Sandstone cliffs set you 200 feet above Lake Superior. Cascading waterfalls refresh your spirit. Frothy river mouths, deserted beaches, and dune vistas. We show you the best spots for a glorious, three-day trip to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Lollygag on a Lake Superior beach deep in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore long enough and you’ll be conjuring up marooned-on-a-deserted-island stories. The craggy cliffs, eerie caves and dark skeletons of shipwrecks lying just offshore bring to mind classics like Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. By the time you’re peeling off your clothes to sneak a skinny dip in a rock-lined pool of crystal-green water (bracing though it may be), you’ll be fast-forwarding to Blue Lagoon.
The isolation of Pictured Rocks does lend an island feel. Look north and you’re almost never without a Lake Superior view on this splendid 42-mile stretch of earth. Along the park’s southern hem, forest-covered cliffs are as effective an isolator as any open-water passage. But the same land-and-lake barriers that keep out the masses also make it tricky for you to reach the heart of the park.
You may think you’ve arrived when you roll into one of the lakeshore’s two gateway towns—Munising on the west and Grand Marais on the east—but you haven’t. You must still buck and bounce down the park’s main artery, Highway 58, a (mostly) dirt washboard that only vaguely approaches your chosen stretch of shore.
Still, the backcountry navigation only sweetens the rewards—picnicking on a cliff above an aquamarine freshwater sea, rolling up your pant legs to walk up a waterfall or letting your hair down in the crystalline air swept in from Canada. You’ll need at least three days and a smart itinerary to pull off this magical feat. We might not be able to get you that Friday off, but we’ve made sure you have what you need to make the most of your getaway. Here are four trips, each designed to get you intimate with a section of the lakeshore. We’ve given you miles of awesome trails but kept the backpacking to a minimum and mixed the primitive camping experience with the not-so-primitive—all geared to make sure you come away rejuvenated.
Trip 1: Mosquito Beach & Miners Beach
Head out along the cliffs that the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore is known for. From atop sandstone precipices so high they’ll have you curling your toenails into terra firma, you’ll look down into the colorful shallows of Lake Superior—buff, green, cerulean blue. The ridge is pocked with caves shaped by millions of years of wind and waves. Minerals leaching through the sandstone stained the cliffs with a spectrum of colors—hence the name Pictured Rocks.
Reach the Pictured Rocks Visitor Center (1505 Sand Point Rd.) in Munising before 5 p.m. to pick up your backcountry permit for the Mosquito Campground. (Late? Get your permit first thing the next day.) Check into the Sunset Motel, then head over to check out Munising Falls up H-58 a short piece. Return to the motel in time to catch the Lake Superior sunset from this mom ‘n’ pop motor court where all the rooms face west. Grills are another Sunset Motel amenity, so make dinner on the beach.
Snag breakfast at Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore, then park your car for the night at Miners Beach, load up your camping gear and backpack in 5 miles to your campsite at Mosquito. You’ll be hiking up a steep escarpment so you’ll want to be in shape for this trek. As you peer east along the ridge, watch for delicate Bridalveil Falls—a spray (but a trickle during drought years) of water that plunges straight down the cliff. Take a break at lovely little Potato Patch Falls. After a picnic lunch on Mosquito Beach, play around at the lacy river mouth, climb the stone outcropping, or stack some stone art. When you’re rested, leave your heavy gear behind and load a daypack for the 3-mile round trip along the Mosquito loop that leads along the river and past gentle falls.
Backpack to your car at Miners Beach and explore this popular, accessible area of the park.
Trip 2: Chapel Trail
The Chapel area is the sum of four spectacular parts: Chapel Falls, Chapel Lake, Chapel Rock and Chapel Beach—a quintessential Pictured Rocks spot where Chapel Lake tumbles down rock ledges to a sandy Lake Superior beach.
Arrive at the Pictured Rocks Visitor Center in Munising (1505 Sand Point Rd.) before 5 p.m. to pick up your backcountry permit for the Chapel Beach campground. Check out Munising Falls before you head west on M-28 10 miles to Au Train. Large groups, Pinewood Lodge can accommodate 34 guests. Just a few of you going? Book a room at Au Train Lake Bed and Breakfast. Dinner is at Foggy’s Steakhouse in nearby Christmas, Michigan where they’ve got an in-house brick charcoal grill.
Head to the lakeshore and park your car at the Chapel trailhead. Backpack in the 3 miles to Chapel campsite—your rest spot is the wooden overlook on these, the longest falls in the lakeshore. After lunch, pull yourself away from the glorious beach and river mouth that are just steps from your campsite, and throw snacks in a day pack for a 3-mile there-and-back atop cliffs to Grand Portal Point—one of the lakeshore’s more prominent outcroppings.
Pack out to your car. If you have time, drive west and explore the short and easy trails of the Miners Castle area.
Trip 3: Beaver Lake Basin
The trail from Chapel to Beaver Lake leads you away from the lakeshore’s crowds—a relative term up here. As this stretch of the coast moves from cliffs down to the Beaver Lake basin, it’s punctuated by several intimate lagoons surrounded by rock ledges and flanked with sandy beaches.
Arrive at Little Beaver Lake Campground to set up camp and maybe do some fishing. July, August and Labor Day weekend this 8-site campground fills early in the day. During those months, plan on booking a room in Munising or being prepared to backcountry camp at the nearby Coves site if you’ll be arriving late in the day.
After breakfast grab your daypack and hop the Altran shuttle to the Chapel trailhead. You’ll be hiking the 8.5 miles back to your campsite past the Chapel beach and falls area and Spray falls—where you can throw a stick into the river and watch it kamikaze down to Lake Superior. Stop for lunch at one of the trail’s sweet lagoon beaches.
Head out east for a there-and-back morning hike along Twelvemile Beach.
Trip 4: Grand Sable Dunes
At its east end, the cliffs of Pictured Rocks give way to the Grand Sable Dunes. This tapestry of sand and water comes with a picturesque lighthouse and a coast littered with shipwrecks.
Check in to Hilltop Cabins in the charming beach town of Grand Marais. One-, two-, and three-bedroom cabins are available along with motel rooms. Get your bearings at the nearby Grand Sable Visitor Center (E21090 County Road H-58, 906-494-2660) then take in Sable falls and the Log Slide—a sandy precipice where lumbermen slid logs down to Lake Superior.
Drive to Hurricane River Campground and set up camp. Hike 3 miles to Twelvemile Beach for lunch. Lounge on the beach. Hike up the dunes. In the afternoon, hike back to Hurricane River for dinner and playing at the river mouth.
Pack your breakfast and make the easy 3-mile roundtrip along a flat two-track to the Au Sable Light Station. The route includes interpretive signs that point to remnants of shipwrecks on the beach and in the shallow waters. Those skeleton wrecks give meaning to the lighthouse complex that dates back to 1874 and includes the 86-foot whitewashed light tower, red-brick keeper’s and assistant keeper’s homes, fog signal building and boathouse.
Experience Pictured Rocks By Boat
Pictured Rocks Cruises lets you see the cliffs from the water. The boat cruises are 2.5 to 3 hours. You can choose to do the Classic Cruise, Spray Falls Cruise, or Sunset Cruise. Each cruise departs from the Munising, Michigan City Dock. Tickets range from $38–45 for adults, $10 for children ages 6–12, and $1 for children under 6.
Glass Bottom Shipwreck Tours drift above sunken boats. The trip lasts about 2 hours. Tickets cost $35 for adults, $31 for senior citizens, $12 ages 12 and under, and $1 for children ages 5 and under.
Things to Know About Pictured Rocks
What to Pack
All four trips require a tent, sleeping bag, and cooking gear. You’ll need a backpack, water purifier and camp stove for trips 1 and 2 since you’ll be camping in the backcountry where your water source is Lake Superior and there are no fires allowed. Stock up on food before you head to both backcountry and drive-in campsites. Getting to a grocery store is a trek from anywhere you camp.
Bring along a map of the lakeshore. If you won’t be making it to either of the visitors centers in Munising or Grand Marais, download one from the website before you go. nps.gov/piro.
Weather in the Upper Peninsula is fickle. Be prepared for everything from Indian summer to seriously foul. Wear footgear suitable for hiking.
Stock up in Munising at Family Fare Supermarket or Bob’s IGA. Superior Shores Market in Grand Marais has everything you need right down to made-fresh deli sandwiches. You can also get supplies at the Bayshore Market across the street. The Melstrand Union General Store in the Little Beaver/Chapel area is a U.P. classic chock-full of backcountry essentials.
Drive-in campsites (Little Beaver, Twelvemile Beach, and Hurricane River) are $14 per night on a first-come, first-served basis (pay at the campsite). Lakeside sites at Twelvemile Beach Campground are $16 per night. July, August and Labor Day weekend the sites fill quickly, so if you’re looking to nab one, arrive early—and have a backup plan.
There is a $15 reservation fee for backcountry sites, and a $5 user fee per person, per night. A permit is required. To get one show up in person at either visitors center, Munising or Grand Marais, by 4:30 p.m. within 24 hours of your first planned overnight. You can reserve backcountry sites ahead of your trip and with two weeks notice—but you’ll still need to pick up your permit in person. For the how-to, go to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore website or call the Munising or Grand Marais visitors centers.
Featured in the September 2005 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe.