Landforms of Michigan: A Mini-Tour

Today I’m going to steal an idea from Anton Thomas. A while back, he released North America: Portrait of a Continent, which is a masterpiece well worth looking at. As part of that release, he also used pieces of the map to take people on virtual tours of the map, and the landscape it depicts.

My Landforms of Michigan map is not nearly as detailed as Anton’s work, but there’s still a lot going on within it, and I’d like to try the same thing: taking you on a tour of a few interesting features of my homeland, as seen on the map. That’s one major reason I made the map: to understand and express the complex geography of a place that most people (including plenty of Michiganders) dismiss as flat and monotonous.

First, here’s an overview of the places we’ll be visiting.


1. Beaver Archipelago

There are tens of thousands of islands in the Great Lakes. Most of them are near the shoreline, but a small number of them require crossing miles of open water to reach. Several of these comprise the Beaver Archipelago, located in the midst of Lake Michigan.

I suppose I grew up thinking of archipelagoes as collections of islands out in the ocean, and so it’s always been fascinating to me to realize that, in the middle of the United States, there’s a freshwater archipelago, with small bits of green scattered amidst the great expanses of water.

The largest of the archipelago is Beaver Island, home to a few hundred people. It was once the center of a semi-autonomous kingdom run by a breakaway Mormon sect. It’s a wild story, and one worth checking out.

This is, incidentally, probably one of my favorite labels I’ve ever placed on a map. I spent a very long time tweaking it to get the spacing, curvature, and placement just right — something that would build a strong visual relationship between the islands and the text. I’m still so pleased with how it turned out.

2. Fruit Ridge

West Michigan is a fruit growing powerhouse. This is owed largely to the unique microclimates that Lake Michigan creates to its immediate east.

Fruit Ridge is a low range of hills just east of Lake Michigan that’s dedicated largely to apple production. It’s in just the right spot, with just the right soil, to form an “agricultural mecca” (according to the people who live there).That slight grey-tinged mass just to the south is Grand Rapids, the state’s second-largest city, sitting on the Grand River.

Given the state’s agricultural output, I’m sometimes a little surprised that more places in the state aren’t named “fruit hill” or “fruit plains,” etc.

3. Copper Range

Extending for over a hundred miles along the shore of Lake Superior, from the Wisconsin border up through the Keweenaw Peninsula, you’ll find the Copper Range — which, you might correctly guess, is known for its copper deposits.

The first known metalworking in North America began in this area, about 7,000 years ago. Indigenous peoples made use of the deposits here to craft tools and jewelry, and traded them throughout the continent. Much of the copper in the area was in “native copper” form, meaning it was not in an ore, and didn’t need to be smelted. It could be taken right from the ground and used.

Commercial mining in the nineteenth and twentieth century depleted the reserves, and now there are various abandoned mines & ghost towns.

4. Maumee Plain

Moving from the northwest corner of the state to the southeast, we come to the Maumee Plain, upon which Detroit sits.

Maumee Plain is not a name that probably almost anyone in the area would know, unless they were a physical geographer. It’s named for Lake Maumee, which doesn’t exist anymore. Fourteen thousand years ago, the Detroit area was underwater. But as glaciers and rivers moved and evolved, the more familiar present-day Lakes Erie and St. Clair formed, and the land was uncovered.

This area is sometimes referred to in sources as the Maumee Lake Plain. But, that’s a name with a physical geographer’s perspective, rather than a colloquial one. It calls attention the glacial past and the process that formed the plain. Here (as in a few other places on the map), I edited the name to something that would fit more along the lines of how someone without a physical geography background would call such a place. Except, of course, mostly no one calls it anything at all. Which is a shame. I think giving names to these features helps reify them. It makes us more aware of their amazing histories and the powerful forces that gave them their shape.

If you want to know more, I’ve documented my naming sources and rationale for the entire map here.

5. St. Marys River

Along the eastern edge of the Upper Peninsula, Lake Superior flows into Lake Huron via the St. Marys River.

The St. Marys river flows along multiple channels, which widen and pool into a series of lakes, such as Munuscong Lake and Lake George. Amidst the river’s lakes and channels are a series of islands divided between the United States and Canada.

The St. Marys Falls give their name (in French) to two identically-named cities on either side of the US–Canada border: Sault Ste. Marie. The falls are bypassed by the Soo Locks, allowing ships to transit along the river between the lakes. By cargo tonnage, they are the busiest locks in the world.

Also, it is indeed St. Marys River and not St. Mary’s River, because the US Board on Geographic Names doesn’t like apostrophes in names.

6. Nordhouse / Ludington / Silver Lake Dunes

Michigan has a great many sand dunes, and they are, as with many other features in the state, the result of glaciation.

Ancient glacial lakes created sand bars that eventually rose up as the dunes we are familiar with. There are many along the shore of Lake Michigan in particular, including these three above. These unique micro-ecosystem along the state’s fringes tend to be in various protected areas (such as Ludington State Park), and draw tourists. While you shouldn’t climb just any dune you find (these are fragile ecosystems), some are open for people to walk up.

I have climbed a sand dune before, and I will tell you it is a lot of work. It may look like a low hill, but sand is very difficult to trudge up.

Also do yourself a favor and do a Google image search for “michigan sand dunes snow.” You’ll see desert-like terrain covered in snowfall. It’s such a wonderful mix.


So there you have it — a quick tour of a few of the state’s landforms. There are plenty more to be found on Landforms of Michigan. If you’d like to browse through a larger image, click here. And if you’d like to take a copy of the map home, click the button below!

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