It’s that time of year again when the temps are cold, a good layer of snow has fallen and I’ve been cooped up long enough that I’m ready to get out for a good adventure. One of the reasons I love winter hiking and backpacking (besides no mosquitos) is the solitude it brings. It’s truly a gift to be able to enjoy a scene; untouched by others, shaped only by the hands of Mother Nature and so quiet you can hear the sound of the snowflakes falling on the ground.
Tahquamenon Falls are a Michigan wonder, and every year many flock to the “mini Niagara” in the Summer and Fall to take in the spectacle of the roaring falls and beautiful scenery. However, few know that the falls are also in their glory during the freeze of winter. The glory of the falls without the crowds; this was what I wanted to experience. The park also has an great trail system, with trail loops for all levels (some which are groomed ski trails and some are rugged backcountry). It seems this is one of a few State parks in Michigan not afraid of the cold. Even the Lower Falls campground here is maintained and open during the cold winter months and winter activities are encouraged.
The winter has been extremely mild in Michigan this year. Mid-Feb and Detroit has seen almost no snow. I was worried there wouldn’t even be enough snow on the ground to warrant a snowshoe trip this year. So I looked north to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where snow was sure to be falling. The drive to the UP is a long one from Detroit but worth it for some real northern wilderness experiences. Despite the mild winter, there was over two feet of snow on the trails at the park; certainly snowshoe worthy and adventure ready.
The most popular sections of the park are the Upper and Lower Falls. Most visitors will drive to the parking lot and walk the short trail to the falls. The snow on the trails in these short sections is quite packed down so winter boots without snowshoes would suffice. I started at Lower Falls but picked up the the 4 mile backcountry trail to Upper falls along the North Country Trail’s Tahquamenon River Trail.
This trail was the most scenic part of the weekend trek. The trail follows the Tahquamenon River for the duration, climbing the steep banks, and providing riverside and hill-top views of the mighty river. There are a series of stairs and boardwalks in this section. As a result, I would not recommend pulling a winter sled if you are backpacking.
Lower falls was a wintery sight. A thick block of ice was building up on the viewing platform from the mist blowing up from the falls. You can hear the roar of the rushing water long before you reach the falls. The brown water is a drastic contrast from the white of the snow. The water is stained deep brown from the tannins that leech from the cedar swamps. I liken the falls during the winter to a root beer float.
The heavy, wet snow clung to the trees and created some pretty spectacular winter landscapes along the trail. Though the temps were in the high twenties, the trail was enough of a challenge to get a good sweat going. Very few people ventured beyond the falls to the River Trail section, so the stillness of the woods and the sound of the water were welcoming and peaceful.
The River Trail emerges at Upper Falls. There were several people wandering about to check out the falls and heading back for bonfires and hot cocoa at the visitors center. A sneak peak of the falls through the trees was awe-inspiring.
Though the falls are usually caked with thick ice, this year they were running full force. The stairs to the “Brink” viewing platform are worth the effort as they put you right next to the falls; close enough to feel the spray of the mist rising up from below. The same mist that blasts the nearby vegetation and banks, creating a thick hoarfrost that resembles something from a icy magical land.
Though evening was drawing to close, there was still another couple of miles to go to the backcountry campsite and nightfall comes early in winter. The trail leaving the falls is called Giant Pines loop and is groomed for cross country skiers in the winter. After leaving the Giant pines loop to get on the the Wilderness loop, the trail becomes instantly wild (hence the name?). The narrow, rugged trail was buried deep under the two plus feet of snow, making the last mile to camp seem a lot more difficult than the 6 miles prior in the day.
I had booked a reservation for backcountry campsites through the park system a few days before the trip. It appears that there is only one “campsite” in the backcountry camping area. The wilderness site is close to the junction with the NCT had a log seat and a fire pit (well buried under snow). The was a a rope and a bag strung up in a nearby tree for a bear hang and a wooden seat (no outhouse) for a privy (now that’s a room with a view). Very rustic, but that is my kind of camping. After a hearty dinner, a roasty campfire and some smoreo making, I hit the hay and drifted off to sleep to the sound of a lone coyote singing its night song.
One of the benefits of cold weather camping is being able to pack in whatever food you desire. The menu for breakfast was a gourmet feed of vegetable omelettes. A hearty feast for a cold and stormy morning.
The trails here are incredibly well marked, with blazes visible from one tree to the next and trail sign posts and maps, visible even in the snow. Navigation was never a problem, making this an awesome trail for newbie winter backpackers. The trails are rugged with a few ups and downs, but overall very easy terrain.
Clark loop is another trail option that can be included on your hike. Clark loop connects the Wilderness loop and Clark Lake. Clark Lake has a backcountry campsite, similar in amenities to the Wilderness site. The site has spectacular lake views. The lake was surprisingly large, perfect for wide-open, night sky gazing and sunrise watching. Although Clark lake is only a couple of miles from the main drag of the park, not another soul was out exploring the backcountry trails over the weekend. Their loss is my gain.
Beyond Clark Lake, the hike out is fairly level as this is a gravel road in the summer months but is closed during the winter and requires snowshoes. The trail system re- connects with the visitor trails at the Lower Falls area and makes this a perfect loop adventure with no need to shuffle cars. The mileage can be adapted by piecing together the various loop systems to accommodate your needs and wants. My only complaint (albeit small) for the trail was that no matter how far back in the woods you were, you could still hear the roar of the snowmobiles whizzing up and down the sled trail system that runs through the park. The hiking trails cross their trails twice, so be sure to stop and look both ways because they certainly speed through all day without slowing down.
This is just another wonderful Michigan trail worth checking out; regardless of the season and how much time you have to wander. A section of this trail is made up of North Country Trail, so I was able to add another 6.5 miles on to my 100 Mile NCT challenge for the year! If you aren’t a rugged adventurer, there are definitely opportunities to wander on gentle trails around the falls on a short day hike. When you are done and want to warm up at the end of the day, I would wander over to the Inn Gastropub and Smokehouse in Paradise. You can warm your soul with some delicious food (all handmade, even the ketchup). They had poutine on the menu so it was hands down a winner for me. No matter what type of Winter adventure you are searching for, Tahquamenon falls has something for everyone!