West of Newberry, the headwaters of the Tahquamenon bubble up from underground and begin a gentle roll through stands of pine and vast wetlands. Rambling and twisting northeast through Luce County, the river grows wide and majestic by the time it enters Tahquamenon Falls State Park. Then, with the roar of a freight train and the power of a fire hose, it suddenly plummets over a 50-foot drop, creating a golden fountain of water 200 feet wide.
As much as 50,000 gallons of water per second gush over the Upper Tahquamenon, making it the second largest falls (by volume) east of the Mississippi, outdone only by Niagara. Adding to Tahquamenon’s majesty are its distinctive colors—bronze headwaters from the tannic acid of decaying cedars and hemlocks that line its banks, and bright white foam from the water’s high salt content.
Accessing Tahquamenon Falls is easy, since both the Upper Falls and Lower Falls lie within Tahquamenon Falls State Park (41382 W. M-123, Paradise, 906/492-3415), which has provided short, well-marked paths to prime viewing sites. At the Upper Falls, follow the trail to the right and down the 74 steps to an observation deck, which brings you so close you can feel the fall’s thundering power and its cool mist on your face. The view provides a dual glimpse of the placid waters above and the furious frothing below. Four miles downstream, the Lower Falls plunges over a series of cascades. The best vantage point is from a small island mid-river; a state park concessionaire obliges visitors by renting canoes and rowboats to make the short crossing.
With the dramatic centerpiece of Tahquamenon Falls, it’s easy to overlook the rest of this 40,000-acre state park, Michigan’s second largest. In sharp contrast to the often frenzied crowds at the falls (more than half a million people per year, the greatest of any U.P.  state park), the vast majority of the park remains peaceful, etched with 25 miles of little-used hiking trails. From the Upper Falls, the Giant Pines Loop passes through a stand of white pines before crossing M-123. Once on the north side of the highway, link up with the Clark Lake Loop, a 5.6-mile hike that traces the southern shoreline of the shallow lake.
The final 16 miles of the Tahquamenon River wind through the park, spilling into Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay at its eastern end. Fishing for muskie and walleye is usually quite good in the pools below the Lower Falls. Also consider joining the fleet of runabouts and anglers in waders near the mouth of the river, where trout often school.
It’s possible to paddle nearly all 94 miles of the Tahquamenon. A popular put-in is off County Road 415 north of McMillan, but you’ll start off through several buggy miles of wetlands. A better choice is about 10 miles downstream, off County Road 405 at Dollarville, where you’ll also avoid portaging around the Dollarville Dam.
Beyond Newberry, you’ll be treated to a pristine paddle, since no roads come anywhere near the river. Watch the banks for bear, deer, and other wildlife. Naturally, you’ll have to portage around the falls, but then you can follow the river to its mouth without any other interruptions.
For another look at the river and falls, you may want to plan a day for the Toonerville Trolley and Riverboat (Soo Junction, 906/876-2311, mid-June–mid-Oct., $42 adults, $26 children 9–15, $17 children 4–8). It’s much more appealing than its cheesy name suggests, and a good way to experience a remote stretch of the river.
Departing from Soo Junction near Newberry (watch for a sign on M-28), a narrow-gauge train chugs its way five miles along an old logging route, through roadless spruce and maple forest, tamarack lowlands and peat bogs. In about a half-hour, the train sighs to a stop deep in the woods at the Tahquamenon’s banks.
Here, you’ll transfer to a large tour boat and cruise downstream nearly two hours toward the falls. Just as the river begins to roil and boil, the boat docks on the river’s south shore, and guests walk the last half-mile to the falls.
It’s a nifty trip, one that has been in operation since long before there was a state park providing easy access to the falls. Originally, the tour operator—the grandfather of present-day owner Kris Stewart—used a Model T truck with train wheels to reach the river.