HEAVENLY HIKING (2019)

Exploring the Keweenaw’s Bare Bluffs and Montreal Falls

From the top of Bare Bluffs, the tip of the Keweenaw is a lovely site. (Jamie Frontiera photo)

Story by Debrorah Frontiera
Last summer, I reported on some wonderful hiking trails in the Sturgeon River Gorge. This year, I’d like to take you almost to the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula to Bare Bluffs and Montreal Falls. The two trails are fairly close to each other in the Lac Labelle/Bete Gris area. To reach them, follow US41 north from Calumet. A short distance past Delaware, you’ll reach a fork in the road; go to the right toward Lac Labelle. You’ll pass Mt. Bohemia ski area before reaching the tiny hamlet of Lac Labelle and upon reaching it, take the left fork along the Bete Gris road. Follow this about three miles past the bank of mail boxes on the left side of the road until you come to a dirt road leading up to your left—Smith Fisheries Rd.
Smith Fisheries Rd. is labeled a “private road” and there are a few summer residences branching off from it, but no one objects to vehicles heading for the two hiking areas. It is a rough road and, in some places, only one lane wide but quite passable. You will reach the Bare Bluffs site first about three miles along the road, on your right, and find a small parking area. Bare Bluffs is a Michigan Nature Association sanctuary. MNA is a wonderful nonprofit group that has preserved many areas of the state for the enjoyment of all.
The beginning of the hike is easy and passes through lovely meadow where there is almost always something blooming. Then you reach a point where the path forks upward or continues into more meadow. This is the beginning of a three-mile loop. On my first trip there, I was alone. Hikers on their way out told me that the uphill path was easier, and that from the top, I’d choose to continue around the loop (the “back side” of which was said to be quite difficult) or come back down the way I’d gone up. The distance was about the same either way.
This wooded path was largely uphill, which I expected, but had no difficulties hiking. Huge trees line the path, ferns and mushrooms abound, and fantastic boulders broken off from above litter the hillside, enhancing the views into steep troughs and gullies. The path is well-maintained and easy to follow. I stopped often along the way to listen to the wind and the birds and admire the forest scenery.
There is no mistaking it when you reach the highpoint of Bare Bluffs. You’ll be standing on the top of a cliff that drops off sharply to the Lake Superior shore. It would be a deadly fall if one slipped from that edge, but the top is flat, so it is easy to enjoy the view without danger. Looking to your left, you’ll see the graceful curve of the very tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. To your right, you’ll see the Huron Mountains far off across Keweenaw Bay. And before you lies Her Majesty, Lake Superior. On a clear day, one can experience the curvature of the earth on that vast horizon.

The Upper Montreal Falls drops over a cliff into a rocky canyon. (Deborah Frontiera photo)

The day I hiked alone, I sensibly chose to return the way I had come. But the following summer when my adult daughter was “UP” for a visit, I invited her to hike there with me. We continued around the loop from the top and discovered that it was, indeed, a challenging hike through a narrow, steep gorge and later across a slanted field of loose boulders, stones and gravel at the base of the cliff. We handed off to each other, gripped branches going down and made it just fine, though. Once through the rough patch, the lower meadows were so brilliant with wild flowers in early July that it felt like walking through a rainbow.
If you aren’t too tired once you return to the parking area, continue along Smith Fisheries Rd. for another almost three miles to its very end, where you will find the trail head to Montreal Falls. Again, there is a small parking area—which may be muddy if it’s rained recently. The 40-50 minutes a little above the shore of Lake Superior takes your through several kinds of forest: pine, hardwood, cedar. In many places you will be at the edge of smaller cliffs along the shore. You’ll inhale the scent of forest, flowers and damp earth, hear birds, swishing or crashing waves, whispers (or roars) of wind, and feast your eyes on nature’s rugged beauty. A final meadow brings you to where the Montreal River tumbles down the slope into the lake. It’s a fine spot to pull a picnic out of a backpack and sit for a while.
From here you can head back or continue on for about another 30 minutes up the trail along the river. My trip through that section on a crisp fall day led to writing a Haiku about the hot-chocolate look of the ferns. The “upper falls” features water over a spectacular cliff drop. The trail will take you to the top of that cliff—well worth the climb—where you can see a good way both up and down river. Drink it in and fill your soul to overflowing.
Once back at your vehicle and headed toward Lac Labelle, if you are hungry, take a left toward and past the marina and right at the T and you’ll find yourself at the Lac La Belle Lodge and its wonderful restaurant where you can replenish the calories you hiked off.
On your drive home, you can return the way you came to US 41, or take the road along Lac La Belle, passing another little park and waterfall, and on along the shore of Keweenaw Bay to Gay, and from there back to Lake Linden. Either way, you’ll have had a wonderful trip through some of the best the Keweenaw has to offer.
Don’t miss it.

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