Six days. Ten waterfalls. Countless photo ops. This fall in Northern Michigan, hit the backroads across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for a color tour that is truly unforgettable, and find your own slice of fall rapture.

This article first appeared in Traverse Northern Michigan. Find this story and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

tahquamenon falls

Photo by Allison Jarrell

The earth is damp beneath our feet as we plod closer to the copper cascade of Tahquamenon. I breathe in the fresh forest air, heavy with moisture, and feel energized, ready for the trip ahead. There’s so much to look forward to—backroad ambles, autumn leaves and waterfalls galore. But, for now, I focus on being present in this fleeting fall moment.

The evening light glows warm, greeting us between hardwoods and pines. Backlit leaves of crimson and gold flutter in the breeze like tissue paper. The branches finally part ways as we come up on our first glimpse of the falls—the soft roar of thousands of gallons of water rushing in the distance.

A sense of awe swells as we walk up to the fenced bluff. The clear Upper Falls view we’ve been expecting has vanished. Instead, the giant showstopping falls create a backdrop for an ethereal, almost fluffy, tangerine mist rising up through the trees. The orange glow is as spellbinding as the falls are impressive—as if the setting sun conjured its own autumnal display. I soak in the view for as long as possible before lifting my camera.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

That marmalade sunset marked the beginning of a six-day road trip through the Upper Peninsula—just me, my then-boyfriend-now-fiancé, a trunk full of camera equipment and enough playlists and podcasts to fuel 15 hours of driving. Our goal: To visit 10 waterfalls and peep countless leaves beginning in Paradise and ending in Marquette, by way of Grand Marais and Munising.

We left Traverse City during the last days of September and chased autumn to the north—leaving bright greens behind for hints of yellow and red in the east, and trees bursting with color in the west.

Autumn, we came to find out, is the perfect season for a waterfall tour; smaller crowds and cooler hiking conditions mean you can sip your chai latte and reflect in peace.

As we trekked from one waterfall to the next, I couldn’t help but notice how the falling leaves mimicked the cascading water, trickling and twirling toward their end. Fall is a season of change—the turning of the leaves, like the rushing of a waterfall, are gentle reminders that life is fleeting. Moments like these push us to be present and grateful for where we are and who we’re with.

I thought a lot about that as my boyfriend and I watched the sun set from the top of Marquette’s Sugarloaf Mountain on the fourth day of one of the most beautiful trips I’ve ever taken. And when he turned to me, asking if I’d adventure through life with him forever, the low sun illuminating his smiling face, I said yes, of course—pure joy washing over me, like that first glimpse of a tangerine Tahquamenon. A season of change, just beginning.

As twilight set in on the mountain, we basked in the afterglow—chatting gleefully about all the sunsets and road trips that lie ahead.

Related Read: 2022 Fall Color Map: Peak Fall Color in Northern Michigan

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Tahquamenon Falls State Park / Paradise

Get there: West of Paradise on M-123

As Michigan’s most iconic series of falls—and one of the largest west of the Mississippi River—Tahquamenon’s Upper Falls and Lower Falls still swarm with tourists on a gorgeous fall day. To avoid the crowds, go during the week at the end of the day, and grab a beer and a whitefish sandwich at the on-site Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub before your sunset hike. Also worth catching is the sunrise—or, in our case, the lack thereof. Instead, we were treated the next morning to a thick blanket of fog, with pops of red and amber peeking through.

Explore: The park offers more than 35 miles of trails, accessible overlooks, campgrounds and overnight lodging. Wheelchairs are free to borrow, as well as a track chair on a first-come, first-reserved basis.

Tip: If you’re into rock hunting, especially for Lake Superior agates, be sure to stop at Whitefish Point, just 30 minutes north of the falls, before continuing west.

Related Read: 10 Best Things to Do at Tahquamenon Falls State Park

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Sable Falls / Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Get there: One mile west of Grand Marais on Alger County Road H-58

Stop in Grand Marais for hot cider and a cinnamon roll at The Dream Bean Machine—a VW bus-turned-coffee shop—and head to the public beach off the main drag for a little more rockhounding (did I mention agates?) before driving five minutes west to Sable Falls. From the parking lot, it’s just a short walk to the 75-foot cascade over sloping sandstone formations. For an even better view, head down a 168-step staircase (it’s worth it!).

Explore: A short hike past the falls takes you to a rocky beach, where Sable Creek flows into Lake Superior.

Tip: Sable Falls—like many of our Pictured Rocks stops—was still pretty green during our end of September visit. Fall color timing varies each year; be sure to check local forecasts.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Chapel Falls / Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Get there: 15 miles east of Munising off Alger County Road H-58

There are endless stops to make along the national lakeshore—overlooks, beaches and trails—but we opted to stay the course and drive for about an hour to the Chapel Falls Trail. From the trailhead, it’s an easy 1.4-mile hike along a forested path to an overlook where you can appreciate the 60-foot-high falls, rushing down toward Chapel Lake. Venture past the first overlook, and you’ll be rewarded with smaller falls and rapids along the creek, rock formations covered in gnarled roots and vibrant mushrooms that rival the leaves.

Explore: The Chapel Basin / Mosquito Area has multiple shorter hikes, as well as the 10-mile Chapel Loop that will take you past Chapel Falls to Chapel Rock, Chapel Beach, along the Pictured Rocks cliffs to Mosquito River and Beach, and back to the parking lot on the outer loop trail past Mosquito Falls.

Tip: If you’re continuing west and have some extra time on your hands, head to Miners Falls—the park’s most powerful waterfall—about 10 miles east of Munising.

Related Read: 10 Best Michigan Color Tour Views to Take Your Breath Away

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Munising Falls / Munising

Get there: Where Washington Street becomes Sand Point Road

Munising is brimming with falls, like this 50-foot namesake cascade (also a part of Pictured Rocks) that drops over a sandstone cliff. Walk a paved 800-foot trail through a shaded canyon along Munising Creek, and scale two sets of stairs to viewing platforms.

Explore: Nearby Memorial Falls and Tannery Falls are also worth a visit, but both have been closed to the public since May 2021 for trail repairs. The falls may be closed for the 2022 season as well.

Tip: Stop for homemade soup and a sandwich at Driftwood Deli—and grab a pint at the adjoining ByGeorge Brewing in downtown Munising—before hitting your next stop.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Horseshoe Falls / Munising

Get there: Bell Avenue, just south of downtown

If you’re on the fence about paying to see a waterfall: Horseshoe Falls is worth it. I was skeptical about the $10 admission fee, but this serene spot situated on private property was one of my favorite Munising stops. Fueled by underground springs that maintain a temp of 40 degrees year-round, this is the largest spring-fed falls in the area. Watching the water rush down a series of smaller drops—golden foliage strewn across the rocks below—was the break I needed during a busy day of falls hopping.

Explore: Take advantage of the admission fee and sit a spell. Sip your coffee on a bench or pack a picnic and watch the breeze carry twirling leaves to the ground below. (Does it get more zen than that?)

Tip: General admission is $10; $8 for 60+, military and vets; $7 for kids ­3–12 and free for kids 3 and under. The property is open through mid-October.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Wagner Falls / Munising

Get there: M-94 W (0.3 miles southwest of M-28 junction)

This is a must-see waterfall in the Munising area. An easy 0.1-mile trail with a few stairs leads to an observation deck overlooking the impressive cascade, nestled among old-growth pine and hemlock trees. On a busy day, you’ll have to wait your turn on the boardwalk to snap your photos of the falls, but I can think of worse ways to spend 10 minutes than soaking in glowing forest views.

Explore: If you’re looking for an extra hike, hit up the North Country Trail; it follows M-94 at Wagner Falls and enters the Hiawatha National Forest two miles west of the scenic site.

Tip: After the falls, stop in for dinner at Tracey’s, inside Roam Inn on the west side of town, for a cozy, chic ambience and eclectic fare (get the truffled pasta alfredo and end with a slice of chocolate cake).

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Spray Falls / Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Get there: Take a cruise, kayak, or hike the lakeshore

Perhaps one of the most remote falls in the national lakeshore, the 70-foot, aptly named Spray Falls is best viewed from the water. We chose the Spray Falls Sunset Cruise offered by Pictured Rocks Cruises, and it didn’t disappoint. The tour takes you past iconic landmarks like the Grand Island East Channel Lighthouse, Miners Castle, Lovers’ Leap, Indian Head, Grand Portal and Chapel Rock, before arriving at Spray Falls. The autumn views at sunset are pure magic: mineral-painted cliffs and terracotta-colored trees glow orange above the turquoise waters of Lake Superior.

Explore: Those looking for a picturesque hike along the lakeshore can view Spray Falls from the North Country Scenic Trail. From the Chapel trailhead, it’s a 9.6-mile roundtrip hike; from the Little Beaver trailhead, it’s just under 8 miles roundtrip.

Tip: If you’re taking photos during a cruise, try standing on the lower deck—the views from below are just as gorgeous (and have fewer competing photographers in them).

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Scott Falls / Au Train Township

Get there: Along M-28, across the road from H.J. Rathfoot State Roadside Park

Scott Falls is a perfect pit stop on your color tour—easily spotted from the highway, and located across from a roadside park with beach access. The gentle falls drop about 10 feet over a sandstone cliff into a small pool.

Explore: Just one mile down the highway awaits sandy Au Train Beach—stretch your legs with a midday or sunset stroll.

Tip: We ended up glamping in a yurt at Au Train Lake before continuing west. If a queen canopy bed and personal bonfire in the woods sounds like your cup of tea, check out Northwoods Resort’s yurts on Airbnb.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Laughing Whitefish Falls State Park / Alger County

Get there: 20 miles southeast of Marquette

About halfway between Munising and Marquette lies Laughing Whitefish Falls—one of the tallest falls in the state at 100 feet and one of the most impressive displays. Fed by Laughing Whitefish River, the falls cascade through a long rocky gorge with old-growth white pine and hemlock towering above. During our cool, drizzly visit, we were finally rewarded with a full color display; looking out from the crest of the falls, shades of scarlet and ginger extended as far as the eye could see.

Explore: This was hands down one of my favorite hikes—a moderate half-mile trail through lush beech-maple forest leads to the falls. (If you’re into fall mushrooms, this is the spot to peep ‘em!) Once you reach the cascade, you can descend a staircase to the bottom of the falls, or view them from an observation deck along the way.

Tip: Pictures do not do this waterfall justice. Take the detour inland and see for yourself.

Related Read: 5 Unforgettable Places to See Northern Michigan Fall Color

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Yellow Dog River Falls / Ishpeming Township

Get there: From Marquette, take CR-550 north toward Big Bay, about 23 miles. Turn left on CR-510. Travel about 7 miles to the steel bridge across Yellow Dog River. Park on the left side of the road to access the trailhead, and follow the trail on the south side of the river, about a mile downstream.

After a wrong (but beautiful) detour down some backcountry roads, we were happy to finally find signage at the trailhead, welcoming us to Yellow Dog Community Forest (if you’re using Google Maps, be sure to enter “Yellow Dog River Falls trailhead.” A fairly easy, wooded hike led us to the 20-foot main falls, surrounded by swaths of color mixed with lofty pines. Don’t stop here—the trail continues, taking you along more scenic rapids and falls.

Explore: Just 15 minutes west of downtown Marquette is the old Marquette County Road 510 bridge, which boasts stunning fall foliage views along the Dead River. Enjoy a stroll along the bridge and take a second to learn about the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy’s efforts to protect the area by purchasing 186 acres of surrounding riparian forest to create the Dead River Community Forest.

Bonus: I’m biased at this point, but I highly recommend taking time for a quick hike up Sugarloaf Mountain, just six miles north of downtown Marquette. The panoramic views are breathtaking.

Tip: Check out Marquette’s many waterfalls while you’re in town: Alder Falls, Big Pup Falls, Pinnacle Falls, Little Garlic Falls and Morgan Falls, just to name a few. At the end of your tour, head to Drifa Brewing Company, the state’s first cooperatively owned craft brewery. With any luck, you’ll catch some live music while you sip and reflect on your trip.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Allison Jarrell is associate editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Photo(s) by Allison Jarrell