Huron National Forest & the Au Sable River
HURON NATIONAL FOREST
The Huron National Forest is located on the upper northeast side of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and covers over 400,000 acres.
The US Forest Service manages the Huron National Forest in conjunction with the Manistee National Forest, calling the combo the Huron-Manistee National Forest.
Apart from joint management, though, the two forests are separate entities.
The Huron National Forest is home to the Au Sable River and it’s counterpart, the River Road National Scenic Byway. It’s also where Lumberman’s Monument is located.
It’s here, in the Au Sable River Valley, that you’ll find numerous active bald eagles nests, countless hiking, canoeing and fishing opportunites, and show-stopper views.
AU SABLE RIVER
A 23-mile stretch of the Au Sable River was designated as a National Scenic River in 1984.
It’s one of five Wild and Scenic Rivers in Michigan.
From the USDA Forest Service website:
In pre-European settlement times, Native Americans used the river as a travel route.
After European settlement of the area, the Au Sable River was a major throughway for floating white pine to sawmills or waiting barges at ports on Lake Huron.
During those years many of the logs and fallen trees that littered the river were carried downstream with the harvested white pine.
In recent years efforts have been made to replace logs in the river to help reduce erosion and maintain the world-class trout fishing river as an aquatic habitat.
When to Visit Huron National Forest for the Best Fall Colors?
October is the best month to visit Huron National Forest if you’re looking for vivid fall colors.
Color along the eastern shore of Lake Huron peak slightly later than inland locations because the lake mdoerates temperatures, delay the color change.
This Facebook post from the Huron-Manistee US Forest Service shows the colors in Huron National Forest are starting to pop.
Side Note: The Michigan.org color prediction map seems a bit off this year. The lower part of the state really hasn’t seen much color change as of 10/13/21.
Au Sable River Road National Scenic Byway
Everyone should drive this 22-mile stretch of road in the Huron-Manistee National Forest.
And while you’re there, don’t skip the road-side turnoffs. You can’t see the river and it’s bluff views from the road.
Rather, pull into one of the parking areas and you’re just steps away from breathtaking overlooks featuring the Au Sable River.
Aptly named the River Road National Scenic Byway, this drive follows the Au Sable River on its southern side.
Starting at the west end of the River Road, visitors will encounter:
- Westgate Welcome Center & Scenic Overlook
- Iargo Springs
- Canoer’s Memorial
- Lumberman’s Monument
- Foote Site Park & Au Sable River Queen
- Foote Village
- Whirlpool River Access
- Eagle Run Trail System
Hiking trails connect some of these stops, letting you dig into the experience on a deeper level if time allows. (This article is a fantastic refelction of a hiker’s experience in the Huron National Forest.)
Camping, fishing, and boating are also ways to enjoy the fall colors here.
Hale, Michigan is one of the nearest towns and a great place to stay if you’re looking for a home base for your explorations.
Westgate Welcome Center & Scenic Overlook
The Westgate Welcome Center is the western gateway to the River Road National Scenic Byway.
This is a great place to start your Byway adventure. Get maps, use the restroom (vault toilets), and enjoy the view of Loud Dam Pond. This stop is open year-round.
Use the info kiosk panel maps to explore the Byway route, features, trails, and visitor facilities before hopping back in the car.
Iargo Springs is the next stop on the River Road National Scenic Byway.
When you visit, you can either stay up on top of the bluff and admire the view of the river from an overlook or climb down 300 steps to reach the springs.
At the bottom of the stairs, there are several hundred feet of boardwalk paths to choose from in addition to seeing the springs.
Iargo is a Chippewa word for “many waters.” It’s believe that Native Americans would gather at the springs for tribal pow-wows and drink the water for it’s healing powers.
Two of the springs here have been dammed, creating small waterfalls. The other springs flow naturally into the Au Sable River.
The next stop on the River Road is Canoer’s Memorial.
To understand the significance of this place we need to understand the backstory. Here goes:
Michigan is home to the AuSable River Canoe Marathon, an event that began in 1947 and is billed as “One of the Greatest Canoe Races on Earth!”
This event is epic and happens every July.
It’s a non-stop canoe race on the Au Sable River that starts at night. When the gun goes off, participants carry their canoes through the streets, running, all the way to the river where they jump in and start furiously paddling with 50,000 fans cheering them on.
The race starts in Grayling, MI, and ends 120 miles later in Oscoda, MI.
When you’re looking at the Canoer’s Memorial monument, you’re looking at a tribute that honors past race participants, including those who died while participating in the sport.
Looking around, you can also see Cooke Dam Pond from here.
Today, the U.S. Forest Service owns and manages the land where the monument sits. Oscoda Township has a special use permit to maintain the structure.
Traveling down the river road, the next stop is Lumberman’s Monument.
This area used to be timber country. Lumberman worked the land, cutting down trees, rolling them down the bluff, and into the river. Then, they would float the logs down the river to sawmills where they would be cut into boards for building.
The Lumberman’s Monument statue was built to honor and remember the lumberman of Michigan’s past.
It’s 14-feet tall and is made out of bronze. It was erected in 1931.
This stop is also where you’ll find the Visitor Center, a river overlook, and connections to hiking trails.
5401 Monument Rd, Oscoda, MI 48750
Stop here to learn about the life of a lumberjack through video and displays.
The Lumberman’s Monument Visitor Center is the only visitor center on the Huron-Manistee National Forests.
Hours for the season:
Open daily, May 1 – October 24, including weekends, from 10 am to 5 p.m.
Grounds are open year-round from 6 am – 10 pm.
Parking is available and there is no fee to park or visit Lumberman’s Monument or the visitor center.
For those willing to hike 260 steps down to the edge of the Au Sable, they can board the Wanigan, a replica of a logger’s floating cook shack that would accompany the lumbermen on their journey down the river.
Dune Trail & Highbanks Hiking Trail
The Dune Trail starts at Lumberman’s Monument and is 1/4 mile long. (The Dune Trail covers a small section of the Highbanks Hiking Trail.)
The trail has a hard-packed crushed limestone surface that is suitable for wheelchairs and strollers.
The Highbanks trail is seven miles long in total and wows hikers with sweeping views of the Au Sable River, as well as big sand dune climb areas.
Hikers can connect with eastern or western portions of the Highbanks Trail at the Lumberman’s Monument.
Hikers starting at Highbanks trail and hiking west to Iargo Springs will have a 3.5-mile walk.
Footesite Park & The Au Sable River Queen Paddleboat
Foote Site Park (1775 E. River Rd. Oscoda, MI 48750) has the only swimming beach along the River Road Scenic Byway.
Foote Site Park is also where the Au Sable River Queen, the only paddlewheel riverboat operating in Northern Michigan, docks.
Reservations are made by calling 989-739-7351. They operate seasonally.
Whirlpool River Access
Whirpool River Access is accessible.
You don’t need a boat and you don’t need to climb down steep banks to get to the water.
Located at 5761 N. Skeel Ave., Oscoda, MI 48750
Eagle Run Trail System
E River Rd, Oscoda, MI 48750
At the eastern end of the Scenic Byway, the Eagle Run offers a loop trail system for hiking, mountain biking, and cross country skiing, with scenic views of the Au Sable River.
There are seven miles of trails here, covering flat terrain.
Trails are groomed in the winter for Fat Tire Biking.
Where to Stay
Hale, Michigan, is a small town not far from the Scenic River Road and Au Sable River.
We stayed at this beach house when we were there and it had everything we needed.
(We also found out that the owners have a house on a private island in the middle of the lake and that looked pretty sweet.)
Here are links to these VRBO vacation rentals: