As many of you know, one of my passions is landscape and travel photography. Every year I try to go out and take some beautiful pictures that show off some corner of the Earth. This year my friend Ben and I decided to take a northern lights road trip in Michigan. I’ve never properly captured the beauty in my own home state. Ben and I have been on a quest to photograph the northern lights. We went all the way to Iceland last year but didn’t get to see them. We had heard that northern Michigan is a great viewing area in October so that was one of our main goals along with fall color.
Day 1 – 10/2/15
The start of our trip was very goomy, cloudy and windy. We ended up driving straight through to the Mackinaw bridge.
After crossing the bridge, we headed west and crossed over the Upper Cut River bridge. It’s a really cool area that would have looked even more impressive with some fall color. Unfortunately we learned that the fall color this year is delayed a week due to an abnormally warm September.
Underneath the bridge is a fun door, that was clearly put in by someone with a sense of humor.
We continued on to Manistique and stopped for a quick photo of the lighthouse.
Our next stop was Munising falls which led us down a 1/4 mile paved trail to this pretty 50′ waterfall.
A few miles down the road is the Miners Castle overlook that is part of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
It is a beautiful lookout point with green/blue water that is mesmerizing.
We needed to find a hotel for the night. The first place we went was out of rooms and only had a 3 bedroom vacation home. That was much more than we needed so we passed and spent the next half hour calling around. We called about 20 hotels and ALL of them were full. So, we went back inside and rented the vacation home. At the back of the hotel we were treated to an exquisite sunset over the South Bay. I really loved the little old dock.
In hopes of catching the northern lights, we woke up every hour to check the night sky but it stayed cloudy all night.
Day 2 – 10/3/15
The next morning also started out cloudy. However, cloudy days are perfect for photographing waterfalls.
We started out with Tannery Falls which was an easy 10 minute hike to this beautiful 40′ waterfall.
We moved on to Alger Falls which is a 20′ waterfall literally on the side of the highway.
Next was Wagner Falls which is another 20′ waterfall that is accessible down a short and easy path.
With easy accessibility, there were a lot of people out here so we had to wait our turn to get an unobstructed view of the falls.
We then stopped at Horseshoe Falls. This 30′ waterfall is located on private property. They charge $12 per car to come in and view the falls. It was a very pretty waterfall and due to the cost, nobody else was there so it was nice to have the whole scene to ourselves.
We then started driving west out of Munising on highway 28 and made a quick stop at Deer Lake where we had some still water which made for a nice reflection of the trees.
We headed south on the H01 / Rock River Road. It is a really pretty tree covered road where the trees make a beautiful canopy. This also would have been amazing with some fall color but it was still pretty nonetheless.
Our next stop was to Laughing White Fish Falls. It’s an easy 20 minute hike out to this 100′ waterfall. However, in my opinion the only interesting part of the waterfall is the top 20′ so we didn’t climb down to the bottom, but rather stayed at the top.
Photo Courtesy of Ben Sabo
As we started going farther west, we started to see more fall color showing up in the trees.
The next stop was Bond Falls. This is also one of the more touristy areas that we went to and for good reason. It has to be the most beautiful waterfall in Michigan. The fall colors were blazing and the waterfall was gushing.
Walking a little farther up stream led to some beautiful scenes as well.
Our stop for the evening was going to be in Ontonagan but we didn’t find any hotels that were in a good viewing area for the northern lights so we continued west and stayed in Silver City. The coastline provided for some beautiful scenes at sunset.
Once again we woke up every hour to go check the sky for any northern lights. The stars were out brilliantly and the orange glow from the hotel lights lit up the trees in the foreground.
There was a faint haze on the horizon that was definitely the northern lights. A long exposure in camera really picked up the beautiful color but to be honest, it wasn’t nearly this impressive in person. The cloud cover ended up getting thicker and thicker as the night went on.
Day 3 – 10/4/15
We were right on the border of the Porcupine Mountains so we drove up to Lake of the Clouds first thing in the morning. What a beautiful view!!
We planned to visit a few other spots in the Porkies but the other main road was closed and we didn’t feel like driving all the way around. Instead, we drove out to O Kun De Kun Falls which is a 2.5 mile round trip hike. It leads to a really pretty and peaceful spot and it was nice to have it all to ourselves to get some cool photos.
We took a long detour to Sturgeon Gorge Rd. and planned to hike out to Sturgeon Falls. However, our AAA map had the falls in completely the wrong spot and it took us a long time and a lot more driving on a dirt road to figure out where to go.
However, the road was gorgeous and led to some pretty scenes.
By the time we found the falls, we decided not to do the hike into the gorge because we wouldn’t have had enough time to make it back to go all the way to Copper Harbor before sunset. So we continued driving and made the long trek north. We arrived in Copper Harbor to a beautiful evening.
Unfortunately the skies clouded over at night and obstructed any northern lights viewing.
Day 4 – 10/5/15
We started the morning with an amazing drive out of Copper Harbor and up to the top of Brockway Mountain for sunrise.
It was very windy and cold up there but totally worth it. The first turnoff is a beautiful lookout facing east for a sunrise view.
Farther down the road is another another equally impressive viewpoint that gives almost 360 degree views.
Believe it or not but Brockway Mountain is the highest mountain road between the Alleghenies and the Rockies.
It was very cloudy and the brilliant fall color was being muted. When checking the weather, it looked like it was going to clear off during the day and the following night so we decided to stay a second night in Copper Harbor for chances to finally see the elusive northern lights.
Since we were going to be around for a whole day and the weather was supposed to clear up later, we decided to loop back to Copper Harbor along the coast on Highway 26. This led to some beautiful coastal scenery especially at Esrey Park.
We then looped back out to Copper Harbor and drove out on highway 41 to photograph another beautiful tunnel of trees.
We then went back up Brockway Mountain a second time and it was completely different. The sun coming through the clear skies lit up the trees into a dazzling display of color.
We drove down the mountain and stopped for lunch at Eagle Harbor. Their pretty red lighthouse stood out against the blue sky and water.
We spent most of the afternoon driving around the Keweenaw Peninsula and eventually made our way back to Copper Harbor.
We seemed to be setup pretty good for the aurora tonight. Clear skies, perfect view north, and high solar activity.
We were NOT disappointed. There was a thin band of green going across the sky at 9:00pm but that didn’t develop into much more so we headed to sleep and then once again woke up every hour to take a look. At around 1:00am the band of green was much brighter and overhead so we got our cameras out and faced the windy/cold night. It was totally worth it!! Shortly after we went outside, the sky started to change and morph right before our eyes. Pointed bands of light started to show up and move across the sky and before we knew it, it looked like someone was taking a light pen and drawing patterns in the sky. It was incredible. That light show lasted half an hour before it calmed back down.
I was chilled to the bone from being out in the cold and wind for so long and it took almost an hour to warm back up and fall asleep.
At 4:15am I got back up again and looked outside and another light show was going on. This time arched pulses of light that resembled the wifi icon on your smartphone were pulsing up through the sky. The moon was up but the stars were still bright and I had lots of opportunity for more photos for half an hour before calling it a night.
Day 5 – 10/6/15
This morning we headed back out on the coastal drive of highway 26. The wind and waves provided some beautiful Lake Superior coastal scenes.
Our first awesome stop of the day came at the Canyon Falls roadside park just off of highway 41 south of Baraga.
A short 10 minute walk led to a spectacular gorge and waterfall.
Next we headed back to Munising and hiked out to Miners Falls which is a gorgeous 50′ waterfall. It was an easy 1.2 mile hike to get to the falls and back.
Upper Tahquemenon Falls was our next stop. This is probably the most famous waterfall in Michigan but it doesn’t compare to Bond Falls in my opinion. What’s really interesting though is that in just the few short days that we’ve been up here, the fall color on the east side of the upper peninsula is now showing up.
After a quick stop at the falls, we continued on to Mackinaw City. We scoped out some good spots to do some star/night photography and right as we were going to our hotel, we got a text alert saying that there was really high solar activity so we headed back out to our spot and even before the sky turned completely dark, we got a nice light show.
Even though the northern lights weren’t super bright, the stars were blazing out there!
We stayed out there for a few hours and we were able to get a few other nice photos of more light in the sky, but in reality, these photos looked more dramatic then the aurora actually was. Ben had a great idea of getting some shots with us in the foreground.
Day 6 – 10/7/15
This morning we were greeting by an absolutely spectacular sunrise over Lake Huron. The funniest line of the trip was when Ben saw that sunrise, he said “Quick, grab your phone for a picture, you’re going to want to see this!” instead of “Quick, grab your super expensive dSLR camera and top of the line lenses.” Somehow our phones have become our default cameras now.
We then drove through the Tunnel of Trees on M-119. There was no fall color yet but it was still very pretty.
By noon it had started to rain and I got one more quick photo from the side of the highway with this funky colored tree.
The rest of the day it rained so it was time to head home.
This was a very successful trip and I am super grateful to have been able to photograph all the important things from our list.
Our main goal was a northern lights photography road trip in Michigan and we got exactly that!