Scenic Highlights in Northern Michigan

During most of my 30-year career as a landscape photographer, writer and educator I have focused on the natural, rural, and historical heritage of the Buckeye State, and most of my  photography books have covered places in Ohio. However, I also enjoy visiting the wilder, less developed landscapes of northern Michigan, New England, and the southern Appalachians, and in this article I would like to share some of the scenic highlights of my recent trip to Northern Michigan, often called Michigan’s “Mitten”, which includes the land between Saginaw Bay and the Straits of Mackinac in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. 

Stone Barn near Elmira, Michigan

This century-old barn at the El Jireh Farm, built by Samuel J. Bricker in the 1920s, stands alongside M-32 about 7 miles west of Elmira in Antrim County, Michigan. The walls are built entirely of local fieldstones, ensuring rock-solid protection from the elements for the future. The steep pitch of the Gothic roof helps to shed the copious snow that falls during Northern Michigan’s harsh winters. The abundant fieldstones, remnants of the receding glaciers, were gathered from nearby farm fields.    

Because my viewing position was below the barn, the sides of the barn were tilted inward in the original exposure. I used the Transform command in Photoshop to correct this effect and render the sides vertical, more or less. Lightroom also has a Transform option in its Develop module, but in general I prefer to use Photoshop’s more powerful and flexible pixel-based tools for perspective adjustments to images of buildings.    

D. H. Day Dairy Barn, Leelanau County, Michigan

During Northern Michigan’s tourist season, several visitors pull up each day alongside M-109 in western Leelanau County to snap a photo of what is perhaps the most distinctive barn in the state, the 116-foot long D. H. Day Dairy Barn near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. David Henry (D. H.) Day was a lumber baron and farmer who lived in nearby Glen Haven, and each day he would walk 3 miles from the town to inspect the 400 hogs and prize herd of 200 Holstein cows that were housed in the barn, which was built in the 1880s and 1890s. The ornate silos were added at a later date.    

I was fortunate to have a clear blue sky as an attractive background to the white barn when I took this photograph. A flat white sky would be much less desirable (I hate blank white skies!) and I would use Luminar or Photoshop’s new Sky Replacement tool to create a more pleasing blue sky like the one shown in the photo above.   

Horton Bay General Store, near Petoskey, Michigan

Ernest Hemingway’s family owned a summer cottage at Walloon Lake near Petoskey, Michigan, and the young writer often visited the nearby Horton Bay General Store, where the walls are hung with Hemingway photos and other memorabilia. The store opened in June, 1876, a date that is shared with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where General George Armstrong Custer made his last stand and met his demise. Ernest Hemingway married his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in 1921 at a church that stood next to the Horton Bay General Store. Today the store operates a B&B upstairs and a tavern downstairs, and you can sample a real malt at the old soda fountain in the store.

Tunnel of Trees, near Harbor Springs, Michigan

Northern Michigan is heavily forested, and in many places on paved and unpaved roads the overhanging tree canopy creates a “tree tunnel.” The most famous of Michigan’s tree tunnels is the Tunnel of Trees, a 27-mile stretch of the narrow, serpentine road M-119, which twists and turns along the Lake Michigan shoreline from Harbor Springs north to Cross Village.

When photographing tree tunnels, I prefer cloudy lighting to bright sun, in order to minimize distracting bright highlights and dark shadows on the trees and the road.   

Good Hart General Store, near Harbor Springs, Michigan

The Good Hart General Store and Post Office, built in 1934, is located roughly at the midpoint of the Tunnel of Trees.  Good Hart’s name dates to 1827, when the Ottawa Indians  nearby were led by their chief’s brother, Kaw-me-no-te-a, which means “good heart” in Ottawa. The word was misspelled by the USPS at some point, and the error remains today. If you go inside the store, be sure to pay your respects to the resident coonhound, Maggie. 

The American Flag was blowing in the breeze when I photographed the store, and I took several exposures with the flag unfurled in different orientations. The version shown above, in which the flag was not merging with the edge of the store, and acts as a subtle leading line, was my favorite.

Earl Young Mushroom House, Charlevoix, Michigan

If you visit the attractive resort town of Charlevoix, be sure to view some of the 26 houses built by local builder Earl Young from 1919 to the 1970s. These buildings were constructed using mostly fieldstones, limestone, and boulders that Young found throughout Northern Michigan. The cedar shake roofs, exposed rafters, and low, horizontal design has earned the name Mushroom Houses, Gnome Homes, and Hobbit Houses. A self-guided tour map can be downloaded from the Charlevoix website:

Little Sable Point Lighthouse, near Silver Lake State Park, Michigan

Michigan, which is bordered by Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and a bit of Lake Erie, has the longest coastline – 3,288 miles – of any U.S. state except Alaska. Michigan also has 124 lighthouses, more than any other state, and around 30 of these historic buildings are located in Northern Michigan. One of my favorites is the 108-foot-tall, elegant Little Sable Point Lighthouse, close to Silver Lake State Park, near Pentwater.   The lighthouse design incorporated 109 1-foot-diameter wood pilings driven into the sand, crowned by 12 feet of stone, providing a sturdy base for the brick tower. The tower’s walls are 5 feet thick at the base and 2 feet across at the top.

On sunny or partly cloudy days, many lighthouses are best photographed early or late in the day to avoid problems with contrast, especially when the tower is painted white or is surrounded by bright sand dunes, as shown in the photo above, which was taken just before sunset.

High Rollways Panorama of Manistee River, near Buckley, Michigan

Except for a few places like Sleeping Bear Dunes and Empire Bluff near the Lake Michigan shoreline, most of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is fairly flat, with few vistas from high overlooks. I’m not especially fond of sweeping vistas of mostly sand and water, so I was intrigued when I discovered a few online photos of the Manistee River taken from an overlook near Buckley called High Rollways (or Rollaways, in some references). The panoramic photo shown above, taken with my iPhone 11 Pro, is the most impressive vista I have seen in Lower Michigan. In the foreground is a horseshoe bend of the Manistee River, backed by fifteen miles of timber extending into the Manistee National Forest, with no manmade structures visible in the scene. The photo below is another panorama from the same overlook, made from two photos made with my Nikon D500 and Tamron 100-400mm lens, then stitched together in Lightroom.       

High Rollways Vista, Manistee National Forest

High Rollways is about 4 miles east of Buckley just off W-4. When the paved road makes a sharp turn left, continue straight ahead on a dirt road. Turn right where the road forks and drive a little further to a parking area, from which a short trail takes you through the woods to a fence at the overlook. Follow the fence along the edge of the overlook to a viewing platform which looks out over the Manistee River horseshoe bend shown in the first photo. 

Prior to the 1800s much of the land in Northern Michigan was covered with old growth  forests of white pine, red pine, jack pine, and hardwoods. Many of the white pines were 200 years old and more than 150 feet high, with trunks 5 feet in diameter. During the mid- and late 1800s, virtually every acre of this superb forest was clearcut, and the lumber was floated down the rivers to sawmills, where boards were cut and shipped to build Chicago and other cities of the Midwest. Most of the logging was done in the winter, when it was easier to move the timber over the ground, and the logs were stacked in huge piles at places like High Rollways, ready to be released down the slope into the Manistee River when the spring melt arrived.

Old Growth White Pine, Hartwick Pines State Park, near Grayling, Michigan

Today the only remnant of that vast pine forest in Northern Michigan is at Hartwick Pines State Park, near Grayling, where you can walk a loop trail through a 48-acre tract of old-growth white pines which formed part of an 8,000-acre forested area that was donated by the Hartwick family to the State of Michigan, and is today managed as Hartwick Pines State Park. An excellent visitor center and a logging museum tell the history of Michigan’s logging industry.  

Au Sable River at Iargo Springs, Michigan

The Manistee River is born near Grayling and flows 190 miles west to Lake Michigan. The Au Sable River also begins near Grayling, but flows east for 130 miles to Oscoda, where it joins Lake Huron. At Mio, about 30 miles east of Grayling, you can turn east from M-33 just north of the Au Sable River onto McKinley Road at the beginning of the Jack Pine Wildlife Viewing Tour, a self-guided, 58-mile auto-tour through jack pine ecosystems that are home to a variety of wildlife, including the endangered Kirtland’s warbler. For many miles, the auto-tour follows the Au Sable River, and there are several overlooks that provide good photo opportunities. My favorite is shown above, taken at Iargo Springs from a viewing platform perched 300 feet above the river. After admiring the view, you can descend 300 steps on a wooden stairway to the spring, which is dammed and has a small waterfall. You will get a good cardiovascular workout climbing the 300 steps back to the parking area.

Cedar Swamp Boardwalk, Grass River Natural Area, Michigan

I own a first edition (1987) copy of Natural Michigan: A Guide to 165 Michigan Natural Attractions, by Tom Powers. The second edition, published in 1995, expands the list to 228 places of interest to the Michigan nature lover. Fifty of the 165 natural attractions in the first edition are in Northern Michigan, and it would take a lifetime to gain an in-depth knowledge of the myriad of interesting natural areas in the Wolverine State.

One of my favorite natural areas in Northern Michigan is Grass River Natural Area, near Bellaire in Antrim County. Established in 1969, this 1,492-acre nature preserve includes mesic northern forest, conifer swamps, northern fen meadows, and a section of the Grass River, which joins Bellaire Lake and Clam Lake. A system of excellent boardwalks provides access to the heart of these natural areas, while allowing you to to keep your feet dry.            

Poison Sumac Leaves and Cedars, Grass River Natural Area

As a photographer, I couldn’t resist the bright orange-red leaves of a Poison Sumac shrub glowing against the subdued background of the cedar swamp, shown in the photo above. However, I was very careful not to touch the leaves or stem of this shrub. All parts of the Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) plant contain the chemical urushiol, which causes contact dermatitis when it touches human skin. Poison Sumac is even more toxic than its better-known relatives, Poison Ivy and Poison Oak.      

Sunset, Sturgeon Bay, Wilderness State Park, Michigan

I will end this article with a photograph of sunset over Sturgeon Bay, a remote area near the northwest tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, part of Wilderness State Park in Emmet County, which includes 8,000 acres of mostly untouched wilderness, including 30 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and a string of uninhabited islands stretching for several miles. In addition to wild areas like Sturgeon Bay, Wilderness State Park is also home to many rare plants, including the beautiful but elusive Calypso and Ram’s Head Lady’s Slipper orchids.   

Two publications that I have found to be indispensable while exploring Northern Michigan are the DeLorme Michigan Atlas & Gazeteer and Moon Michigan: Lakeside Getaways, Scenic Drives, Outdoor Recreation (Travel Guide), by Paul Vachon. Parts of Northern Michigan are remote and wild, with no cell phone coverage and patchy GPS service – always keep a DeLorme Michigan Atlas with you in your vehicle!   

Enjoy your travels in the Wolverine State!   





This Post Has One Comment

  1. Some pretty cool barns Ian and some great work! Like your other blogs too!

Leave a Reply

Close Menu