Indian River is an excellent home base for activities that include Michigan’s brilliant fall colors. Flaming reds, bright oranges, and yellow make the woods in northern Michigan a spectacular view. Add the contrast of clear blue water to that backdrop, and you’ll be glad you chose Indian River as your autumn leaf-peeping getaway.
The Pigeon River Taken from an Overlook at the Andreae Preserve
Photo Credit: Jess Miller
Getting into the Woods
1. Pigeon River Country State Forest
Why not combine some elk viewing and a fall color tour? The region is home to the largest free-roaming elk herd east of the Mississippi. So, chances are high that you’ll catch a glimpse.
Elk breeding season is in September and October, and that’s typically the best time to view the Indian River’s blazing fall foliage. With all the green leaves, summer-time elk viewing is often tricky, but as the leaves begin to drop in autumn, the elk feed in open grassy areas, and the bulls will be bugling. Dawn and dusk are prime times to see elk, and with the light shining through the autumn leaves, it will be memorable.
You can access most viewing locations via the roads. However, some may require a hike. You’ll find signage indicating official viewing areas, but elk may not always be present at a particular site.
2. State Forest with ATV Guided Tours
ATVs or two-by-twos are a great way to get out in the woods and see some fall colors. The open vehicle lets you get close to the leaves, smell the crisp fall air, and even catch a falling leaf. The best way to have this experience is with Big Bear Adventures Guided ATV Tours.
They offer a two-and-a-half-hour guided ATV tour where you drive through Michigan’s hardwood forests for a genuine northern Michigan experience. Their guide leads your group in their vehicle, and you follow. Since you’re with an experienced local guide, you don’t need to worry about getting lost, road hazards, or mechanical issues.
Big Bear Adventures has ATVs and all the safety equipment, from helmets and goggles to scarves to protect you from dust and dirt. So, bring yourself and a sense of adventure!
Photo Credit: Jess Miller
3. Nature’s Megaphone at Banwell Family Nature Preserve
Hiking through Banwell Family Nature Preserve to see Nature’s Megaphone is another place for getting great color opportunities in the Indian River area. The 400-acre preserve adjacent to the Agnes S. Andreae Nature Preserve offers nearly three miles along the Pigeon River. In this area, you are high above the river, and in some cases, the oak trees, and steep bluffs above the Pigeon River, position your view from the treetops, which makes for stunning views of the local leaves. In addition, you can investigate more than five miles of trails between the Banwell Nature Preserve and the neighboring Andreae Preserve.
While enjoying the color, take the two-mile loop that includes Nature’s Megaphone. Looking out over the bluff inside the megaphone provides an excellent view high above the treetops. In addition, the megaphone will amplify the wind, bird songs, and insect buzzing for a fantastic symphony to accompany the landscape tinted with dazzling fall colors.
4. The National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods
The Cross in the Woods is the perfect place to immerse yourself in fall colors. Marshall Fredericks designed the sculpture called The Man on the Cross. The cross, created from Oregon Redwood, is 55 feet high and 22 feet wide. The bronze sculpture of Christ weighs 7 tons and is 28 feet long, and the arms span 21 feet.
The cross stands in the heart of the woods at the front of the outdoor church. The location makes it easy to sit in the pews, enjoy your surroundings, and reflect. Also, the paved pathways make a walk in the woods much easier than you might find on typical hikes in the woods.
In addition to the cross, you’ll find numerous sculptures throughout the grounds, making your hike part of a fascinating outdoor museum.
Boating on the Inland Waterway at Burt Lake
Photo Credit: Jeff Miller
5. Burt Lake State Park
Burt Lake State Park, situated in the southeast corner of Burt Lake, has 2,000 feet of sandy shoreline. Sitting on the beach, you can enjoy the crimson fall colors from the shore.
In addition, the Burt Lake Foot Trail is a one-mile trail, which makes it a great place to hike and discover the area. The path follows the Sturgeon River.
The park also features a boat launch making it an accessible place to launch your boat and another perspective from which to do some leaf peeping.
The 400-acre year-round park offers 306 modern campsites supported by four modern restrooms that include showers.
Kayaking near Burt Lake State Park
Photo Credit: Jess Miller
Getting Out on the Water
6. On the Sturgeon River
It isn’t whitewater, but the Sturgeon River, the fastest in the lower peninsula, provides enough twists and turns to keep it exciting. Big Bear Adventures has five and seven-person rafts, where rafts provide more stability over kayaks. They also have kayaks available. The river current moves you down the river, but your group needs to steer around impediments. The trip finishes at Burt Lake State Park, where you can swim and play on the beach.
7. On Burt or Mullett Lakes
Rent a boat from Howe Marine or The Landings and make your way out to Burt or Mullett Lakes to view the fall color on shore.
You’ll find Howe Marine directly on the Indian River, between Mullett and Burt Lakes. This is the heart of the Inland Waterway. A pontoon boat is a fun way to get to the center of the lake quickly or even take a tour around the lake’s perimeter to take full advantage of all the colors.
If you own a boat, staying at The Landings is a good option since each cabin features a boat slip on the Indian River. However, The Landings also rents them if you don’t have a boat, providing a way to get out on the lake in the evening and watch the sunset against a colorful backdrop.
All photography was done by Jess Miller, a year-round Indian River resident for the last 45 years. You can contact him at [email protected] if you are interested in acquiring any of these photographs.