Feel the optimism of the earth on a spring vacation to Upper Peninsula waterfalls. Read on for travel tips and a stunning video of what you’ll see.
Most mornings I wake up thinking about happiness. The route to it, or anyway, a route. A quest as big and old as a mountain. Then I get up and start my day: coffee, oatmeal, dog-patting, work. This Friday morning, also packing.
By 11 I’m driving west on M-28, the highway that spans the top half of the Upper Peninsula, sipping black tea and smiling. It’s sunny and warm and I’m going water-falling with my stepdaughter, Rachael, an idea that would’ve been met with skepticism on both our parts not all that long ago. I wear hiking boots and a flannel shirt and jeans; I’ve packed a hat and coat in case it turns cold. Also a pocketknife, my camera, and a list of Upper Peninsula waterfalls. Not much else. A sack of apples, a bottle of water, a few small gifts for Rachael. Somewhere around Shingleton I realize it might’ve been nice to bring a compass and map too, but I let the thought go. We’re tracking down easy-, or at least easy-ish-, to-find falls close to Marquette, and anyway, Rachael lives there. She’ll be my compass and map, my more-than-able guide.
I turn on the radio, tune in something brightly classical. The trees and swamps flash by, sometimes a hawk. I sit up straight, I look at everything. The world is full of detail and bright glinting surfaces that make me think of doors opening.
It’s past noon when we reach our first choice on the waterfall list the next day. Pinnacle Falls, on the Yellow Dog River. The words alone are enough to make you lean forward and narrow your eyes in interest. And indeed, the falls and woods and cliffs around it live up to everything you might imagine. There’s crashing and tumbling, deep shade and stateliness, dappled sun and sweet smells and musty ones too, of slow decay, of the way life is layered, always beginning and ending. There are big gnarled roots and tiny green plants growing confidently, there is profound quiet and a constant low murmur of sound.
I prowl around, admire the view, dip my fingers in the water. Then, a satisfied cat, I settle on a log. The falls crash, the breeze riffles, a raven calls. Rachael and her elderly retriever wander upstream and I watch them, knowing that this moment I have everything I ever wanted. After a while they come back. Rachael sits on a nearby rock, erect and graceful, Ginger at her feet. They gaze at the water and I gaze with them. It took us hours to get here, hours of wrong turns and educated guesses and laughing agreement to keep trying. Also years. Years of hard feelings and wrong turns that were not amusing at the time, though now it all seems important only in that it’s part of our history, something we own and share.
“So what will you write?” Rachael asks eventually. I wince, admit I don’t know. “Something will come to me. Hopefully.” She smiles and nods and turns back to the river.
I get out my sketchbook to try to capture the two of them but I’m a novice at drawing and soon set the book aside. Instead I scale the pile of rock the water’s falling down, just to see if I can.
I do. I make it to the top, then slither back down, feeling young, or rather, feeling no particular age at all, which is even better.
By four we’re back in town. We had toast and coffee before we set out and an apple along the way, but now we’ve driven and driven and been lost and then found, inspected geological survey markers and snowmobile trail signs, counted miles and contemplated topographical features and compared them to Rachael’s Gazetteer. We’ve walked and scrambled and clambered and climbed, and we’re hungry, we’re famished. We turn onto Washington Street, we choose a place, we glance at each other with avid gazes—Lunch! So exciting!—we slam our doors and stride forward.
Soon cardboard bowls of soup steam in front of us. We divvy up a ham and cheese and pesto sandwich and dig in, and it’s all delicious. Beyond delicious. The waiting has made it even better than it would’ve been anyway.
After lunch, Rachael drives out of downtown and makes a few turns and suddenly we’re in deep woods again. The trees tower; the light is dim; the rutted road hugs a plunging hillside.
We bounce along talking easily of hard things—maybe because of the shady dimness?—then pull off and park. We trot down a long flight of stairs built into the hillside, we pass a family that includes a baby in arms, we hop over a creek. A half dozen more steps and we are rewarded: two waterfalls! We’re at a confluence, a word I never thought about before but which abruptly seems wonderful. A young woman sits in a bright-colored hammock in the triangle of land between the rivers, sketching. She smiles and we smile back. Then we go about our business: jumping across narrow fingers of river, clambering on logs. I feel like the sixth-grader I once was, banging around for timeless hours in the woods with my best friend Laurie.
The next morning dawns sunny and warm again. We have our toast and coffee, drive a few miles and park, scramble out into the land of rocky cliffs and churning rivers, tall pines and deep shade with bright pools of sun cut in. Again the paths are busy: families, young people, older folks, couples. We climb, we amble, we admire the scenery and pose for pictures while Ginger trots gamely around, looking fit and ready in her orange safety vest.
When we reach the top of a long stretch of river—we’ve seen half a dozen falls along it—we sit in a sunny patch of meadow. Half a dozen other people lounge nearby, college-age kids doing the same thing we’re doing, whiling away a beautiful, unseasonable Sunday in hiking and conversation. I take in the cliffs, the trees, the churning water, all of it like some grand western landscape, and I marvel. This was here all along, and I didn’t know it.
By late afternoon we’re famished again. We go to the co-op in downtown Marquette and buy anything that catches our eye: pasta salad, chicken salad, soup, more soup, spinach scones, stuffed olives, sharp cheese, a big brownie, a piece of carrot cake the size of a paperback. We drive to our picnic spot this time—the weekend is ticking to a close, time is running short—and the car twines up and up and back and forth and then, along with a lot of other happy-looking people, we’re at the top of Marquette Mountain. The sun is still bright, the skies clear. We spread our picnic on the rocks and dive in.
We devour some of everything, then slow down and admire the view. Lake Superior stretches into forever; Marquette perches alongside it. I spy the Superior dome, Rachael points out Sugarloaf and Hogback mountains. The Huron Mountains slouch into the far distance, and the Porcupines lie farther off yet, out of sight but mesmerizing. We peer their way and within moments decide they’re our next destination. Next year, we’ll plan on it. We go back to nibbling on the dense cake and the simple brownie with its bone-deep jolt of satisfaction.
The thing I keep thinking as I drive home that evening is that waterfalls have everything. They have hope and mystery and optimism; they’re always running headlong to the future. They carve a route.
If you go …
There are many great places to eat and stay in Marquette. I focused on a few that are a little off the beaten path.
Upper Peninsula Restaurants
The Rice Paddy
1720 Presque Isle Avenue, 906.225.0368
Authentic Thai cuisine. We ordered a lot of food. It was all superb. The best crab Rangoon I’ve ever had. An hour wait is usual. We took a walk in the evening sunshine in order to improve our already excellent appetites. Caution: closed Saturdays.
The Flying Moose
351 West Washington. 906.273.2246
A general store bursting with cool, unique stuff: coffee, camping gear, fat tire bikes, deli items, locally raised meats. Good food and coffee, and a feast for the eyes.
Marquette Food Co-op
502 West Washington. 906.225.0671
The deli aisle took us everywhere we wanted to go. Best carrot cake in the known universe.
Upper Peninsula Lodging
Nestledown, A Scandinavian Bed and Breakfast
975 N. Lakeshore Boulevard, Marquette. 906.273.0996
Across the street from Lake Superior. Has a sauna!
Big Bay Point Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast
P.O. Box 3, Big Bay. 906.387.8817
A big beautiful historic lighthouse a half-hour north of Marquette. Everything to love.
Upper Peninsula WaterFalls
Scott Falls: Ten miles west of Munising on M28, across from a roadside park. Modest, easy-to-miss, lovely. A spill of water falling over a rock ledge into a small pool.
Pinnacle Falls: On the Yellow Dog River, about 30 miles northwest of Marquette off CR510. Secluded, with a hike down a long hill. The falls cascade steeply and have carved out an impressive gorge; the river is wild. From the junction of CR510 and AAA road, go about 6 miles west on AAA, look for a dirt road to the south, with a sign for Pinnacle Falls. Follow to end and walk the trail.
Alder Falls: Off CR550, on the way back to Marquette from Pinnacle. Steep, tall, and tucked-away. Three miles south of Big Bay village on CR550, look for a dirt road without a sign that goes west just a few hundred yards from where Alder Creek (also no sign) crosses CR550. You can park near CR550 and walk, or drive about a half-mile on the rough and sandy road. Look for the sign that says, “No motorized vehicles or litter please,” and follow the short trail to falls.
Morgan Falls: At the confluence of Morgan Creek and the Carp River. Lots of hiking and mountain-biking trails. Take M553 about two miles south of Marquette. Turn right on Marquette Mt. Road (dirt road just before M553 crosses the Carp River)—there may not be a road sign. Follow the dirt road 1.5 miles. Look for parking. Falls visible from the parking area.
Dead River Falls: About two miles northwest of Marquette, off Forestville Road, at the power plant. A series of falls where a half-mile stretch of the Dead River runs wild. So western in its drama.
Reany Creek Falls: On the way out of the power plant parking lot for the Dead River Falls. Unassuming and charming.
Rock River Falls: From the crossroads burg of Chatham, go north about 4 miles on Rock River Road. Turn left (west) on Forest Road 2276. Go 3.7 miles and turn left on Forest Road 2293 and drive 0.6 miles. Look for the parking lot on left. No signs to the falls, but follow the old road you’ll see and continue on the trail when the road peters out at the bottom of a hill. Falls are about a 30-minute walk from the parking lot.
Featured in the May 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe for more Up North adventures.