Foggy Gratiot and a Forbidden Spot

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A cold, wet fog envelops the Houghton area as Jacob heads north to Gratiot River and Douglass Houghton Falls and some epic sights. published on by

Mist over the Gratiot River valley

Cold wet rain and fog covered Houghton all day, a welcome break from the heat earlier in the week. I was looking forward to today's trip, a quick revisit down to Alberta and Canyon River Falls with a friend. Just as I was getting ready to leave work and pick her up she canceled, her ride to Wisconsin for the weekend changing plans on her. Instead of heading south to further explore Canyon River Falls alone I decided to go north, a risky decision with almost no research done beforehand.

My drive up though the Keweenaw was a pleasant one. The fog wasn't thick, just enough to soften things in the distance and smooth out the harsh summer sun. North of Calumet I could barely make out the Cliffs, a beautiful dreamy view to the north before turning down Five Mile Point Road in Ahmeek.

From Ahmeek I wasn't really sure where to go so I turned right at the cemetery. Once I hit Farmer's Block Road I turned left and continued straight down a tiny two-track when that road bent at a right angle. This path was all educated guesswork; I knew that the river was a short distance to my left, and that the falls were somewhere downstream of the cemetery, but beyond that had no idea where they sat or where I was even going.

Mist over the Gratiot River valley

Mist over the Gratiot River valley

The two-track cut deep in the ground, dirt walls as high as my windows and barely wide enough to let my car through. When it ended at a small circle in the woods, wide enough for me to turn around, I parked and tried to get my bearings.

There were several trails that radiated out from the parking spot. The most defined one led in the direction I guessed Gratiot River was so I followed it. While the path was easy to make out there were plenty of trees and branches laying across, forcing me to crawl over or cut around in the dripping wet undergrowth.

Cluttered path to the river

Cluttered path to the river

After a short walk along the trail I bumped into the river, high up on a sandy bank. There was a way down to the water, a steep drop with a few roots and footholds that I couldn't trace more than twenty feet down. There was no way I was trying that in this weather. The path leads both up and downstream, probably for fisherman, so I headed upstream first.

Gurgles and splashes from the cascading water seeped up from below. I couldn't make out much of what was going on though, not from the path, and it wasn't until the path meandered off to nothing before I found an easy way down. The river bank's height had lessened a good deal along the walk, though I still got nice and scratched up on the short drop down.

Between the wide conglomerate bed and shallow river it was easy for me to simply walk down with the rushing water. I was at the top of the drops, smooth wet rock extending downstream, and I carefully wound my way through the steeper sections. The water flowed up against different banks as the river twisted and crossed my path, forcing me to ford the deeper waters (several inches at most) repeatedly. I turned around a few times to take pictures. There was no distinct waterfall, no defined steep drop, just a long and bumpy slide over the conglomerate rock.

Slick conglomerate river bed

Slick conglomerate river bed

Wide, shallow slides

Wide, shallow slides

Before I knew it I was back at the towering red bluff near the trail split, back where I first turned upstream. I was forced up and out of the river by a deep pool collecting in front of the bluff. With no other choice I climbed up the steep sandy path that I had turned away from earlier.

A big red bluff

A big red bluff

Once I reached the top I followed the trail downstream to the top of the red bluff and found a nice campsite. Thinking that there may be more falls downstream from here I pushed past the trail end through thick green brush back down to the river on the far side of the bluff. When I finally reached the water again it had calmed down, deep pools cropping up between shallow riverbed. I had seen all there was to Conglomerate (or Upper Gratiot) Falls.

I headed back to my car with loud watery sounds squishing out from my soggy boots. Driving back down Farmer's Block Road to the cemetery I turned right on Gratiot River Road. There was another waterfall on the river, one further downstream, and I was guessing that I had to be on the other side of the river to find it.

This road was a tough one to drive on with, more a logging trail than passable road. Deep black mud collected puddles of water that my small car splashed and pushed through. There were plenty of tracks leading off the road, though it was easy to make out the main track all the way to Lake Superior. The end of the road was a nice surprise, a rocky beach and lapping water surrounding the mouth of Gratiot River. Huge swarms of mosquitoes were not as welcoming and I was driven back to my car after a brief look around.

Mirror mouth of Gratiot River

Mirror mouth of Gratiot River

I wasn't sure where to find Gratiot River Falls so I stopped at few tracks and bumbled down to the river. The second stop, about a mile from the beach, was the correct one. A small muddy track led to a parking area with a few paths down to the falls, complete with camping sites and fire rings. This waterfall was the real deal, with the white waters loudly cascading down large basaltic blocks. It was a cool find, far out of the way, but more mosquitoes kept my visit short.

Blocky drops of the lower falls

Blocky drops of the lower falls

After I left Gratiot River I contemplated my next visit. It was still relatively early in the evening with a few hours of daylight left. I didn't want to continue northwards, farther from Houghton, and I felt like I needed a big win to kick start my July waterfall adventures. My earlier adventures this month had not been very productive or exciting, compared to the big trips at the end of June. On a whim I turned my car south towards Lake Linden and parked at the old drive-in theater just off of Cemetery Road.

Hammell Creek crosses here, flowing under Cemetery Road, before meeting up with Trap Rock River and emptying into Torch Lake. I turned and headed upstream. There wasn't much of a trail here, the banks covered with thick green undergrowth, and the small creek was mossy and hard to walk along. I wasn't taking the normal way to one of the area's largest waterfalls, one that was once incredibly popular and is now forbidden: Douglass Houghton Falls.

Sliding green drops

Sliding green drops

There was only one interruption, a railroad grade, that forced me up and away from the creek. Otherwise the small drops, mossy riverbed, and green-green forest kept me quite content with the mile-long hike. Even the mosquitoes had backed off in the quiet woods. It was a with a great deal of surprise that I stumbled out onto a large clearing and massive waterfall.

Douglass Houghton Falls

Douglass Houghton Falls

This waterfall is by far one of the most impressive sights of the Keweenaw region. Over a hundred feet in height, cascading down the enormous scoop of a valley, Douglass Houghton Falls was one of the main attractions of Lake Linden before the owner closed it down around fifteen years ago due to safety concerns. Erosion and carelessness had led to many deaths and injuries around the falls, especially from college students trying to climb the steep cliffs. I had expected to find a large waterfall here but to emerge from such a peaceful wooden creek to this open, impressive waterfall with little warning was a real shock.

The water was clear near the base of the falls letting the veins and colors of the rock shine through the creek. There were a few logs built up at the bottom that didn't obstruct the view much. A large chunk of rock jutted out mid-way down the plunge, almost making the falls two-tiered, and the water splattered here and slid sideways for the second half. One thing that really stuck out was a round shaft on the left side of the creek, remnants of some mining exploration.

Looking up at the tall waterfall

Looking up at the tall waterfall

I looked around for a way up. The right side was a steep cliff and the left side had a nice, long slope of dirt and rock. I took the left option, and even though it was steep and shifted unsteadily underfoot, I made it up the climb pretty easily. Once I reached the top of the gorge I headed over to the creek, to the top of the falls, to get some photos of the upper drop and the basin below. Something else unexpected was here, a view over to Bootjack area and, beyond, the Chassel side of the Portage.

Down at Torch Lake

Down at Torch Lake

There were a few trails that led up the creek so I followed. I didn't feel like returning down the slope and retracing the route along the creek. Also, if there was any easier way to these falls I wanted to find it. The footpath led through the grassy meadow near Hammell Creek, cutting left with some power lines towards M-26. It was here that I bumped into a tall chain link fence with an angry 'Keep Out' sign facing away from me. Since I was already on the wrong side here I went ahead and jumped the fence, leaving the area, and came out on the shoulder of M-26.

Big sign for trespassers

Big sign for trespassers

Walking along a highway in the late evening light was not exactly fun (or safe) but it was much easier than following the creek back. Once I reached Lake Linden I was able to keep to sidewalks and cut over to my car. This trip was exactly what I needed to kick July back in gear. I had found two remote waterfalls on Gratiot River and the infamous Douglass Houghton Falls, all in one weekday evening, and couldn't wait for the next adventure.

Trip Photos

  • Mist over the Gratiot River valley
  • Slick conglomerate river bed
  • Skidding water over conglomerate rock
  • Wide, shallow slides
  • Lower set of falls
  • A big red bluff
  • Cluttered path to the river
  • Rocky bay near the mouth of the river
  • Mirror mouth of Gratiot River
  • Blocky drops of the lower falls
  • Upper drops at Gratiot River Falls
  • Sliding green drops
  • Crumbling sandstone river banks
  • Douglass Houghton Falls
  • Looking up at the tall waterfall
  • Down at Torch Lake
  • Upper drop on the creek
  • Big sign for trespassers

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