Five large, bubbling waterfalls cascade around an island in the middle of the Tahquamenon River. Tahquamenon Falls State Park lies deep in the Hiawatha National Forest wilderness, yet getting there is an easy 4 minute drive from Paradise, Michigan, along a forested highway. Visitors come from around the world to witness this beautiful, pristine system of waterfalls. While not as grand and forceful as their sister upstream, the Lower Falls have a playful, accessible charm that the Upper Falls does not.
The approach – a wilderness view
Clearly marked on M-123, the park’s road winds through the woods to a large parking lot. A paved trail leads visitors to the river, which forms a vast, shallow pool at the falls’ terminus. The landscape is compelling, with something beautiful to see in almost every direction, and the focal point of the park, the falls, can be seen upriver.
The trail, wooded and accessible
The paved path leads to a long, wooden boardwalk which curves around the bank of the river, providing views of the falls along the way. The boardwalk is fully accessible, and keeps people off the slippery layers of sandstone at the water’s edge.
Between views of the river and the falls, the dense deciduous forest grows right up to the railings. Hemlock, cedar, and spruce trees predominate the landscape. In fact, it’s the tannins in these particular trees that give the Tahquamenon River its amber color. In many places, thick blankets of moss coat the tree roots, giving the forest a real sense of mystic enchantment.
A largesse of biodiversity
This stunning natural landscape, with the forest edging right up to the bank, makes it easy to see why the park is a hotbed for wildlife. Bald eagles, black bear, porcupine, coyote, fox, otter, deer, mink, pileated woodpeckers, and various songbirds and waterfowl all make their home here. This is also a nesting site for the rare Sandhill Crane, and on occasion, a pair of moose can be spotted in the park.
The park system takes advantage of this diverse ecosystem, and numerous informational placards dot the main trail, teaching visitors about the plant and animal life in the park. The park hosts educational programs and recreational events throughout the year. Park events and activities are usually free. The schedule is available on the Michigan DNR website.
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Feel the spray
While river access is limited to the roughly mile-long boardwalk, you can still get right up close and personal with the falls. The overlooks reach right out to the water’s edge, and the spray from the water spits out in all directions, leaving a layer of mist on everyone and everything. On a hot summer day, the spray is delightfully refreshing.
See it all
While beautiful and easy to traverse, the boardwalk trail does not allow access to the water, nor can visitors see the falls on the south side of the island. Fortunately, the park rents out small canoes, for an easy paddle across the shallows to a boat ramp on the island. Once there, more boardwalk paths and dirt trails greet visitors. Foot traffic is lower in this part of the park, and guests can still get right up to the sandstone shore, wade in the water, and generally explore all of the island. Boat rental runs from Memorial Day (end of may) through Labor Day (Beginning of September). Fees vary, but are only a few dollars per person.
Get right into the water
If you canoe over to the island, or even if you walk far enough along the mainland trail until it turns into dirt footpath, you can get right up to the water’s edge. The island paths allow several places to climb on the Chapel Rock sandstone beaches, and wade into shallow pools. Visitors often bring picnic gear with them and find a lovely little spot to relax and eat after trekking around the island.
So much more than falls
Tahquamenon Falls State Park receives visitors all year round. Near the parking area, numerous picnic tables (some wheelchair accessible) and grills dot the grassy and shady places under the trees. Modern restrooms and a concession area are also located in this area. Miles of hiking trails thread through the park, including a 4 mile (~ 6.4 kilometer) trail that connects the Lower and Upper Falls. Boating is welcome in the Rivermouth area of the park, as well as ADA accessible shore fishing. Fishes commonly caught include: pike, walleye, bass, perch, and trout. In the winter, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and hunting are some of the common activities in the park.
There are 4 campgrounds throughout the park, for both tents and RVs. Two of them are located at the Lower Falls area of the park, both modern campgrounds (electrical, RV hookups, and modern restrooms). Fees for campgrounds vary.
Entrance into the park requires only a Recreation Pass. If you don’t already have one, a day pass can be purchased at the gate for 9 USD, or you can just purchase the Recreation Pass for a year’s access to all of Michigan’s state parks, at 31 USD (prices are lower for Michigan residents).
The Lower Falls is a place of wild beauty and playful water. The Tahquamenon River was an important logging area before it became a park, and it was an important trapping, fishing, and farming area for the Ojibwa Indians before that. This is the landscape of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. It’s also in the same region of the state that Hemingway took inspiration from to write “Big Two-Hearted River.”
Linger here a while
When you visit the Lower Falls of Tahquamenon State Park, do dawdle. Take your time. A large part of the park’s allure, aside from the falls, is its tangible sense of serenity.
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