Michigan / Slice of Americana / Travel

A Root Beer River and Cyan Sea

Waterfall

For heat-seared Southerners searching for a respite, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is the perfect place in summer. Temperatures that probably scorch cold-hardened Yoopers (residents of the UP – as in UPers), seem downright refreshing to us.

We spent a month tent-camping there, and it was delightful. Lake Superior on the north, Lake Michigan on the south, thousands of glacial lakes, and millions of trees make it a green, wet place. And two of these watery places left us awestruck.

Root beer falls

On the east end of the peninsula, in Tahquamenon Falls State Park is one of the most unique natural sights in America – the Upper Falls on the Tahquamenon River. Pick your favorite analogy; this beautiful golden-brown water looks like root beer, coffee, tea, or maybe even caramel.

Waterfall 2

Waterfall Downstream

If you guessed that the amber color is rust or mud, you’d be wrong. Actually, it’s caused by tannin. The river drains a large area of cedar, spruce and hemlock swamps, and as the vegetation in these wetlands decay, tannin leaches into the water. At 50 feet tall, and 200 feet wide, it’s an astounding a sight.

Pictured Rocks

And less than 100 miles away, on the southern edge of Lake Superior, is the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The name of the park was inspired by these multicolored sandstone cliffs which extend for miles along the shoreline. We all expect colors like this in the Caribbean, but not “By the shores of Gitche Gumee.”

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

P.S. For the poets out there, Gitche Gumee is the lake in Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha.

This post is part of our “Slice of Americana Series” for July. Click here to see all the posts in the series.

CometAnd if you’re curious about some other happenings on the water, you won’t believe what happened in Missouri!

A Comet, An Earthquake, and the End of the River Pirates

Pictured rocks 2

93 thoughts on “A Root Beer River and Cyan Sea

  1. A beautiful spot that I hope to visit one day. I will add that the tannin does not affect the drinkability of the water. It looks nasty, but barring other pollutants, it is safe to drink. Most of the streams draining from the Olympic Peninsula rain forest look about the same color or darker caused exactly the way you explained. – Mike

    • There are a few rivers in FL that are darkened by tannin as well Mike, but as you can imagine, no falls there. The UP of Michigan is a bit out of the way, but it’s a beautiful place, and it’s one outstanding water view after another. ~James

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog Indah. The tannin-stained water looks almost black when you see it in a pool. But when it goes over the falls, it changes to this beautiful amber. ~James

  2. Every time I read one of these awesome posts, I look at my countdown to see how many more days until we hit the road for good…1559 days. I can’t wait to see some of the places you’ve highlighted. Those colors are amazing!

    • Since you live in NH Laura, you don’t have to search out cool summers, but you’d enjoy the UP. The lake views are outstanding and there are lots of very cool places to camp. And for your countdown, I picture a wall calendar with each day X-ed out. ~James

  3. Who knew Michigan could be so “cool.” We were in Michigan last week and enjoyed 70 degree weather! A far cry and a whine from good ole Texas’ 90’s. Upper Michigan is definitely on my list! 🙂

    • We lived in Dallas for a number of years Dixie, so we can relate to the Texas heat. There was a heat wave while we lived there with 41 days straight over 100º! Of course, it’s not exactly cool here on St. Simons. The UP is sounding better and better. ~James

  4. Who would have thought? Love your descriptions, “… this beautiful golden-brown water looks like root beer, coffee, tea, or maybe even caramel.” I would have had a wild time picturing it but the photos are proof. Who knew about the tannin. Interesting. Things one never thinks about. 😉 Thanks for sharing. The photos are gorgeous.

    • The UP of Michigan is a bit off the track Leslie, but you and Steve seem like off-the-track types, so I think you’d enjoy it. The shore drive along Lake Superior is lovely. ~James

    • I’m thinking a Rogue Amber Ale Curt. As you can imagine, the UP is a wonderful summer destination, but unless you like cold and snow, steer clear of winter. One of our favorite cities on the UP is Houghton. It’s very near the shore of Lake Superior, and gets an average of 17 ft of snow annually. That’s 17 as in 1 and 7. And I can’t imagine the cold. ~James

      • Had a good friend who owned a cabin off of Interstate 80 on the crest of the Sierras where I spent quite a lot of time in the winter during the late 70s and early 80s James. We would have to cut stairs through the snow up to the second story entrance. It wasn’t unusual to deal with 15-20 feet of snow and once the cabin disappeared under the snow. It was a lot of fun digging it out, as I am sure you can imagine. We put bamboo stakes in front and back of our cars during snowstorms so the snow plow could see where they were. –Curt

  5. I had never heard how pretty that area is – just beautiful! We do know all about tannins in water here in Florida (normal river color for us!).

    • I’ve seen lots of these dark FL rivers Pam. The contrast of the water against the white sand makes them seem even darker. But can you think of a waterfall in FL? There’s probably one in the panhandle somewhere, but one doesn’t come to mind. ~James

      • Yes I can think of one place where the water almost looks black. Since we are flat we don’t have waterfalls, but there are a few hills in the panhandle so that would be the only possible place. We do have some bubbling springs!

    • Thanks very much Jo. I’m rather proud of these photos. Not because they’re terribly creative, but because the waterfalls are so unusual and photogenic. It’s a one-of-a-kind feature. ~James

  6. The beauty of northern Michigan is unmatched. Although, as a Michigander in the northeast corner of the lower p on Lake Huron, I’m a bit bias. 🙂 Great photos!

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. After our time on the UP, I can say that you should feel proud of the area. For southerners like us, it’s a bit of a hike, but well worth it. ~James

  7. What an unusual colour for the falls. I would have thought it was iron if you hadn’t told me different. In the Azores we saw a pool with water that colour but it was because of minerals.

    • Iron would have been a good guess Marie. The UP was a big mining center in the 19th Century, and the peninsula is mineral rich. So it’s possible that there could be some iron around to leach into the river. ~James

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. These falls are beautiful and truly unique, so I’m sure that you’ll enjoy them. Re: RV park – When we visited this area, we were tent camping, so our needs are different than yours. We are loathe to make reservations sight unseen, so we frequently end up out in the boonies in rustic campgrounds. This is what happened in the UP, and we camped in the National Forest near Newberry in a nice, primitive site. But, Tahquamenon Falls State Park is very nice and it should meet your needs well (albeit a bit crowded). There is one caveat about this part of the world. Summers here tend to be busy and campgrounds fill up, especially on weekends (like most other places). So, make sure to reserve well in advance, and have a backup plan in place in case you can’t find a spot. Also, if you like this sort of thing, don’t miss the canal and locks at Sault Ste. Marie. Best of luck and have a great time. ~James

  8. We were in both of these beautiful places three years ago and just came through the northwestern side of MI this past week. I had forgotten how beautiful this part of the country is. Great photos James and thanks for my blast from the past. 🙂

    • Thanks LuAnn. I had never seen anything like this waterfall, and I loved it. The UP is a wonderful, green and cool place in summer (I’ll steer clear in winter though). We also enjoyed the town of Houghton. ~James

      • We stayed in Houghton three years ago and loved every minute. Our RV park looked out on the channel and there was lots of opportunity for walking. There is a great brew pub in town that we enjoyed more than once and they had an international parade while we were there, with college students carrying banners of their country of origin. We were blown away by how many countries were represented.

    • Thanks Chris. I had seen lots of tannin-stained rivers in Florida, but never a waterfall. They are rare in this part of the world. BTW, are you still in Guanajuato, and how do you like it? ~James

      • Guanajuato is beautiful James!

        We’re still here for another 3 days, but have a spectacular view over the city (our place is up near the Pipila).

        Did Terri & yourself get to the Mummy museum?

    • Peta, this is a beautiful part of America, but is a land of contrasts. And believe me, you do not want to spend a winter in the UP unless you like lots and lots of snow and frigid temps. But in the summer, it’s wonderful. ~James

  9. Tannin! Then it’s a tea waterfall. 🙂 And less than 100 miles away, there’s the green tea shoreline, well sort of. Your photos do look refreshing, James & Terri!

    • That’s great Christie. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. It’s a very unusual sight and a beautiful part of the country. And the weather should be perfect. ~James

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. This amazing waterfall is off the beaten track, and will definitely take your GPS to find. But it’s worth it. ~James

    • Susan, we never take for granted our ability to camp for long periods of time. Our longest so far was a cross-country five month tent-camping trip that was wonderful. We’d camp for a couple of weeks and then spend a few days in a hotel to catch up on laundry etc. It was a fabulous life memory. ~James

  10. I love the UP of Michigan and even further north into Canada. It certainly is refreshing in the summer. We haven’t been up that way for a few years but I am ready to go back. Lake Superior is, in my opinion, the best-kept secret. When we visited a few summers ago and camped along the lake, we had the beach to ourselves most of the time, with a few other people at times. Funny how many people flock to the beaches along the east coast and Florida, but by far my favorite summer spot is Lake Superior.

    • Amy, we camped in the UP a few years ago and fell in love. We were living on St. Simons Island, GA at the time, so summer was a great time to hit the road toward the north. Northern Michigan, and the UP in particular is a wonderful, green, uncrowded place. Now winter time … umm… not for me. But the summers – bliss. ~James

    • Thanks for the comment Dee and for dropping by the blog. We visited Detroit on our trip to Michigan, and it was shocking and incredibly sad to see the state of things. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to live there. Hopefully, things have improved since I visited, but they had a long way to go for sure. Luckily, they have a wonderful place like to UP to escape to from time to time. ~James

  11. Beautiful photos. At first glance I thought you are good with using Photoshop, but sounds like this colours are for real? Amazing…have not heard of this place before. Thanks for sharing 😄

    • Nope Gilda, no photoshop here. These colors are the real deal, and aren’t they wonderful. And not to worry, because lots of other folks haven’t heard of this place either. It’s way, way off the beaten path, and it’s not one of those places one just drops by. Pretty cool though. ~James

    • As I said to someone else, I’ve seen a few rivers in Central Florida that are stained dark brown to almost black by tannin, and in fact, given the contrast with white sand, it’s quite a sight. But, of course no falls in flat FL, so none of this great root beer color. ~James

      • Yeah I’m all too familiar with the flatlands of FL. But does have some spectacular beaches there. I can’t remember if back in the day I’ve seen what your talking about w/the black and white sand contrast, sounds really pretty though.

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