Our final stop along the Lake Superior shoreline was at Munising, the gateway to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The federally-protected property stretches over 40 miles along the southern shore of Lake Superior between the towns of Munising and Grand Marais, and contains a variety of natural wonders. The highlight of the bunch, and the namesake of the park, is the colorful cliffs facing Lake Superior that have been eroded over centuries into a variety of formations that spark the imagination.
Pictured Rocks Cruise
Similar to the sea caves we saw at the Apostle Islands, the Pictured Rocks are sandstone cliffs that have been pounded by rough Lake Superior storms to yield their unusual shapes. Sandstone is a sedimentary rock, and different minerals deposited in the rock create a rainbow of colors when exposed: reds and oranges from iron, white from calcium, and blues and greens from copper. Since they face the lake, the best way to see the cliffs is from the water. One option is a 5-hour sea kayak paddle trip with a group of strangers for $168 per person. There is really nothing about that scenario that we find appealing, so instead we ponied up $42 per person for a 2.5 hour trip with the National Park Service boat concessionaire, Pictured Rocks Cruises. We thought we might be able to get on a less-crowded trip by taking the first trip of the morning with its less-favorable lighting (the sun in the east is right above the cliffs) on a Tuesday morning. Wrong!! We showed up an hour before our departure time to find 30-40 people already in line ahead of us. This meant that when we boarded we weren’t able to get seats on the more desirable starboard (right) side of the boat, but we did snag outside seats on the port (left) side so we got some unobstructed views on the return trip. I really don’t think that people stuck in the middle are getting a particularly good value from the trip, but obviously in the busiest part of the tourist season the boat operator has no problem selling out every sailing. And we overheard from the crew that inconsistent weather the prior few days (more on that later) made our cruise unusually busy.
In any case, after hearing all those complaints you’d think the trip was terrible. It wasn’t! We had lovely calm conditions without a cloud in the sky. Our cruise started along Grand Island, a large island (obviously) that creates a natural protected harbor at Munising, to see its historic light house and some of its sea caves. The trip along the Pictured Rocks was narrated, and our captain kept us entertained with plenty of “dad jokes” and bad puns. I even managed to snap a few good photos, many with the ubiquitous sea kayakers for scale:
Not too shabby! (Click on any photo for a larger view.)
Around the Lakeshore
The rest of our exploration of the national lakeshore was land-based. We drove almost the entire length of the park, stopping at various overlooks and parking areas for views of the lake, cliffs, and waterfalls. Most of the points of interest were a very short distance from the parking areas, usually under half a mile. But despite the minimal effort involved, many spots rewarded us with outstanding views. Our best lake views came from the Log Slide overlook, which really is what the name suggests — a huge dune that loggers historically used to slide giant logs down to the lake for transport. The vista from Log Slide stretches from the historic Au Sable Lighthouse in the south to the impressive Grand Sable (“big sand”) Dunes in the north. The best easy-to-reach look at a cliff formation was the Miner’s Castle overlook.
Our longest hike was a stroll to the Au Sable Lighthouse, which clocked in at just over three miles of level, graded path. We considered tackling the much longer trails in the Chapel Falls / Chapel Rock / Mosquito River area, but between the park service warning of hours-long traffic jams in the parking area and our pals at Chasing Dirt warning of horrible road conditions, we decided to pass. Check out Joodie’s blog for fabulous photos of what we missed. Even so, we were able to take in breathtaking lake views with impossibly clear water, and we also enjoyed the short hikes through emerald forests. The vegetation here takes advantage of the short summer season by cloaking every surface in green, and it was lovely rain or shine.
Driving around Munising, it’s hard to miss the parade of signs advertising pasties — pronounced like “pass teas” — which are a signature Upper Peninsula dish introduced by Cornish miners who arrived during the 19th century Copper Rush. These hand-held pot pies are traditionally made of root vegetables and meat baked into a flaky crust. We did not try one. Apparently my description of the dish as “sort of a bland empanada” was not sufficiently enticing in our household. Instead we stopped by VanLandschoot and Sons Fish Market, a third-generation family-owned fish market specializing in Lake Superior fish, where we acquired a super fresh fillet of whitefish (i.e., it was swimming the prior day) and some homemade smoked whitefish dip.
I was very glad that we booked 5 nights in Munising, because the unpredictable weather made it very challenging to plan our outdoor excursions. During our short stay we ended up using the air conditioning twice when temperatures were in the high 80s with high humidity. And in between we had a rainy day with temperatures hovering in the 50s. On successive days we found ourselves hiking in our fleeces and rain jackets, and then getting sunburned in T-shirts. I don’t envy the weather forecasters in this area. And since the tour operators like the cruise company and the kayak outfitters are subject to the same wild gyrations in weather, visitors often end up with trips that are switched to a different time or route.
Where We Stayed
For most of our stops in Michigan we are camping at state parks or federal recreation facilities, and those all take reservations 6 months in advance. Campsites in Munising are overwhelmingly offered by private operators, and because I booked Michigan “only” 6 months in advance we didn’t have a lot of options left in the height of the busy season. We ended up at Pictured Rocks RV Park, a very conventional private campground just west of Munising. Although we don’t love the private RV park experience, this place met our needs. Sites were generously spaced, the full hookups allowed us the luxury of flushing out our holding tanks, and the bathhouse was clean with a good shower setup. We picked a site that backed up to wildflowers and trees, which gave us a good view from our panoramic window even when the park filled up on the weekend. Two photos taken moments apart illustrate the importance of angle and cropping:
Next: saying goodbye to Lake Superior, we head south from the Upper Peninsula and make a stop in Mackinaw City.
8 thoughts on “Rounding Out Lake Superior at Pictured Rocks”
Totally agree on not spending that amount of money for a group kayak tour (which we were also told took a couple more hours of orientation.) I’m glad your boat tour went well, though. The view of East Channel Light is pretty cool. I’m also glad that, although the weather was psycho, you had enough days to take advantage of the better ones. No pasties?! I can’t even. Whitefish is an iconic choice, too, though. Thanks for the shout-out again — that road still remains the worst we’ve encountered. Since you were able to see many of the best highlights with shorter access hikes, I can’t blame you for not suffering through that ride!
My observation to Ken on our boat ride is that the number of people signing up for the kayak trips is a lot larger than the number of people who can actually handle a 5-hour paddle. We own a kayak and I’m not sure I’d be up for 5 hours! We definitely saw a lot of stragglers and plenty of group leaders struggling to keep their tour groups somewhat together. What’s the point in paying so much for an activity that doesn’t end up being all that enjoyable? Anyway, thanks to hitting good weather our little cruise was perfect for us, albeit a bit crowded.
The weather is always such a big factor in our enjoyment of a place, and it played a big role here. On good days most places were pretty crowded, and driving out on primitive roads in the rain was no picnic either. But in spite of that we really enjoyed this visit!
I was surprised to read that the morning cruise was so packed, but your explanation makes sense. When the weather is terrible, everyone gets stuck on the same boat. And any place with a short tourist season is going to be packed anyway. Regardless, I’m glad you were able to get a decent seat. It really does suck to be stuck in the middle.
I’m kinda with you on the pasties. We had a couple and they were fine, but nothing I would go out of my way for. I think we’re just used to a bit more spice in our lives. Now, smoked whitefish dip, on the other hand? Super yum. Especially when that (poor) sucker was swimming around in the great lakes less than 24 hours before. That’s the way to do it!
Ken thought I was crazy for leaving an hour early for the cruise, but I was vindicated! It obviously turned out great. And I’m sure the people with postponed trips were just happy to have really pleasant weather rather than riding around on an open boat in a rainstorm. But I can’t imagine how these tour operators manage all the scheduling and re-scheduling. Weird weather seems like a pretty frequent occurrence in the area.
Anyway, we haven’t eaten all our fish yet but the fillet was delicious! Once we eat the dip I might even be convinced that freshwater species are worth eating after all. Incredibly fresh fish is always a delight, no matter the source.
That is just crazy that there were 40 people ahead of you in line on a Tuesday morning for that boat trip…and you were there an hour ahead of time! I’m already mentally preparing myself for arriving at least an hour early, and you know that is NOT my natural tendency, LOL. I almost would say it’s not worth it, except that you got such beautiful photos and it really seems to be the only reasonable way to view the magnificent rock formations. We had considered a kayaking trip, but had already decided against it. It’s helpful to know that you came to the same conclusion so that I don’t waffle, haha.
Although your weather was crazy, you sure got some beautiful photos. The color of the water is astonishing. We’ve found beautiful blue waters up here in Grand Marais on the very same ginormous lake, but that aquamarine color that you captured at Pictured Rocks is incredible.
And pasties? They don’t sound appealing to us, either. But yes to the whitefish and smoked fish dip! There are SO many reasons that we’re friends!
I think the first boat trips after a day of bad weather are always going to be full since bad weather = cancelled sailings. Try to take your boat ride on the second of two consecutive days of good weather, if you have them! And I would also say that a lot of the hikes and overlooks can be done even if you get some rain. That photo of Miner’s Castle with the greenish water was taken in cloudy, rainy conditions.
I think you will be happy foregoing the kayak trip, especially once you see the tours in action. You guys are experienced kayakers but most guests are not, and you would probably be frustrated about not being able to set your own pace. And five hours is a long time to paddle a boat. Just take the cruise and try to get a seat on the right hand side.
I also recommend checking out the “fishing village” area on the west side of town near the big kayak outfitter. There are three or four fish markets within a few blocks that look very authentic, just like 13 Mile.
Thanks for the great advice about doing the boat trip on the second day of good weather. That makes sense! And yes, it would be incredibly frustrating to be held back by inexperienced paddlers on a kayak trip. Especially a ridiculously expensive kayak trip.
I’m glad to know that we can do the hikes and overlooks in the rain, and we will definitely be checking out the fish markets! Thanks so much for the tips. You guys continue to be the best scouts!
I hope you enjoy the area as much as we did. Even with some sketchy weather it was a very enjoyable stop for us.