocks becomes positively enchanting in fall. Trees such as beech, aspen, maple, and birch put on a show each autumn, their vibrant colors complemented by a palette of evergreen, sandstone, and shimmering blue. An interesting species is the Tamarack, a deciduous conifer tree. Although this may sound like an oxymoron, it is one of only a few trees in the world that sheds needles in fall, changing from a dark evergreen to a golden yellow in the process. Due to the moderating influence of Superior, Pictured Rocks is one of the last places in the UP to experience leaf change even though it is at the northern edge, making it available later in the year. Perhaps best of all, cooler temperatures mean that fall is a time when visitors can enjoy the park without being pestered by what locals call the “UP State Bird”–the mosquito.


Upper Tahquemenon Falls, the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi.

One special thing about the UP is its unique geology. It sits at the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, a feature named because it extends from the Great Lakes all the way around the Hudson Bay into the arctic, giving it a shield-like appearance. In the last ice age, receding glaciers stripped the Shield of most of its topsoil, exposing massive quantities of bedrock. This means water doesn’t easily carve out riverbeds in the UP, but instead travels over unyielding rock. The end result: waterfalls. The UP has over 300 of them, including Tahquamenon Falls , the second largest east of the Mississippi.

Bond Falls in the western UP. Photo by Myron Reynard.

It is hard to think of a better example of nature’s beauty than a waterfall surrounded by fall foliage, and this is a sight that welcomes visitors regardless of location on the peninsula. Majestic Tahquamenon is in the east. In the west, Ottawa National Forest offers Agate Falls (see photo at top) and Bond Falls. Chapel, Sable, Munising, and Miners Falls are among over 20 waterfalls in Alger County, which is also the home of the Pictured Rocks. Eagle, Silver, and Canyon Falls await in the northern Keweenaw Peninsula, and Pemene, Rapid River, and Haymeadow Falls exist to the south.

Keweenaw Peninsula

The Northern Lights reflect off Lake Superior. Photo by Dan Urbanski, courtesy pasty.com

Keweenaw is the Upper Peninsula’s, well, upper peninsula, and its remoteness makes it consistently listed among the top places in America for leaf color road trips. Some say that it is the best place in the U.S. mainland to see another type of fall color—the aurora borealis—for a number of reasons. Keweenaw is, of course, northern. Its small population makes light pollution low. Fall brings clear night skies and one can see for miles across the lake, and it is the season when the aurora begins to pick up.

A typical autumn drive in the UP. Photo by Brenda Leigh, courtesy pasty.com

Keweenaw’s history also makes it worth a visit. It was once home to the largest copper deposit in the world, which American Indians started mining before the Egyptians built the pyramids. Occasionally, visitors stumble across the ancient hammers and tools they used. Copper really boomed in the 1800s, and historical mining ruins are everywhere. One last thing worth seeing is Brockway Mountain Drive. This scenic road travels along the Keweenaw Fault, a remnant of a billion-year-old continental rift system, and offers endless panoramic views.

Special thanks to Brody Block at Pictured Rocks, Charlie Hopper at pasty.com and the good people at michigan.org.

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  1. Bonjour, Homies! I (and my family) left Lake Linden on June 8, 1968. The copper mines were closing so my Dad moved us to Sheboygan, WI. I have never forgotten that day. My Dad made a wise move, but at 13 I didn’t realize that. I lived in the woods and I absolutely loved it there! To this day, the first snow fall or the first scent of lilacs in the air almost brings tears to my eyes. Although Wisconsin has truly beautiful places of its own, there is still “no place like home.” I haven’t been able to visit in a few years but I plan on making it up there this coming summer. 🙂
    These pictures help to ease the loss and they make me want to run to the closest suitcase, even in the winter! I still love snow. People say you can never go home again. I’ve got that one clinched. You can if the love goes bone-deep. You certainly can if you never really left. Comments from any folks up there would be welcomed. See you asap! Susie

  2. Hello to all of my Yooper friends. The Ohio crew is jealous. We want to be in the UP where the air is clear and the friends are forever.

  3. Lisa,

    Thanks for your reply regarding the State and Federal Forests and land in Michigan. It still does’t make sense to me. Were people so poor up there that they or other investors or even land speculators could not or would not buy property? If
    Timber companies owned huge tracks of land and ore or oil were discovered who then owned those rights? It has always been my belief that a property owner owned a mear inches deep of his land and then the Mining companies owned the right to mine the precious find. Am I wrong on this?

    The UP is beautiful and I miss it a lot but have not been that way in years. ( I mean the Keewanau, Copper Harbor etc.) I was born and raised in Ontonagon Co. and have great memories of Lake Superior beaches, Porcupine Mts. and the wonderful litttle side roads leading to nestled farms.


  4. Okay — Now I’m homesick! Living in Washington State now but “home” is Menominee County, MI. Thank you for the lovely trip down memory lane.

  5. We have spent a whole day driving in the UP looking at the beautiful display of color God has given us this Autumn. I think it was awsome. I am another yooper.

  6. Awesome pictures and articles. Live in SC now but will always be a Yooper no matter where I live.

  7. Anihan,
    Great questions. I can answer some of them for you. WAY back the US Bureau of Land Management began issuing tracks/parcels of land after they were surveyed. In the UP, the state assigned a the Upper Peninsula Land Co. (this is 1800’s) to survey the land. From there land sales and designations were made. What lands did not sell remained as either Federal or State lands. Much of the upper peninsula timber land was owned by private companies that logged it. One of historical note is Cleveland Cliffs. I life in Luce Co. and 29% of the land base is owned by timber companies and enrolled in the State of Michigan Commerical Forest Act program. This gives them a property tax break. As such they must be made available for public use for walking access to hunt, fish, collect berries, hike etc. We also have Nature Conservancy lands, State Parks, Forest Campgrounds and the like. The State Forest Lands (not including State Parks such as Tahquamenon and Muskellonge) are managed for timber unless more suitable for other purposes. So, that is kind of how this came about. Just a brief… Thanks for your interest!!!!

  8. As a Yooper now living in France I’m so happy to see this article with it’s amazing pictures. Made me miss home even more! I feel lucky to come from such a beautiful area…

  9. We are fortunate to live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and just returned from a trip to the Copper Country which entails the Keweenaw Peninsula, where U.S. 41 ends after starting in Miami, Fl. (1,980 miles) The colors were magnificent and lunch at the Harbor Haus delicious. Everyone should visit there at least once. Then stop at the Jampot in Eagle River, where a Religious Order of men make the finest jams, jellies cakes, cookies, and more. We consider ourselves very lucky to only have to travel 150 miles.

  10. Now retired, I remember our family car rides to the Keweenaw Peninsula and Copper Harbor on my parent’s October 2nd wedding anniversary. Even youngsters were fascinated with the colorful fall foliage. and prompted me to take my own family back to enjoy the same scene..Thank you for the trip down memory lane. .

  11. As the County Planning director and Luce West Mackinac Conservation District Administrator, I am so pleased to see this. I am hopeful that people can appreciate the unique place in which I live and work. As a native who went away at 17yrs and returned here after many years to work and live, I really appreciate my home in the UP. I have traveled all of the this country and others including Canada, and nothing and no where can beat this place in all seasons! Thanks for this!!! We have completed the M-123 Tahquamenon Scenic Heritage Route designation and plan and cannot wait to see people traveling to take advantage of its setting.

  12. Loved the article and the photos! We live on Lake Superior by Eagle River in the Keweenaw. You are right. There is a power of this place. The people, history and the fresh air as well as the pristine rugged scenery. I can’t ever imagine leaving this place! Brenda, your pic is perfect! There are no expressways here….enjoy the ride!

  13. I live just below the bridge with my body, but my heart still lives in the copper country. The view of Copper Harbor from the Brockway Mountain Drive is still the best in the world.

  14. its nice to have magazine to articles on the U.P. i grew up there right off the Lake Superior. and the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. In full fall color right now.
    Al Y. i spent many nights in eagle harbor listening to the fog horn coming form the light house in the late 70’s. i missed that sound

  15. Having been born and raised in the U.P, I took it for granted the beauty that surrounded me – now as an adult, I treasure the walks along the shores of Lake Superior or heading up to the Lake of the Clouds to see the beautiful colors in the fall. I am proud to be a YOOPER!

  16. I was lucky enough to go to school there for several years and fell in love with the area. My wife’s family is from Iron River and likes to tease me that’s why I started dating her in college at Western Illinois. It wasn’t the main reason but it certainly didn’t hurt.

  17. Brenda the “typical autumn drive” photo is absolutely breathtaking! You captured the true essence of our beautiful UP during leaf peeping season! Congrats dear friend…

  18. I was one of the lighthouse keepers in Eagle Harbor back in the late 70s. I only have to remember nights sitting on the edge of the lantern deck and watching the northern lights reflecting off of the lake to go back to my “happy place”. I traveled all over since then, but the U.P. and the folks up there will always have a special place in my heart.

  19. The U.P is a wonderful place to visit. My novel, Aliisa’s Letter, is set in the Keweenaw Peninsula.

  20. Memories of home. The UP is really virgin and beautiful but alas if you look at a map you will note that the UP and northern LP is mostly gov owned land. Federal forests like Ottowa Nat’l and State Forests. Likewise in Idaho. As you study it one wonders how anyone could ever own large tracts of farm land. Years ago when they cut pulp wood and logged the forests was it on their own private property or gov. land? How did this happen and who designated this? State Legislators or Congress? Bureau of Land Management? How long ago? I know, I know. I could research it all but is is only a curiosity that suddenly hit me a few weeks ago perusing the Atlas.

  21. Jessica, I just came back from the Keweenaw 9/25, the Colors were 50 percent then. The color change is late this year for some reason.

  22. Great article! Thank you for writing and publishing it. Something not mentioned in the article is the western U.P. (Gogegic and Ontonagon counties), where Porcupine Mountains State Park resides with its rivers and dozens of waterfalls and hiking trails. Also, nearly the entire Keweenaw Peninsula is a National Historic Park. I highly recommend the U.P. to anyone who wants a beautiful, affordable vacation destination at any time of year.

  23. Ahh, no place like HOME. One tends to miss it when you move away!Love the Northern Lights, which is one thing you really don’t see when you move away.

  24. Senator Joseph S. Mack would have appreciated the beautiful pictures of his beloved UPPER PENINSULA. However he would have brought the editors further West to Gogebic County where our Ski Hills and 7 million acres of pristeen land have been painted with the Brush of God.

  25. I used to go to NMU in marqueete,yeah …I really missed the weather and surrounding what UP can provided,Fall is the most pretty n nice ….

  26. I forget just how beautiful “HOME” is! Thank you for the wonderful fall pictures! Only God could create such beautiful colors!


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