Friday, March 19, 2010

Tahquamenon River Trail

Tahquamenon Falls State Park

Upper Falls. Beautiful, but not the only reason to visit!

The 2nd largest state park in Michigan (#1 is Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park) boasts the 2nd largest waterfall in the U.S., east of the Mississippi. Tahquamenon Falls State Park receives 500,000 visitors a year due primarily to the two waterfalls that call the park home. Not to discount the park's other draws, the falls are far from the only reason to stop by.

Snowshoeing the Tahquamenon River Trail

Undisturbed forest, some of it old growth, surrounds park explorers, and it is the tannic acid from the many hemlock and cedar trees that give the falls their unusual brown tones. Evidence of beaver activity presents itself in the gnawed-on trunks of many of these trees along the river. Year-round presentations and workshops educate visitors, such as a snowshoe making workshop, in which participants weave their own pair of traditional snowshoes.

Tahquamenon River

Winter is a spectacular time to visit Tahquamenon Falls State Park. The droves of loud snowmobiles tend to wipe out any chance of seeing moose; however, the 40+ miles of hiking trails ensure plenty of opportunity for peaceful winter hiking. Many miles of cross-country ski trails are groomed, and some of these are lit with lanterns for night skiing.

Lanterns have been lit along a ski trail in preparation for night skiing

Backcountry campsites have recently been added to the state park and more are in development, providing year-round camping opportunities. The North Country Trail uses the scenic Tahquamenon River Trail as it winds through northern Michigan before eventually making its way south to the Lower Peninsula.

Tahquamenon River Trail follows the river for 4 miles
between the 2 waterfalls

For hikers with a lot of vacation time, the North Country Trail Association recommends a 102-mile stretch through the Upper Peninsula - beginning at Munising Falls in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and ending at Lower Falls in Tahquamenon Falls State Park - and considers it a premier segment of this 4600 mile multi-state hiking trail. A couple of weeks could not be better spent!

Smokey should have worn a sweater. He looks nervous.

With an average of 200 inches of annual snowfall, winter enthusiasts of all kinds are guaranteed not to be disappointed when traveling to this park.
Snowshoeing is an ideal way to explore the area in winter, and on a recent trip to the winter wonderland that is the Tahquamenon River Trail, snowshoes were a must.

Enjoying the winter wonderland

A 4-mile, one-way route between the Upper and Lower Falls, the TRT is possibly the most beautiful trail I've ever hiked in winter. Beginning at the Lower Falls, we were greeted by the roaring sound of the fast-moving river. Mist filled the air above mounds of snow and ice, which had accumulated along the river bank and around the island that splits the river and causes a series of cascades.

A section of Lower Falls - mostly hidden under snow and ice

True to its name, the Tahquamenon River Trail briefly leaves the water to climb a ridge, but quickly returns to hug the river for the majority of the trip. As we walked between the river and snow-blanketed forest, the only sounds we heard depended on the mood of the river – serene bubbling in calm areas, or loud roaring where the the current was more forceful. Light intermittent snowfall added to the beauty of the day, and reinforced my philosophy that most things are better with snow.

Snow-blanketed forest along Tahquamenon River

The festive looking Interpretive Gazebo
Snowshoes were made available for park visitors who wanted to try them out

The Upper Falls can be seen along the trail from the top of the canyon in which the river flows. A staircase then leads visitors to a viewing platform near the top of the waterfall for an up close view of the 200-feet wide by 50-feet high drop. Near the Upper Falls parking lot, an interpretive gazebo provides park information, and is a hub of activity such as the guided snowshoe that was taking place on this particular weekend. Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub is the perfect place to finish off the day with a bowl of wild rice soup, a whitefish sandwich and a pint of Porcupine Pale Ale by the fireplace.

A beautiful moonrise over Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub

Press Play on the 2 videos below to see the Upper and Lower Falls in action!

Upper Falls:

Lower Falls:
(video temporarily unavailable)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Mosquito River Snowshoe

10+ miles The Chapel / Mosquito trailhead is not accessible by car in winter. Roads are plowed only to certain points, and from these spots it is necessary to rely on other means of travel. Some areas of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore are accessible by snowmobile; other locations forbid any type of motorized vehicle. Cross-country skis would be very handy in some of these areas, as it is sometimes necessary to travel a significant distance on foot, which would normally by covered by car. Since I have not yet ventured into the world of skiing, snowshoes would have to suffice when my sister, Andrea, and I set out to hike to the Mosquito River and Falls.

On the way to the trailhead. Snow blankets Lake Superior State Forest.

Leaving Munising, we headed east on H-58 around 8am. I channeled the stoic nerves of an ice road trucker as I slid around on the solid sheet of snow-covered ice disguised as a road. Luckily, we appeared to be the only people awake and moving about, so we did not have to be careful of other drivers. Also in our favor was the fact that the local deer seemed to be sleeping in.

Andrea descends a steep slope into a valley.

This was the first time I have driven this route in the winter, and once we entered the birch forest, the scenery became a winter wonderland postcard. Around 9am, we reached the end of the plowed portion of the road and parked off to the side. Based on the park service road closure map, I guessed it was about 3 miles to the Chapel / Mosquito trailhead, where hikers would normally park and begin walking.

Snowshoes on and trek poles in hand, we left the car behind and continued on foot. A layer of light snow covered older snowshoe and cross-country ski tracks, which looked to be resting atop a layer of snow 18” – 24” deep. After a mile, I was feeling pretty good about being 1/3 of the way there. Then we passed a sign indicating that we still had 3 miles to go. I may need to invest in skis.

We pressed on, and eventually reached the trailhead where I engaged in my favorite winter challenge: using an outhouse while wearing snowshoes. Foolishly, I was not able to determine how long it took us to reach this point from the car (and, also, how long we would need to get back) because I was not wearing a watch. Although I was fully aware that there is no cell phone reception in this area, I stupidly forgot that this would also affect my phone’s clock. When I pulled my phone from my backpack and found the battery draining while searching hopelessly for a signal (and not displaying the time), I felt like an idiot. I may also need to invest in a watch.

Photo by Andrea

The first section of Mosquito Falls is approximately one mile from the trailhead. I had not hiked this trail in 3 or 4 years, so it was almost a new experience. Luckily, Andrea had been there in autumn and the details were fresh in her mind.

For close to ½ mile, no previous tracks were visible, but the fresh snow looked slightly depressed where it had coated the path. The trail is not blazed, however, and after the first ½ mile, it disappeared altogether. If I had been alone, I would have had no idea where to go, as the trail climbs ridges, then descends into steep valleys, and the river is not always audible. Andrea knew exactly where to go and led us to the shallow canyon overlooking the first section of Mosquito falls without incident. Due to the steepness of portions of this trail, the crampons on the bottoms of our snowshoes were invaluable and I definitely recommend using trek poles.
In warmer months, it is easy to climb down to the river’s edge. This appeared impossible due to the snow and ice, so we remained at the top of the cliff overlooking the river. Mosquito Falls consists of four small cascades, which are very subtle even in peak season. Icicles hung along the canyon walls, and the heavy blanket of snow did not leave much of the falls visible.

The first section of Mosquito Falls is mostly hidden by snow and ice.
Photo by Andrea

We explored along the river for ½ mile or so, then began the long trek back to the car. Although I did not remember the hike to the trailhead being downhill, the walk back felt like a slight but never-ceasing incline which made the journey a very slow trudge. Andrea is a stronger hiker than I am, and before long she was leaving me in her powdery dust while I wheezed along.

We finally reached the car and I was surprised at it being only 3pm. Hiking a little over 10 miles in 6 hours is really not bad at all in snow, especially with much time spent gazing at the river and taking pictures. We headed back to the motel to eat a quick late lunch before heading back out to visit more icy areas in Munising before the sun went down.
Video below:

Click the play button to see a small section of Mosquito Falls