Home Trips Destinations 10 Reasons Fall Is The Best Time To Paddle Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

10 Reasons Fall Is The Best Time To Paddle Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

View overlooking lake surrounded by woods.
Feature photo: Josh Koyen // @chaseslight

While most visitors to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula plan their paddling adventures during the summer months, fall is a uniquely spectacular and rewarding time to dip your paddle in the diverse waters of this beautiful region.

Enjoy picture-perfect fall colors, abundant wildlife and comfortable weather while taking advantage of fewer crowds, affordable prices, and the amazing range of canoeing and kayaking in Upper Peninsula Michigan.

When does fall start in the Upper Peninsula? The first day of fall is typically September 21, but often the weather has begun to change by the middle of the month with crisp days and cooler nights. Meanwhile, lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan retain their summer warmth well into the season, moderating temperatures across the U.P. This means you have much of September, all of October, and into November to get out and explore!

Grab a cozy sweater and a hot apple cider, and settle in to read our favorite reasons fall is the perfect time for kayaking, paddleboarding and canoeing in Upper Michigan.

Paddle out to Bridal Veil Falls. | Photo: Scott Matteson // @winfieldscottcreative

1 Fall colors

Each September, the forests of the Upper Peninsula begin to transform from vibrant greens to a patchwork of fiery orange, crimson red and golden yellow. Kayak and canoe trips in Upper Peninsula Michigan offer an unforgettable riot of color at this special time of year.

The changing leaves are just begging you to take a scenic paddle around Mackinac Island with Great Turtle Kayak Tours, see the majestic waterfalls of Tahquamenon Falls State Park or visit iconic Lake of the Clouds in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Because these are top fall destinations, though, they do tend to get busy.

If you are looking for a quiet wilderness experience, explore the tranquil lakes of the Sylvania Wilderness with Sylvania Outfitters or take a journey down the Two-Hearted River with The Woods Canoe & Kayak Rental. The fall colors are just as lovely, but chances are you’ll have them all to yourself.

Tahquamenon Falls is even more beautiful when framed by fall foliage. | Photo: Jeff Wilkinson // @jeffreywilk

The fall foliage is beautiful no matter where you’re kayaking or canoeing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Fall colors typically peak the last week of September and the first two weeks of October, with colors lingering later along the Great Lakes shorelines. Before you head out, track leaf color change across the region using this Weekly Fall Color Report.

You can also take your pick of these 9 Incredible Paddling Experiences to Have on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—which are, of course, all the more gorgeous in the fall!

2 Shoulder season prices

Choosing to paddle in the U.P. during the shoulder season puts you right in the travel sweet spot.

Prices are often lower than they are during the peak summer season and the weather is still perfect for kayaking and canoeing Upper Peninsula Michigan.

Take advantage of potential savings in your accommodations, equipment rentals, tour bookings and entrance fees.

Normally a bustling area, you’ll have the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore all to yourself in the fall. | Photo: Courtesy Upper Peninsula Travel & Recreation Association

3 Fewer crowds

After the Labor Day weekend, crowds thin and you won’t be sharing the rivers and shorelines with nearly as many other boaters.

Fewer crowds mean more time and space for you to engage with your surroundings at a pace that suits you. Leave your itinerary open and embrace opportunities to explore.

When you aren’t worried about full campgrounds, sold-out experiences, or having to jockey for position when seeing the sights, you can spend more time enjoying the actual paddling experience.

Take a fall rafting trip down the Menominee River. | Photo: True North Outpost

Take advantage of the quiet by joining a guided kayak tour with Paddling Michigan, Pictured Rocks Kayaking or Northern Waters Adventures for a full or half-day of unforgettable sea cave and waterfall viewing in the incomparable Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Or explore fabulous sandstone cliffs, 19th-century shipwrecks and historic lighthouses with Paddling Michigan’s Grand Island Vacation Package.

For an adrenaline experience unlike anywhere else in the Midwest, descend the class III-IV rapids of the mighty Menominee River. This guided whitewater rafting trip culminates with a 10-foot waterfall in the legendary Piers Gorge. True North Outpost offers guided rafting and kayaking trips ranging from two hours to an overnight mini-expedition with island camping.

Our only advice is to call ahead to avoid disappointment. Many paddling businesses close after September.

Enjoy milder temperatures when exploring in the fall. | Photo: Courtesy Upper Peninsula Travel & Recreation Association

4 Comfortable weather

Fall weather in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is about as close to perfect as you can get. No sweltering summer heat, but still enough warmth and sunshine to get on the water and maybe even enjoy an invigorating dip.

There’s just the right amount of crispness in the air to enjoy bundling in blankets and sweaters around your post-paddle campfire.

And, perhaps best of all, the cooler, more comfortable fall weather in the U.P. means no more bugs!

Take that float down the Manistique River through Seney National Wildlife Refuge and camp riverside at Northland Outfitters or Big Cedar Campground without being eaten alive. Or paddle the AuTrain River as it twists and turns for 10 miles through immersive meanders in Hiawatha National Forest, and forget about swatting pesky mosquitoes.

Stargazing at the Keweenaw Dark Sky Park rarely disappoints. | Photo: Nate Bett // Keweenaw Mountain Lodge

5 Stargazing & northern lights

Upper Peninsula Michigan offers some of the finest northern lights viewing in the Lower 48, with stunning displays of aurora borealis peaking during the months of October and November.

To witness this breathtaking spectacle for yourself, you’ll need a bit of luck, a crisp, clear night, and a calm lake or bay with an open view of the northern horizon. Watching the swirling, shimmering curtains of green, white, purple and red reflected on the still waters around your canoe, kayak or paddleboard is an experience you’ll never forget.

Head to the dark shores and even darker skies of Lake Superior or Lake Huron for the best Northern Lights displays in the Upper Peninsula. Top locations include Drummond Island, where you can join a guided kayak day trip with Woods & Waters, and Miners Beach in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

On the rugged and remote Keweenaw Peninsula, Copper Harbor is home to Michigan’s newest International Dark Sky Park. The park is headquartered at the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, which opens its grounds at night to the public and offers stargazing workshops and events. By day, Copper Harbor’s Keweenaw Adventure Company leads guided kayak trips to picturesque waterfalls, lighthouses and sea cliffs.

Learn more about Seeing the Northern Lights in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, including viewing locations and aurora forecasting tips.

Find peace and quiet. | Photo: Ronan Moynihan // @radioronan

6 Amazing fishing

There’s no better place to plan your fall fishing adventure than Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With thousands of miles of cold, clear rivers and streams, expansive wildlife refuges and abundant access to public launches, the U.P. is a world-class destination for paddle anglers.

Pursue plentiful walleye, pike, perch, smallmouth and rock bass on the Manistique River or at the mouth of the Tahquamenon River. Paddle from the scenic Lower Falls in Tahquamenon Falls State Park  to the river mouth at Lake Superior—rentals and shuttles are available from The Woods Canoe & Kayak Rental.

On Lake Michigan, Little Bay de Noc is a fall hotspot for migrating walleye and massive smallmouth bass. Contact Jack’s Charter Service for info on the best fishing locations and tactics. While you’re here wetting your line, don’t miss a scenic paddle around the Stonington Peninsula, home to 500-million-year-old fossils and a historic lighthouse.

Enjoy explosive fall walleye fishing on legendary Lake Gogebic or stalk trophy brook trout on the Fox River with Northland Outfitters. Catch fall colors and chinook salmon runs on the lovely AuTrain River with AuTrain River Adventures. On the Two-Hearted River, Pine Stump Junction Rentals offers guided salmon fishing excursions.

Get cozy at Fresh Coast Cabins. | Photo: Amanda Taivalkoski // purenorthmedia.com

7 It’s super cozy

Fall is the perfect time to get cozy.

After an inspiring day on the water, retreat to an Instagram-worthy rental cottage or cabin where you can make the most of dropping temperatures and dwindling daylight with a roaring fire, warm blanket, good book, and hot mug of mocha or cider.

Perched on the most northern point of the Keweenaw Peninsula between Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor, Fresh Coast Cabins offers 10 unique housekeeping cabins just steps from the beach and boasting endless, unobstructed views of the watery horizon. Can you say northern lights? The individually curated cabins and lack of cell service or WiFi provide an escape from the everyday.

See two of Lake Superior’s oldest and most picturesque lighthouses on a guided sea kayak tour of this spectacular coastline with Keweenaw Adventure Company, and then settle into your super cozy home-away-from-home.

Enjoying the fall weather at Fresh Coast Cabins. | Photo: Hans Isaacson // hansisaacson.com

At Hessel Bay Sunset Cabins you can enjoy charming and comfortable housekeeping cabins overlooking a private sand beach and the beautiful Les Cheneaux Islands, an archipelago of 36 islands with miles of Lake Huron shoreline and bird-filled nature preserves. Enjoy these sheltered waters on a day of guided or self-guided Upper Peninsula Michigan kayaking with Woods & Waters in Hessel. Then wander the shops, bars and restaurants nestled in this scenic harbor town.

For a Victorian twist on classic cozy, book a stay in one of Mackinac Island’s gorgeous, century-old inns or B&Bs. The island is even more charming after dark, when the day-trippers sail away and your antique claw-foot tub invites an après-paddle soak. View Mackinac’s celebrated historic landmarks on a guided kayak or paddleboard trip with Great Turtle Kayak Tours.

Find more incredible places to get cozy in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Be sure to look around as you’re paddling as wildlife tends to be more active in the fall. | Photo: Patrick Downes // @patdwns

8 Wildlife migrations

The rugged and lightly populated landscapes and waterways of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are a haven for wildlife, and fall is an exceptional time to encounter forest animals, birds and other creatures busily preparing for the coming winter. Fall in the U.P. also brings thousands of songbirds, raptors and waterfowl migrating south on ancient flight paths.

Enjoy a relaxing family float trip through the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, keeping a close watch for moose, deer, river otters, beavers and bald eagles, along with a host of other inhabitants. Northland Outfitters and Big Cedar Campground both offer camping and self-guided canoe and kayak trips, including equipment rental and shuttles.

In early September, Peninsula Point Lighthouse Park at the tip of Lake Michigan’s scenic Stonington Peninsula is the staging point for thousands of migrating monarch butterflies. The monarchs rest on this finger of land before winging across the open waters of Green Bay and onward nearly 2,000 miles to their winter home in the mountains of Mexico. Take a paddle along the limestone shoreline, and then climb the 40-foot light tower for an even better view.

Check off your bird-watching bucket list while kayaking Upper Michigan at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory. Michigan’s premier migration hotspot, Whitefish Point juts out into Lake Superior, acting as a natural flyway every spring and fall. See how many of the more than 340 recorded species you can spot among the wooded dunes and beaches at this beautiful site. Learn more about birding at Whitefish Point.

The Whitefish Point Light Station. | Photo: Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

While you’re here, don’t miss touring the stately grounds and buildings of the historic Whitefish Point Light Station, home to the world-class Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The museum’s emotionally haunting exhibits tell the story of Lake Superior’s shipwrecks and feared fall storms, including the renowned sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in November 1975.

Discover more birding hotspots in the Upper Peninsula.

9 Gaining an extra hour of sleep

Daylight Savings ends on the first Sunday in November, leading “Yoopers” (as residents of the U.P. are known) to set their clocks to “fall back” by one hour.

This means an extra hour of sleep—or an extra hour to spend enjoying the Upper Peninsula’s fall splendors. Take advantage of this bonus time by staying up a little later to gaze at the stars from your campsite, or use it to recover from an exciting day of fall color paddling.

Arrived too early or too late for the colored leaves? There are still fall colors to be found along the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore. | Photo Courtesy: Northern Waters Adventures

10 Great escapes

With fewer visitors and so many incredible places to paddle in Upper Peninsula Michigan during the fall months, it’s easy to find your very own great escape.

Whether you’d like to relax and unwind or embark on the ultimate wilderness adventure, a must-see for paddlers who enjoy getting off the beaten path is Isle Royale National Park.

This spectacular 50-mile-long island in Lake Superior is surrounded by 450 barrier islands and was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980. This is true wilderness, accessible only by ferry or seaplane, surrounded and shaped by the largest freshwater lake in the world. Navigate past lush forest and fjord-like bays by day, and listen for the bellow of moose and the howl of wolves after dark.

Caribou Island in Isle Royale National Park. | Photo: Carter Doyle // @medic.carter

Keweenaw Adventure Company offers kayak rentals and outfitting, located next to the Isle Royale ferry dock in Copper Harbor. Canoe, kayak and boat rentals are also available on the island in the main visitor’s hub of Rock Harbor.

Isle Royale National Park is open from April through October 31 with the fall season bringing an especially quiet and remote feeling to this sacred refuge. Kayak and camp on Lake Superior’s rugged coastline, or canoe and portage on peaceful inland lakes. A rustic lodge and 36 backcountry campgrounds mean you can linger as long as you like.

Fall is the best time to paddle in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

The breathtaking natural beauty and fascinating historic sites of the Upper Peninsula are at their most unique and spectacular in the fall. Start with these 10 reasons fall is the best time to enjoy canoeing and kayaking in Upper Peninsula Michigan—then see how many more you can discover for yourself.

 

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