Visions of Fall

Autumn’s palette is at its most spectacular now, with fiery crimson and vibrant gold lighting up the landscape.But leaf-peepers aren’t limited to viewing nature’s glory via the automobile. Whether seen from a hot-air balloon or while paddling a canoe, these 10 unusual vistas allow you to enjoy Michigan’s colors from a unique vantage point. Photographs by Jim DuFresne


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In the western Upper Peninsula, Black River Drive heads north from Bessemer past steep, rocky bluffs, ski hills awaiting the season’s first snow and finally the highest point of all — Copper Peak. It’s impossible to miss the peak; it’s crowned by a ski ramp.

Built in 1969, the 469-foot slide rises 241 feet above  the summit and is so immense that 300 tons of steel grids were needed to support the ramp. No wonder  it’s dubbed “the Eiffel Tower of the U.P.” Despite being  the world’s largest ski jump, Copper Peak has always been used more by leaf peepers in the fall — who  have no intention of leaving the ramp — than daredevil  skiers in the winter who do.

You begin with a chairlift ride to the summit and then  step into an 18-story elevator to continue the journey. When the cage door swings open, you walk still higher, to the  top of the ramp, almost 1,800 feet in elevation, where the wind blows in sudden gusts and the faint-hearted clutch  the railing in a death grip.

But at this time of year the ski ramp is a $12 ticket  to a million-dollar view. From the top there’s a 360-degree panorama that includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Canada, even Isle Royale National Park. Along with the deep blue of  Lake Superior is foliage in a palette of fall colors, from crimson reds to dazzling golds. This is autumn at its best, dramatic  and colorful. “Some people might be a little scared to go up, but the view is worth it,” says Kathy Luoma of the Western Upper Peninsula Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s just spectacular.”

After a blistering hot summer, this is not the season to sit in your car or home. Don’t just view the autumn colors from behind your dashboard, get outside and experience them from a whole new perspective.

1 On a Paddle-Wheeler //A number of paddle-wheel boats ply the lakes and rivers of Michigan but none is better known than the AuSable River Queen (989-739-7351; ausableriverqueen.net), a double-decker paddle-wheeler that’s been cruising the AuSable for 40 years. The 150-passenger vessel departs just west of Oscoda and slowly weaves along the forested shoreline of the Foote Dam Pond in the heart of the Huron National Forest.

The two-hour tours, a combination of color, historic tidbits about Michigan’s logging era and bald-eagle watching, depart at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on weekends through Oct. 22. On weekdays, they’re at noon and 2:30 p.m. On weekends, an adult ticket is $14; on weekdays it’s $12.

2 On a Chairlift // The Copper Peak Adventure Rides (906-932-3500; copperpeak.org) are offered on Saturday and Sunday to mid-October, or whenever the colors finally fizzle out. The view is stunning, but if the 10-hour drive to Bessemer is too much, head to Boyne Mountain Resort (800-GO-BOYNE; boyneusa.com), northwest of Gaylord. The ski resort also offers rides on its high-speed Hemlock chairlift Friday and Saturday evenings through October’s colors. Once on top, savor northern Michigan golds and reds, then pop into the Eagle’s Nest, Boyne’s top-of-the-hill restaurant, for a bite to eat or a glass of wine.

3 In a Hot-Air Balloon // To view colors from above, way above, hop into the basket of a hot-air balloon. Once the pilot reaches his cruising elevation, often more than 2,000 feet, the upper winds grab the big balloons and their baskets full of passengers for a surprisingly gentle flight across land and lakes. It’s debatable what’s more captivating: the immense views of trees and towns or that quiet, smooth ride across the sky.

One of the most scenic balloon trips in the state is offered by Grand Traverse Balloons (231-947-7433; grandtraverseballoons.com) whose sunset flight takes you across both arms of Grand Traverse Bay before ending the day with a glass of champagne and the traditional toast to “gentle winds and soft landings.” Closer to home, Sky Adventures (248-628-1000; skyadventures.com) offers one-hour flights that begin in Oxford, while Westwind Balloon Company (734-667-2098; westwindcos.com/balloon) stages them near Kensington Metropark.

Most balloon trips take place within an hour or two of sunrise or sunset and range from $300-$500 for two people, depending if you join a group or do a private charter.

4  While Appreciating Fine Art // October is so nice that even patrons of the arts should head outside — and they can at the Michigan Legacy Art Park (231-378-4963; michlegacyartpark.org). This “gallery” is a perfect fall destination, a 30-acre forest at Crystal Mountain Resort near Thompsonville.

Scattered along a wooded ridge and reached by short footpaths are more than 35 major works of art, ranging from wind machines and poetry rocks to a winding piece that incorporates 3,500 cubic feet of oak logs. The park is open year-round, but in early October the outdoor sculptures are framed by foliage that’s almost as appealing as the art itself.

5 Cruising in a Houseboat // Abandon the car for a houseboat and spend a few days admiring the perfect reflections of fall forests on the mirrored surface of lakes. Windjammer Marina (231-347-6103; windjammermarina.com) on Crooked Lake (near Petoskey) rents 40- and 30-foot houseboats for use on Michigan’s Inland Waterway.

The historic route — first used by Native Americans to bypass the wicked waters of the Straits of Mackinac — is a chain of four lakes and three rivers that stretch more than 40 miles from Conway to Cheboygan. The most common itinerary is to turn the cruise into a leisurely two or three-day adventure, with an overnight in Cheboygan or anchored at one of the many campgrounds along the way.

In October, the houseboats rent from $335 to $360 a day. They sleep six to eight persons and include full-size beds, outdoor decks and small kitchens and dining areas.

6 On the Trail // There’s no better time for a walk in the woods than in the autumn, when the bugs are gone and so is the heat. Cool temperatures and many-hued trees make any trail an October a delight, but an especially good destination for hikers is Hartwick Pines State Park (989-348-7068), just north of Grayling. The 9.672-acre unit, the largest state park in the Lower Peninsula, has 20 miles of trails through some of the most colorful — and largest — trees in Michigan. In the heart of the park is a 49-acre tract of 300-year-old virgin pines, many more than 100 feet tall.

One of the best fall hikes in southeast Michigan is the Orion Oaks Achievement Trail in Orion Oaks, an Oakland County Park (248-858-0906) just north of exit 83 on I-75. This five-mile loop skirts Lake Sixteen, winds through hardwoods and meadows and tops off at one of the highest points in the county. Up there, a bench allows you to sit and take in the season’s splendor.

7 On a Horse // Pull on the boots and grab your Stetson to enjoy the fall colors on horseback ... even if you don’t own a steed. At Brighton Recreation Area Riding Stables (810-225-2225; brightonridingstable.com), they’ll boost visitors into a saddle and then lead them through Brighton Recreation Area, a 4,947-acre state park featuring rolling hills, numerous lakes and hardwood forests that peak in the third week of October. The stable is open weekends in October, offering cowpokes the hourlong Sore-Seat Saunter for $27 per person and the faster-paced Dude’s Delight, a 90-minute ride, for $40.

8 In a Canoe // Pick up a paddle in October instead of July and you’ll discover the tubers are gone. So are the party canoes. And those monotonous green leaves.

One of the most scenic rivers for a fall paddle is the South Branch of the AuSable River in the undeveloped Mason Tract, northeast of Roscommon. From Chase Bridge to Smith Bridge, the South Branch is a five-hour paddle in which the first cottage canoers pass is only a few minutes from where they pull out. Numerous canoe liveries service this stretch of the AuSable, including Campbells Canoes (800-722-6633) and Watters Edge (800-672-9968; wecl.8k.com).

For a beautiful and easy fall paddle in southeast Michigan, head to Island Lake Recreation Area, west of Novi. The 4,000-acre state park is split in half by seven miles of the Huron River. Providing canoes and pick-up service is Heavner Canoe Rental (248-685-2379; heavnercanoe.com).

9 Aboard a Train // Board a train, slow down to a speed from another era and savor the season. Lake Central Rail Tours (866-608-0746; lakecentralrailtours.com) operates vintage 1950s-era passenger trains along the Tuscola & Saginaw Railroad and squeezes in the largest number of tours during the fall. Every weekend in October, color tours depart Mount Pleasant in the morning for a two-hour-and-15-minute ride to Cadillac. Passengers then have two hours to explore the town or eat before reboarding the train for the return trip. On Oct. 28, Lake Central begins the tour from Owosso, turning the trip into a daylong excursion through the woods of northern Michigan. Tickets are $55 for adults from Mount Pleasant and $75 from Owosso.

10 Cycling and Sipping // Cyclists shouldn’t drink and ride. But sipping, sniffing and savoring fine wines is a delightful way to spend an autumn afternoon, and there’s no better place in Michigan to pedal from vineyard to vineyard than the Leelanau Peninsula. Scattered throughout the peninsula’s rolling farm country are a dozen small wineries connected to one another by quiet rural roads. A 25-mile ride that begins and ends in Sutton’s Bay swings past five vineyards, each with a delightful tasting room where guests can sip and enjoy some of Michigan’s finest wines and even stock those panniers with a bottle or two.

For a map of all the wineries in the area, contact the Leelanau Peninsula Chamber of Commerce (800-980-9895; leelanauchamber.com). The area is also covered in the Bicycling Map of Northwest Michigan, published by the Cherry Capital Cycling Club (231-941-BIKE; cherry-capital.com/cccc).

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