Planning a hike through the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore? Here is the definitive guide to everything you need to know! When to go? Where to start? What to bring? Read on to learn more about the 43 miles of lakeshore between Munising and Grand Marais Michigan. The lakeshore is home countless lakes, waterfalls, disjunct arctic species, spectacular sandstone cliffs, and, most importantly, a quiet foot trail through the wilderness.
When to go?
Here is a brief run down month by month.
1. May - A bit cold, wet trails most likely, probably some snow here and there. But not too many bugs AND very few people. You gotta be tough to go in May!
2. June - If there is a wind from the north off the lake the bugs will not be a problem usually, but when the wind calms down watch out for blackflies. They can turn a fun hike into a miserable situation quickly. I reserve June for quick day hikes with north winds.
3. July - some bugs early in the month but mid-July starts to get really nice.
4. August - definitely the best weather, few bugs and great temps. Last summer my son and I hiked in 65 degree temps and had no bugs and 4 days of sun. Perfect.
5. September - if your schedule allows, I think September might be the best hiking time but be prepared for cold temps!
6. October - only for the hardcore hikers, cold, rain, snow, but great colors and no people.
Where to start?
Personally I prefer to park at the west end of the trail system, just outside Grand Marais at the Grand Sable Visitor Center. Have the Alger County Bus pick you up and drop you back in Munising at the Munising Falls Visitor Center. The website for the Alger Bus system is http://www.altranbus.com/backpack.html -- The website says they'll only pick you up at certain times, but if you call and ask they'll usually pick you up whenever, wherever you want. By starting at the west end of the park you can get the toughest part of the hike done first when you're fresh. The eastern end of the park near Grand Marais is relatively flat and easy hiking. The toughest part of the trail is definitely the western half of the system.
What to bring?
1. LIGHTWEIGHT STUFF !!
2. Fleece, gore-tex rain gear.
3. Mosquito/Black Fly head net.
4. Food - I've done the trail in ONE day, two days, or four days, but be prepared with at least 4-5 days of food in case of injury, sickness, etc.
I like to eat like a KING when hiking, no skimping for me.
5. Here is a great link to an ultralight backpacking website with lists of important items to bring along for your trip. http://www.ultralightbackpacker.com/weekend.html
Be sure to secure a reservation with the NPS before your trip. Many of the popular campsites (Chapel and Mosquito) fill up early. The NPS website is www.nps.gov/piro and all the reservation information is there.
I am in the process of creating a detailed hiking itinerary with notable spots, campsite descriptions, campsite maps, trail maps with detailed viewing locations, water sources, and other minutiae that the discriminating hiker would like. contact me at my email kalember AT chartermi DOT net and I'll forward it to you.
HIKING STEP BY STEP
Arrive in Grand Marais early and take H-58 west out of town to the Grand Sable Visitor Center. Park your vehicle and go in to pick up your camping permit. Wait for the shuttle to pick you up and enjoy the ride over to Munising with the friendly driver. In 2008 the shuttle went back up to Seney and took the main highway over to Munising, but in 2009 they may take H-58's scenic, newly paved road over.
Upon arrival at the Munising Falls Visitor Center hit the bathrooms for one last stop at civilization and fill your water bottles!! You only need enough water to get you 7 miles over to Miners Castle where you can fill again. Before hitting the trail be sure to visit the waterfall here, a gorgeous 100 foot drop over a nice sandstone cliff down into an eroded bowl shaped valley. The ferns and mosses line the bowl and in the winter it is frozen into a giant icicle for the ice climbers. After your quick stop hit the trail.
Munising Falls to Miners Castle 7 miles
Just before the visitors center the trail begins at a signpost on your left.
Views of Lake Superior will be found through the trees occasionally and eventually you'll be at the top. About a 10 minute hike in and you'll come to the first of many waterfalls cascading off the top of the cliff. Be sure to stop and note the power of erosion in the canyons below. In July and August only a trickle of water is found in the small stream waterfalls, but in the spring the mad rushing torrent of 250-300 inches of snowfall melt is powerful. Continue along the cliffside lakeshore trail here, stopping at overlooks for a view of Grand Island and more of the big lake. About 3 miles in you'll come to a trail junction to Sand Point. The Sand Point trail goes left down a set of stairs down to Sand Point beach - voted as one of the top 5 beaches in the world by the Weather Channel. Its fun to go down the stairs to a small waterfall at this point. If its hot take a refreshing 50 degree shower in the shade. Back on the trail to Miner's Castle the trail gets a bit rooty, rocky and rough for a bit. Small springs here and there can create mud even in the relatively dry months of July and August.
About 2 miles past the Sand Point trail (5 miles from Munising Falls) you'll come to the Cliffs Group and Individual campsites. These sites have NO water available, so hopefully you packed some in from the start or filtered some at a small stream if you are camping here. In a pinch you could hike over to Miners Castle (only 2 more miles) for fresh well water.
The last two miles of the trail to Miners Castle goes through some lush hardwood forests with lots of shade and some planked trail that keeps your feet dry.
Exploring Miners Castle Area
The Miner's Castle area is a tourist attraction with paved road access, flush toilets, fresh well water, a small store, picnic area and huge parking lot. When you are hiking the trail you must stop here and go directly to the Castle overlook. This spot is one of the most photographed rock formations in the park. You'll see it on Michigan calendars and in all the park brochures. A small paved side trail leads down to another overlook much closer to the Castle. Stairs drop 200 feet down onto the rock formation and the side trip is worth the effort. On a clear, sunny, calm day you can often spot huge sturgeon or salmon swimming in the cold waters below. Kayakers also love this spot.
Miners Castle to Miners Beach
Follow the signs to get back onto the Lakeshore Trail at the east end of the Miner's Castle area. Here the trail will follow the top of the cliffs for a bit before dropping 250 feet down a steep hill to the Miners River. The trail snakes alongside the river here for 3/4 of a mile or so before coming out onto the beach area. The picture below is the Miner's River just before you come out to the beach area.
When you come to the foot bridge over the river you have two options. You can climb the stairs and go directly to the beach parking lot or you can stay to the left and follow the river out to where it empties into Lake Superior. I'd take option two if i were you! Here you will see many families and kids playing in the surf. Follow the river down to the lakshore, take your shoes off and do some wading. Ice cold water helps the swelling on your feet and is definitely refreshing. Walking through the sand isnt so fun, but if you follow the shoreline edge the walking is easier. Or, an alternative is to get up to treeline and get back on the trail.
The trail continues to be nice and flat here, right along the edge of the treeline until you get to the opposite end of Miners Beach. At the end of the trail is a small parking lot with a signpost pointing up a long, steep hill. BUT, before you climb the hill to Potato Patch campsite be sure to take one last trip down to the beach at the far east end of Miners Beach. Personally this is my favorite spot at Pictured Rocks. The sand is perfect, the point is amazing, the rock formations mesmerizing, and sunsets sublime. There is a small waterfall that offers distractions for the kids to play on while parents can relax in the sand. On a calm day you can wade along the edge of the rock formation to the point and climb the opposite side of it. If it is too wavy there is a very rough trail through the woods above the 30 foot high cliffs here out to the point. Worth the extra time to do it. The FIFTH picture up above at the top of the page is the Miners Beach spot I'm talking about.
After taking in this spot its time to climb again. Back up to the parking lot and up the hill. Fortunately, there are three rewards on the way up: thimbleberries, cliffs, and waterfalls. Keep an eye out for the bright red berries on the broad leaf green plant. Better than raspberries and even larger, this arctic disjuct is found all along Pictured Rocks. On the right as you climb the hill are the cliffs with ledges you can explore. And, on the left just short of the top of the hill is a rough trail off to the left. Follow it down and if you're lucky you'll be greeted to a tiny shower waterfall in a huge gorge. Good stuff. Back up to the top and turn right into Potato Patch campsite. This site is not very scenic but you can sneak down to the beach for sunsets.
Potato Patch/Miners Beach (east end) to Mosquito River
The trail from Potato Patch over to Mosquito is nearly 100% in the woods away from the cliffs. There will be many (like 30) small turnouts to the left on the trail which lead up to some great overlooks and you should, if you have time, take as many of them as possible. About 3 miles out you'll start a long gradual downhill to the river level, followed by some steep stairs, and finally the river. The little bridge crossing the river is a nice spot for a snack, but I'd cross the bridge and head right out to the lakeshore. There are some great spots in the sun, up on the rock formations for a picnic and the lakeshore water here is easily filtered for re-hydrating. The rock formation right at the mouth of the river has a nice cave in the front side of it and depending on how high the water is you might be able to just walk over to check it out or you might have to take your shoes off and wade. One particularly hot summer day, this cave provided a much needed break from the sun for my son and I.
Around the point from the rock formation is an amazing display of sedimentary rock. See the picture below. These layers were laid down about 1.4 million years ago as erosional forces washed over this location time and time again. Or, if you're not into science, just stand back and say "COOL !"
Mosquito to Chapel Beach -4.5 miles (of rough trail, but arguably the prettiest section of the entire lakeshore.)
As you leave the Mosquito area you have two options. I'd stay down along the lakeshore as much as possible around the point, following the waters edge. When you can't go any more because of the cliffs you can climb up to treeline and find the trail again. This requires a bit of scrambling and sure feet. If you don't like scrambling you can walk back to the Mosquito footbridge and find the trail easily. The campground here has several nice campsites and I'll soon draw up some maps of all of them to include here for you.
As you find the lakeshore trail, make sure its not accidently the trail up to the Chapel Parking Lot!! This trail leads away from the lakeshore and follows the river upstream for a bit. The lakeshore trail will be marked with signage and begin the climb up away from the campground in an easterly direction.
You will be climbing up from lake level (600 feet above sea level) to the top of the highest point of the cliffs in the next 2 miles - roughly 300 feet of elevation gain. It doesn't sound like a lot but if you have 50 pounds on your back and you're trying to step over a bunch of roots it can be tough. The last sight before you leave the Mosquito area is a rock formation called "Lovers Leap." Make a note of it as you skirt the narrow trail up the hill.
In about 20 minutes you'll come to some cleared areas that make look a little funny. The tops of many tress are snapped off and the whole forest character changes. This is the spot of a huge wind shear/downdraft or straight line winds which caused many trees to be snapped off about 5 years ago. There is another spot just like this another 20 minutes up the trail.
In this location the trail goes back and forth between cliff side views and deep forest hiking. After about an hour though you'll come to the best viewing location in the entire lakeshore - Grand Portal Point. If you are coming in from Mosquito you'll come out onto a large sandy clearing, and hike across it to the Point. This is a great area to relax, have a snack and take some pictures.
The picture below is Grand Portal point from a distance before you arrive.
After a good long lunch snack at Grand Portal you will continue right along the edge of the cliffs for another 1.5 miles. Eventually you will come to a point where you can see Chapel Beach in the trees to the east. At this point you will come to an abrupt downhill to the beach area and the campsites at Chapel Beach. This campground is one of the most frequently visited on the entire lakeshore (with the exception of the drive-in campgrounds). Be sure you have your reservations in order. If you are coming in from the west (munising side) you will hit the campsites about half way across the beach area. The campsites continue all the way over to the edge of the Chapel River. This is my favorite site - right along a hill on the side of the river. You are protected from the wind here, but you can still hear the Chapel River babbling all night long. After you set up camp and eat a nice dinner be sure to go out exploring. Everyone's obvious choice is to check out Chapel Rock. This site of probably the second most photographed area of the entire lakeshore after Miner's Castle. The rock formation was attached to the cliffs next to it back in the 1940's but a collapse of this rock bridge has left a rock "pedestal" with a huge white pine tree on it. This is truly a unique and beautiful spot.
The waterfall from the Chapel River also is a nice spot to play around in. It cascades over a nice sandstone rock ledge over a 20 foot drop down to the sand beach.
One other highlight of this area is a hidden cove along the lakeshore back where you came down the huge hill to the lake level. If you return to the west where you came from watch for a hidden trail to your right about halfway up the ridge. Follow it and you'll be rewarded with a beautiful hidden cove. When I figure out how to post maps here, I'll put one up of this spot because its worth it. If you happen to take then Munising boat tour of Pictured Rocks they always try to pull into this cove to give you an up close and personal view of the cliffs.
CHAPEL BEACH AREA
The Chapel Beach area is beautiful. It's a short 2.5 mile walk from the Chapel parking lot accessed from the Melstrand (small town) area and a common day trip for many beach seeking groups. The tree pictured above is the highlight for many, but the falls, rocks and hidden coves are also worth a look. Take your time and explore.
Chapel Area to Spray Falls
The Chapel area to Spray Falls is a simple single track trail that goes back away from the lakeshore cliffs for a bit until you hit the falls. When you arrive at a simple bridge over the small river (about 1.5 miles hike from the Chapel area) you can take a rough trail along the river to the edge of the falls. From this vantage point you cannot really get a perspective on how far the water is truly falling. If you are lucky some kayakers will be down below and this gives you soem perspective. If not, hike on past the falls about a half mile to a nice viewing area and you will be able to look back west towards the falls for a nice picture. The SECOND picture up above at the top of the page is Spray Falls plummeting over the cliffs.
Spray Falls to Coves
The hike from Spray Falls to Coves is relatively uneventful. Towards the end of this 2 mile section you will go back away from the cliff's edge through the dense hardwood forest and eventually begin descdending down to the Lake Superior level. The descent is fairly gradual and non-technical and a nice change of pace from the flat ground you've been on. Just before Coves campground area are some interesting rock formations in the woods. These formations are simply the same Pictured Rocks cliffs away from the lakeshore, complete with caves erosion and exposed sandstone. Its a fun diversion to explore before you arrive at the campground.
Coves also marks an interesting geological change from sedimentary rock to beach. You have been hiking ON the cliffs for about 25 miles and now the cliffs will be inland a few hundred yards from you for the next 10 miles or so. The sandy trail is a bit more difficult to hike for the next 10+, but nothing seriously tough.
Coves to Twelve Mile Beach
This sandy section of the trail is a nice change of pace. You are within a stone's throw of the water (makes filtering water easier) and can get a nice breeze off the lake since you are so much closer to it. As you hike this section be on the lookout for BLUEBERRIES (especially in August). On my last hike I picked at least 3 cups of them and it made for the best pancakes ever invented. The highlight of this section, for me, is the bridge at Beaver Lake outlet. Here, there is a wooden bridge crossing the river and a huge accumulation of logs in the river. Great pictures on the bridge.
On to Sevenmile Creek
The hike from Beaver Lake outlet follows the sandy ridge up 100 yards or so from the lake like this.
Sevenmile Creek to Twelve Mile Beach
This section of trail begins at an awesome little creek to take an afternoon break. The Sevenmile campground is on the west side of the river and has a nice communal fire ring just off the trail. Walk another 20 yards and you're on the bridge. Last summer it was calm and peaceful snacking on a lunch here while 30 mph winds raged just 100 yards away on the lakeshore. Just past the bridge (on the east side) is a side trail leading down to the lakeshore. Here is our lunch on the bridge.
Next stop Twelvemile
Twelvemile beach campground is like returning to civilization. The 3 mile hike is flat and fairly fast. As you enter the campground you'll hear the sounds of a reality returning. Kids on bikes, large motor homes with generators, people grilling out, etc. At first I was a bit miffed that I was here for a backcountry experience and these people intruded but quickly got over it when I used the nice bathrooms and got fresh well water without filtering. As you walk through the campground people will see you with your pack on and it gives you a feeling of pride knowing you got there on leg power instead of driving your motor home in.
Hurricane River is a short 1-2 mile trail section past Twelvemile Beach. It climbs up into the intererior and some nice old growth timber with huge hemlocks and virgin timber. This is a new section of the trail added only 6-7 years ago. The river (actually pretty large in the spring during snowmelt time.) is medium in size and a pretty spot. Motor homes and cars have access here via H-58 so be prepared for the same scene as Twelvemile beach campground.
The Ausable Lighthouse is situated at the point just before the Ausable dunes. An easy road walk takes you past an old shipwreck site and its an easy one mile section. At the lighthouse you can get a tour and actually climb the light tower with a guide.
Guided ToursVisitors to the Au Sable Light Station may enjoy the grounds year-round at no charge. From July 1 to Labor Day, a $3 fee (cash) is charged for a ranger-led tour of the double keepers quarters and light tower. The half-hour tour begins at the porch.
On to the DUNES
As you round the corner past the lighthouse you'll get your first glimpse of the Ausable Dunes. Ausable East campground is also just up the trail. The trail follows the lakeshore here with more rocky outcroppings then goes inland to climb up to the top of the "perch dune" system. The hill you climb is a tough one and you'll be glad you've eaten up the majority of your food at this point.
At the top west end of the dunes is Log Slide. This site may be the second most photographed location in the park (after Miner's Castle) because it has car access via H-58.
Log Slide to Grand Sable Lake
The trail here follows the back side of the dune system for 5 or so miles to Grand Sable Lake. It is an easy hike with no big climbs and follows and old two track road. You will cross H-58 and eventually skirt the edge of the lake and come out at a road side park. Unless you can walk on water, you'll have to follow the road (nice paved) around to the east side parking lot and re-enter the woods for the last 1.5 miles to the Grand Marais Visitor Center.
Your trek is complete...
Once you've reached the visitor center here you can use the bathrooms for a quick sink shower before you head into town. Of course no trip to this area is complete without a visit to the Lake Superior Brewing Company (Dunes Saloon) in Grand Marais for a meal and a cold drink. The pub was made famous by local author Jim Harrison who set many of his novellas in this exact place.
Do you want more information? This summer (2009) I plan on putting together individual maps of campsites along the lakeshore. When I arrive at a campground I like to find the BEST campsite and after hiking 6-12 miles I don't really like to go looking around the entire campground for the best one. My maps will help you out in this situation.
Maps and Mileages?
http://www.nps.gov/piro click "VIEW MAP" for a nice quick version or ..
this link has EVERYTHING extra you need - maps, mileages, etc
This link contains some of the best FALL pics of Pictured Rocks I've ever seen.