Thursday, October 30, 2008

Michigan Upper Peninsula Fall Colors

For the last 2 years now, I've been intending to take a trip to the Upper Peninsula to photograph the fall colors that are so talked about up there. However, each time, factors conspired against me and I never made it. A few weeks ago I finally got the chance to do it, and it was an incredible experience.

Planning the trip

My wife and I took 3 days off work so that we would have a 5 day weekend. I picked out a number of locations I wanted to see. Some of it was just popular locations. Others were somewhat obscure locations suggested by people on the forum. Finally, I had one location that was suggested to me by a patron at one of my art shows.

As far as where to go on which day, that was a matter of both color change progression and the weather. I monitored the current color status on a number of websites, including,, and some reports from AAA (no link for those, sorry). Foliage Network seems to be the best of the bunch. Well, as the day approached, it seems most of the UP was changing at the same schedule, and pretty much the whole peninsula was being described as peak, so that was no longer an important factor in my planning.

The weather, on the other hand, was a different story. There was rain for the first few days over the Porcupine Mountains area, so I was planning on leaving that until later in the trip. However, the forecast then adjusted, and the entire time it was planning to rain there. We decided to take our chances and go there first.

Day 1 - The Drive

We were headed for the Porkies, which is about a 10 hour drive from home, so we didn't have much time for anything else. We were a bit slow getting out the door, so by the time we arrived at our hotel, the sun was just about to set. We photographed the sunset from the lake shore, though it wasn't much to write home about (however, it was quite cold and very windy). Nothing eventful for this day.

Day 2 - Porcupine Mountains

This day, I got up at 6 AM (sunrise is about 8AM) and headed up to the Lake of the Clouds (which is about 20 minutes from our hotel). When I got up there, it was pitch black out, and I couldn't see a thing. There wasn't even a moon to see by. I needed to get my flashlight out of the bed of the truck, then find the batteries in one of my bags, all in such pitch black that I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. That difficult process took about 5 minutes. Then I walked out to one of the overlooks. Luckily I had been here once 2 years earlier, so I had at least some idea of where I was going.

When I got out there, I was absolutely amazed at what it was like. Never in my life had I been outside in such absolute darkness, with no moon in sight, no sun about to rise, no cloud cover, and no major cities for a couple hundred miles (even medium sized cities were nearly 100 miles away). I was amazed at just how many stars I could see everywhere. All the blank spaces between stars were actually now a speckled field of 100s of extremely faint stars. I tried to take a few photographs, but it wasn't something I was prepared or experienced with, so it didn't work out very well. A bit later, at about 7:30 (after I had already been here for an hour) I managed to get a really nice 5 second exposure that silhouetted everything but the lake and the sky.

Lake of the Clouds at Dawn

After it started approaching sunrise time, and there was hope to actually be enough light to see a little color on the trees, I moved up to the rocky overlook where the other photographers (who were just now getting there...slackers) were gathered. A few minutes before sunrise, there was enough light to get the color with a long exposure, but the contrast with the sky was too great. I took a 6 photo series (ranging from 1/20 to 1.6 seconds) that I turned into an HDR image

HDR Sunrise at Lake of the Clouds

As it got even brighter a few minutes later, I was finally able to really see the color.

Carp River in the Porcupine Mountains

At that point, I figured my wife had to be awake, showered, and ready to go, so I headed back to the hotel to shower, eat, and head out. By now it was sprinkling out, which was how it would remain most of the day. We headed back up to Lake of the Clouds so that she could see it, and so I could do some more photography now that it was much brighter. I did a few panoramas. We then headed off through the park, hit the Overlooked falls and the Summit Peak tower. I took a some photos along the trail

Mossy Rock and Leaf

Then we hit the waterfalls along the Presque Isle River.

Manido Falls

By now it was getting late (days are short, especially when locations are far apart), so we got something to eat and headed back to the hotel. It was cloudy, so sunset was uninteresting.

Day 3 - Bond Falls, Munising, and Seney

The next day it was cloudy so I didn't bother going out for sunrise. We took our time getting up and headed off towards Munising, making a brief stop at Bond Falls along the way. Here there was some color at the bottom, but up top where all the small cascades were, there wasn't nearly as much color and I wasn't able to get any good autumn shots up there.

Bond Falls

We headed off to Munising and checked into a hotel. My wife wasn't feeling good at the moment, so we took a rest and didn't do much for a few hours. Then we went up to Munising Falls and Miners Castle for a few easy sights to see.

Miners Castle

After that, she was feeling a bit better, so we took a trip down to some of the small lakes that are abundant south of Munising. We checked out Pete's Lake and Grassy Lake, but there wasn't much to see there. Then we found Red Jack Lake, which had some really nice reflections.

Red Jack Lake

Then we headed just around the corner to Council Lake, which is regarded by many as being one of the best lakes. There were some nice birch trees around the lake, but when I was there it was way too windy to get any sort of decent reflections. We went back to town, and then headed over to Seney National Wildlife Refuge to catch the sunset. We were a bit late in making that plan, and when we got there golden hour was half gone. We did the best we could with what time was left, and I think considering the light we found, it ended up working out for the better.

Seney NWR

Seney NWR

I also managed to find a number of stunning reflections of swamp wood that looked like various creatures. The most striking was this angelfish

Swamp Wood Angelfish

As the light faded we found a spot to get some nice photos of the color. Each time I was tempted to stay somewhere and photograph the sunset color, we reluctantly drove further only to be glad we did when we found another unique and interesting spot to photograph each time.

Seney Sunset

Day 4 - Wagner Falls, Tahquamenon Falls, and Mission Overlook

The next day, I got up early to see if it was worth driving anywhere for sunrise. I went outside and couldn't see a single star. I checked the satellite on the laptop and saw nothing but a thick layer of clouds in every direction for well over 100 miles. As it started lightening up, I double checked outside and it looked like nothing but solid clouds. Sure enough that there was nothing to be seen, I settled back into the hotel room. A while later I walked outside and was disappointed to see that somehow I had missed an opportunity to get some nice color.

Missed Opportunity

Let that be a lesson to never assume you won't get something worthwhile. Anyway, after showering and breakfast, we made a quick stop at Wagner Falls (where there wasn't much color at all) and then headed straight for Tahquamenon. The day ended up being mostly overcast, which fared well for photographing across water.

We hit the Upper Falls first, where there was a little bit of color, but not a whole ton. However, the lower falls had a wonderful amount of color, and was by far the more interesting of the two. Unfortunately, they weren't renting rowboats at this time of year, so we didn't make it over to the island.

Upper Tahquamenon Falls

Lower Tahquamenon Falls

After that we headed off for our last destination. Someone had told me about the Mission cemetery overlook. We knew approximately where it was (within a mile or so), but weren't 100% positive. We headed down some of the back roads looking for it. On the way, there was a lookout point noted on my map, located at the top of a very tall hill. We diverted off to check that out. To make a long story short, they were some incredibly steep and twisty dirt/damp roads that were clearly intended for ORV's and not cars. Luckily we didn't get stuck, though my wife did get a bit panicked. We made it up to the top somehow, but all there was up there was a bunch of trees keeping you from seeing anything. It was a very interesting experience, but not worthwhile. Once out of there, we eventually found the cemetery on the west side of Spectacle Lake. Once there, the view was every bit as good as we were told.

Mission Cemetery Overlook

When we finished with that, it was still a bit early, so we headed over to the Point Iroquois Lighthouse for a few photos (it was raining last time we were there).

At this point, we had hit everything that was on our list. We needed to be home no later than midday of the next day and we had about a 6 hour drive ahead of us. The best we could have done was to get in another 3-4 hours of photography (minus driving time), but even then we weren't sure what to see. Instead we decided to just head home early.

Day 5 - Nothing

We got home the night before, so nothing to report here except a day of relaxation (at least for wife had a test to study for).

More Photos

What I've posted here were just a subset of the best photos from the trip. The rest of the keepers can be found here:
2008 Michigan UP Fall Colors Gallery

Final Thoughts

Going up there was a wonderful trip. I'd recommend it to anyone that wants to see some great colors. Overall, I was very satisfied with the trip. I would have liked to see some more color at several of the waterfalls, and as a whole, I would have liked to see more red trees, as they were in short supply (mostly yellows and oranges everywhere). Other than that, it was great

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