The calendar has ticked over marking the official arrival of autumn. The proliferation of fall color isn’t yet upon us, though, so now seems like a good time to address a question I keep getting asked: “Where’s the best place to see fall color in northern Michigan?” While there are some obvious answers to that (the scenic drive in the Sleeping Bear Dunes, M-22, M-119, and almost all winding seasonal roads), here is a brief list of my recent favorite stops on a northwestern Michigan fall color tour:
Seven Bridges Natural Area, Kalkaska
Golden leaves reflect in the Rapid River – Kalkaska, Michigan
A foot bridge crosses the Rapid River under early fall color
Being near to my former home, this area holds a special place in my heart. In addition to a few (not seven) bridges over the braided waters of the aptly named Rapid River, this spot features a colorful meadow and a tiny waterfall. The views are not far from the pull-off, so this stop is great for a roadside break, or for those who aren’t up for a big hike but want big rewards. A bonus if you’re in the area: head toward Kalkaska on Valley Road and enjoy the Rapid River valley views, complete with a couple of old barns. Be sure to hit Rugg Pond
on your way!
Grass River Natural Area, Bellaire
A vibrant sunset over the Grass River Wetlands
Colorful sunset over a wetlands boardwalk at the Grass River Natural Area
Another place I hold dear, the Grass River Natural Area is home to some beautiful wetland trails. Boardwalks twist through cedar and sedge – the former’s deep greens setting off the latter’s warm ochres. Later in the season, the larches turn golden and really stand out against the cool tones of the Grass River, which meanders through.
Sabin Pond, Traverse City
A wooden stairway winds though an enchanted golden fall forest
Early light reflects off the still waters of Sabin Pond on a fall morning – Traverse City, Michigan
At first glance, Sabin Pond appears to be a one-trick pony. But don’t just stop at the overlook at the Boardman River Educational Center. Hike the trails behind the center, heading toward the bridge on Cass Road. Trail views include multiple winding staircases, varied boardwalks, pond overlooks, winding paths through the wetlands, and a couple of small creek crossings. If you’re up for more, the trails on the north side also feature some nice views of the river as it spills out of the dam, as well as a photogenic bend in the adjacent Jack’s Creek.
High Rollaways, Buckley
Towering pines and yellow foliage line a log fence along the North Country Trail – Buckley, Michigan
This place used to be much harder to find, but recently the park service has erected helpful signage pointing the way to this spectacular view. A short walk (or a longer one – though still short enough – depending on where you park) delivers you to commanding views over the Manistee River. If you’re up for a hike, head toward Baxter Bridge for a trek through mixed hardwoods. Before you get to the bridge, there’s a quaint footbridge over a small, clear creek as well as additional river views.
Deadman’s Hill, Elmira
Another place with a short walk to an impressive overlook. This time viewers are rewarded with views of the distant, meandering Jordan River valley. Maples line the short trail at the top, and a nice mix conifers and hardwoods adorns the valley floor.
Cedar Run Natural Area, Traverse City
Of all the places on my list, this one may not live up to my personal feelings toward it. It’s a favorite place of mine: if you go, treat it with love. The trails are still in the works, so take caution. In addition to a relaxing dock on Cedar Lake, Cedar Run Creek runs through the natural area. There’s a foot bridge over it nearish the beginning, and some other trail crossings farther into the hike. There’s also a small bog along an old rail bed, which doesn’t sound nearly as pretty as it is. Tucked in a low-lying area, the bog offers some stellar reflections.
This is not an exhaustive list, and very well might leave out other cherished views, including some in my own fall photo gallery. Do you have a favorite place for fall colors? Tell me all about it!
Plan on visiting any of these places this fall? Share this list on Facebook, and take a friend. After all, it’s best to share the cider and donuts you’re sure to get while you’re touring!