Why Go: With more than 100 miles of easy to moderate hiking trails, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore offers a spectacular environment for backcountry hiking and camping along Lake Superior. Located between the communities of Munising (west) and Grand Marais (east) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the park hugs the south shore of Lake Superior for 42 miles. The 73,000-acre national lakeshore contains an impressive variety of striking features, including the “Pictured Rocks”—15 miles of richly colored sandstone cliffs that rise abruptly from the Big Lake.
Where to Start: Go big and tackle the 42.8-mile Lakeshore Trail or hike segments of it. Your best bet is to start from the west at Sand Point, location of the park headquarters, and head east. This 39.5-mile section skirts the lake for about four miles before coming upon the Pictured Rocks that gave the national lakeshore its name.
Backpacking Details: Hiking along the Pictured Rocks, you’ll often stand—but not too close—near the edge of 50- to 200-foot-high cliffs with dramatic vistas of the largest body of fresh water on the planet. Waves rolling in from the Big Lake crash and reverberate off the sheer walls, which have been sculpted by wind, ice, and pounding waves into caves, columns, arches, and great jutting headlands. To the Ojibway Native Americans who hunted these forests and fished these waters, the weather-worn cliffs were the dwelling places of the Gods of Thunder and Lightning. On a windy day, you’ll understand why. Thunderous claps and booms reverberate off the steadfast buttresses as swollen whitecaps slam against it.
Take time to enjoy what lies inland, too. There are lakes and streams, wispy waterfalls, and forests of hardwoods and conifers where you’ll find abundant wildlife—including the occasional black bear. The Pictured Rocks eventually trail off into the broad sand-and-pebble Twelvemile Beach, in the center of the park. After traversing the isolated beach, spend a night near the Grand Sable Dunes in the eastern section of the national lakeshore. Created by an exposed glacial deposit that extends five miles along the Superior shoreline, the shifting dunes rise 300 feet above the lake and cover an area of five square miles. End your journey at Grand Sable Visitor Center, on the outskirts of Grand Marais.
Day-Hiking Details: Be sure to dawdle a bit on Twelvemile Beach. It’s an ideal spot for a treasure hunt. As you prowl the beach, look for agates—lustrous, smooth pebbles with concentric rings. Also, give yourself plenty of time to explore the Grand Sable Dunes. The giant sandlot is ideal for romping.
Camping Details: Spaced every two to five miles along the trail are 12 hike-in campgrounds and seven group sites. Permits are required, and you can get them at visitor centers in Munising (year-round) and Grand Marais (from Memorial Day to Labor Day). But all backcountry campsites are available for advance reservations. The park also has three rustic drive-in campgrounds.
Aquatic Details: Beaver Lake, Little Beaver Lake, and Grand Sable Lake are favorites for kayakers and canoeists. Only very experienced paddlers should venture out on Lake Superior, which can be extremely rough and often unpredictable. If you choose to brave the challenge and plan to stay overnight, backcountry camping permits are required.
Of Interest: Lake Superior may seem benign on a calm day, but the shoreline between Munising and Grand Marais has been dubbed “the graveyard coast” because of the numerous ships that rest beneath the surface of the water here.
When to Go: Plan now! Late summer and autumn are ideal for a Pictured Rocks visit. People and bugs have all but disappeared, and fall colors are beginning or at their peak.
Local Wisdom: The proximity of Lake Superior moderates the climate, but sudden storms can develop year-round, and hypothermia is always a threat. Bring rain gear and layers of warm clothing. If you camp in late summer or fall, be sure to walk out to the lake before turning in at night. The open vista to the north often provides glorious views of the northern lights.
Did You Know?: That the Ojibway called the lake Gichigami, meaning “big water?” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the name as “Gitche Gumee” in the “Song of Hiawatha,” as did Gordon Lightfoot in his hit from the 1970s, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The first French explorers, approaching the great inland sea by way of the Ottawa River and Lake Huron during the 17th century, referred to their discovery as le lac superieur, which the English, upon taking control of the region in the 1760s, anglicized to Superior. And “superior” it most definitely is. The lake has a surface area of 31,700 square miles, which is approximately the size of South Carolina, and it contains enough water to cover the entire land mass of North and South America with one foot of water.
Getting There: Pictured Rocks can be reached at its western end by following highways M-28 and M-94 to Munising. State highway M-77 leads to Grand Marais on the east.
Resources: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, 906-387-3700, nps.gov/piro. Trail maps are available at both visitor centers. Hikers can take a shuttle bus to the starting point and hike back to their vehicle. For a schedule, reservations, fee information, and more, contact: 906-387-4845, altranbus.com/backpack.html.
An avid backpacker and paddler, LARRY RICE resides in Buena Vista, Colo., and is a former contributing editor for Backpacker and Canoe & Kayak magazines.