U.P. Adventures: A Stop in Paradise, Tahquamenon Views, & Superior Trails

The Upper Falls at Tahquamenon Falls State Park

The Upper Falls at Tahquamenon Falls State Park

You're never too old to go on a family vacation, right? Well I sure hope not, because here I sit in a hotel room just outside Munising in full family vacay mode after a long day of shenanigans in Michigan's Upper Peninsula with my parents and my son. It's the fourth time in as many years, in fact, that we've packed up the car and headed somewhere north in the Great Lakes State for a few days over the summer.

In years past, we've visited St. Ignace, Charlevoix, Beaver Island, Leland, Petoskey, and Indian River, as well as Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island. This time around, we've trekked into the heart of the U.P. with the main objective of taking in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and all of its sandstone-y glory. But before that, we had to make the five-hour-plus drive up here, and I wasn't going to let some other sightseeing opportunities slip us by along the way — the U.P. has a lot to offer, after all.

The first stop of what would turn out to be a long, long day was in Mackinaw City (at the tippy top of the Lower Peninsula, I know, but bear with me). More of a pit stop than a stop-stop — which kind of describes Mackinaw City all the way around, actually — we only stayed long enough to snap a couple dozen photos and pick up some peanut brittle and saltwater taffy from Joann's Fudge, as one does. Soon and very soon we were off across the Mackinac Bridge, taking in that awesome view of the Straits of Mackinac that couldn't get old if it tried.

Sometime later, we rolled into Paradise, Michigan, a tiny community along Lake Superior's Whitefish Bay that's home to about 15 people. Kidding aside, Paradise consists of little more than a few motels, a gas station, a handful of churches, and a couple places to grab a bite to eat, including The Inn Gastropub & Smokehouse, where we stopped for lunch. Though the phrase "Get Some!" is inexplicably plastered everywhere and the hostess made us wait 10 minutes before being seated despite the restaurant being only half-full, I had perhaps one of the greatest pork sandwiches slathered in BBQ sauce known to mankind, so all was forgiven.

Lake Superior near the Hurricane River Campground off Highway 58

Lake Superior near the Hurricane River Campground off Highway 58

Following lunch, it was very tempting to drive a little further north to Shelldrake, a ghost town featured in this Haunting of Northwest Michigan segment from a few years back, or even beyond that to the lighthouse at Whitefish Point and the accompanying Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, but we had other places to be — namely, Tahquamenon Falls. Knowing nothing about the place other than its nifty name, I didn't necessarily have any expectations concerning the falls, but if I had, I think they would have been met, and then some.

Tahquamenon Falls State Park, situated on the north side of the Tahquamenon River, offers visitors views of both the Upper and Lower falls along highway M-123. If you like to go big or go home, the Upper Falls, which we visited, are probably going to be your choice here. Stretching over 200 feet across the river and sending 7,000 gallons of water (on average) cascading nearly 50 feet every second, the Upper Falls make up one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River. Those who prefer their waterfalls in doses may be more inclined to check out the Lower Falls, a series of five smaller falls that cascade around a small island about four miles downstream from the Upper Falls.

Other than visiting the state park — where, it should be noted, you will be required to purchase a state recreation tag for your vehicle if you do not already have one — another, more immersive way to take in Tahquamenon Falls is by signing up for the train and riverboat tour that has operated out of Soo Junction, near Newberry, since 1927. If you want to make a day of it, Tahquamenon Falls Riverboat Tour & the Famous Toonerville Trolley offers a 6.5-hour wilderness tour which includes a 35-minute train ride, a two-hour riverboat cruise, and a one-hour stopover near the Upper Falls during which tourists can hike a short trail to the company's private observation deck.

We finished up our mid-afternoon visit to Tahquamenon Falls around 5 o'clock. At that point, our time out on the road had already grown fairly long, but my itch to explore had not yet been completely scratched, and so we carried on (with only mild groans from the rest of the company). Cell service was nowhere to be found as we left the state park, but only one road, M-123, waited for us as we pulled out and I knew we needed to keep heading west in order to get to the next destination I had in mind.

The lighthouse and surrounding grounds at Au Sable Point

The lighthouse and surrounding grounds at Au Sable Point

One trek through the Newberry State Forest Area, two brief stints on Michigan highways — M-28 and M-77 — and 80-some miles later, we arrived at the spot along Highway 58 where the Hurricane River empties out into Lake Superior. Sporting true roughing-it camping at the Hurricane River Campground, a connection to the North Country Trail, and beach access, this rather secluded area along Lake Superior's south shore is basically a nature lover's wet dream (a phrase which could be applied to hundreds of locations throughout the U.P., honestly).

After getting shots of the shoreline and testing the temperature of the largest Great Lake, which is often on the chilly side, we set out to see the sight I had truly dragged my family out there for: the Au Sable Light Station. Signs near the campground claim the light station, or lighthouse, which sits at Au Sable Point, is a mere 1.7-mile hike down an historic U.S. Coast Guard road to the east. Those same signs will not tell you, however, that that 1.7-mile hike feels much more like a 2.5-mile hike, at the very least. It could just be that I'm not seasoned enough, but that road felt like it stretched on for days and there was more than one instance where I wondered if there really was a lighthouse at the end of it.

Alas, there was, but only half of our company — my dad and myself — saw it with our own eyes as the other two turned back before we reached it. Once there, the lighthouse, an 87-foot-tall structure that was finished in 1874, was impressive enough, but even more extraordinary was the view of the shoreline as it continued east beyond Au Sable Point. Dividing the blue of the sky and that of Lake Superior were seemingly endless sand dunes as far as the eye could see, and the water down below was so clear that you could have counted every rock near the shore, if you were so inclined. With my legs already anticipating the long walk back, I took more than a few minutes to enjoy the view.

Though I grew up in Michigan and have lived along Lake Michigan for most of my life, there's just something different about the U.P., something that draws you to it. The landscape, more varied, more green — more ethereal, somehow — makes that connection to nature feel that much stronger. Whether it's a tiny community like Paradise, a natural wonder like Tahquamenon Falls, or an out-of-the-way spot like Au Sable Point, there's always something that causes that itch to explore to rise to the surface.

Maybe my itch will finally be scratched when we check out Pictured Rocks coming up here shortly. Maybe, but I doubt it.