Traverse Magazine’s Food Editor Tim Tebeau shares five gorgeous places to see fall color in Northern Michigan, plus the best nearby restaurants. Breathtaking views + soul-warming eats = best day ever.
Laughing Whitefish Falls
A more rugged and lonesome fall landscape waits north of the Mackinac Bridge where tree-topped ridges are cut with crystal clear rivers rushing over ancient bedrock along Lake Superior’s southern basin. One of the best spots for autumn waterfall splendor is undoubtedly Laughing Whitefish Falls State Park in the Rock River Wilderness west of Chatham. This 960-acre day-use park has an easily hiked 2.5-mile branch of the North Country Trail with observation decks overlooking the crystalline froth of the Laughing Whitefish River as it cascades and pools through smooth stone chutes on its journey south. Follow the signs north from M94 along North Sundell Road to the Laughing Whitefish Falls trailhead and picnic area. Nearby Marquette makes a great base for U.P. color excursions, and a cool afternoon of hiking and driving inspires the kind of appetite that is best satisfied with handmade German cuisine at Marquette’s elegant Steinhaus restaurant. Also be sure to check out the Marquette Maritime Museum for insight into the miles of cold, buffeted Superior that stretch northward.
Joshua’s Crossing, also known as Loon Song Covered Bridge, subverts New England’s monopoly on picturesque covered bridges stashed among blazing maples. Constructed in 1995, the red, 90-foot Joshua’s Crossing, named after a son of the property’s then-owners, spans a creek and small ravine to provide access to the back half of a bucolic resort parcel on Herendeen Lake. The haunting cry of a migrating loon may punctuate the still shoreline and echo through the bridge as you linger to snap photos of fall foliage in this heavily treed slice of Benzie County interior. Joshua’s Crossing is located at 7700 North Reynolds Road, Lake Ann, which can be accessed by a scenic meander along North Long Lake Road that runs west out of Traverse City. Plan your midday feast around brick oven pizzas or sammies at the beloved Stone Oven in the nearby village of Lake Ann.
A rail at the summit of Deadman’s Hill borders a vertiginous 400-foot plunge into the blazing fall foliage of the Jordan River Valley. Eighteen thousand acres of hardwood-covered hillsides rise above thick cedar swamps snaked by the Jordan River, Michigan’s first designated Wild and Scenic River. The bright, twisting trout stream and undulating glacial moraines surrounding it make up the expansive panorama at this popular autumn hiking and photography destination between Boyne Falls and Mancelona. Color tourists can make a short uphill trek to the viewing area for a few photos and an eyeful of autumn leafery, while intrepid hikers can hoof it on the Jordan River Pathway, choosing a three-mile loop that descends to the valley floor and winds back uphill to the summit, with several breathtaking overlooks along the way. Access to Deadman’s Hill can be had from US-131 approximately one mile south of the M-32 intersection. Post-vista, plan an afternoon junket in nearby Boyne City for sandwiches at Lake Street Market or a saunter through the expansive Saturday farmers market, where local growers and artisans offer the North’s harvest bounty.
Ride the Rails to Fall Color
Every autumn the Michigan Steam Railroading Institute commissions a diesel locomotive to run passenger color tours along the rails in the North’s leafy interior. The train follows a full-day round-trip itinerary, with 540 seats split between economy class in bi-level MDOT passenger cars, coach class with roomy, reclining seats, and even a private, vintage caboose class with an upper observation deck. Sip cocktails or enjoy snacks from the concession car en route to Boyne Falls, where the train stops and a shuttle runs into Boyne City for the Harvest Festival, featuring live music, craft booths and a fall farmers market. After a three-hour fest interlude, the train returns to Cadillac, catching flashes of autumn sunset in the treetops. For Michigan Fall Color Tour tickets call the Michigan Steam Railroading Institute at 989.399.7589 or visit michigansteamtrain.com.
Chain of Lakes
The contrast of autumn’s fiery palette against the aquamarine glimmer of inland waters is found between Elk Rapids and Bellaire on the twisty country highways that trace Antrim County’s Chain of Lakes. More than 200 miles of scenic shoreline are surrounded by rolling hills forested in brilliantly painted maple, aspen, oak and birch trees. Orchards and family farm stands stuffed with fall squashes and apples dot the county arteries connecting Antrim’s picturesque lakeside villages. Visitors looking to interrupt the leaf routes with an afternoon hike should head to the Grass River Natural Area off Alden Highway, where the Grass River connects Clam Lake to Lake Bellaire. The natural area’s 1,400 protected acres are sewn with seven miles of well-kept trails that traverse meadows, uplands, wetlands and shoreline ecosystems flush with fall flora and fauna. Thirsty leaf peepers can drain a pint of culty craft beer in nearby Bellaire’s iconic Short’s Brewery (we recommend the mac and cheese), and shoppers should hunt for vintage treasures in downtown Alden’s antique district.
Featured in the October 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!