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Michigan Fall Color

Tahquamenon Falls, Michigan Copyright 2004 Andy Richards

To those who read here regularly, it may appear that I favor the North East when it comes to Fall Foliage photography. I have been paying more attention to my blog statistics lately, and I noted this morning, that in the past week, one of the “most searched” terms was a tag I used: “Michigan Fall Color.” Well, now it is in a title and hopefully additional searches will turn this up.

The Michigan “U.P.” arguably rivals New England for its colorful leaf displays

Ironically, I have probably photographed Fall color in Michigan the least of any place I have photographed. A big part of the reason is that I concentrate on this time of the year as my favorite conditions for outdoor photography, and so, generally plan a trip somewhere more “exotic” than Saginaw, Michigan. Indeed, most of my Fall color images are from the Michigan “U.P.”(upper peninsula), which arguably rivals New England for its hardwood forests and colorful leaf displays. The U.P. is also flanked by significant bodies of water on 3 sides (hence, “peninsula”), creating a rather unique geography for photographic imagery. I have spent a fair amount of time traveling the U.P., and have chronicled my visited sites with a pdf guide, Photographing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I have a page here on the blog describing my pdf photographic guides (only 2 of them at this point). I do not have it hosted anywhere, but if you send me an email, I will be glad to send one to you. I do not charge for them at this point (though that may change at some future date) as the cost to produce them involves only my time.

Deer Lake, Michigan UP - Copyright 2009 Andy Richards

There is plenty of Fall color and some pretty dramatic photo opportunities from one end to the other. Two National Forests (the Hiawatha National Forest and the Ottowa National Forest) cover much of the U.P. There are also numerous State Forests, and the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore covers much of the Eastern 1/2 of the Lake Superior Shore between Munising and Grand Marais.

Miner's Castle; Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore - Copyright 2007 Andy Richards

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore gets its name from the weathered, sandstone bluffs that have a color of an entirely different variety. The rocks were built up of different sediment layers which are now multi-colored. They are actually pretty photogenic in any season, but the fall colors around them, combined with good lighting conditions, make them a good Fall destination.

Nearby Hiawatha National Forest, especially portions near and South of Munising, contain some pretty dramatic small lakes with plenty of colorful hardwood trees lining their banks. They are perfect for early morning, misty reflection shots, or tranquil late afternoon shots. The forest also lends itself to macro and other intimate shooting opportunities, with many forest roads to explore.

Mocassin Lake, Hiawatha NF, Michigan - Copyright 2009 Andy Richards

Several rivers flow toward both Lake Superior to the North and Lake Michigan to the South, with many nice waterfalls near the fall lines in both directions. The waterfalls to the North, draining into Lake Superior create some particular nice opportunities with a couple of them “falling” right onto the beach. The “granddaddy” of them all, the upper falls at Tahquamenon, is the second largest waterfall East of the Mississippi (after Niagara), and may be the second largest in the continental U.S. Dressed in fall color, it is a spectacular site which should not be missed, in spite of its “iconic” popularity.

Elliot Falls, Miner's Beach, Michigan U.P. - Copyright 2009 Andy Richards

For a change up, there are several nice Light Houses, especially on Lake Superior. While not generally in a Fall color setting, in the right conditions, they are worth the look. They may even persuade you to come back for additional photography excursions in other seasons (I am told that you should go in early May or wait until mid-August or so, if you do not want to be carried off by mosquitos and black flies).

The Western portion of the U.P. is no less dramatic, with elevations high enough to be called “mountains,” though decidedly “baby mountains” in comparison to the Western and Eastern Mountain ranges. While most of Michigan clearly qualifies us as “flatlanders,” having hiked a couple of these “baby mountains,” I can vouch that they are impressive. Sugar Loaf Overlook, just over 1000 feet above Lake Superior, North of Marquette is a vigorous climb, but the view is worth it.

Sugar Loaf Overlook, Marquette, MI - Copyright 2009 Andy Richards

Porcupine Mountain State Park is the highest elevation in Michigan at just short of 2,000 feet. However, it is not a strenuous endeavor to see the “best” of it from the photographer’s perspective. The Escarpment, can be driven to (a very short walk from the parking lot to the views of the valley to the West and the signature, icon, “Lake of The Clouds.” My favorite (and best-selling) image is from there.

Little Carp River, Porcupine Mtn. State Park, Michigan U.P. - Copyright Andy Richards

North of the “Porkies,” the Keewenaw Peninsula goes all the way up to Copper Harbor. There are some great photographic opportunities there, including a high overview just South of Copper Harbor; Brockway Mountain. At just under 1000 feet above Lake Superior, you can see in both directions. You can drive to the top. Fall color in the Keewenaw can be later (up to a full week) due to the warming influence of Lake Superior.

The Southern border of the U.P. borders Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and a narrow connecting body of water between them, called The Straits of Mackinac. A couple of my favorite photo destinations are Fayette State Park on the Garden Peninsula just East of Escanaba, and the Cut River Gorge, on Route U.S. 2, just West of the Mackinaw Bridge. Fayette has a significant population of birch trees, which, in my experience, turn color later. We got some nice Fall color images during the last week in October.

Fayette State Park, Michigan U.P. - Copyright 2007 Andy Richards

On the Eastern half, the Lake Huron shoreline have many islands (known as the Les Cheneaux Islands) most of which are accessible only by boat and are privately owned; and also a natural Fenn (which is a unique site for this part of the country), near Cedarville. Hessel and Cedarville have harbors, both of which are inland from the big lake and harbors of refuge. The population of hardwoods is low in this part of the state, so the color, if at all, will be different. Detour, which is at the Eastern most point, is at the Mouth of the St. Mary’s River, which goes from Lake Huron, through the lock at Sault St. Marie, and on up into Lake Superior.

Between the U.P. and the Lower Peninsula connected by the Mackinaw Bridge (at one time the longest suspension bridge in the world), is one of Michigan’s largest “tourism” attractions; Mackinac Island. Accessible only by boat (snow machine in the winter) or plane, it is a quaint little Island that was the setting for the Christopher Reeve movie, “Somewhere in Time.” The middle of the island has significant elevation and there are some nice, downward shooting ops. There is also a nice old fort there, which may provide some images.

Mackinac Island - copyright 2007 Andy Richards

There is Fall color in the Lower Peninsula. I haven’t spent as much time shooting it as I should. Traverse City and the Leelenau Peninsula have perhaps some of the most picturesque settings, with views of the Grand Traverse Bays (East and West), the Old Mission Peninsula, and the Leelenau Peninsula. There are still some nice, old farms and weathered barns on the Leelenau, as well as some nice Fall color. The color here tends to happen 1-2 weeks later than other parts of the state, because of the warming influence of Lake Michigan and the bays. Ironically, I grew up in Traverse City, and have essentially no images of the area, particularly in Fall.

There is Fall Color in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula

On the North West side, the entire Lake Michigan Shoreline from Traverse City all the way up to Wilderness State Park at the North Western tip of the Lower Peninsula has great views of the lake and some very nice Fall color. There are numerous “high” views which give a look at the lake and Fall color in the fore and middle ground.

In the North Central part of the State, to the East of I-75, there is nice Fall color to be found in the Pigeon River State Forest between Indian River, Onaway, Atlanta and Gaylord. To the West of I-75 there are numerous State Forests and some nice rivers (no waterfalls in the Lower Peninsula). Further South on the Eastern part of the State is the Huron National Forest. There is nice Fall color in all of these areas.

Ihave to confess I do not have a lot of experience in the Southern half of the Lower Peninsula, though I know from others that Fall Colors exist. The tree mix changes from the “climax” hardwood forests found in Northern lower Michigan and the U.P. There is a larger mix of, for example, oak trees. My experiences are limited to nearby my home and West Branch, which is a community about an hour north. I have found good color in both places, but not the same “quality” as further North.

Shiawassee River; Owosso, Michigan - copyright 2009 Andy Richards

As the season approaches, we are noticing cooler weather and seeing some beginning change in the trees and foliage. If Michigan is on your agenda, I hope you will have found some of this helpful. Good shooting!

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4 Responses

  1. Another excellent post. Thanks Andy.

  2. Andy, Another spot in the U.P is the top of Point Iroquois (sp) Lighthouse. John and I have climbed the tower several times. There are nice views from the top. And as I have mentioned the location and acreage of where we live has beautiful fall colors. We are in a valley, but our house is between two hills with the woods as a backdrop. Our woods are hardwoods with lots of Maples. You are welcome to come phograph some fall colors here. Just let me know a head of time. The woods are beginning to turn color. There is a bright reddish orange patch on the west side of the house.
    Lisa Simpson

    • Thanks, Lisa. Pt. Iroquois is one that I have photographed, but it was in late Winter. One of the coldest mornings I can ever remember. Still Ice in close on Lake S. Didn’t know you could climb the tower. Will have to put that on “the list.” The two nice lighthouses on that part of the Lake are Pt. Iroquois and Crisp Point. Whitefish Point is utilitarian, but not very photgenic.

      Is the land you are talking about at home, or do you and John also have land up in the U.P.? Sounds like fun, if I ever stay home during that time of year 🙂

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