Michigan’s parks, trails and waterfalls provide great settings for leaf-peeping fall color

A spectacular aerial view of the Tahquamenon River in the
eastern Upper Peninsula during fall color season. (DNR)
Michigan Department of Natural Resources

As we put away our flip-flops for the season and get ready to don our sweaters, many Michigan residents and visitors are eagerly awaiting the state’s stunning annual display of fall foliage.

“Leaf peeping” – a term for travel geared around fall color viewing – has become a popular pastime nationwide, and Michigan is no exception.

As one of the most wooded states in the country, with more than half of its 36 million acres of land forested, Michigan offers plenty of opportunity to see trees put on their fall color show.

On a warm summer afternoon, with the air filled with
ladybugs, riders enjoy a fall color chairlift ride at Porcupine
Mountains Wilderness State Park in Ontonagon County.
One notable example is Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Ontonagon and Gogebic counties, where visitors can take in some of the Upper Peninsula’s best fall foliage views in a unique way – from chairlift rides at the park’s ski hill.

“Ride the chairlift to the top of the ski hill and either hike or ride the lift back down for some great scenery overlooking Lake Superior,” said Bob Wild, Michigan Department of Natural Resources park interpreter at the Porcupine Mountains. “Don’t forget to bring your camera.”

Last year, four or five of the park’s busiest days occurred during the fall color season.

With a variety of tree species, the Porcupine Mountains fall color displays present a patchwork of color, dazzling to see.

Bond Falls is among the popular destinations in the western
Upper Peninsula throughout the year; autumn is no exception.
DNR staffers at state parks have a variety of good suggestions for places visitors in search of eye-catching autumn scenery might want to check out – by car, foot, kayak, horse or off-road vehicle, as well as by chairlift.

In addition to Porcupine Mountains, which she said is “very popular with the chairlift rides,” Kelly Somero, at Baraga State Park in the western U.P., recommends local waterfalls as fall color viewing destinations.

Popular spots include the series Presque Isle River falls in the Porkies and Ontonagon County’s Bond Falls and Agate Falls.

Fort Wilkins (State Historic Park) is really cool as well,” Somero said. “There is a lot to see in the Keweenaw (Peninsula) for fall colors – Brockway Mountain Drive, the Fort, Isle Royale, lighthouses – and the drive itself is scenic.

“For a unique twist, the Bill Nichols Trail with the triple trestles over the Ontonagon River is a great fall destination for ORV touring.

A fall off-road vehicle ride is shown along the Bill Nicholls
Trail, which runs through Houghton and Ontonagon counties,
on a trestle bridge over the Firesteel River.
Twin Lakes State Park can be used as a base camp, with its lodge and mini cabin, there is golfing nearby and the Porkies and Fort Wilkins are about an hour each way for additional color touring by vehicle along with other ORV routes to explore western U.P. areas.”

Melanie Brand at Van Riper State Park in Marquette County also suggested Bond Falls, especially for hikers, and Twin Lakes State Park in Houghton County for ORV trail riding as well as camping, hiking and paddling.

“For camping, hiking and boating/paddling, I also would say Craig Lake State Park in Baraga County, which is already at around 5 percent of color (as of early September),” said Brand.

There are plenty of options for those seeking fall colors south of the Mackinac Bridge too.

Backwoods roads can get busy during fall color
season, like this section of County Road 510
near Big Bay in Marquette County.
“I’d suggest the Black Mountain area – Black Lake State Forest Campground or Cheboygan, Hoeft, Onaway and Aloha state parks are close by,” said Jeremy Spell, unit manager at Aloha and Onaway state parks.

Spell said that Black Lake State Forest Campground in Cheboygan County, whose Upper Campground is open to ORVs, and other state parks in the northeastern Lower Peninsula offer proximity to ORV, equestrian and non-motorized trails, all in the Black Mountain area.

“There’s also the inland waterway for a water trail, Stoney Creek Equestrian Trail Camp and the north spur of the Shore-to-Shore Trail, which is adjacent to the Lee Grande Grouse Enhanced Management Site (GEMS) property (a popular area for hunting) with non-motorized trails and a good potential for elk viewing as well,” Spell said. “Also, the North Eastern, North Central and Northwestern state trails – lots of great spots for fall colors.”

These are just a few examples of the endless possibilities for seeing fall foliage in Michigan. Get more fall color touring trip ideas from the Pure Michigan website at www.michigan.org/fall.

Fall color is predicted to peak throughout October, depending on location. Check out Pure Michigan’s fall travel peak season map, to find out the best times to visit different areas of the state.

A young girl displays some favorite red maple leaves she
collected on a fall color trip to the Keweenaw Peninsula.
As the days start to get shorter in the fall, trees stop producing chlorophyll, the substance that helps plants change sunlight into sugar (glucose) through photosynthesis and gives leaves their green color.

Chlorophyll production slows down as trees start preparing for winter, and we see the other natural pigments in the leaves emerge.

Leaf colors vary by tree species – for example, oaks turn red or brown, aspen turn golden yellow and dogwood, purplish red. Maples turn scarlet, orange-red or yellow, depending on species.

As you travel the state in search of the changing autumn leaf colors, fall camping is a great accommodation option at the end of the sightseeing day.

A group of friends from Marquette enjoys a fall weekend camping
at Fort Wilkins State Historic Park in Keweenaw County.
State parks and recreation areas and state forest campgrounds offer a variety of fall camping experiences, from modern and rustic campsites for tents, recreational vehicles and popup campers to lodging in the camper cabins, yurts, cottages and lodges available in some state parks.

While traditionally a summer activity, camping comes with some unique advantages during autumn.

“We find that camping reservations are much easier to find in the fall,” said Doug Barry, supervisor at Van Riper State Park. “Campers can reap the benefits of less crowded campgrounds and the beautiful colors of fall foliage, especially during weekdays.”

To check availability or make a camping reservation, visit www.midnrreservations.com or call 1-800-44PARKS (1-800-447-2757).

Kayakers enjoy an autumn day at the
Holly Recreation Area in Oakland County.
Events and activities in state parks aren’t reserved for summer either, with a variety of fall programs scheduled.

Many Michigan state parks and recreation areas host fall harvest festivals in September and October. These family-friendly “Harvest and Haunts” events include hayrides, pumpkin carving, trick-or-treating, costume contests, haunted trails, cider and donuts, and horse-drawn carriage rides.

The fall calendar also features hikes, races, paddling events and more. Visit www.michigan.gov/dnrcalendar for details.

Fall is also the perfect time to take advantage of the state’s abundant trail opportunities – there are miles and miles of good reasons Michigan is known as “The Trails State” – from biking and hiking to equestrian and ORV trails.

Michigan has more than 12,500 miles of state-designated trails.

“Our trails take you to every corner of the state, from some of the most picturesque locations in the country, to historical areas to state parks,” said Paul Yauk, DNR statewide trails coordinator. “Fall is a great time to get outdoors and spend some time on our trail system.”

The DNR will join other organizations around the state in celebrating Michigan Trails Week Sept. 23-30.

A family on a fall outing at the Pinckney
Recreation Area, which is located in
Livingston and Washtenaw counties.
“There are some unbelievable places in Michigan to see, and our trails system takes you there,” said Yauk. “There’s an adventure everywhere, no matter what type of trail you are on.”

Explore Michigan trail options at www.michigan.gov/dnrtrails.

Whether your winding down a U.P. backroad, walking a trail in the Lower Peninsula, kayaking, taking a chairlift ride, biking or camping, the brilliant fall color season in Michigan is one of nature’s truly amazing displays not to be missed.

Check out previous Showcasing the DNR stories and subscribe to upcoming articles at www.michigan.gov/dnrstories.

Michigan’s Recreation Passport provides access to 103 state parks and state recreation areas, 138 state forest rustic campgrounds, and numerous free family-friendly events, as well as parking for hundreds of miles of trails and fee-based state boat launches.