Grand Island isn’t enormous. True, it’s the largest island on Lake Superior’s south shore, but the longest reach is only 8 miles, and its total shoreline keeps to a tidy 35 miles. Yet there’s a majesty to the place that more than fulfills the promise of its name. Made of the same sandstone strata of the mainland’s nearby Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Grand Island is a stubborn survivor of millions of years of glacial crush and eroding melt. Its ragged cliffs – some of them towering 300 feet above the water – are a geologic snub to the relentless slaps of Superior down below.
The island’s interior is quieter but no less sublime. More than 130,000 acres of woods blanket the landscape, shady trails criss-crossing among pines, maples, hemlock, ferns and wildflowers. Save for the once-daily tour van and the few cars already here, no cars are allowed. A handful of generations-old private cottages dot the island, but other than their few residents, the island, a National Recreation Area since 1990, is largely uninhabited. For all these reasons – the big beauty, the big quiet, the big trails – my boyfriend Jon and I have been drawn to Grand Island. And we’ve brought with us a big plan: We’re going to bike the island’s 23 miles of perimeter trails.
When the ferry from Munising drops us off at William’s Landing, the southernmost part of the island, we don’t rush. We heft our packs onto our backs, climb on our bikes and wobble up the road to Murray Bay Campground, looking like two giant turtles and moving even slower. The campground is less than two miles away, but characteristic of the island’s low-lying south end, where long strands of beach sneak into Lake Superior shallows, much of the road is sand, and we stall often. We don’t mind. Around us, juneberry and hawthorn trees poke out among maples, shrubs and wildflowers. Squat cabins and a cluster of classic cottages painted black and trimmed in white appear as the road bends. The sun shines. The breeze is light.