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Explore Up North: Ottawa National Forest

A suspension bridge over the Baltimore River near O-Kun-De-Kun Falls in the Ottawa National Forest.
Katie Thoresen
A suspension bridge over the Baltimore River near O-Kun-De-Kun Falls in the Ottawa National Forest.

The Ottawa National Forest spans nearly one million acres from the Upper Peninsula’s western edge along Lake Superior to Baraga County Line.

Within those acres, there’s no shortage of recreation opportunities, no matter how you like to get outside.

“There are so many beautiful spots. This is my favorite time of year to run around to as many places as I absolutely can,” said Randi Ellsworth, the recreation planner for the Ottawa National Forest.

Scenic Overlooks

This time of year, she recommends heading to one of the many scenic overlooks.

Those include Wolf Mountain, Alligator Eye, Silver Mountain, Bear’s Den, Forest Road 7300, Trap Hills, and Norwich Bluffs.

No matter which one you choose, Ellsworth is confident they’ll be worth your time.

“I think the scenic overlooks are just spectacular and all those ones that I mentioned, there’s not one of them in my opinion that disappoints,” she said.

The overlooks are just the beginning of what you’ll find in the Ottawa.

Cars and Off-Road Vehicles

There’s miles upon miles of highways and forest roads to explore by car. The Black River Scenic Byway near Ironwood offers a gorgeous drive with multiple opportunities to stop and see waterfalls.

“The Ottawa even has over 2,300 miles of Forest Service Roads and trails that are open to off-highway vehicles. For those looking to find which roads those are, where they’re at, we have motor vehicle use maps,” said Ellsworth.

You can find those and other maps online or at one of Forest Service Offices.


For the more silent sport types, the Ottawa offers more than 196 miles of hiking and backpacking trails.

“They vary widely in character. Some provide short easy walks to a point of interest such as a waterfall or historic site. Then there’s also 116 miles of the North Country National Scenic Trail which traverses through the Ottawa,” said Ellsworth. “That takes you through a lot of different terrains, viewpoints, overlooks, and such.”

Wilderness Areas

For the truly rugged and adventurous, the forest is home to three different wilderness areas: Sylvania, McCormick, and Sturgeon River Gorge.

Sylvania Wilderness is a paddlers dream with 34 lakes open only to non-motorized boating.

Sturgeon River Gorge and McCormick offers some trails, but mostly are rugged and wild.

No matter how you choose to explore the Ottawa National Forest, Ellsworth warns to do it soon.

“I encourage listeners to take the morning, afternoon or maybe even an entire day and explore the Ottawa. It’s a beautiful place. Plan your visit as soon as possible to catch a glimpse of the vibrant colors here in the Northwoods because they go fast. The fall foliage is very vulnerable to wind and rain,” she said.

Ellsworth didn’t have to tell me twice.

Sylvania Wilderness

On a mostly cloudy morning I made my way to one of my favorite places to paddle, Sylvania Wilderness.

I launched my kayak at Crooked Lake and paddled along its shores. It’s a calm morning with the water like glass in the back bays and smooth ripples where it’s more open.

Right now, the trees that line the lakeshore are popping with yellows, oranges, and reds mixed among the evergreens.

Once you paddle out of the bay with the boat launch, the sounds and sites of the modern world disappear, and you’re left with wind breezing across the water and the occasional call of birds.

While most of those birds remained unseen during my visit, I was greeted by three loons busy diving beneath the water surface.

Far sooner than I want to, I leave the peacefulness of Sylvania Wilderness for my second stop in Ottawa.

O-Kun-De-Kun Falls

About a thirty minute drive further north I pull into a small gravel parking lot off of Highway 45.

A small wooden sign indicates O-Kun-De-Kun Falls is 1.3 miles ahead.

The trail, which is part of the North Country Scenic Trail, is well maintained. It’s mostly crushed gravel with a couple of sections of boardwalk.

There was one tree down that I had to crawl under to continue on. The trail is easy to moderate depending on your hiking experience.

While the fall colors on the shores of Crooked Lake were spectacular to view, walking the trail to falls felt like being transported to another world.

The leaves are mostly yellow giving the entire woods around you a golden hue.

Every several feet a tree with bright orange or red leaves breaks up the scenery.

But the true wow moment is getting to the base of the falls.

The water level on the Baltimore River is low enough for me to safely walk out onto the rocks to get a glorious view of the falls with colorful foliage as its backdrop.

It’s a stunning, autumnal scene well worth the hike out.

And it’s one of many in the Ottawa National Forest that Ellsworth hopes you’ll venture out to this fall, as it is, after all, your public land.

“Being about a million acres, there’s so much to explore, see, and hopefully continues to be the same. I talk to a lot of people who come for decades and tell me stories about how some things look exactly the same or they come here because that’s where they find their peace and solitude and just be outside and be one with nature. I think that having that opportunity, having all this public land right here is a great opportunity for all to come and enjoy,” said Ellsworth.

There are no user fees in most places in the Ottawa National Forest this time of year, this also means that some places are closed or have no amenities like toilets or running water. This includes some campgrounds.

Ellsworth recommends calling ahead or stopping by one of the offices before your visit. The number is (906) 932 – 1330.

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Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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