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I have to say that I was a wee bit nervous and a touch skeptical for days leading up to our departure for this trip. Can you blame me? I mean, I was about to take my not-even-two-year-old completely out of her element, away from her comfort zone, far from almost everything she knows and holds dear. I was about to take her on her first ever camping trip. And this wasn’t just a short little one-night camp-a-couple-of-miles-away-from-the-house camping trip. Nope. We were going big with a 4-day tent camping trip in the no-cell-phone-service, backwoods, remote area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Now you can see why I felt so skeptical. She just learned how to walk a few months ago (feels like it was just yesterday). Her conversations are full of babble and nonsense, though she’s trying to learn, and it must make sense to her at least. We were about to take her away from her air-conditioned room, her comfy crib, all of her favorite noise-making toys, her beloved favorite movie, Moana. This was going to be scary, yet I assume more for me than her.
I ran through my typical camping checklist to make sure we had everything we needed, but the checklist grew tremendously when planning for a toddler. Upon packing the bed of the truck, I had to think more about how everything would fit. It was more like a game of Tetris, making sure to leave no open spaces in order to fit it all. After a few adjustments, and some last-minute additions by my wife, it all fit, but we didn’t have any room for error.
I couldn’t sleep the night before due to the excitement and anticipation of how the trip would turn out. We all woke up early to get ready and to pack the last-minute items. I was impressed that we were able to leave the house by 7:30 am, but we did and were on the road, beginning our family adventure. My plan was to drive the boring I-75 freeway up to Standish, then head east on US-23 on the Sunrise Coast Tour. It would take us along the eastern and northern coast of Lake Huron, through beautiful towns such as Omer, Michigan’s smallest city, Tawas City on the shores of Saginaw Bay, Alpena along the shoreline of Thunder Bay, Rogers City, also known as The Nautical City and home to the 40 Mile Point Lighthouse, and Cheboygan.
The drive was spectacular once we veered off I-75. We had opportunities to stop at a couple of beaches on the Lake Huron shores and climb to the top of the 40 Mile Point Lighthouse. It turned what could have been a five-hour drive into a nine-hour scenic adventure, but it was definitely worth it. We briefly stopped in Mackinaw City for a late lunch and continued on across the Mackinac Bridge and into the Upper Peninsula.
Here, everything seemed to change. It felt as if we passed through a portal into another world. It was absolutely stunning. The beauty of the dense, tall forests; the sounds of all the thriving wildlife; even the air smelled different, fresher, soothing to the senses. As we drove further and further north, my daughter Abby said something that I will never forget,
“Daddy, not one of these trees up here is ugly. Every one of them is just beautiful.”
When we finally arrived at the campsite, John, Julie, and Preston were already there. We were sharing a site with my wife’s cousin, his son, and his wife at the Lower Tahquamenon Falls Hemlock Campground. They already had their 32-foot camper parked, leveled, and set up by the time we arrived. This was great as we now had an option for little Allie if she couldn’t handle the 3 nights in the tent, but I wasn’t about to chump out and not try with her doing the whole rustic camping. I also have to give credit for some of the photos here to Julie Rader, photographer, and owner of Bella Essence Photography, based in Waterford, Michigan. Thanks, Julie.
We set up our tent and somewhat organized the truck bed with having easy access to the things we would need the most. Then, it was finally relax and enjoy time. John had the fire in the pit already going, so we had the opportunity to kick our feet up, sit back, and enjoy the calming sounds of the crackling fire, the smell of the fresh, still-dampened wood burning, and the sight of the bright colors of the flames dancing within the metal fire ring.
The bigger kids, and by bigger I mean 7 and 8 years old, were intrigued and curiously asking questions about the falls so we agreed to take them on the 0.7-mile hiking trail from the campsite to the lower falls that evening to see them up close and in person. This view of the lower falls was new to my wife and me, even though we had visited these falls about 13 years ago. The big difference was that we only had a view of the falls from the main parking lot, much further away. We didn’t get the chance to view them from this vantage point before. From here, we could feel the mist the water let off as it fell over the rocky drop-offs, just below the boardwalk that we found ourselves on.
After spending a few moments at this wondrous location, taking photos, and just taking in the natural beauty of the lower falls, we hiked it back up the trail we had just trekked down and made it back to our site to enjoy the late evening sun go down, cook ourselves a late night campfire dinner and dessert, and kick back around the bonfire laughing, telling jokes and stories, and your typical campfire antics.
When I am on vacation, I personally like to stay up late and wake up at the crack of dawn, usually before everyone else, to enjoy every drop of sunlight that I can. I figure that I can get sleep when I’m at home and have to work. I prefer to savor the time I have when I don’t really have to be responsible. So, the next morning, I found myself awake around 6:20 am. Quietly, I gathered my belongings from the tent pockets, slowly unzipped the tent flap, crawled out, paying close attention not to wake my three sleeping beauties. We had stayed up decently late the night before, so the remains of a large log were still smoldering in the pit. Perfect. It would make it much easier to start the morning’s fire to heat up and make coffee in the percolator then get breakfast going.
It was still very early, so before breakfast, I decided to just enjoy a few cups of coffee and the book I was currently reading, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. A couple of hours had drifted by and I began to hear stirring from the rest of the camp, so that meant it was time for breakfast. We took our grand ol’ time to get ready and enjoyed a scrumptious meal as we discussed the day’s plan. Abby and Preston took this time to run around the campground and chase each other around as Preston had enough room in their vehicles to bring his bike. Abby was still content with not having hers, even though I know she would have been reveling in all her glory if we had been able to fit hers.
By the time we had everything cleaned up from breakfast and talked some more, it was lunchtime already. Our plan that day was to hike from the lower falls on the North Country Trail, along the Tahquamenon River, upstream all the way to the upper falls. We knew that it wouldn’t be an easy trek for Allie, our almost-two-year-old, so Jackie agreed to stick around the campsite with her while the rest of us took on the challenge of the hike. This would give both Allie and Jackie a chance to enjoy a midday’s nap before they would drive to the upper falls to meet up with us in a few hours where we could all enjoy dinner at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery.
After a quick peek at the map of the trails, we saw that it was about a 4-mile hike from the lower falls to the upper falls. What we didn’t take into account was the almost 1-mile hike from the campground to the lower falls, and the 1-mile hike from the end of the primitive NCT trail along the paved walking paths of the upper falls area to the actual falls themselves. In essence, what we thought to be a 4-mile hike turned into over 6 miles in all.
It took us about 3 hours on this journey as we had to stop multiple times for photo-ops, hydration and snack breaks, as well as taking our time to be cautious in multiple locations where great care was required to cross over muddy wetland areas, tiptoeing across logs floating on top of the muddy pits. The elevation gain on the trail is over 600 feet, and the trail is rated as medium difficulty according to the Michigan DNR. About halfway through, we even had the chance to catch a glimpse of the Spirit of Tahquamenon. I caught a photo of the spirit in the tree. I pointed it out to the kids and told them that if you listen very, very closely you can hear the spirit magically whispering,
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,”
which also happens to be a quote by the great Albert Einstein.
Around every curve in the trail, through each opening of the towering trees, and over the top of every hillcrest, you could feel and hear a deep breath of awe being taken by each of us in the group. The trail was splendid. The views were breathtaking. I wished Allie and Jackie could have witnessed this. One day, I will bring them both back here to experience the magic that was happening on this ramble. The further we continued, the more I couldn’t wait to meet up with my wife and little peanut. I was having the time of my life, but all in the same, I was wishing I could have enjoyed it with the entirety of my family. All the loves of my life at once.
There was a moment that we were deep in the forest; we couldn’t see the river at this moment, but as we trekked through the trees well above water level, a familiar sound faintly began. With each step, it slowly grew louder and louder. At this point, my feet felt like I had attached an extra couple pound weights to the bottom of them. However, the pleasantly familiar sound provided me extra strength to lift the extra weight and continue on to what I anticipated was not far ahead of us.
The sound I had heard began as a whisper and slowly grew to a rumble, getting louder and louder. I began to feel it deep inside myself. All of a sudden, an opening like a window within the trees gave light to the massive Upper Tahquamenon Falls. We were still a ways from it but were peering down upon them from hundreds of feet above. My heart jumped in utter delight like seeing your old best friend from elementary school after 13 years of being apart. Seeing the look on Abby’s eyes face melted my heart, as she had never seen falls this enormous before. I could still tell that she didn’t quite understand how monstrous they truly were until we would get up close and personal about a mile ahead of us.
All of us were exhausted at this point, but seeing the falls seemed to provide us all with a second wind to pick up the pace with a pep in our step now. We finally made it to the end of the forest dirt path of the North Country Trail and were able to tread on the paved paths of the Upper Falls Day Use Area. I have to say that now, after hiking this portion of the NCT, I have a completely different feeling on this trail than any other hike I have completed. I feel like I now have a deeper connection with nature, and a feeling like a new spirit has entered my soul. I can’t explain the feeling, but it is wondrous.
As we made our way in the direction of the parking lot, wondering how we were going to try and find my wife, Jackie and my youngest daughter, Allie, they appeared out of the crowd heading toward us. Abby was so excited to see them that she jumped up and down and took off running to give her momma a great big hug. What perfect timing, as they had just shown up and parked the truck not even 10 minutes prior.
We still wanted to see the falls up close, so we turned right back around on the path and headed toward them. As we drew nearer to the brink, the rumble continued to grow louder into a roar. We were now only 94 steps down to arrive at the highlight of the trip. As we stepped down onto the main platform at the brink, the kids couldn’t help but let out a powerful “Wow!!!” That was exactly the reaction I had expected and now felt yet again myself.
A little bit of knowledge for you; the Upper Falls is over 200 feet wide and nearly 50 feet high. Over 50,000 gallons of water can spill over this spectacular waterfall every second, per the website exploringthenorth.com.
After spending a good 30 minutes here just reveling in the magnificence of this awesome waterfall, I still didn’t want to leave, but my stomach was telling me otherwise, literally. It began to growl so loud that even the people around me turned to see what the commotion was. So we headed back up and around to enjoy an amazing dinner at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery, then pack all seven of us in our double cab Chevy Silverado and head back to camp to sit and watch the embers dance in the blaze of the campfire, loosen up our muscles, and enjoy each others’ company talking about what we had seen and felt that day.
Saturday morning woke me early again, even after all the hiking from the day before. I was completely okay with it, too. I was happy to be able to savor the mornings solo in the camp, establishing the morning fires, and enjoying my coffees in the sweet-smelling wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This day would end up being way more fun than we all had expected. As the rest of the camp arose and came to life, we began to cook breakfast earlier than we had the day before. This also gave us an opportunity to discuss and make plans for this day.
I had printed off directions from our campsite to a few different sightseeing spots within a decent driving distance. We came upon an agreement to check out the Crisp Point Lighthouse in Newberry, on the north shore on Lake Superior. After cleaning up after breakfast and organizing and packing our things for the drive, we were able to hit the road at a decent time. We had decided to take both trucks since we weren’t to keen on trying to cram all 7 of us in the same truck like the evening prior. I led the way. We pulled out of the campground and headed west on M-123 for about 8 miles to where we needed to head north onto Northwestern Road for another 12 miles. As soon as we turned onto Northwestern, the road turned to dirt and I kicked the truck into high gear and punched the gas. I love driving this truck on dirt backroads. John needed to stay back a good distance due to all the dust I was kicking up behind us.
Just a little over 6 miles before we were to end up at the lighthouse, we followed the signs leading us onto Little Lake Harbor Road through the Lake Superior State Forest. This is where the ride got really interesting. The dirt road narrowed. The trees and other flora closed in on the road. I don’t even really think I could call it a road anymore, as it was more of an ORV trail of sand, no longer dirt. This is where I had to turn on the 4-wheel drive and bask in the excitement of driving this winding, twisting trail up and down small steep hills deep in the woods just parallel to the northern shore. The woods were so dense that you couldn’t yet see the water. It felt like a rollercoaster ride, and I couldn’t help but shriek and smile at how giddy I felt with the buzz I had driving here.
After just over 6 miles of this, we came to a steep hill up, and as we reached the summit the trees opened up to display the grand view of Lake Superior. What a sight; and during such a rush of adrenaline. I lost my breath for a moment at the unexpected change in scenery. We had arrived at our destination. The lighthouse was just up around the bend. We found our way to the parking lot, grabbed the kids, and headed out to the beach.
The sand was soft and warm from the sun. Upon closer inspection of the sand, it wasn’t just your typical tan or light brown color. It was a mix of brown and black specks, which made it seem much darker than usual and very cool to see the mixture up close. Once you make your way closer to the water, the sand turns to small rocks. All of these rocks were about the size of a small apple, but flat and smooth, displaying multiple different colors and designs. Almost every single one of them seemed perfect for skipping on the top of the water.
The Crisp Point Lighthouse was just a short way up the beach, but before we headed over there, I had to capture some awesome photos and test out the waters. The water was almost ice cold, causing me to shiver a bit as the waves splashed up over my feet, but changed the colors and look of all the rocks it had a chance to touch. The Lighthouse was built in 1875, located 14 miles west of Whitefish Point, and stands roughly 60 feet tall looking out over Lake Superior. Due to the difficulty of the roads leading to this lighthouse, most of the crowds of tourists choose to visit the much more easily accessible Whitefish Point Lighthouse instead, leaving Crisp Point much quieter and serene with almost deserted shores.
We had the opportunity to climb the 62 steps to the top for a tremendous view and breathtaking photos. I use the term breathtaking purposely, as you walk around the narrow balcony, the winds are strong and the railing only stands at thigh height. But what a view it provides for those brave enough to enjoy.
After spending a couple of hours here, we decided to head back to camp, regroup, change into our bathing suits and head back to the lower falls. This time, we wouldn’t just watch them from the boardwalk. Nope, we wanted to swim and play in them. When first stepping into the knee-deep waters of the great Tahquamenon River, just upstream from the first drop, the current takes you a bit by surprise. The water here was cool, but not freezing. Much warmer than the Lake Superior waters. I was able to follow Jackie and Abby across the river with Allie on my shoulders to get across to the island. After some photos, I took Allie back across and waiting for Jackie and Abby to return.
It was now my turn to go across with Abby, and take the short trail walking around the island. We were the only ones to do this, so we were lucky enough to be the only ones from our group to see the third set of falls at the Lower Tahquamenon Falls. I remember when my wife and I were here 13 years ago, from the main viewing area by the parking lot, you could see all 3 falls from a distance, but the trail from our campsite that brought us to the falls was on the opposite side of the island from these here parts. Abby gave me a huge smile, hugged me, and told me that she felt lucky to be the only ones in our group to witness these falls.
It was not getting late and we were all beginning to feel the onset of hunger so we agreed to head back to camp, make dinner, and reminisce about our U.P. adventures as we stayed up as late as we all could on this last night with a giant fire, s’mores, pie iron pies, and great company. The next morning was planned for packing up camp, reorganizing the bed of the truck again, and beginning the long drive back home. However, it wasn’t without adventure. As myself, Jackie, Abby, and Allie made our own way, we decided to stop and climb Castle Rock in St. Ignace and check out the Mystery Spot. After crossing the bridge, we stopped for a late lunch at Dixie Saloon in Mackinaw City, then it was nothing but freeway for the long ride home.
I won’t ever forget this epic adventure. It was Allie’s very first tent camping trip, both of my girls’ first time in the U.P., and my first day-hike on the NCT. It would be a tough adventure to forget, for sure. It’s tough to go back to our normal suburban life after spending time in such a rural backcountry setting that Michigan’s Upper Peninsula provides. Make sure you plan to visit Tahquamenon Falls at some point. You won’t be disappointed. I can’t wait to head further West in the U.P. in the near future. Time to begin planning. Ta-ta for now.