Welcoming waters of northern Michigan's Ocqueoc Falls have universal appeal

Contact: Contact: Ed Golder, 517-335-3014

Michigan has many hidden gems — little-known places of natural beauty and wonder; places that the locals know about, love and treasure; places that out-of-towners stumble upon and immediately feel like they've hit the vacation jackpot.

Ocqueoc Falls, near Onaway in northeastern Michigan's picturesque Presque Isle County, is one of those places.

Ocqueoc Falls Bicentennial Pathway is a Department of Natural Resources state forest hiking trail that takes you to the only publicly owned waterfall in Michigan's Lower Peninsula. The small park system includes a campground, four trail loops of different lengths (with spectacular views of the falls and hardwood forests), the waterfalls and picnic area.

"Unlike many waterfalls — where you have to be content to just stand alongside and gaze at their beauty — Ocqueoc invites you right in," said Ron Olson, chief of the DNR's Parks and Recreation Division. "With four small rapids and a pool of cool water just perfect for splashing, people feel the urge to get in the water."

Now, just about anyone can.

Thanks to the work of the DNR and the Accessibility Advisory Council to make it available to people of all abilities, Ocqueoc Falls is the first truly universally accessible waterfall in the nation.

Courtesy of grants from the Michigan Natural Resource Trust Fund, the Recreation Improvement Fund and the Recreational Trails Program, renovation work was done during the summer of 2011, with the goal of making the falls accessible in 2012. On June 29, 2012, representatives of the DNR joined members of the local community to celebrate the accessibility work with a rededication ceremony.

Eleven-year-old C.J. Blackwell, his friend Anna Jensen, and C.J.'s mom, Sandy Blackwell, traveled from Grand Rapids to Ocqueoc Falls for the ceremony. C.J. took advantage of the accessibility improvements by tackling the accessible rock climbing wall. He transferred from his wheelchair onto the tiered rocks. He climbed down the rocks, and into the waterfalls, where he played along with the other children for most of the afternoon.


(Watch a video of C.J.'s adventure at Ocqueoc Falls on the DNR's YouTube channel.

"He could go in and out of the water just like everyone else," said Sandy. "All of us could play together and C.J. was able to join us without a lot of extra effort. It was an amazing day for all of us."

All of the accessibility work was done to meet or exceed the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, but many of the design features are inclusive and universally accessible, meaning they're easier to use by people of all abilities, together.

The paved trail from the parking lot to the waterfall was widened to comfortably allow groups of travelers—including people who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices—to pass through. Two picnic areas were surfaced with accessible crushed limestone and outfitted with accessible-designed picnic tables. And the benches along the pathway are complete with accessible clear space, which are cement pads next to them, to allow for side-by-side seating of a person using a wheelchair and someone who is not.

"We wanted this facility to be family-friendly," said Brenda Curtis, DNR forest recreation planner. "Every detail was considered, from the height of the grills and trash cans, to the slope and width of the walkways. We eliminated barriers so individuals can easily enjoy the activities."

Access to the river is now provided by either a ramp or the rock climb.

"Our biggest challenge was making the bluff, the historical route to the river, accessible," said Curtis. "We installed transfer platforms at the top and bottom of the bluff and strategically placed cut rock in between to create three routes of various challenge levels. Now everyone can experience the rock climb and have a choice on how to get to the river."

A recycled-plastic, decked ramp that complies with ADA requirements provides the easiest route to the river. At the end of the ramp is a transfer station—a series of tiered flat rocks that allow someone to transfer from a wheelchair, down the rocks, to the water's edge and into the water. Along the path is a platform to allow for viewing of the falls. The walkway is lined with black chain-link fence, which blends into the scenery for a less interrupted view of the falls and surrounding natural area by someone who is seated.

For people of all abilities, including C.J., who enjoy a climbing challenge, tiered rocks along the bluff have been arranged at heights of 4 inches to 8 inches and are smooth and large enough to allow movement between tiers while seated or crawling. Steeper inclines and smaller tread surfaces increase the climbing challenge on two other routes.

"We designed a universally accessible opportunity for people to enjoy every element of the falls," said Olson. "The tiered climbing rocks and transfer stations allow anyone to enjoy the climbing experience and have armored the bluff to reduce erosion. Ocqueoc Falls will be accessible to everyone for many generations to come."

Ocqueoc Falls makes a perfect day-trip from an area hotel or state park. Nearby state parks with modern camping facilities include: Hoeft State Park in Rogers City; Burt Lake State Park in Indian River; Onaway State Park in Onaway; and Clear Lake State Park in Atlanta. Also nearby are rustic camping opportunities in State Forest Campgrounds: Black Lake near Onaway, Jackson Lake, Shoepac, Tomahawk Lake and Tomahawk Creek near Atlanta. (Check the DNR's parks and trails listing at www.michigan.gov/stateparks for accessibility prior to arrival.)

Additionally, several cities' travel and tourism agencies offer information about accessible accommodations and restaurants in the area: Indian River (www.irtourism.com); Rogers City (www.rogerscity.com) Onaway (www.onawaychamber.com); and Alpena (www.alpenacvb.com).

With its accompanying state forest campground and Ocqueoc Falls Bicentennial Pathway (www.michigan.gov/ocqueocfalls) -- consisting of four loops of scenic trails ranging from 2.85 miles to 6 miles long, perfect for hiking and biking -- Ocqueoc Falls is becoming a popular vacation destination. For more information on the hiking trails, visit www.michigantrailmaps.com.

The Ocqueoc Falls Bicentennial Pathway was recognized by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in 2013 and received the da Vinci Award, under the “environmental adaption for working and daily living” category, by providing assistive and adaptive technologies.

All visitors to Ocqueoc Falls Bicentennial Pathway will need a Recreation Passport to enter the park in a vehicle. Michigan residents can easily purchase the Recreation Passport when renewing their license plate tabs through the Secretary of State's office. For out-of-state visitors or residents who didn't buy the Passport through Secretary of State, Recreation Passports are on sale at the campground. Learn more about the Recreation Passport at (www.michigan.gov/recreationpassport).