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 phenomenon is particularly strong in September, when the beaches are empty of other people (and even better, empty of stable flies, those evil little biters that stalk the Upper Peninsula in summer). 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—bidding summer a September farewell from 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
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 in Munising before 4:30 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. Rooms from $64 Labor Day weekend; $50 post-holiday. Reservations recommended. 906-387-4574.
Snag a home-cooked breakfast at Sydney’s (400 Cedar Street, 906-387-4067), then park your car for the night at Miner’s 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 roundtrip along the Mosquito loop that leads along the river and past gentle falls.
Backpack to your car at Miner’s 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 before 4:30 p.m. to pick up your backcountry permit for the Chapel campground. (Late? Get your permit first thing the next day.) Check out Munising Falls before you head west on M-28 10 miles to Au Train and the Pinewood Lodge B & B for a night of rustic relaxation. Dinner is at Foggy’s Bar and Steakhouse (906-387-3357) where you choose your steak and have the option of grilling it yourself or letting the experts do it. Rooms at Pinewood start at $120. Reservations recommended. 906-892-8300. www.pine woodlodgebnb.com
Stuff yourself at Pinewood’s full breakfast (think omelets, Finnish pancakes … ) then 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 Miner’s 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, especially in September. 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 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, so 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 (see Need to Know, page 63).
After breakfast grab your day pack and hop the Altran shuttle (see Need To Know on how to make reservations) 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.
Strike 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 the North Shore Lodge tucked on the beach between Lake Superior and Grand Marais Bay in the charming beach town of Grand Marais. Get your bearings at the nearby Grand Sable Visitor Center then take in Sable falls and the Log Slide–a sandy precipice where lumbermen slid logs down to Lake Superior. Be back at the lodge for dinner–the whitefish is always famous but on Friday nights it’s an all-you-can-eat fry. Rooms at the North Shore Lodge start at $72 before Labor Day and $69 after. Reservations recommended. 906-494-2361.
Drive in 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. Be there by 5 p.m. Sunday, September 4, and you’ll catch the last lighthouse tour of the season.
Pictured Rocks By Boat
Pictured Rocks Cruises lets you see the cliffs from the water. September 1–5: 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m.; Through October 10: 10 a.m., 1 p.m.,4 p.m. ($29 adults; $12 children 6 to 12; under 5 free). 906-387-2379 or picturedrocks.com
Glass Bottom Boat Tours drift above shipwrecks. September & October, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ($25 adults; $11 children 6 to 12; under 5 free), 1204 Commercial Street, Munising. 906-387-4477 or shipwrecktours.com
Need to Know
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. www.nps.gov/piro.
Weather in the Upper Peninsula is fickle–especially in September. Be prepared for everything from Indian summer to seriously foul. Wear footgear suitable for hiking. For more on what to bring, go to www.nps.gov/piro.
Stock up in Munising at Glen’s Market (425 East M-28; 906-387-2147; 6 a.m. to midnight every day). The Superior Shores Market & Hardware in Grand Marais (Lake Avenue; 906-494-2470; 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday; Sunday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.) has everything you need right down to made-fresh deli sandwiches. You can also put in supplies at the Bayshore Market across the street (906-494-2581; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.) The Melstrand General Store in the Little Beaver/Chapel area (on H-58 at the intersection of H-52; 906-452-6324; 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 9 p.m.) is a U.P. classic chock-full of backcountry essentials like ring bologna and used 25-cent romance novels to read by the campfire.
Drive-in campsites (Little Beaver, Twelvemile Beach and Hurricane River) are $10 per night on a first-come, first-served basis (pay at the campsite). 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.
Backcountry sites are $5 per night and a permit is required–to get one show up in person at either visitors center, Munising or Grand Marais, by closing time at 4:30 p.m. within 24 hours of your first planned overnight. You can reserve backcountry sites ahead of your trip for $15 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 Web site or call the Munising or Grand Marais visitors centers.
For shuttle service, mail reservation requests and advanced payment (checks only) to: Altran Public Transit, 530 East Munising Avenue, P.O. Box 69 Munising, MI., 49862. Check out prices and schedules at www.nps.gov/piro or call 906-387-4845.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Web site is www.nps.gov/piro. Click on In Depth on the home page for the nitty-gritty details on shuttles, reservations and other how-to’s.
Contact the Pictured Rocks visitors center in Munising (906-387-3700); Pictured Rocks visitors center in Grand Marais (906-494-2600); Alger County Chamber of Commerce (906-387-2138).