Outdoors North: Spectacular waterfalls sited in Upper Peninsula

“Don’t go jumping waterfalls, please keep to the lake. People who jump waterfalls sometimes can make mistakes.” — Paul McCartney

Along a muddy forest path, an elderly man moves toward the crest of a gently tumbling waterfall. He lowers himself to a rock for a rest. He’s been here many times before, since he was a boy. Such a peaceful place.

Elsewhere, a young woman, walking a trail to a strip of sunny beach sand, stops to listen to the soft spray of water from a shimmering curtain in a hidden glen. The sound is inviting and comforting.

Gasping, she feels the cold water wash over her as she steps through the curtain into a small cavern beyond. There she lingers, letting the beach and the sand wait. She’s never seen the world from this view before.

Meanwhile, a group of small boys stands in awe of the thunderous roar of a rain-swollen river as it races over bedrock and drops several feet, before hitting a plunge pool below.

They wonder which has more power: the sound, the water or the strong, healthy fear they feel of falling over? Whichever it is, they all take a step back.

These scenes are all familiar to the “waterfallers,” those among us who enjoy the cataracts, the horsetails, the punchbowls and the fans of Michigan’s “Water Wonderland.”

These adventurers, who often travel good distances to experience a new cascade, know the benefits, from health to heights, of these beautiful places. They also know the Upper Peninsula has a wealth of these treasures.

Whether big or small or somewhere in between, more than 200 waterfalls dot the region from the spectacular Upper and Lower Tahquamenon Falls in the east, to the Saxon and Manabezho waterfalls of the west, with Chicagon Falls in the southern part of the peninsula to the fabulous Eagle River Falls and the subdued Jacob’s Falls in the Keweenaw Peninsula’s north country.

Michigan’s Lower Peninsula has but one waterfall – Ocqueoc Falls, located in Presque Isle County, a few miles west of Rogers City. In the U.P., Marquette and Alger counties each have at least 15. Baraga County has as many as nine, while Delta and Dickinson counties each have at least three.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “waterfall” simply as: “a steep fall of water, as of a stream, from a height; cascade.” But those who have experienced these wonders, especially on a regular basis, will tell you they are so much more than that.

According to WebMD, as the waters roar and tumble, they release negative ions, which humans inhale. Once in the bloodstream, these molecules are thought to create biochemical reactions which help to relieve stress and depression, producing feelings of well-being, by increasing levels of serotonin.

Geographers tell us there are many factors that may create waterfalls by changing the course of water flow in a stream. These forces range from volcanoes and glaciers to landslides and earthquakes.

Typically, a waterfall forms by erosion where soft layers of rock are overlain by harder rock layers. Running water wears away the softer rock layer creating a drop-off or cliff the water runs over.

According to National Geographic, there is no standard way to classify waterfalls. Some scientists do so using average water volume; others use width or height or type – which is one of the most popular, but least scientific, methods.

“Block waterfalls” tumble from a wide stream, like the Upper Tahquamenon Falls, while “cascades” roll over a series of rock steps. “Cataracts” are powerful waterfalls, “chutes” force water through narrow stream passages.

Many waterfall types are named for how they look.

“Fans” spread out water as it falls, like the Laughing Whitefish Falls in Alger County, which tumbles 100 feet across a limestone formation. “Punchbowl waterfalls” have big pools at their base. Other examples include “frozen” and “multi-step” waterfalls.

“Horsetail waterfalls” maintain contact with their hard rock bottoms, while “plunge waterfalls” do not. “Segmented waterfalls” are created when water flowing over them divides into separate streams.

Kayakers love waterfalls and high rapids for the challenge and adrenaline rush they provide. At least one kayaker has braved the 50-foot drop of the Upper Tahquamenon Falls and lived to tell about it.

Tourists and nature photographers are drawn to waterfalls almost as naturally as moths to an outdoor light bulb. Anglers are often hooked on these places as well.

Springtime provides some of the best opportunities for waterfalling, with winter’s snowmelt pushing rivers and streams well beyond their banks, greatly increasing the velocity of the water, resulting in waterfalls in peak form.

From the thrilling and dramatic, to the peaceful, contemplative and serene, waterfalls provide some the most captivating phenomena in all of nature, and Michigan is home to some of its most beautiful examples.

Editor’s note: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.