The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is home to more than 300 waterfalls.
PARADISE, Mich. (AP) -- You hear them long before you see them.
From a distance, they sound like a steady breeze stirring the treetops. Tread closer along the leaf-strewn path, however, and the roar of water, cascading over cliffs or dashing down steplike drop-offs, becomes unmistakable.
Finally the falls come into view, plunging into rocky gorges and spewing misty sprays aloft -- a crashing symphony of sight and sound, an awesome display of nature's beauty and strength.
"It may not be Niagara, but it's a lot prettier," Bob Overkamp of Cadillac said recently, staring transfixed at the biggest of the Tahquamenon Falls -- a 50-foot-high, 200-foot-wide deluge on the river where the legendary Hiawatha was said to have built his canoe.
Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula is surrounded on three sides by Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior and is crisscrossed with inland lakes and rivers. Tourists paddle canoes and kayaks, swim and pursue elusive trout in these waters. They pitch tents beside them, or simply pause to dip their feet.
With all that water, there would have to be falls. The "U.P.," as it is popularly known, boasts more than 300 waterfalls, from the mighty Tahquamenon to little-known streams tumbling down rocky hillsides in out-of-the-way corners. About half of them are publicly accessible.
Waterfall gazing is an ideal centerpiece for any U.P. vacation itinerary, whether you're a hard-core wilderness backpacker or an RVer whose tastes run more to gift shops and museums. Some falls are 10-minute strolls from paved parking lots. Others are in deep forests, reachable only by vigorous hiking.
"They're just about our No. 1 warm-weather attraction," said Tom Nemacheck, executive director of the U.P. Travel and Recreation Association.
If you have time and enjoy being on the road, you could sample waterfalls across the Upper Peninsula. Be advised, however: It's a deceptively large place. More than 300 miles separate Sault Ste. Marie, on the Canadian border in the eastern U.P., from Ironwood on the western end.
The only four-lane highway is a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 75 between Sault Ste. Marie and the Mackinac Bridge, which links Michigan's Lower and Upper peninsulas. "Yoopers," as U.P. natives proudly call themselves, treasure the laid-back lifestyle and don't enjoy being tailgated by "fudgies" (vernacular for tourists who patronize the region's fudge shops). Slow down and smell the Cornish pasties -- but more on those culinary concoctions later.
Making the trip
So if you're spending, say, a week in the U.P., consider remaining in one area and exploring the rest later. Among the choices: the Keweenaw Peninsula in the northwestern U.P.; Porcupine Mountain State Park in the far west; and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which follows the Lake Superior shoreline in the central U.P. All feature glorious scenery, including waterfalls by the dozen.
For people heading north from Detroit on I-75, the eastern Upper Peninsula is closest, and offers another incentive: Tahquamenon Falls State Park is just 70 miles beyond the bridge.
Tahquamenon draws about 500,000 people annually, making it the peninsula's most frequently visited state park. The top attraction is the 50-foot drop-off known as the Upper Falls, the largest waterfall in the eastern United States after Niagara Falls. Paved pathways near the parking area make the Upper Falls easily accessible. A staircase descends to a wooden platform where the waters begin their descent, but the return climb is steep. If you'd rather not try it, the views from above are plenty impressive.
The water hurtles downward at up to 50,000 gallons per second, making a thunderous, foamy splash before flowing toward the less spectacular but equally beautiful Lower Falls four miles downstream. A riverside path -- part of the North Country Trail -- links the two falls. It's beautiful but a bit rugged; most people need a few hours to complete it.
The Lower Falls
The Lower Falls are a series of five drop-offs on both sides of a small island. A boardwalk provides close-up views from the river bank, or you can rent a boat and row to the island.
The river's yellowish-brown hue, particularly noticeable at the falls themselves, is not pollution, but tannic acid from thick stands of hemlock trees along the swampy river corridor.
Pause during your trail hike to absorb the sights and sounds -- an old-growth hardwood forest where black bears and gray wolves prowl; gurgling water; chirping warblers. You can imagine how such a setting inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to pen "Song of Hiawatha," an epic poem about an Ojibwa Indian chief who built his canoe "by the rushing Tahquamenaw" (different spelling, same river). Actually, Longfellow got his information from the writings of explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, for whom a nearby county is named.
The Lower Falls area has a campground with electrical hookups. Motels and rental cottages are available in the villages of Paradise, 10 miles east, and Newberry, 40 miles southwest. However, many visitors grab a look at the falls and dash away -- which is too bad. The park has more to offer, including a trail network winding through peatlands and pines, three inland lakes ideal for canoeing and a path to the Lake Superior shore. Wild blueberries grow in such abundance that Paradise has an August festival honoring the tasty fruit.
"You can go five minutes off the beaten path and get some real solitude," says Bob Wild, the park's aptly named nature interpreter.
Hungry after all that tramping around? The cooking in these parts isn't fancy, but down-home hearty. A brew pub at the Upper Falls offers the usual steaks, sandwiches and pasta. For regional fare, try the whitefish or Cornish pasties, which are also featured in local mom-and-pop establishments.
Fresh from Lake Superior, whitefish is tender and flavorful. Restaurants serve it baked, broiled or deep-fried, fish-and-chips style, with fries and slaw. The pasty (pronounced PASS-tee), a baked turnover filled with ground meat, potatoes, onions and rutabagas, is a U.P. tradition dating from the 19th century, when it became a luncheon staple for copper and iron miners.
Paradise also has a few souvenir shops, one featuring the handiwork of E.K. Lafitte, who carves figures of beavers, owls, bears and other animals out of wooden stumps. His tool: a chain saw.
Whitefish Point, a narrow spit of land jutting into Lake Superior, is a short drive north. The Audubon Society has an observatory here. This is a crucial stopover for birds during spring and fall migrations.
Across the parking lot is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The treacherous waters along the big lake's southeastern shore have consumed hundreds of vessels. Seventeen miles northwest, the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald sank with its 29-member crew three decades ago. The museum's artifacts from the Fitz include its 200-pound bronze bell, which divers recovered in 1995.
Other attractions near Tahquamenon Falls include several casinos run by American Indian tribes, the Seney National Wildlife Refuge and a logging museum in Newberry.
Sault Ste. Marie is holding a summerlong celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Soo Locks, where ships are lifted and lowered as they pass between Lakes Huron and Superior.