Our recent tour of Michigan continued with a visit to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, on the shores of Lake Superior (our third great lake). It’s known for the colorful sandstone cliffs that rise up to 200′ above the lake.
The first thing I would tell anyone who might be planning to visit: The weather on Lake Superior can be very unpredictable and changes rapidly. We experienced just about everything except snow in the ~30 hours we were there. You definitely want to wear layered clothing that’s appropriate for a variety of temperatures and conditions. We had drizzle, pouring rain, wind, fog, bright sunshine, and colorful sunset; the temperature went from 42 (and felt much colder with the wind chill) up to almost 70.
The best way to see the Pictured Rocks is from a boat tour. The boats, most of them large catamarans, leave from the town of Munising, on the west side of the park. From May-October they run multiple times per day, weather permitting. The tours often sell out, so advance purchase is recommended.
We thought about doing a sunset tour, but it was going to be really cold on the boat (though as it turned out we could have sat inside), so we decided to do the 10:00 tour the next day instead. The weather got better and better, and ended up mostly sunny. The light wasn’t optimal for photos at that time of day, but the cliffs were still beautiful.
We did the Classic Cruise, which was 32 miles round trip, and took about 2 hours and 30 minutes. I was pleased at how close the boat was able to get to the cliffs – I had expected to be much further away. At one point the pilot maneuvered us quite close. There are lots of formations to see, like Indian Head, Painted Coves, Grand Portal, and Battleship Rock.
The Flower Vase was really nice. You can see the kayaks in this photo – a kayak tour is another popular way to see part of the cliffs. Unless you’re very experienced, it’s highly recommended that you take a tour rather than trying to do it on your own – as I’ve mentioned before, conditions on the lake are quite unpredictable.
The final sight we saw just before we re-entered the harbor was the Grand Island East Channel Light, which looks like a schoolhouse. It’s on Grand Island and is not part of the park; it is privately owned. But it’s still very picturesque.
Of course there is a lot more to Pictured Rocks than just the cliffs. There are miles of trails, including the North Country Trail that runs 42 miles along the length of the park, staying as close to the lake as it can. But there are also lots of fairly short but scenic walks, and we did a few of those.
We had entered the park from the city of Munising, and our first stop was the Munising Falls Visitor Center. The Munising Falls Visitor Center is so named because 800 feet up the trail is, wait for it, Munising Falls. A nice leg stretch.
There aren’t very many places to see the dramatic sandstone cliffs from the land – one of the best is the Miners Castle overlook. From the parking lot it’s a short walk to the main overlook – this one is wheelchair accessible.
Continuing down the trail, through the woods, and down some stairs brings you to a platform that overlooks the top of the Miners Castle formation. Maybe not as scenic, but interesting to see what it looks like.
And there were some nice wildflowers.
The trail to the Au Sable Light Station follows a gravel path about 1.5 miles to the station. Along the way there are a couple of places to go down to the lakeshore and see what you can see.
In mid-June it was a lovely walk through the woods, with many wildflowers in bloom.
The Au Sable (pronounced Ah SAW-bull) lighthouse and museum are open for guided tours most days from mid-June-September. There’s a nominal fee. We were too late for one tour and didn’t want to stick around until the next one, so we missed that.
There’s a beautiful view from the edge of the hill near the fog signal building which looks toward the Grand Sable dunes. And those are the Grand SAYble dunes, not Grand SAWble. I don’t know why. You can see the remnants of a fog bank that had enveloped the coast for the previous hour or so – see my earlier comment about rapid changes in the weather.
The last trail we did was the Log Slide Overlook. This is a short .4 mile round trip walk to an area where loggers used to slide the logs down to Lake Superior for transport.
While you can go down the Log Slide, it’s not recommended.
I was able to pick up a number of NPS passport stamps at Pictured Rocks – the only one we missed was at the Lakeshore Headquarters, which isn’t even a place I would have though to look.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is another place that’s worth a return visit!
Official NPS site: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore