Ottawa National Forest Overview
You expect to be dazzled by the trees in a national forest, but at Ottawa National Forest it's the water that's noteworthy. Hundreds of lakes and streams pool, gurgle, tumble, and gush across 1 million acres in this glaciated landscape of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Then there's Lake Superior, which defines the forest's northern boundary.
Come September, though, the trees grab the spotlight as Ottawa's yellow birches, sugar maples and their deciduous siblings strut their stuff in Technicolor oranges, reds and yellows. If you suspect the colors look more vivid than any you've seen before, you wouldn't be the first to think so.
Ottawa National Forest plays host to nearly every outdoor sport imaginable. You may not have much human company while you're at it—even in summer most areas of the forest are surprisingly uncrowded—but there's a fair chance you'll see one of the resident deer, fox, snowshoe hares, bald eagles, loons, or bears.
Hike the North Country Trail
When complete, the 3,200-mile North Country National Scenic Trail will serve as a 7-state bridge, crossing Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota to join the Lewis and Clark Trail in North Dakota and the New York section of the Appalachian Trail. Currently, four parts of the North Country Trail—the Black River, Bergland, Victoria and Sturgeon River segments—cross Ottawa National Forest boundaries, together comprising approximately 118 miles of trail. The varied topography—glacially scoured terrain dotted with icy lakes and crystalline streams—makes for challenging hiking, and trailside campouts are invariably primitive. Spring brings waterfalls, and autumn brings those famous colors. Be sure to pack your overboots—creek crossings are numerous and not a bridge is in sight.
More on hiking in Ottawa National Forest
Sea Kayak an Inland Sea
Baffle your friends with tales of your sea kayaking trip to the American Midwest! Lake Superior is prime sea kayaking territory with conditions familiar to anyone who has paddled the Pacific coast or the Atlantic north of Nova Scotia: unfathomable vistas of open water, waves, unpredictable tides, and occasional fog. As seasoned pros know, awesome though it is, sea kayaking can also be dangerous if you embark unprepared. A brightly-colored wetsuit or drysuit is a must, plus a first aid kit, an extra paddle, a compass, maps and plenty of drybags to keep them in. Not the sea kayaking sort? Then try canoeing one of Ottawa National Forest's more than 500 lakes or its 1,800 miles of streams. Spring runoff brings the best conditions.
Take a Waterfall Tour
In Michigan's beautiful, unpopulated U.P., just about any road is a scenic wonder, but a few routes stand out. The Black River Harbor National Scenic Byway runs approximately 15 miles along County Road 513, beginning at the small township of Bessemer, Michigan, and ending at Lake Superior's Black River Harbor. Passing through lush large pine, hemlock and hardwood forests, every few miles or so, you'll see small parking areas and marked hiking trails. From each of these trailheads, you can wind, climb, or descend to one of many natural waterfalls: Rainbow Falls, Conglomerate Falls, Sandstone Falls or Potawatomi and Gorge Falls. Most of the hikes are under 1 mile long and are not particularly strenuous. The best periods for waterfall viewing are late springtime, when gushing snowmelt creates thunderous cataracts, or autumn, when the forest colors alone will take your breath away.
Camp North Woods Style
In the southeastern corner of the forest, near the village of Watersmeet, lies a very special place: Sylvania Recreation Area. It's nestled in a veritable mine-field of lakes and the surrounding forest is comprised of towering white pines, sugar maples and birch trees so big, you'll think they're genetic mutants. The nearby forest is home to countless species of mammals and fowl, and the lakes are teeming with a virgin population of everything from trout and bass to sunfish and perch. The campground is rarely crowded, except during holidays, so set up camp and go day-hiking, fishing, paddling and wildlife viewing—all great experiences here. "Ice out" usually occurs after June 1.
Move onto the Campground Guide
Fish Lake Gogebic
The largest lake in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, 13,380-acre Lake Gogebic is prime fishing territory, hosting several fishing tournaments throughout the year. Walleye, smallmouth bass, northern pike, perch, and whitefish all make their home in its waters, as well as some largemouth bass and muskellunge. The season runs from roughly May 1 to October 1 each year, although lake fishing is most fruitful from May to the end of June. The vast lake, framed by towering trees and short, grassy beaches, is a too-perfect setting for an afternoon of rodding and reeling.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication