You won’t see many art galleries as impressive as the one nature’s crafted where the three largest Great Lakes meet on a narrow peninsula along the Niagara Escarpment. As at the better known Niagara, falls tumble here, and dramatically. The root beer-colored Tahquamenon Falls, made legend by Henry Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, is the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi, the surrounding park home to bear, moose and many rare song and water birds. Other natural draws include the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with its multi-colored cliffs and pristine beaches, other rare landforms, and trout streams that most famously inspired Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories.
Some 50,000 gallons of water/second gush over Upper Tahquamenon, falling the 50-foot drop into the river in which legendary Hiawatha was said to have built his canoe. The distinctive root beer color is caused by the tannic acid originating with the cedars and hemlocks lining the riverbanks. Some 125 bird species nest here; rangers lead hikes to bear dens or on snowshoes by candlelight past pines. One unique means of viewing is by the Toonerville Trolley and Riverboat; the grandfather of the present-day owner started the business using a model T truck with train wheels to reach the river.
Other falls are equally noteworthy, most tumbling over the Munising Formation, a shelf of sandstone running from Tahquamenon to Laughing Whitefish Falls west of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Park visitor centers provide waterfall maps.
The “Pictured Rocks” have no pictographs, as the name might suggest. Instead, they’re more a combination of sculpture and watercolor—with mineral stains creating colorful patterns in the sandstone rock. The rocks date back to the Cambrian period of 500 million years ago. They still tower some 200 feet above Lake Superior, and some have eroded into distinctive shapes.
• The Pictured Rocks in 1966 became the nation’s first established national lakeshore
• Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the wilderness scholar and Indian agent, in 1820 called them “some of the most sublime and commanding views of nature” and also noted “we were wholly unprepared to encounter the surprising groups of overhanging precipices, towering walls, caverns, waterfalls. . . mingled in the most wonderful disorder.”
• Take one of the multiple daily boat tours to learn the names given to various formations: Chapel Rock, Miner’s Castle, Indian Head. It’s also the best way to see some of the area’s most notable waterfalls like Spray, with its 70-foot drop into Lake Superior.
• Mineral seepage creates the colors, red and orange from iron, green, blues and pinks from copper, black from manganese, and so on.
Karst Caves and more
On Drummond Island, the Michigan Karst conservancy offers cave tours, one of the most unique ways to see the limestone features and unusual ecology of the area. Other rare land forms include the Maxton Plains, a globally-rare grassland area with shallow soil on flat limestone bedrock. The Great River stoop—the arched back you’ll find on many beachcombers—results from the beauty of the rocks, attracting rock hounds from all around. You’ll find the rare banded agate in the Eastern UP; other rare minerals are also found on area beaches and are highlighted in the Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum in Grand Marais.
Legends of Kitchitikipi Springs
There are enough native legends surrounding Kitchitikipi Springs, the centerpiece of the Palm Book State Park on M-149, to fill a book. One of the more tragic focuses on a young brave who died while trying to show his loyalty to a young temptress, another that a drop of honey on a birch bark dipped in these waters makes a loved one true for ever. Yet another suggests Chippewa parents once came to the springs seeking names for a newborn with the rippling waters offering monikers like Natukoro (lovely flower) and We-shi (little fish). It’s the big fish, though, that cause the most excitement these days, as spring-goers look into the improbably clear, aquamarine waters as they self-propel a glass-bottom raft.
• This is Michigan’s largest freshwater spring: 40 foot deep. 100 feet across
• 10,000 gallons/minute gush from fissures in underlying limestone
• The springs and surrounding land were sold to state of Michigan for $10 (CK) in 1926 under the stipulation it’d forever be used as a public park.
• The Civilian Conservation Corps built the raft, dock and concession stand in the park.