North Country Trail to 5 Waterfalls

Ottawa National Forest, Michigan

Trip Date: Sunday, August 12th, 2018
Last Updated: Tuesday, November 20th, 2018
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★★(5/5)
Overall Difficulty Moderate
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 8.5 miles roundtrip
Time 5 hours
Terrain Hilly
Best Seasons Spring, Summer, Fall
Family Friendly No
Dog Friendly Yes
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

This hike is a contender for one of my top five hikes of 2018 (see my favorites from 2016 or 2017). As I've gladly discovered, the Upper Peninsula is the land of abundant waterfalls, where ample precipitation combined combines with interesting topography in spectacular fashion. On this hike, you'll encounter not one, not two, but five unique waterfalls! Elsewhere in the Midwest, each of these waterfalls would be significant enough to be the centerpiece of their own eponymous state park. Technically, each of these waterfalls has a parking lot and a only short hike to reach a viewpoint, but it's much more fun to earn your waterfalls with this long, rewarding hike!

The first stop on this hike is the best viewpoint of Rainbow Falls. While you can see Rainbow Falls from an observation deck on the trail south of the parking lot, the falls is angled such that the rocks and trees obstruct most of the view. So, from the parking area at Black River Harbor, head north on the paved path across the historic suspension bridge to reach the trail heading uphill to Rainbow Falls. Hopefully you don't mind stairs, because the steps in the first picture below are just the beginning -- every single waterfall has its own set of steps required for access! At the top of the hill, Lake Superior peeks through the trees as shown in the second picture below.

You must conquer a separate set of stairs at some point near all five waterfalls

You must conquer a separate set of stairs at some point near all five waterfalls

A glimpse of Lake Superior through the trees

A glimpse of Lake Superior through the trees

The trail does a U-turn and starts heading south, winding its way through forest near the west cliff edge along the Black River. Eventually, you'll reach a viewpoint of Rainbow Falls, as pictured below. The rocky cliffs here prevent tall trees from growing and blocking your view.
Rainbow Falls as seen from the east side of the Black River

Rainbow Falls as seen from the east side of the Black River

Turn around once you finish enjoying Rainbow Falls. Once you reach the parking lot again, look for the trailhead for the North Country National Scenic Trail on the south end of the lot. The trail starts with a moderately steep but short section of uphill, before meeting the second but lackluster viewpoint of Rainbow Falls. The trail bends to the west, then you'll cross the main road near the road to the campground and dip into the forest once again. Forewarning: this next section is the most boring portion of the trail -- there is nothing but dense forest all around you and little in the way of interesting scenery or topography. After the trail bends and heads southeast, navigation becomes more confusing since the trail intersects a slew of mountain bike trails. Watch for the blue rectangles spray painted on trees to ensure you go the right direction.

You'll emerge from the forest back to the road. Walk north along the side of the road here to reach the start of the short trail to Sandstone Falls -- there will be a road sign pointing to the parking area for the falls. Head down the stairs, and you'll find the smallest of the five waterfalls on this journey, Sandstone Falls, as pictured below. Unlike the other falls along this trail, there isn't a designated viewing platform and you are free to wander on the rocks to find the best vantage point of the falls.
The small but turbulent Sandstone Falls

The small but turbulent Sandstone Falls

Return to the road, and look for the trail again on the east side of the road. You'll be happy to know that the trail becomes much more exciting after Sandstone Falls. There are many twists and turns as the trail winds through forest and avoids extreme elevation changes. Frequently you will encounter planks like pictured below or stumps that will assist you in crossing steep seasonal streams and wet, muddy areas.
Wooden planks and stumps help you cross otherwise muddy areas highly susceptible to erosion

Wooden planks and stumps help you cross otherwise muddy areas highly susceptible to erosion

Soon, you'll reach a set of stairs leading down to the viewing deck for Gorge Falls. As suggested by the name, this waterfall pours through a tight passage where the Black River is surrounded by high rocky cliffs. Sometime before or after this viewing platform (I can't remember which), you'll find another set of stairs with another viewing platform of another tiny, unnamed waterfall.
Gorge Falls as it cascades through the narrow rocky channel

Gorge Falls as it cascades through the narrow rocky channel

After Gorge Falls, you'll hike to Potawatomi Falls, my personal favorite on this trip. Trees nicely frame this waterfall, pictured below, but may be annoying for some (aka short people). Luckily there are a couple other spots along the trail where you can view the falls, though the angle isn't as photogenic.
The mighty two-tiered Potawatomi Falls

The mighty two-tiered Potawatomi Falls

With another fun jaunt through the woods to perfectly punctuate your waterfall sightings, the trail will lead you to the last stop, Great Conglomerate Falls. This waterfall was named for the rock -- conglomerate -- which comprises the falls and looks much like a bunch of small rocks embedded in concrete. Great Conglomerate Falls is so wide you won't be able to fit it all in one photo from the viewing area, see the picture below. A large slab of conglomerate divides this waterfall in two, and the width of the Black River here makes it especially impressive (probably my second favorite waterfall on the trip).
One half of Great Conglomerate Falls

One half of Great Conglomerate Falls

Once you're finished, head back the way you came. Take your time and enjoy each waterfall a second time on the return trip! Which of these 5 waterfalls is your favorite? Let me know what you think in the comments section below, and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Important Information

There are no specific rules about dogs in the Ottawa National Forest, but keeping your dog on leash is highly recommended since this is a popular area, especially around each of the waterfalls. Doing this whole hike is much too long for children, especially considering the amount of stairs; instead, pick a couple of the waterfalls and drive to them (seeing all five would be pretty difficult since there is quite a bit of stair climbing at each). You can definitely visit during the three warm seasons, but in the winter icy stairs may be treacherous -- proceed at your own risk. Bug spray is imperative in all other seasons! There will be people near you at each waterfall you reach, but the trail in between will be quiet and mostly empty. Peak summer weekends will see larger crowds.

Directions

From Ironwood, take U.S. Highway 2 east to Bessemer. Turn left onto Powderhorn Road, then turn left onto Black River Road. Continue straight until the road ends at the parking area for Black River Harbor.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

It seems that they used to charge for parking in the past, but now parking is free! There are bathrooms, a picnic area, and beach access near this lot.

External Links

Nearby Hikes

Presque Isle Waterfall Trail

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Michigan
★★★★★(5/5)

Summit Peak and Mirror Lake Loop

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Michigan
★★★★☆(4/5)

Cascade Falls Loop

Ottawa National Forest, Michigan
★★★★★(5/5)

Doughboys Nature Trail Loop

Copper Falls State Park, Wisconsin
★★★★★(5/5)

Comments