Located in Michigan’s remote upper peninsula on the coast of Lake Superior is the nation’s first National Lakeshore. Lake Superior is the world’s largest lake by surface area and it was carved out by glaciers during the last ice age. These glaciers left beautiful 200′ high cliffs along a small stretch of the southern coastline. These cliffs are a colorful tapestry of earth’s layers, that according to scientists expose millions of years of the history of the world. These walls that were painted by the forces of nature are beautiful. This guide to Pictured Rocks Park will reveal the best way to see them for yourself.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is known for being remote and the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is no different. Do not be fooled by the crowds of people who flock to the beautiful park. This is a remote place with limited services and an abundance of wilderness. Gas stations and grocery stores are only found in Munising, Michigan (west side of the park) and Grand Marais, Michigan (east side of the park). Make sure you are fueled up before heading into the park.
Size of Pictured Rocks
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore protects 42 miles of the rugged Lake Superior coastline. Only 15 of those miles are the sheer colorful cliffs from which the park derives is name and fame. They are found between Twelve Mile Beach in the east and Miners Beach in the west. This area is the heart and soul of the park and where most visitors spend a majority of their time.
Grand Island is the largest island located in Lake Superior. It is a short ferry ride from the town of Munising to the Island. The island has many of the same painted cliff features that have made the park famous. In fact, the way that locals talk about the Grand Island, it is hard to imagine that it isn’t a part of the National Lakeshore but rather a separate National Recreation Area. Even so, the park’s map shows the trails and campsites found on the island. The East Channel Lighthouse is a highlight of taking a boat cruise or kayaking around Grand Island itself.
The main thoroughfare for accessing the park is the Michigan Highway 58 (H-58). It mostly meanders along the park’s southern boundary for 50 miles between Grand Marais and Munising. There are only a handful of roads that pierce the interior of the park. The H-58 does so in the east with short paved spurs leading to popular locations like the Log Slide and Twelve-mile Beach. Further to the west longer roads that lead deeper into the park are a mix of gravel and dirt. These roads are well maintained during the summer months and can be traveled by nearly every type of vehicle. The speed limits are low making travel times longer.
Little Beaver Road (3 miles) has a length limit of 32′ making it off-limits to larger RVs.
Chapel Road (5 miles) is the worst of the major thoroughfares with large sections consisting of packed dirt. The road can have large potholes and can be muddy after it rains. Even after heavy rains, the road is usually passable in the summer, but use your best judgment when traveling this road.
Miners Castle Road (5 miles) is paved but the short side road to Miners Falls is a gravel road. We found the gravel road to have fewer potholes and was in better shape than the asphalt.
Seasons – Guide to Pictured Rocks Park
Each season in the Pictured Rock National Lakeshore brings a different beauty and perspective to the park. The summers are when most visitors come to the park but every season is amazing if you come prepared for what the park has to offer.
Warm but rarely hot weather along with warm water makes summer a great time to visit Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Travelers will find fewer crowds in June and then warmer water in July thru early September. The only downside is there is an abundance of black flies, mosquitos, and ticks that invade the wooded areas.
With a wide variety of trees calling the park home, the Pictured Rocks become even more colorful in the fall season. The peak color change in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula usually takes place between the last week in September and the first two weeks of October.
Winters in the Upper Pennisula can be brutally cold with lots of snow. Many of the park’s roads are not maintained and the snowmobile becomes the preferred mode of transit. However, a large area of Lake Superior freezes over along with water that drips down into the shoreline caves. This creates ice caves that make the park especially beautiful. January and February is the best time to visit and see this amazing frozen wonderland.
Lake Superior melts in the springtime breaking into beautiful ice flows. This can be a beautiful time to visit the park with wildflowers blooming and chunks of ice floating in the lake. Typically the ice is melting and flowing by April and into early May, but it can start earlier in warmer years and has been known to linger into June in colder years.
Best Way to See the Cliffs
The best way to see the colorful cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is from atop the water of Lake Superior. At its deepest point, about 40-miles north of the park, the lake is 1332′ deep and the water can be rough. Despite this, the only way to see some of the park’s most famous formations is by water. Unless you own your own watercraft you will have to go with a guided tour. Luckily, there are many options available out of Munising, Michigan for either kayaking or cruising the shoreline.
Kayaking (Sea Kayak)
The best way to see the park is by kayak. A kayak allows you to get up and close to the Pictured Rocks formations. Kayaking allows adventurous travelers to journey into the sea caves and through the Lovers Leap Arch. You can touch the wall and feel the droplets of water hit your skin as they fall from the overhanging cliffs above. It is an immersive experience that is hard to beat.
Lake Superior can be very rough so it is recommended that you only venture onto the lake in a sea-rated kayak with a spray skirt. All the certified kayaking tours out of Munising use sea kayaks with skirts. There are many tours available from several different outfits so make sure you know what you are signing up for. Many of the short tours don’t go very far and do not see much. Full-day trips range from out and back to Lovers Leap to one-way excursions all the way to Chapel Beach. There are even multi-day journeys that traverse the entire coastline.
Kayaking Grand Island
In addition to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore the Grand Island National Recreation Area makes for a great kayaking trip. Some of the overnight camping areas on the island are designated for portages by small watercraft making it an ideal place to get a way from it all.
While a kayak is the best way to experience the coastline, a boat cruise is a close second. A cruise has the benefit of being less subjective to the weather. If the forecast or waves are too rough kayaking outfitters will often cancel trips. The cruise boats can endure stronger weather. Boats also have the added benefit of seeing more of the coastline. While the daily kayaking tours only go as far as Chapel Beach and start at Miners Beach, the boat tours start miles to the west in Munising traveling by the East Channel Lighthouse on Grand Island and ply the waters all the way to Chapel Beach. Some boat cruises even go as far as Spray Falls which we highly recommend. Although the boats don’t get as close and personal with the terrain, travelers are able to see more in less time.
Highlights of the Cliffs
The most scenic section of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore runs from Miners Beach in the west to the start of twelve-mile beach in the east. This section is about 15-miles long. Most tour companies only offer adventures that cover the 8-mile area from Miners Beach to Chapel Rock. Within this area travelers can find the following formations: Miners Castle, Bridalveil Falls (the highest waterfall in Michigan), the Painted Coves, Kissing Rocks, a Ship Wreck, Cave of the Bloody Chiefs, Lovers Leap Arch, Rainbow Cave, Indian Head, the Gull Rookery, Grand Portal, Battleship Rocks, the Flower Vase, Indian Drum, Chapel Cove, and Chapel Rock. A few of the boat cruises will even go as far as Spray Falls.
Other Recreational Opportunities – Guide to Pictured Rocks Park
While exploring the park’s lakeshore by water is a must, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore holds a lot of beauty on lands as well. The park and surrounding area has many hiking and biking trails full of wildlife, waterfalls, small lakes, and lush forests. There are even small caves located in the trees above the cliffs. The park’s location and climate lend themselves to having a wide variety of flora and fauna.
The park and surrounding area have an abundance of relatively short hiking trails that lead to no less than twenty waterfalls. There is also an abundance of small lakes, ponds, and a few beaches to be discovered as well as the lush forest consisting of American beech, hemlock, and white pine growing alongside red maple, aspen, and birch trees. Jackpine, spruce, cedar, and larch can also be found while hiking the park trails. All this diversity makes the fall one of the best times to hike or backpack in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
While there are no biking trails located inside the boundary of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore there are several areas nearby where riding is one of the best ways to explore. The best example of this is the Grand Island National Recreation Area where all the trails and dirt roads are open to biking including the 21-mile long Grand Island Loop Trail. Many of the backcountry campsites can be reached by bike making it a possible overnight expedition.
The 4,700 mile North Country Trail runs from North Dakota to Vermont and cuts all the way through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This 42.4-mile-long section is one of the best ways to fully experience the park and the only backpacking trail in the park. Many of the park’s best hiking trails either cross over this backpacking route or follow it. It hugs the rugged coastline from Grand Marais to Munising. The Chapel Loop can also be done as a backpack using a few of the Northern Country Trail’s campsites.
The best way to backpack this section of the North Country Trail is by parking in the Munising Falls lot and catching a shuttle to the Grand Sable Visitor Center on the east side of the park. From here you hike the North Country Trail all the way back to where you parked. Most hikers will do this in a 4 or 5-day hike. The terrain for the most part is fairly easy but it does have some moderately difficult sections. There are 13 backcountry sites to choose from (+8 more group sites) within the park’s boundary and all require a permit. (Getting a reservation is recommended for the summer months).
Backpacking the 21-mile Grand Island Loop is another option near the park but it is better done as a bike-packing trip or by kayaking around the island.
In winter, snowshoeing and cross country skiing replace hiking and backpacking. Kayaking on the frozen lake isn’t happening but you can tour many of the same formations by snowmobile. The dripping water coastal caves become gaping mouths of beautiful ice. Ice climbing on the many frozen waterfalls is also a favorite pastime. Lucky visitors to the park might even catch a glimpse of the Aurora-Borealis dancing across the night sky.
Wildlife Guide to Pictured Rocks Park
Although rare there are bears and moose that inhabit the woodlands of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Hikers should carry bear spray. More commonly seen in the park are beaver, bobcats, badgers, and bats that roost in the caves. However, the most fearsome and dangerous creatures are the insects. Bug spray is a must during the popular summer season. Not only are mosquitos and ticks prevalent, but the black flies are also brutal and overwhelming at times. The bug spray will work fairly well on the mosquitos and ticks but loose clothing and bug nets are the only remedies for the overwhelming number of flies.
Because of the abundance of insects small woodland birds like robins, pee-wees, American redstarts, warblers, and ravens scavenge the forest. Migratory birds like sandhill cranes, peregrine falcons, great blue herons, & loons can be found along the coast or soaring above the waves. Sections of the rocky cliffs are rookeries for seagulls and they can be aggressive if you get too close.
Accommodation – Guide to Pictured Rocks Park
With the remote location of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, there is little in the way of accommodation outside of Munising, Michigan. There is an abundance of small campgrounds throughout the park and surrounding area but hotels are few and far between. Reliable cell service (Verizon & T-mobile) is also extremely hard to come by in the Upper Peninsula making the majority of the campgrounds unusable for digital nomads like us.
If like us you are looking for a campground with reliable cell service (Verizon & T-mobile) and need no other amenities, check out the Bay Furnace Campground. It’s located to the west of Munising in the small town of Christmas, Michigan. (Yes, the town is all about Santa). It has a dumpsite where water is available in the summer. It also has clean pit toilets.
If you are accustomed to camping with more services look no further than the Munising Tourist Park Campground. It is located right on the lakeshore west of town, has a full-hookup option available, and a centralized shower house along with a dump station. They also have reliable cell service. If you are ruffing it elsewhere, the campground offers separate dump and shower fees as well.
When looking for a place on the eastern side of the park with electricity and water check out the Woodland Park Campground. They take reservations but they also offer first-come, first-served sites. Unfortunately like most of the area, the cell service (Verizon & T-mobile) is unreliable.
While there are a few motels and inns to choose from in Munising we like the Holiday Inn Express. It sits to the west of town on a hillside overlooking Grand Island and the South Bay. It is a beautiful location and a very nice hotel.
If you prefer something a bit more local, check out the Pictured Rocks Lodge. It is more of a rental home than a lodge but it is located on the park border very close to the heart of the park making it a great option for a family of 8 or less.
When exploring the eastern side of the park check out The Agate Cross Bed & Breakfast in Grand Marais, Michigan. We really like the vibe of this small town and this B&B would make a great base for exploring the town and this side of the park.
When you are in the Upper Peninsula you are bound to realize that the area is obsessed with pasties. To the unfamiliar, these pasty places are not x-rated but are rather a food staple. A pasty is essentially a hand-held English meat pie. When in the U.P. (as the locals call Michigan’s Upper Pennisula) why not try the local fare? Miners Pasty Kitchen in Munising has arguably the best pasty in town.
Looking for something other than a pasty? Try EJ’s Dine or Dash. Their fried pierogi is excellent and their greek fries are very tasty.
When on the east side of Pictured Rocks Park stop in at the Grand Marais Tavern which has a great selection for brews, but also makes an excellent pizza. We really enjoyed the Cudighi pizza (a sausage and another UP favorite) with banana peppers.
Guide to Pictured Rocks Park
We hope this guide to Pictured Rocks Park helps you plan a great adventure to the nation’s first National Lakeshore. The beautiful cliffs reveal our planet’s past in a stunning way. The lush diverse forest above the cliffs is home to an abundance of wildlife and recreational activities. There is so much to see and discover when visiting Michigan’s Upper Pennisula but the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore is the crown jewel.
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