A Little Gorge of Onion Creek

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A warm spring day lures Jacob and Logan down west to hunt down some suspicions of Onion Creek and find a few more falls. published on by

Logan sniffing around for another waterfall

Something bugged me about Onion Falls. It was one of those tiny little drops in the western side of Houghton County, a spot that I had found by examining old topographic maps and following hints, and I wasn't completely sold that the little drop I found was the real waterfall. And even if it was, the summertime pictures I had gotten of the trickling creek were far from ideal. When the right day came along I found myself driving south past Elo and Nisula with Logan in the predawn dark in the hopes of finding a larger and taller waterfall in that area, maybe even on the Ontonagon.

While I was so far south of Houghton there were a few other spots I wanted to check out. There was a suspect waterfall over by Weidman Lake along the Gogebic Ridge with the tempting name of 'Hidden Falls'. A few miles away was the well known Little Trap Falls, rumored to be some twenty feet tall. I could make a nice tour out of it, driving down to Onion and over to M-64 before looping back up through Ontonagon on my way back up, which sounded like a great way to spend a relatively warm early spring day.

A long walk over snowy roads

A long walk over snowy roads

It was a harsh start, though. None of the dirt roads west of NF-16 were plowed. I had hoped to drive within a mile of the creek at the least - instead, a long six miles of snow-covered roads lay before Logan and me. At least snowmobiles and shifting temperatures had packed down a solid trail for me. I grabbed some water, my gear, and shed a few layers of clothing before setting a hard pace west.

A few hours later and we stood at the open meadow that marked the beginning of the off-road hike. From my last visit some months ago I remembered the ruins of an old barn off to the south, now a low box surrounding a young sapling, yet today there was something new here. Within a few dozen yards of the road surrounded by tall bare brush was a little earthern hovel. I had seen no hint of this structure during my summer visits.

Bare spring meadows

Bare spring meadows

Tiny earthen homestead half-buried in snow

Tiny earthen homestead half-buried in snow

There was no sign or explanation for the little manmade cave. It could have been a root cellar, or an old home, or even just a shed. I ducked inside for a short time and breathed in the musty air, curious. But there were no clues. I simply headed out and continued through the meadow on my way down to the creek.

The meadow narrowed to a point and led us through a pine path to a second meadow. There was a hint of a trail here that I had found on my last visit, though there had been no tracks through the lush meadows. Just a route that led past a large cabin and eventually meandered downhill. It didn't take long before the sounds of a bubbling creek came up from below. Onion Creek was right there, and the falls I had found last year barely visible through the close woods, not thirty feet below me.

Little path over snow

Little path over snow

High above the creek

High above the creek

Logan and I skittered down to the creek bank and got our bearings. Upstream of the falls was nothing but rapids and swamp, a tough hike that I had forced through last year, but downstream was unknown territory. The Ontonagon River was a short mile away and there was a decent chance more drops lay between us and it. Downstream it was. I led Logan along the snowy bank until I noticed that the tiny creek was so shallow that we could simply walk on the exposed sandstone creekbed.

In the dark, slick valley

In the dark, slick valley

Not that walking on the exposed sandstone was an easy option. The rock was slick, both from icy waters and the damnable thin clay found everywhere in this area. Both Logan and I inched along the creek, half-shuffling, slowly traveling downstream.

Deep snow around the tiny creek, dark orange rock below, and clear ice hanging over sections made for a fairly pretty scene. It reminded me a lot of Quincy Falls way up in the Keweenaw, although the gorge that Onion Creek cuts is a much deeper and less stable. Numerous downed trees hung down over the water and made tough obstacles that the water streamed around and we had to circle. Logan had little trouble jumping up onto the deep snow on the banks and dancing around with his wide paws, while I was forced to either crawl up after him on all fours or brave the water path while ducking and weaving.

Deep piles of snow in the gorge

Deep piles of snow in the gorge

Bent over trees covered in snow

Bent over trees covered in snow

After a long hour within the creek the gorge began to shallow out and we spilled out onto the Ontonagon River. The wide brown river ran over some rapids here, breaking the surface into little waves, yet there was nothing else to see here. There was no drop on the river, nor had there been anything sizable along the creek. Logan and I had braved the downstream hike and had found nothing. The true waterfall was waiting for us back upstream, back where we had first started along the creek, and our tough hike had been for naught.

Wide Ontonagon River

Wide Ontonagon River

This piece of knowledge made the long trek back that much worse. There was nothing new to see, just the deep gorge and the deep snow and the icy sandstone. We made slightly better time on the return and was surprised to see an increased amount of flow over Onion Falls. Within the last hour and a half the sun had warmed up the snow enough to send more meltwater down the creek. Maybe by the end of the day the creek would be too full for us to walk in. We weren't going to stick around to find out.

Logan sniffing around for another waterfall

Logan sniffing around for another waterfall

Steady curtain flowing over Onion Falls

Steady curtain flowing over Onion Falls

I opted to take a different way back. We had just retraced our walk along the creek, and there was miles to go along boring unplowed roads… there was one option to change things up a bit for a short leg. South of Onion Creek an old logging road wound its way back to FS 1100 (which joins up with Skogland that led back to the car). We wandered up the creek bank, slowly cutting our way southeast, until the narrow route showed up. I realized my mistake quickly.

All morning the snow had been warming, any sort of crisp pack giving way to cool mush. The main unplowed roads to the north would still be compressed by snowmobiles, but this unmarked and narrow track had not seen any traffic all winter. I stood knee-deep in the fluff, Logan looking at my quizzically, and debated backtracking. Eh, it was only a few miles. I broke the path and he followed, me puffing away and him trotting with ease.

Narrow track through low brush

Narrow track through low brush

Once we returned to the car I ran through the options. This stop had eaten up a lot of time, more than budgeted, yet I still had plenty left for the afternoon. A few stops in the west would work. Logan and I snacked on the drive through Bruce Crossing and, by the time we were on M-64, were rested and ready for the next hike.

I parked us along the main road when a small trail sign showed up near the Gogebic Ridge. Or what I thought was the ridge. A few hills reared up on the right side of the road above a swampy section, looking suspiciously like the area of Cookout Mountain and Weidman Lake. We tumbled out, not really sure if this was the best approach, and headed east towards Hidden Falls.

Hidden Falls was not really along a proper creek. Well, as far as I could tell. I had only heard of the name Hidden Falls and that it was somewhere near Weidman Lake. The lake has a little unnamed outflow, one that flows down and over into Cascade Creek, and that's about it. I hoped that the outflow held at least one drop I could call a waterfall.

A snowy start of the path in

A snowy start of the path in

Logan and I crossed a beaver dam and cut up through a swamp on our way up the ridge. It was tough going, with a few sudden sinks into icy water, and once we reached the far side of the swamp there was still deep snow to fight. I broke path through fluff up to my knees with Logan either pounced around me lightly or easily followed my trail. Maybe I should make him break trail, though I feel like he'd have to gain a lot of weight to break through and make a proper way.

Deep snow left in the woods

Deep snow left in the woods

Gravelly bottom of the tiny creek

Gravelly bottom of the tiny creek

The outflow swung back up and forth with great abandon, forcing us to jump across open stretches of water or swing with it several dozen times. Jumping across a little creek is normally a painless process, though when the banks are piled several feet high in snow that clings to the pants and slows the feet it gets a bit tiresome. By the time I reached the first suspect drop I was ready to call anything a waterfall if it would cut this hike short.

Snow covered lower drops

Snow covered lower drops

There was nothing to see but a bank of snow over the little creek. A few dark rocks poked out, and the sound of rushing water slid out from the breaks, but no waterfall was visible. I checked my GPS. I had already covered much of the distance to Weidman Lake. It wouldn't be too much to continue on in the hopes of finding a more impressive drop. If I could reach the lake above than I could make a nice cut back to the car, cutting a diagonal through the woods and back down the hill.

Tall drop covered in masking snow

Tall drop covered in masking snow

An upper drop showed up, more rock exposed to show the shape of the falls, though this one appeared to be mostly dry. The creek either snuck around during low flow or just trickled trickled over the pink rock in a thin sheet to small to form whitewater. Neither Logan or I admired the spot for long, choosing instead to push forward until we reached the tiny lake upstream.

I'm not sure what I expected at the lake. A small pond, perhaps, with rocky shores and marshy sections. What I found was a dying swamp. There are a few, if any, creeks flowing into Weidman Lake, so whatever water lay in it was probably collected from rain and snow. Recent beaver activity near the start of the outflow had raised the surface a foot or so, enough to drown out hundreds of trees around the lake and turn the whole thing into a barren swamp. It was a depressing end for the hike. I turned and made a cut back to the car and Logan followed.

A frozen Weidman Lake

A frozen Weidman Lake

We reached the car and headed a few miles north. Old M-64, which cuts a curve from the modern highway, was not plowed for much of its length and I was forced to park at the northern end. An uphill mile on the old road waited for us now, up a slushy and slick dirt climb to (near) Anderson Creek, which hurt after the morning's tough hikes.

Snowy road going down the hill

Snowy road going down the hill

Pink rock walls along the creek

Pink rock walls along the creek

Once we reached the second electric pole past the second bend I cut off. I had found some instructions to reach Little Trap Falls from the internet and didn't feel like scouting too much. There was no trail, though. Thick forest closed quickly around us and the terrain suddenly began to buck up and down as we neared the creek. By the time I dropped down next to the icy waters we were well within the little canyon, pink walls rising up around us.

Again, I couldn't help but compare this creek from one in the Keweenaw. Manganese Gorge has the same sudden rock walls, the same little creek bubbling over tiny drops, and only slightly smaller trees towering high above on the walls. When I reached the end waterfall the similarities stopped. Where Manganese Falls is huddled within a crack, barely visible from above or below the gorge, Little Trap was fully exposed for all to see. The towering drop thundered down with only a few shells of ice trying to hide the water from view.

Looking up the steep rock wall

Looking up the steep rock wall

Ice hanging over Little Trap Falls

Ice hanging over Little Trap Falls

I stood below the impressive falls and let the cool mist collect on my face. It was great to see a real waterfall, a surprisingly large drop, after this morning's mediocre findings. Only after I was shivering from the combination of creek mist and cooling sweat did I tear myself away. There was still more daylight today. I circled around and found a way upstream and back to the road.

Rock outcroppings upstream

Rock outcroppings upstream

My legs were sore and my pants and boots were soaked in cold wet. Logan was doing okay, though I could tell he was hungry. I had brought food for both of us, some snacks and a pouch of dog food, which was not enough for the mileage we were putting in today. If I made another stop it would have to be a short one, preferrably along the drive back to Houghton. And I had one just in mind.

I had stopped by Victoria Dam several times last year. The West Branch of Ontonagon River had once made for an impressive waterfall here, a huge cascade over sandstone that is now buried under tons of silt and water of the dam. A penstock routes some of the water downstream to a small powerhouse. However, in times of high flow, some of the river overflows around to the side of the dam and plunges down an impressive wall of rock some forty or more feet high. So far I had only seen trickles down this wall, but with today's warm temperatures and melting snow I held some hope to see a waterfall.

We drove up through Ontonagon and cut down to Rockland, taking the old roads to Victoria and down to the dam. Everything was cleared and muddy, easy driving for my car, and I parked at the access with no trouble. From the lot I could hear the thunderous roar already. Something awesome was happening down at the dam. I hurried over and peered over to see the angry wall of brown and white. Now this, this was a waterfall, even if it was a manmade diversion for the dam.

Open spillway on Victoria Dam

Open spillway on Victoria Dam

Steps reaching up the tall dam

Steps reaching up the tall dam

Getting down to the base of the falls was imperative. There had to be a way I could reach the river and look up at this thing. The dam was an interesting option, shaped like a long staircase on this side, though reaching it would involve hopping metal fences and incurring the wrath of whatever agencies frown on such things. Downstream seemed like a better choice. I headed down along the access road, keeping a close eye on the river next to me, and picked a spot where the trees clustered close. If there were trees along the bank than it couldn't be too steep of a drop.

Logan chose to stay up high while I crawled down to the river. It was a good fifty feet down over icy flows and crumbling dirt, desparate grasping from trunk to brush to rock, before I found myself in the riverbed itself. There were more than enough rocks and snow reaching out from the banks for me to hop and jump back upstream, close to the falls, to get a better look. When I could go no farther I simply stopped and stared up at the thing and let the rush of cool air wash over me like a frigid shower.

Looking up at towers of rock, cement, water, and ice

Looking up at towers of rock, cement, water, and ice

Tight view from the river bank

Tight view from the river bank

I worried a bit about Logan, that if I stayed too long down here than he would try to find a path down the treacherous bank, so after a few minutes I turned and headed back up. It wasn't easy. There was plenty of spots where I'd scramble up five feet and slide back down four. By the time I reached the top I was muddy and had chunks of wet ice in my boots, under my gloves, and down my back. Logan was waiting right where I had left him and excitedly led me to the car.

A steep climb over the icy bnk

A steep climb over the icy bnk

We still had a few hours of daylight left, enough time to hunt for Penn Falls or make another stop at Wyandotte, but I was exhausted. Exhausted and hungry. I sped up M-28 to Houghton and a warm house with hot food. A few more spots had been found, a few old friends visited, and spring continued to tick forward. I only had three weeks left in the Upper Peninsula to finish the waterfall project.

Trip Photos

  • A long walk over snowy roads
  • Dark clouds far to the west
  • Bare spring meadows
  • Looking inside the earthen house
  • Tiny earthen homestead half-buried in snow
  • Remains of the old barn to the south
  • Narrow path between the pines
  • Odd sign along the way
  • High above the creek
  • In the dark, slick valley
  • Sliding drops over smooth sandstone
  • Deep piles of snow in the gorge
  • Overhanging creek banks
  • Deep brown pool of water
  • Wide Ontonagon River
  • Narrow mouth of Onion River
  • Logan sniffing around for another waterfall
  • Smooth ledge across the river
  • A long, fanning slide
  • Smooth bumps of ice along the creek bank
  • Steady curtain flowing over Onion Falls
  • Sideways over Onion Falls
  • Tough path on the way out
  • Narrow track through low brush
  • A snowy start of the path in
  • Running water near the bottom of the outflow creek
  • Water peaking out along the creek
  • Gravelly bottom of the tiny creek
  • Decrepit hunting blind
  • Thick, directionless woods
  • First outcroppings along the creek
  • Frozen and trickling drop
  • Tall drop covered in masking snow
  • Mounds of snow hanging over the creek
  • A frozen Weidman Lake
  • Half-melted, slushy swamp
  • Snowy road going down the hill
  • Slowly melting forest
  • Up the snowy creek
  • Pink rock walls along the creek
  • Ice hanging over Little Trap Falls
  • Looking down the falls
  • Rock outcroppings upstream
  • Steep earthy bank on the creek
  • Snow banks along the dirt road
  • Open spillway on Victoria Dam
  • Steps reaching up the tall dam
  • Curtain of raging, frothing water
  • Towering stacks of rock around the river
  • Down the brown flow of water
  • Looking up at towers of rock, cement, water, and ice
  • Forest reaching down the rocky banks
  • A steep climb over the icy bnk
  • Penstock snaking further downstream
  • Ice over the basin

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