Picture the most vibrant Kodachrome slide you have ever seen. Now imagine looking down from a mountaintop at tens of thousands of treetops as vibrant and far more moving than that slide. This is one of many bucket-list-quality, super-real autumn views we have experienced in our home state. This is peak color in Michigan.
Michigan abounds with fall color and spectacular woodland and water’s edge locations to catch it. We clear our calendar of all non-essentials in October and chase the color and light southward from the northern borders of the Upper Peninsula to the southern borders of the Lower Peninsula.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park at the west end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a photographer’s paradise because of that bird’s-eye view and an exhausting supply of other autumn forest, river, waterfall and Great Lake photography opportunities.
Peak color comes early to the Porcupine Mountains, so we like to start our fall shooting there a few days either side of Oct. 1 and work our way eastward through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Must-shoot places for us include the Keweenaw Peninsula around Copper Harbor, Presque Isle at Marquette, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior at Munising and the spectacular Tahquamenon Falls, featuring the largest falls east of the Mississippi, and Whitefish Point further east.
Munising is like a home away from home for us. Dozens of nearby waterfalls—each with their own personality—offer unique settings for fall color imagery. Forest edges looming high above the Pictured Rocks make the perfect added ingredient to Castle Rock and miles of stone cliffs that turn to gold and a myriad of other colors when the evening light paints them. The Hiawatha National Forest is a fall color treasure trove. Perhaps our favorite spot is a mixed white birch and maple forest off of county highway H-58 between Munising and Grand Marais. Stop at the ranger’s office in Munising for maps, directions and tips.
If time and weather permit, seize the opportunity to experience seeing the Pictured Rocks cliffs and shoreline fall color from Lake Superior aboard one of the Pictured Rocks Cruises boats. We recommend the Sunset Cruise for best odds of magic light. Make motel, cabin or campground reservations well ahead during peak color season.
Don’t be afraid to ask the locals for information wherever you travel in Michigan. We know from our years of photo hunting throughout the state and from driving 60,000 miles in search of images for our two national award-winning Michigan books, Michiganders are proud of their state and almost all are eager to help photographers show off its beauty. As for private property, our experience and advice is to ask for permission and you will probably receive it. We try to support local businesses, and that is a great place to find local knowledge. We have had people we never met before volunteer at a grocery store or diner to show us the way to one of their favorite lookouts. Leading us to their favorite fishing hole might not happen; that we understand.
By the middle of October, our shooting has moved southward over the Mackinac Bridge to follow peak fall color through northern Michigan, especially areas north of U.S. Route 10 where public land abounds. There are tens of thousands of acres of state and national forests in the Lower Peninsula. Excellent shooting spots are widespread.
Among the most well-known fall color tour spots in northern Michigan is the Tunnel of Trees north of the picturesque waterfront village of Harbor Springs. For something different in terms of fall color, we love photographing the tamarack trees along the Jordan River in the Jordan River Valley when their needles turn yellow.
Perhaps the best-kept-secret, grand vista spot for viewing fall color in the Lower Peninsula awaits visitors in the Manistee National Forest at the Manistee River High Rollway near Buckley, about 25 miles south of Traverse City. Do an online search for directions there by highways, county paved roads and easily-negotiated dirt roads. Or just ask a local.
National forest lands along highway M-37, M-55 and U.S. 10 offer many fall color opportunities. Don’t overlook Michigan’s rivers. Some of our favorites include the Platte, Pine, Manistee and Pere Marquette. We have hired Orvis fishing guides in the Baldwin area to take photographers on guided tours down the pristine Pere Marquette River. Their drift boats offer a comfortable, stable platform from which to shoot national forest and private lands along this national Wild and Scenic River. Photographers can fish, of course, but the guides are more than happy to do the fishing and serve as models at the same time. Besides fall color, appreciate the beauty of the river itself and be ready for jump shots of deer, ducks and even an occasional eagle or osprey. Gourmet meals served on the river are an option.
If you want to photograph fall color, the Lake Michigan shoreline and dunes in one outing, head west and travel highway M-22 in and out of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. You will find out why Sleeping Bear Dunes was voted “Most Beautiful Place in America” in an ABC “Good Morning America” viewer poll. Don’t miss the Pierce Stocking Drive scenic overlooks that were handpicked and created by a lumberman who had a big heart for his forest and shoreline land before it became public property. Also don’t miss traveling M-22 and other highways and byways further south through Frankfort, Arcadia, Manistee, Ludington, Pentwater, Silver Lake and more—all the way to Muskegon and beyond.
The Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness between Manistee and Ludington abounds with uncrowded trails. Due to the moderating influence of Lake Michigan, woodland areas on the Lakeshore usually peak with fall color about a week later than woodlands even a few miles inland. Thus, we are often able to shoot peak color throughout the first week of November in west Michigan at some of our favorite spots, like the Ludington State Park.
We were fortunate to grow up in Ludington, one of the most beautiful places in all of Michigan. Three of our six photography books feature images solely from this Lake Michigan shoreline area, to which people flock from around the country. Ludington is our front yard and back yard; we know it well. Our favorite fall color shooting spots near here include Ludington State Park and the Pere Marquette River. We also love photographing the Michigan countryside, especially in Mason and Oceana counties. One of the most gorgeous country road maple tree canopies we have found in Michigan lies within 15 minutes of our downtown Ludington photography gallery on Conrad Road.
While we find it easier to discover a greater amount of fall color beauty in the Upper Peninsula and upper half of the Lower Peninsula, we and others who get off the highways and onto Michigan’s byways know there is fall color beauty throughout Michigan, including southeast Michigan, near Detroit. One of my favorite nature preserves is the Kensington Metropark, a large nature preserve at Milford, between Brighton and Detroit. It is a popular place, so if you want it largely to yourself, go on a weekday and be there when the gates open. We have had close-up and personal encounters with whitetail deer, sandhill cranes, great blue herons and wild turkeys while hiking well-marked trails. Nature preserves are prevalent throughout Michigan.
For landscape photographers who sometimes include manmade objects or domesticated animals in their images, the Michigan landscape is dotted with both. We love trying to make good art that includes Michigan’s historic barns and lighthouses. One tip we like to offer for building these and other landscape compositions is to make certain your images include a strong foreground, along with the middle-ground and background. A lot of photographers leave out the foreground or don’t get close enough to it. Their images often wind up looking like pictures, instead of feeling like three-dimensional experiences that put the viewer in the scene. We say good photography is all about feeling. During autumn we sometimes employ leafy branches as colorful framing devices.
If you don’t time your Michigan fall color photography trip right due to Mother Nature or scheduling conflicts, do not despair. The quality of light in Michigan in October is as good as it gets almost anywhere, anytime. We love shooting the light and shadow that plays on Michigan’s world-class sand dunes in autumn, especially at Silver Lake Sand Dunes near Hart, Michigan. Get directed to the pedestrian area if you are up for some climbing. Otherwise, take a tour with Mac Wood’s Dune Rides at Silver Lake, if they are open, or go to Little Sable Point Lighthouse, where there is a paved path from the parking lot to the lighthouse that affords excellent shoreline views.
In the middle of a sunny Michigan day, you are apt to find us inside a forest where the fall color is not burned out by the harsh light. Probably our favorite midday pursuit is looking for reflections of fall color in streams and lakes. The Sable River at Ludington State Park is one of our favorite locations for shooting color on the water. An occasional bonus there is seeing and photographing a salmon spawning on a bed in the shallow river with the fall color reflected on the surface.
Michigan is known as a cloudy state, so expect them, but look at it the way we do: “Clouds are your friends.” October is the time for powerful clouds and crisp skies that can add a great deal to your landscapes or waterscapes or can make a beautiful subject by themselves. Mother Nature is apt to occasionally churn up the Great Lakes into roiling seas that startle with their beauty and power. Michigan has many moods; we go with the flow and are always rewarded with images that make us glad we got off the couch. The Michigan outdoor photography possibilities are endless year around, but especially during autumn, the season of color and light.
Todd and Brad Reed are a father-son outdoor photography team based in Ludington, Michigan. See more of their work at toddandbradreed.com.