The Best Things to Do and See at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

There’s enough beauty and adventure in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to fill a lifetime of trips. We get you started.

Think you know Pictured Rocks? With 75,000 acres and 42 miles of Lake Superior coastline to explore, we’re pretty certain we can point you to new adventures. And if you’ve never hiked and explored this remote beauty, you’ll want to read on. We’ve sourced this top-10-places-to-visit list from people who know Michigan’s wild northern shore like few others. The rangers, biologists, and seasonal employees who look after Pictured Rocks took us to its namesake sandstone cliffs, through wooded river valleys, over waterfalls, down tucked-away trails, deep beneath Lake Superior’s turquoise waters—and even shared a few secrets about iconic spots whose wonder had been bruised by familiarity.

Whether you’re a newcomer or an old friend to the park, we hope this article lights a spark for a day not so far in the future, when you’re in the car, driving H-58, lunch packed, boots laced, anticipating the adventure ahead. The invitation is yours. It’s good for a lifetime.

PICTURED ROCKS QUIET EAST SIDE

If you’re a hiker who loves having the trail or beach all to yourself, you may think about anchoring your visit in the eastern edge of the park. Here, you find a coastline dominated by more sand than sandstone, but the 300-foot dune cliffs are still a stunner. And with most visitors heading farther west toward Munising, ranger Brenda Mannisto said it’s much easier to find some peace and quiet here, even in peak season. One of her go-to spots in this area is the hike past the Au Sable Light Station, which will take you past the historic lighthouse, through a beachfront forest section of the North Country Trail and, ultimately, to her favorite private beach.

“It’s sandy, but it’s full of large stones of basalt and granite. Look up and you’ll see the emerald green waters out in front of you, and five miles of dunes to your east. For me, it’s the most serene place in the park.” In fact, while it’s a perfect locale for a lazy beach day, don’t get discouraged if you end up here when the weather is moody and gray. That’s actually Mannisto’s favorite time to do this hike; and if you pack a few bucks for the tour, you can actually watch the weather blow in from atop the Au Sable Light Station.

Getting There: Follow H-58 west of Grand Marais for 11 miles and use the parking lot for the Hurricane River Campground. Hike the road into the campground and then onto the North Country Trail, heading east toward the lighthouse.

WHITE BIRCH TRAIL

Just behind Pictured Rocks’ largest and busiest campground, find a less-trafficked trail that ranger Zach Gostlin counts on for some summer solitude. The two-mile White Birch Trail loop winds through hardwood forests and eventually to one of the best wild blueberry patches in the park. While you’re stuffing your face, settle in and listen for the ravens and small, falcon-like merlins that call this area home. Gostlin says if you do plan on camping here, try to arrive before 10 a.m. All the sites are first-come, first-served and tend to fill up fast—especially the ones facing Lake Superior.

“It’s definitely one of those places where once people find out about it, it becomes one of their spots,” Gostlin says. If you arrive too late to snag a campsite, you can still access the trail and this stellar Lake Superior beach via the day-use area.

Getting There: From Grand Marais, follow H-58 west for 15 miles and look for signs to 12 Mile Beach.

MINERS FALLS

Thank the laws of geology for Pictured Rocks’ abundance of waterfalls. Specifically, it’s the hard, yellowish, limey sandstone—as opposed to the showier, rainbow-colored, but softer stuff—that forms the erosion-resistant cliffs that make for great falls. Ranger Scott Berry counts Miners Falls as his favorite, which is saying something given that his summer post is at nearby Munising Falls. Miners is the biggest by volume, and given that it’s formed by the park’s largest river, it’s also one of its most reliable. “Some of the other falls are a lot more rain dependent and slow to a trickle or even disappear in August,” Berry said. “You can bet that Miners is always going to impress.”

The hike is just more than a mile round-trip from the parking lot, and you can take in the scene from either an upper or lower viewing platform. If you choose to follow the social trail down to the riverbed, Berry says, watch your step, as the mist kicking up from the falls makes the rocky trail permanently slick. His other tip: Don’t rush it. “People love waterfalls, but I remember reading something that said the average visit is just a minute or two. Take some time, watch the patterns evolve in the water, listen to the wind blow up the canyon. It makes for some great background music.”

➡ Getting There: Take H-58 five miles east of Munising, then travel north another five miles on Miners Castle Road to the parking lot.

BEAVER BASIN WILDERNESS

Interpretive ranger Amanda Rich has a spot that’s worthy of the overused title “hidden gem.” The five-mile loop through the Beaver Basin Wilderness starts with a choice of trailheads—an upper entry that immediately challenges your fresh legs with some hillier terrain or a lower option to ease you into your hike. Whichever you choose, follow the trail into the woods and along the creek and you’ll be rewarded with a pretty spectacular site. “You’ll start to notice these mounds of earth, and you don’t really know what they are at first. Then you’ll round this corner and you see these big sandstone cliffs—the same type of cliffs you’ll see along the lakeshore but they’re pushed back in the woods.”

From there, keep following the trail first to Little Beaver Lake, then Big Beaver Lake—a secluded inland oasis surrounded by tall pines. Continue on, Rich says for the big payoff: “The mouth of Beaver Creek opens up into Lake Superior, and it’s hands-down, my favorite spot in the park. Look one way and you’ll see nothing but beach and blue water. Look the other and you’ll see cliffs rise out of nothing.”

Getting There: Travel 20 miles east of Munising or 20 miles west of Grand Marais and look for signs for the Little Beaver Lake Campground.

MINERS CASTLE TO MINERS BEACH

Many of the best views in Pictured Rocks are only earned with multi-mile hikes. But park ranger Andrea Chynoweth tipped us off to a quickie that lets you experience the park’s signature sandstone cliffs, overlooks of Lake Superior, hardwood and conifer forests, rocky spring-fed rivers, and a sandy beach—all within just a mile. The hike starts at Miners Castle, one of the most popular and accessible places to take in the coastal rock formations; then feeds you through a maple, then hemlock forest along Miners River; and finally spits you out at the mouth of the river on the western edge of Miners Beach.

“A lot of people just drive to Miners Castle, hop out, then hop back in their car again to go down to Miners Beach—not realizing there’s such an incredible trail between the two,” Chynoweth says. It’s a short jaunt, but the terrain can be rocky and slippery in places, so Chynoweth says plan on tackling the hike in more than just flip-flops. Then, kick off your shoes and find a spot along the nearly mile-long beach, which she says, is never packed—even in the summer.

➡ Getting There: From Munising, take H-58 east for five miles, then head north for six miles on Miners Castle Road.

LOG SLIDE LOOKOUT

Though Pictured Rocks is best known for its intensely colored sandstone coast, its perched sand dunes located along the eastern shores of the park are nothing to scoff at. They rival some of the best on Lake Michigan, and aquatic biological technician Leah Kainulainen counts the Log Slide lookout, just west of Grand Marais, as one of the best places to explore this unique Lake Superior dune ecosystem.

Severe winter weather in 2017 destroyed the viewing platform, but the trail to the lookout is still open, and when you get there, expect a postcard-worthy view of the lake—bookended by the Au Sable Light Station. There’s a designated social path to climb down the 300-foot dune to the water—which Kainulainen recommends using to avoid disturbing the several protected plant species that call this area home. It’s also a great spot to reflect on a cornerstone of Michigan history. Back in the day, the Log Slide was just that, and legend has it the wooden chute that directed timber down the dunes to the ships waiting below sometimes caught fire from the intense friction.

➡ Getting There: Follow H-58 west of Grand Marais for about 7 miles and look for signs to the Log Slide.

CHAPEL ROCK

No doubt, it’s one of the most iconic spots in the park. In fact, the lone white pine growing atop Chapel Rock is being celebrated on an official U.S. quarter in 2018. The site is indeed worth commemorating, given it’s a small miracle the tree exists—its only lifeline being a suspended bridge of roots connecting it back to the mainland. “A lot of people think it’s a young tree,” said ranger Ron Jones about the pine, but the Park Service estimates it’s likely 70-plus years old. “But it’s very stunted because it’s been shaped by the harsh environment—60-foot waves, brutal winters—almost as if it were a natural bonsai.”

Jones says that toughness also makes it a powerful symbol for many who visit the park, particularly he says, for survivors of illness or abuse. “People have very strong emotional reactions to that site. They see that tree as a survivor, because it’s managed to defy all the odds.” Jones does have one request when you come to pay homage. Some visitors have taken to using the sturdy six-inch-diameter roots as a bridge to Chapel Rock, which is not only dangerous but adds further stress to the tree. Instead, stick to the neighboring cliffs or the beach down below for a moving view of this plucky, powerful pine.

➡ Getting There: Take H-58 and turn north onto Chapel Road. Travel the dirt road for five miles to the trailhead. The hike is six miles, round trip.

COVES CAMPGROUND SHORELINE

Centuries of unrelenting Lake Superior waves have carved up the coast of Pictured Rocks, leaving behind all kinds of tucked away arches, inlets, and caves. Some you’ll need a boat or kayak to reach, but biologist Bruce Leutscher’s favorite stretch of coves is just a short hike in through the Beaver Basin Wilderness. “It’s almost a cathedral-like setting,” Leutscher says. “You have these 100-foot cliffs surrounding big clear deep pools of water. You see people swimming, diving off the rocks, and the sound just bounces around the walls like a little echo chamber.”

From the parking lot, it’s just a mile and a half or so before you’ll see your first coves, but Leutscher says press on for another mile or two for some of the best. And if you want to take your time scouting out every possible swimming hole, the nearby Coves Campground has backcountry sites to accommodate an overnight stay.

➡ Getting There: Access the trail from the Little Beaver Lake Campground parking lot, then head north to connect with the North Country Trail near the shoreline. Follow the signs west to Coves Campground.

UNDERWATER DUNES OFF SAND POINT

In many areas of Pictured Rocks, the sandstone and sand dune environment you see above the water continues far below it. In fact, when Hydrographic Surveyor Lara Bender was recently exploring the shoreline around Sand Point, her team collected images revealing underwater sand dunes that were hundreds of feet high. “Everyone thinks sand is so fragile, but for whatever reason, the sand is able to keep its structure, much like a dune does above the water.”

On land, wind is constantly reshaping the sand dunes, and the waves work similarly on them underwater. Sometimes, Bender says, that leads to some pretty spectacular formations that you can enjoy right from the shore. “One year, I remember you could stand on the sand beach and just cannonball into the water because it was so steep at the shore.” A kayak will take you over many of the most dramatic drop-offs, though Bender says a swimsuit is all you need to get a peek at this unexpected underwater world.

➡ Getting There: From Munising, head northeast on Sand Point Road to Sand Point Beach.

MOSQUITO BEACH

Don’t let the name of this spot scare you off—with a breeze blowing in off the lake, you aren’t likely to be swallowed in a fog of mosquitos while you take in the scenery. This favorite of Melissa O’Donnell actually gets its name from the Mosquito River, which empties into Lake Superior along the rocky shelf of a beach. It’s a natural pit stop for both kayak tours and hikers, so it can be a busy place in the summer. Come fall, though, O’Donnell says you may have the place all to yourself, and even on gray days, it has a way of etching a place in your memory.

“I think my first time out there was actually my third day on the job,” O’Donnell says. “It was a foggy, windy, dreary day and it just had this mysterious feel to it. I remember thinking, ‘I have to come back here.’” O’Donnell has done that many times since, often as a destination on the final third of the popular 10-mile Chapel Loop (done counterclockwise). But if you want to get there more quickly, head out from the same Chapel trailhead and hike directly to Mosquito Beach. You can then hit up Mosquito Falls on the way back for a still-memorable four-mile loop.

➡ Getting There: Follow H-58 east of Munising to Chapel Drive and follow signs to the Chapel parking lot/trailhead.

Lou Blouin is a public radio producer and writer who lives in Detroit. [email protected] // Aaron Peterson is a photographer and filmmaker based on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.


Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore