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Hike the Grand Canyon of Michigan

The third day of our visit to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we decided to hike to Canyon Falls and the Sturgeon River Gorge, also known as the Grand Canyon of Michigan.

When I say we decided, I mean I told the boys we were going on a hike. They said hiking is just walking for no reason, and walking is boring. But our venture into the wilderness turned out to be anything but boring. Now I have two new converts to the wonders of talking a walk in the woods.

Tioga Creek Falls

We set out from the campground by car to the trailhead for Canyon Falls. Before we got there, we had to stop at the Tioga Creek Roadside Park on U.S. 41 to use the bathroom.

Doesn’t someone always need to use the restroom when you’re on a car trip? No matter how many times you ask them if they have to go before you leave?

It turned out to be a good thing our kids have small bladders. We discovered there was a trail at the park that leads to Tioga Creek and a smaller waterfall.

tioga creek

Not many folks stop at Tioga Creek, because it is so small. No one else was on the trail when we were there. It’s an easy, short hike and the waterfall is beautiful, even it isn’t huge. It’s worth stopping for, and only takes a few minutes to reach the falls. It was a nice warm up for the longer hike were about to take in the Sturgeon River Gorge.
tioga falls

Canyon Falls Trail and the Sturgeon River Gorge

We left Tioga Creek and drove a few more miles to the roadside park that sits at the trailhead to Canyon Falls. There are bathrooms there also, along with a trail map and a few picnic tables. It was a Saturday afternoon with nice weather, and the parking lot was almost full. We probably came across 50 other folks on our hike, which is a crowd by U.P. standards. We even met a couple who live just a few miles up the road from us here at home.

The Canyon Falls trail is rated online as “moderately difficult.” It’s about a 2 mile round trip from the parking lot to the falls and back. A few minutes on the trail, and we decided most of it should be rated easy. A lot of it is a wooden boardwalk and fairly level. If you can walk around a mall for a couple of hours, you can probably handle this trail. I saw folks from young to old doing just fine on the trail.

canyon falls trail

There are all sort of things to see along the trail, and the boys climbed on all of them.

canyon river gorge

Of course the river and falls are the real stars.

sturgeon river

The Sturgeon River rushes along a rocky path of small drops and rapids until you reach Canyon Falls where it drops 30 feet into a box canyon with craggy, slate walls. The scenery is stunning.

canyon falls

The water level was high the day we were there, and there was a lot of it tumbling fast over the falls. The water is brown from tannin leaching into it from trees in the marshlands around the river. Despite the brown color, it’s actually quite clean and clear. My boys think it looks like root beer.

canyon river gorge

The main trail ends at Canyon Falls. At this point my boys were sufficiently impressed and anything but bored. So we continued up the unmaintained trail that runs along the top of the canyon. To reach it we had to climb up “steps” naturally carved into the stone wall. This part of the trail is a lot more uneven and rough, but the views of the canyon and river are well worth it.

upper falls

There are several places where you can climb up and down the shelves formed by the broken slate that makes up the gorge walls and get very close to the river. The boys climbed as much as they walked. I don’t have a lot of pictures of them climbing. I was too busy holding my breath and telling them to be careful. I try to not be a helicopter parent, but it’s hard when there’s a raging river and jagged rocks below the cliff your children are scaling.

sturgeon river

The North Country Trail

Eventually the trail converged with the North Country Trail. The NCT is a national scenic hiking trail, similar to it’s more famous cousin, the Appalachian Trail, that covers seven states, from New York to North Dakota. A portion of the trail runs not far from our house in West Michigan.

north country trail

We wanted to go a little farther, so we followed the NCT blue blazes on the trees. The trail turned away from the river, and we found ourselves deep in the woods.

woods north country trail

It was perfectly silent, except for the sound of a few birds. At points, the trail almost disappeared beneath the thick undergrowth. Thankfully it was well-marked.

We found some interesting sights along the path: Strange fungus, rusty old cars and a makeshift bridge.

north country trail

We didn’t plan on such a long hike and didn’t prepare accordingly. We decided next time we needed to bring snacks and toilet paper. Leaves really don’t work that well. At least we brought enough bug spray and water.

Hungry and with rain on the way, we decided to head back. We only hiked about five miles round trip, but we stopped so many times to take pictures, climb the rocks and enjoy the scenery that we were out there for hours.

We drove into L’Anse for dinner and did a little more walking along Lake Superior.

L'Asne Bay

Then it was back to the campground where we all fell into bed exhausted but excited about everything we saw that day. Before everyone went to sleep I told them, “You know, the next time we come up here, we could hike the NCT all the way from home.”

Everyone just groaned.

“But we’ll bring snacks!”

“No!”

I guess they like walking in the woods, but not that much. Yet.

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