Ready for Michigan’s fall color tour? We’ve got the best routes, peak times, and which trees you’ll see along the way.
ISLE ROYALE, Mich.—When the leaves start changing, Isle Royale is one of the first, most picturesque places to see it happen. Located on Lake Superior, the isle is a national park with amazing wildlife and foliage just off the Keweenaw Peninsula in the northernmost reaches of the state.
From there, the changing colors cascade south. Through Marquette and Mackinaw to Kalamazoo and Adrian, the changing of the leaves rushes through the state before disappearing as Michigan’s deciduous trees start their winter hibernation.
The window to enjoy fall colors is remarkably short. That begs the question, though: When can we start to see these amazing colors in action?
When Fall Comes to Michigan
The season itself begins formally on Wednesday, Sept. 22. That said, trees in Michigan are usually expected to start changing a few days earlier. By the first formal day of fall, state tourism program Pure Michigan expects the leaves across the Upper Peninsula will have already started changing.
The times that leaves change can be influenced by factors like temperature and moisture, but the biggest factor in determining when trees start their autumn show is the length of the day. As we near the first day of fall, the autumnal equinox, the shortened days start triggering the change of the trees to prepare them for hibernation through winter.
For fans of fall color, that means the dates things start to happen are fairly consistent from year to year. Using Pure Michigan’s leaf forecasting map, by the start of the first full week of autumn, Sept. 27, leaves will have started to turn statewide.
Ideal viewing season would likely start Saturday, Oct. 2, where the intensity of fall color has started to kick in from Isle Royale to Lost Peninsula. But things will continue to be vibrant through Wednesday, Oct. 20, when the browning starts southward from the Upper Peninsula.
The best window for a leaf-peeping road trip, though, is definitely going to be the early days of October as the reds are settling in up north and just emerging in the south.
The whole process of leaves turning, from green of summer to the brown that sheds before winter, only takes about a month, so start enjoying it once it starts!
Time for a Fall Colors Adventure?
There are so many places to choose from for a fall colors adventure. Here are a few of our favorites from across Michigan, and we’ll be following the path of the leaves, from northwest to southeast, starting in the gorgeous Upper Peninsula.
If you’re looking to visit these, consider planning your trip using the scenic driving routes suggested by Pure Michigan, like this one along the Canadian border from Port Huron to Detroit or this one along the Keweenaw Peninsula from Houghton to Copper Harbor.
Visit Bond Falls in the Fall
When exploring nature, why not get a two-for-one experience? One of the first places the autumn touches in Michigan is Bond Falls in Ironwood. Managed by UP Power Company, a developed nature trail takes you across the river at the base of the falls. It also has six viewing points on it’s accessible boardwalk. And, to enhance the autumn experience, it’s surrounded by the Ottawa National Forest.
You can find Bond Falls at:
E6248 US 2, Ironwood, MI 49938
The Picture of Autumn at Pictured Rocks
One of Michigan’s most famous destinations, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula looks out on Lake Superior. While an amazing national park year-round, Pictured Rocks is especially beautiful in fall. And what better way to see it than the cruises offered as a concession of the park? We’re sure a sunset cruise of Pictured Rocks at the beginning of October is a beauty hard to beat.
You can find Pictured Rocks Cruises at:
100 City Park Drive, Munising, MI 49862
A Little Wine to Pair with Fall Color
For the adults in the audience, wineries can be a great piece of fall culture. So while taking Pure Michigan’s Grand Traverse scenic route, consider a stop at Peninsula Cellars on Lower Michigan’s Mission Peninsula. The winery brags that being precisely halfway between the equator and the north pole gives it a unique microclimate perfect for wine, and perfect for autumn leaves.
You can find Peninsula Cellars at:
11480 Center Road, Traverse City, MI 49686
Take the Pumpkin Express Through West Michigan
Or, if you’re looking for an adventure with the kids, head to Coopersville and board the Pumpkin Train. The Coopersville and Marne Railway offers an entertaining ride for kids featuring the Grand Pumpkin, Scarecrow, and Little Crow and offers kids a locally-grown pumpkin to take home, all while riding rails through Michigan’s fall colors.
You can find the Coopersville and Marne Railway at:
306 Main Street, Coopersville, MI 49534
Take the Rails Without the Train
Or, if you’re in for a different sort of Michigan rail atmosphere, look across the state to the Saginaw Valley Rail Trail. Nearly ten miles of abandoned railway provides the basis for this east Michigan nature trail. Beautiful year-round, the trail is best when fall colors are at their peak. And, near the end of it’s length, the trail runs alongside the Shiawassee State Game Area, giving great wildlife viewing as well.
You can find the Saginaw Valley Rail Trail at:
401 E. Water Street, St. Charles MI 48655
See the Colors by Kayak
Why hit the roadways when you can experience Michigan fall through its waterways? Ike’s Mobile Kayak Rentals in Midland is one way to do just that. And they have a special fall colors tour you can paddle through!
You can find Ike’s at:
400 South Badour Road, Midland, MI 48640
Stroll the Longest Freshwater Boardwalk
St. Clair County’s Bridge to Bay Trail is all worth spotlighting for checking out the fall colors closer to mid-October as it runs the entire east coast of the county, down from the Blue Water Bridge to Anchor Bay. But one piece connected to that trail has an added special claim. The Palmer Park Boardwalk in St. Clair is considered the longest freshwater boardwalk in the world. In addition to taking in fall colors on Canada’s border, you can almost touch freighters which move close to shore to avoid a large sandbar at the center of the river.
You can find the Palmer Park Boardwalk at:
200 Riverside Drive, St. Clair, MI 48079
What Autumn Leaves Fall in Michigan
Now that you’ve got ideas for when and where to see fall colors in action, you’ll want to know what colors you can expect to see. That comes down largely to the trees.
We all know the fall colors of Michigan. Vibrant reds and yellows, with underpinnings of browns. The trees look like sunset. Michigan has about 20 million acres of forest, and that continues to expand thanks to reforestation efforts. But what trees give what colors?
We looked at five of the most common types of tree in the state.
Sugar maple trees are one of the most common trees in Michigan. Sugar maples are common in the northern Midwest and Canada, and are beloved as a source of maple syrup. The leaves are exactly what you see on a Canadian flag, with their fall colors being brilliantly vibrant reds and burnt oranges with the occasional yellow.
Beech trees are also abundant in Michigan forests. Beeches have distinctive multiple-trunk growth and yellowish bark, and make excellent firewood. They grow alongside maples often. They have shield-shaped leaves that turn a beautiful golden-bronze in the fall.
Paper birch trees are found in almost every county in Michigan with notable exceptions being in the southwest. Also called white birches, the thin white bark of these trees peels in sheets, earning its name. Their serrated shield-shaped leaves turn yellow when fall comes around.
Eastern cottonwood trees common in the southern region of the state, characterized by a silvery-white bark that fissures and grays as the tree ages. A soft wood, the bark used to be used in teas. Its heart-shaped leaves turn golden and orange each autumn.
Northern red oak trees grow tall, often around 100 feet or more, and are found nearly everywhere in the Mitten. They also produce nearly-round acorns. In fall, the long, branching leaves of these trees turn red, ranging from russet to a bright, blazing red.
Now that you know when, where to go, and what you’ll find on a fall colors trip, all that’s left is seeing the beauty of Michigan and taking in the magic of a Great Lakes autumn. Be sure to take pictures, and send them to The ‘Gander’s Managing Editor Jessica Strachen by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know how you’re celebrating fall!