If I had a second wife, she would be Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which is located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan about 425 miles from Chicago. I have hiked its beautiful trails, hunted agates and fossils and collected driftwood on its rocky shores, swam in its bone-chilling waters, kayaked its stunning lakes, and camped along its rivers and on its big bluffs since 1995. Pictured Rocks has served as my Fortress of Solitude ever since I first discovered it on a solo trip to the wild and wonderful Upper Peninsula when I was in my mid-20s in the 1990s. I visit there frequently to recharge and disconnect from city life.
But I don’t always travel alone to this National Park Service gem. Twenty-one years ago, I shared this special place with my girlfriend (now wife), and I was also able to introduce one of my best friends and his 12-year-old son—along with my nine-year-old—to its wonders last week. The four of us camped for four days at 12-Mile Beach Campground, which overlooks Lake Superior—the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area and the third-largest by volume. 12-Mile Beach (36 campsites) is my favorite Pictured Rocks campground, although you can camp at Hurricane River (22 sites; also pretty special) and Little Beaver Lake (eight sites; I’ve never camped there) Campgrounds if you choose.
Many of the campsites at 12-Mile Beach Campground are situated on 200-foot, tree-lined bluffs that tower over the lake. I love this rustic campground (pit toilets, no showers, well water) because of its great views and easy access to the lake. As you sit at your campfire, you can gaze out at the ever-changing colors and composition of the lake and sky and watch mind-bogglingly stunning sunsets (the elevation and views of the beach and lake really makes them special). These sites are great because you can head down the bluff (stairs are available) and reach the water’s edge (or jump in the lake) in less than three minutes. The crashing of the waves will serenade you to sleep at night or serve as your first hello when you wake up in the morning. I’ll trade the sounds of beeping car horns, the thunder of trucks, and cacophony of voices of Chicago for the sound of the waves, wind through the trees, and bird calls any day.
If you’re not a camper there’s plenty to do and see at Pictured Rocks. Here are just a few ideas:
Check out visitor centers that are located on the east and west ends of the 42-mile long lakeshore to get ideas for activities and view interpretative displays, as well as purchase useful nature guides, books about the history of the region, and nature-oriented toys and games.
View 15 miles of awe-inspiring—and colorful—sandstone cliffs that rise 200 feet over Lake Superior, and check out the fascinating rock formations (such as Chapel Rock and Miners Castle) along the lake. Some are accessible via hiking trails, while others can be viewed by taking tours offered by Pictured Rocks Cruises (that launch from the City Dock at Bayshore Park in Munising, which is located the western edge of the lakeshore).
Hike more than 100 miles of trails in Pictured Rocks’ 73,000 acres.
Enjoy an easy 1.5-mile hike from the Hurricane River Campground to the Au Sable Light Station (established in 1874), where you can visit a small museum, tour the lighthouse keepers’ quarters, learn about the isolated life of lightkeepers and their families (the lighthouse was staffed from 1874 to 1958), and tour the lighthouse (which involves carefully climbing the winding metal staircase to the top of the 85-foot lighthouse tower for stunning views of Au Sable Dunes and Lake Superior). On your return trip, head down to the lakeshore to view the remains of several shipwrecks that lost the battle with the brown sandstone shelf that juts out into the lake in this area.
Take a guided tour or participate in other educational programs.
View some amazing waterfalls—most of which cascade into rivers, creeks, and the lake from a cliff of sandstone called the Munising Formation. Outside the lakeshore, check out waterfalls in the Munising area and the mother of all UP waterfalls at Tahquamenon Falls State Park (which is about 2 hours east of Pictured Rocks).
Hike to the top of the 300-foot-tall Grand Sable Dunes, the largest collection of perched sand dunes on Lake Superior. (Perched dunes are those that form on an existing coastal bluff.) These dunes, which feature great views of Lake Superior to the north and Grand Sable Lake to the south, contain some of the rarest plants in the Great Lakes (including orchids, Pitcher’s thistle, Lake Huron tansy, and moonwort ferns). You might also see white-tailed deer, black bears, and bald eagles during your visit. I hiked to the top of the dunes last week, while my son and his friend fished below in Grand Sable Lake, and savored the beauty and solitude of the dunes.
Enjoy the wide variety of plants and animals throughout the lakeshore. This is bear, wolf, and badger country. I’ve never seen a wolf at Pictured Rocks, once glimpsed a bear print on the beach early one morning on 12-Mile Beach, and had a harrowing encounter with an American badger as I read a book on the cliffs above Lake Superior. Other animals to look for include American marten, fishers, migrating songbirds, turtles, frogs, many types of fish, beaver, skunk, red squirrel, the occasional moose, and raptors (such as bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and barred owl). In all, the NPS reports that the national lakeshore contains nearly 300 native vertebrates, with 48 fish, 12 amphibian, five reptile, 182 bird, and 42 mammal species currently identified.
Depending on the season, go fishing, bicycling, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing.
Enjoy a kayak or canoe trip on Little Beaver Lake, Beaver Lake, Grand Sable Lake, or Kingston Lake. We paddled crystal clear Little Beaver and Beaver Lakes in the Beaver Basin Wilderness. The trip was peaceful and fun until we began hearing thunder in the distance despite a bright blue sky and few clouds. We got off the lake just a few minutes before the rain started. If you’re an experienced kayaker with a sea kayak, consider a kayaking adventure on Lake Superior.
Savor the silence of a solitary walk on the beach, atop a dune, or in the forest.
Enjoy some of the best stargazing in the Midwest in the dark skies above Pictured Rocks.
I can’t let a story about Pictured Rocks end without mentioning the dedicated National Park Service employees, who help keep this beautiful natural destination running—from leading tours and studying its plants, animals, and ecosystems; to repairing lakeshore facilities and picking up garbage; to keeping visitors safe as they enjoy nature. We had several great conversations with NPS workers and volunteers who, without exception, were friendly, helpful, and enthusiastic. The “Service” portion of the National Park Service name says it all. Working in a national park is a calling because the pay is relatively low and the hours can be long. Although the salary may often be low, the rewards are great, from having the opportunity to work outdoors in some of the world’s most stunning scenery to getting the chance to help preserve our nation’s history and natural areas. (If you’re a young person or career changer reading this article, you check out the NPS’s career website.) One conversation that I had with a maintenance worker sums up our experience at Pictured Rocks. He greeted me and said, “It’s a great day to be at Pictured Rocks.” I agreed, saying, “I really love this place!”. . . And I think you will, too!
Thoughts, Rules, and Other Important Points
- The NPS Pictured Rocks website offers a wealth of information on visiting the lakeshore (much more than I could include in a blog post). Click here for an official lakeshore map, and here for a variety of useful brochures.
- Camping is by reservation only at Recreation.gov. The online reservation system was implemented this year, and it’s much easier than the old days when you simply had to show up and hope that a camping spot was available. Make your reservations ideally six months before your trip to ensure that you’ll be able to reserve your desired campsite. If the campsites are full, check Recreation.gov frequently for cancellations. That’s how I was able to book a four-night stay at 12-Mile Beach.
- Weather in the Upper Peninsula changes frequently—especially in areas near Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. The weather last week ranged from the low 70s in the daytime to the high 50s at night. We experienced one very rainy day, and the wind seems to always be blowing at the lakeshore. Be sure to dress in layers and pack an extra blanket for cool evenings.
- Mosquitoes, ticks, and black flies can be annoying at various times of the year. Bring bug repellant.
- Be careful when walking along trails on the high cliffs above the lake. Trails and rocks can be slippery.
- There is no firewood for sale at the lakeshore, but you can use downed wood for campfires. Also, you can purchase firewood in the nearby towns of Grand Marais and Munising, as well as from entrepreneurial homeowners who sell firewood in self-service kiosks on their front lawns in these towns and on the roads near Pictured Rocks. The going rate (as of 2019) is $5-$6/bundle.
- Be careful when swimming in Lake Superior. Its average summer surface temperature is 59°F (15°C). Hypothermia can occur in as little as 10 minutes in the right conditions. With that said, our boys swam and played in the water for an hour or so at a time without experiencing any issues.
- Black bears live at the lakeshore, but I’ve only seen evidence of one in my 25 years of visits. To stay safe from bears, you will need to take special precautions when you visit the lakeshore. Click here for some tips.
Nearby Towns and Nature Destinations
Grand Marais is a treasure of a small town located about three miles from the eastern edge of Pictured Rocks. When not camping, we stay in this picturesque village, which has several good restaurants, a swimming beach, a lightkeeper museum, a rock and gem museum, gift shops, postal museum, Pickle Barrel House, and a few hotels. Groceries, gas, firewood, and outdoor supplies are also available.
Munising is a larger town that is just west of Pictured Rocks. Things to do and see in Munising include waterfalls, Grand Island National Recreation Area, and boat tours of Pictured Rocks. A larger number of grocery stores, gas stations, hotels, and gift shops are available.
If 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, with its 15 miles of shoreline, can be upgraded to a national park, so should the much-larger (77,000 acres and 42 miles of shoreline) and equally, if not more, stunning Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore also receive this vaunted status. Pictured Rocks can easily be categorized with the great national parks of our country. But don’t take my word for it, take a trip to this North Woods jewel yourself sometime this summer or fall.
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
Copyright (photos) Andrew Morkes (except photo of Miners Castle, copyright NPS)
When I’m not exploring the Upper Peninsula, I write books and newsletters about careers for teens and adults who want to change occupations. I also write college-planning books and newsletters, including They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, 3rd Edition. You can learn more about my newsletters and books by clicking here.