With the first real summer holiday coming up fast, we wanted to find a spot to camp outdoors at a drive-able distance from Chicago… So we were off to Tahquamenon located on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
And you ask why the UP of Michigan of all places to visit? Well we haven’t been there yet and Tahquamenon is the largest waterfall East of the Mississippi!
Tahquamenon Falls – July 4th weekend 2016
We stuffed our little red Toyota Corolla FULL with a tent, ground pads, sleeping bags and food, and began our road trip to the UP.
The drive from Chicago is about 8 hours, and the route hugs Lake Michigan all the way. We passed through the great Midwestern cities of Milwaukee and Green Bay before entering the UP where the terrain changes to gentle hills and endless forests.
On the drive up I was recalling my college days at the University of Michigan and the people I had met from throughout the state. When you ask these locals about some Michigan geography or their hometown, Michigan folks instinctively pull up their left hand, point to a location on the back of their hand, and that is where they are from. The Michigan state looks roughly looks like a mitten and this hand trick is as common as the Michigan apples. Somehow, The Upper Peninsula has always been left out of this neat little trick as though it is some unknown place. Truthfully, having lived in Michigan for four years while in college, I don’t actually know much about the UP except that there are trees everywhere.
- Drive to campsite from Chicago Burbs
- Hike Tahquamenon Trail – starting from Lower Falls, ending at Upper Falls
- Upper Falls retail area
- Drive home to Chicago Burbs
As we arrived at the Tahquamenon Lower Falls campsite, smoke was wafting from campfires and the air was filled with the sweet smells of grilled meats. Evergreen trees dotted the campground to provide just a little privacy for each campsite.
On the first evening in the UP, we found a well-maintained path hidden at the edge of the campground that took us through a forest right to a great view of the Tahquamenon Lower Falls. The Lower Falls is the smaller of the Tahquamenon falls in terms of volume and height. It consists of a series of modest waterfalls that open up to a shallow lake surrounded by pine trees with an island in the center. You can jump in a canoe, or you can join the locals and swim and wade your way to the island. Nearby, a well-stocked souvenir store serves as a pleasant distraction for snacks (we got the soft-serve ice cream!) and uniquely UP merchandise.
Bright and early the next day, we fixed a classic campground breakfast of gooey eggs and potatoes and prepared to hike the Tahquamenon trail. Starting from the Lower Falls, we joined a surprisingly large crowd of parents with kids in tow and couples in flip flops to hike towards the Upper Falls. The trail was well maintained, but I would probably not set out in flip flops… The trail was certainly busy, and especially so on a holiday weekend, but pleasant nonetheless.
The Tahquamenon trail was pretty in an unassuming way. We were constantly accompanied by the seemingly unmoving Tahquamenon River, which was stained a dark yellow from tannins that seep in from the surrounding trees. Look closely and you could see turtles catching some sun, or discover a scenic corner to take photos. Rustic, and maybe handmade, bridges peppered the trail.
After three hours of hiking, a wide paved path appeared and sounds of people chatting could be heard through the trees. Sure enough, once the forest clears, groups of people dressed in their best Fourth of July garb appeared. Somehow they appeared that they had not been hiking for the last few hours like us… Then the signs appeared for our hiking destination, the Upper Falls, and then souvenir stores, restaurants, and a parking lot! The Upper Falls with all of its beauty is quite built-out as a tourist destination.
Following the mass of tourists, we came upon a deck with the Upper Falls in full view. The water cascaded loudly over the cliff, but amazingly, it immediately arranges itself into a peaceful river to continue its journey. Even with the throngs of people around, you get a sense of being alone with the waterfall as it makes its way across the cliffs and through the forest before disappearing into Whitefish Bay.
After a few moments at the deck, we worked our way towards the retail areas, and found the stores to be bursting with tourists. The wait was almost two hours at the brewery (a local whispered to us, “You are not missing out!”) and empty seats were scarce. Not wanting to be caught hiking past sunset, we grabbed a quick snack, and headed out to find the next trailhead.
Unfortunately, other trails were not well marked and no one working at the Upper Falls’ site knew the trails well. We stumbled upon a trail in a far corner of the parking lot but the path was not well trodden and mosquitoes were plentiful. After a brave ten-minute foray into the woods, we gave up and headed back out of the woods to the better maintained Tahquamenon trail to make our way back to the Lower Falls.
We ended our trip the next day with breakfast amongst the forest, and left the bustling campground for home. There is still more to explore in the UP, but for now, I have learned more than I ever did in all my college years spent in the mitten state. The UP may not have grandiose landscape, but it is full of rustic beauty simmering with quiet resilience. We will certainly visit again for another weekend escape from Chicago.
Priscilla Schmidt : @pristye