Sunset light bathes the Hurricane River along the shore of Lake Superior, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Many nature photographers disparage the Midwest’s lack of scenery. What they’re missing is an untouched wilderness that stretches along miles of Great Lakes coastline—the U.P., Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Nowhere in the United States will you find an area that more reflects the dramatic seasonal changes of beautiful winters, colorful falls and blooming springs through a changing landscape that offers more to the photographer than prairies, woods and wildflowers.
Situated between the wind- and wave-worn southern shores of Lake Superior and the usually calmer waters of Lake Michigan’s northern shore, with Lake Huron to the southeast, the U.P. is defined by forests and rivers, wetland complexes of immense size, and rocky, bluff-lined and sweeping sand shorelines. And with some 30 lighthouses, historic buildings and an ancient mountain range, the U.P. offers more than any photographer could wish for. (A warm beef and potato pie after a long day of photography isn’t that bad either!) A weekend gives you a glimpse and a week a good look, but it takes years to see the majority of what the U.P has to offer, and one trip only leads to many others.
Bond Falls, one of the “best kept secrets” on the western Upper Peninsula. Hank Erdmann notes that the area goes blue in the winter, as evident from these iced falls
Like many northern climes, the U.P.’s summer often is described in terms of days versus months, but it lasts a bit longer. Bald blue skies send most photographers scurrying to another location to wait for sunset or inside for camera cleaning and image downloading, but in the U.P., a bald blue sky sends us running to the Lake Superior shore as that sky makes the waters of that immense body turn a shade of turquoise about which the Caribbean can only dream.
Spring has the first flowers arriving in late April in most places and blooms lasting into June and beyond. Spring blends into summer about the 4th of July, with the warmest weather in the month of August. By late August, the first shades of color are showing on maple trees and by late September fall color has peaked.
The middle of October finds fall on the forest floor and the first snow dusting the land. Winter is the U.P.’s longest season, and snowfall averages in excess of 200 inches a year. Locals and photographers alike take advantage of the season—spectacular winter scenery is as abundant as ski tracks and snowshoes.
The U.P. has great tourism and services, but is just far enough away from the larger population centers of the Midwest so that the scenic beauty still exceeds development, unlike the popular tourist destinations of Charlevoix, Traverse Bay and Door County (Wisconsin). That distance—eight-plus hours by car from Chicago and seven or so from Detroit—and the cooler summers help keep some development pressure at bay. Small cities like Marquette, Sault Sainte Marie, Escanaba, Munising, Houghton/Hancock and St. Ignace/Mackinac offer just about any service a photographer could want (including the top-notch AgX Imaging photo lab in Sault Sainte Marie).
In both big towns and small, lodging and food usually is available and at very reasonable prices. Lodging reservations made even a few days in advance, while not always needed except for the busiest summer weekends at popular areas, help keep traveling costs at a minimum. Many campgrounds stay open into October.
Take all your gear! Travel across the U.P. is best accomplished by car, and leaving gear (appropriately covered) in a vehicle is about as safe here as anywhere in the country, so bring it all. Long lenses, wide lenses, close-up equipment, laptops, even a canoe or kayak all will find use. The U.P. is serviced by numerous small and medium airports for those coming from outside the Midwest, so you’ll have to travel a bit lighter. You’ll find standard batteries even in small towns and canoe rentals in many locations, but items like memory cards, camera gear and quality transparency film will be available in only the largest U.P. cities like Marquette, Menominee or Sault Sainte Marie.
U.P. Photographic Highlights
Miners Beach, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Great Lake coastlines along the Upper Peninsula provide ample opportunity for capturing sunrises and sunsets.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. One of the five national lakeshores in the National Park System, Pictured Rocks was the first to be created in 1972 and, to me, it’s the singular photographic location of the U.P. Many other locations share its exquisite beauty, but only one other, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, has the diversity of environments.
Pictured Rocks extends for 40 miles along Superior’s southern shore from the town of Munising on its west to the village of Grand Marais to the east. The western shoreline is dominated by magnificent multi-hued sandstone cliffs. The vast waters of “Gitche Gumee,” the Americanized version of the Ojibwa Nation name (meaning “big water”) for the lake can be awesome and menacing at once.
When big waves crash headlong into the cliffs, you can feel the very ground beneath you shake, enough to blur an image made just an instant after the impact. Those waves can be spectacular, so time your exposures for the resulting wave splash crest instead. Pictured Rocks has its share of photogenic waterfalls, especially Chapel Falls and Miners Falls. Miners Beach has a small but very enticing waterfall; while just three or four feet high, it falls on a shoreline fan of delicate sandstone fins or layers that cascade like the water. The water and the sandstone turn from orange to red to a reddish-pink in sunset light. Tread carefully around this formation as the sandstone fins easily crumble beneath your feet.
At the center of Pictured Rocks along the lake you’ll find miles of sand and pebble beaches and streams that empty into Superior. Two of these locations, Twelve Mile Beach and Hurricane River, have car access. East of the Hurricane River is the AuSable Light Station, which has a historic and picturesque lighthouse. Heading further east but only on foot, you’ll come to one of the few areas of sand dunes on Lake Superior and by far the largest at more than 300 feet high. The Grand Sable Dunes extend about eight miles west from their easternmost point, making for a grand, sweeping curve along the lake’s shore. Car access is just west of the town of Grand Marais.
The winters are cold, but the photography is worth it. An ice bridge with a sunstar on the shore of Lake Superior
Heading west from Pictured Rocks, there are numerous places to photograph. To the northwest of Marquette are rugged, rocky Lake Superior shorelines and parts of the Escanaba State Forest. Also along this coast is the famed Big Bay Point Lighthouse, which now is also a bed and breakfast and a great, if not a bit more expensive, choice for a night’s lodging. Photograph the lighthouse at sunrise and run inside for a great breakfast.
The Keweenaw Peninsula. Sticking out into Lake Superior like a crooked witch’s nose, this peninsula has numerous lighthouses; a few, including Jacobsville Portage River, Eagle Harbor and Eagle River, are easy to see and most are easy to photograph. Fort Wilkins Historic State Park features the oldest original fort east of the Mississippi, and the park is open year-round, with the buildings accessible in the summer. Copper Harbor Lighthouse also is in the park; it’s visible from the shore, but requires a lengthy hike or a boat ride across a bay to get close. A local operator offers boat rides during the summer when the lighthouse is open for visitors. The Mendota Lighthouse at Bete Grise lies across the Little Gratiot River outlet; the land that’s the obvious viewpoint for the lighthouse is private, but there’s a small public boat landing. Bring your canoe, paddle across the stream and shoot the lighthouse from its own shore.
F.J. McLain and Fort Wilkins State Parks offer Lake Superior shoreline views as do many pull-offs along the peninsula shoreline between them. Sunset can be amazing along this coast.
Trees show off a fresh coat of snow, Wagner Falls Sate Scenic Area, Alger County.
Isle Royale National Park. Copper Harbor is the jumping off point for Isle Royale National Park. Although located 45 miles from the Michigan shore, it’s much closer to Minnesota and Canada. While still part of Michigan, the park is a long, long way from Detroit; it’s a destination that requires planning and effort to reach. Ferries run from Grand Portage, Minn., and Copper Harbor from mid-May through September.
The island’s highlights include the Greenstone Ridge Trail, where you’re just as likely to meet a moose as another person, and the stunted trees more than hint at the number of annual lightning strikes. Rock Harbor Lighthouse is a photographer favorite, but two other lights on small offshore islands are much harder to reach. All around the island are numerous rocky inlets and miles of shoreline that shine in early or late light, depending on which side of the island you happen to be. A lodge and cabins are available for rental, but they aren’t priced for those on a budget. Many campsites are available, but everything you need has to come over on your back, which limits the amount of photographic gear you’ll be able to haul with you. No cars are allowed on the island.
Yellow lady slippers blossom near a birch branch.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. On the Keweenaw Peninsula, head south and west almost to the border where the U.P. meets Wisconsin on the Lake Superior shore. To the east you’ll find the 60,000-acre Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. The park was named after an ancient mountain range here, and there’s still plenty of topography left, including Summit Peak at 1,958 feet, impressive for the Midwest. Among the photographic highlights are the Lake Superior shore, both at sunrise and sunset, a huge virgin hemlock-pine forest, numerous waterfalls and the awe-inspiring Lake of the Clouds.
Bond Falls State Scenic Site. Leaving the Porkies, as most locals call them, head south and slightly to the east to Bond Falls State Scenic Site, located on the north branch of the Ontonagon River. The upper area is accessible from roadside parking where Bond Falls Road crosses the river immediately below the dam that creates Bond Falls Flowage. This area features a creek flowing sensuously over flat dark rocks. Reflections on this water from the overhead foliage take on the color of the season and make expressive abstract images. Just to the west of the roadside parking is the entrance to the scenic area, providing easier access to the main falls, which drop nearly 50 feet in a series of cascades. Seven miles north, Agate Falls State Scenic Site showcases another beautiful waterfall that’s similar in character and size to Bond Falls.
The Michigan Shore & Fayette Historic State Park. One of those great nearly undiscovered sites for photography that exist all over the Midwest, Fayette State Historic Park features huge limestone bluffs that are part of the Niagara Escarpment, the rock backbone of the Great Lakes that extends from Wisconsin to Niagara Falls and forms a wall on one side of the harbor off of Big Bay de Noc. Facing west, this bluff lights up like it was electrified at sunset. The buildings and grounds of the park are a restoration of an 1860s mining town that used its limestone and hardwoods forests to turn U.P. iron ore into pig iron. The buildings make great architectural subjects, and their construction from local native materials gives them a textural quality that in itself is photogenic.
Sunset light on the cliffs, Big Bay de Noc, Fayette State Historical park
Seney National Wildlife Refuge. Between the Great Lakes shorelines exists a huge wetlands complex. More than grasses and mosquitoes, 95,000 acres of marshes, rivers, sand ridges and bogs are preserved at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge. The Seney is a birder’s and a bird photographer’s paradise. Glacial sand dunes have been transformed by the wind into long fingerlike ridges in a section known for these odd formations and appropriately called Strangmoor Bog, now a registered National Landmark.
Hiawatha National Forest. Just west of the Seney is a beautiful lake region, beginning south of Munising and stretching south almost to the Lake Michigan shore. Much of this region is protected as part of the Hiawatha National Forest. The Hiawatha is made accessible by a network of forest service roads.
All seasons produce great photographic opportunities, but this is the place of the U.P.’s famed fall color show. Lake and color reflections abound, and mushrooms seem to be everywhere on the forest floor. Weekends in late September and early October can swarm with photographers (seemingly as thick as the mosquitoes in spring), but a weekday trip makes it seem like you have the place to yourself, save for the occasional photography tour group you might bump into. No problem—just travel to the next lake, sometimes only hundreds of yards away, and you’ll find yourself alone again.
Fall colors reflect on the water of Moccasin Lake in the Upper Peninsula’s Hiawatha National Forest, Alger Count
Tahquamenon Falls State Park. Traveling east on Michigan 28 and then north on Michigan 123, you reach Tahquamenon Falls State Park and the falls of the same name, arguably the U.P.’s most famous waterfalls. The upper and lower falls are four miles apart—the lower falls are the most photographed and feature a 50-foot drop and a curtain of water flowing over a 200-foot curved ledge.