Updated: Dec 7, 2018
Nestled along the southern coast of Lake Superior and between the wild forests of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a gem of the north for locals and visitors alike. A well known hub for camping, hiking and watersports among “yoopers” of Michigan, it is a lesser known destination for out-of-towners. Before I started dating a northern Wisconsinite, I myself had never heard of Pictured Rocks. My first trip to the National Lakeshore was during the third week of September, when the weather began to cool and the leaves had just barely began to turn.
Our camping spot at Little Beaver Lake, a small campground, situated down a narrow dirt road where large RV’s cannot go, was an enjoyable isolated respite. Depending on the weather and time of year, this northern park boasts some of the quietest and less crowded experiences around, generating nowhere near the crowd volume as places like Acadia, Yellowstone or Zion.
The highlight of our trip, and what I had most been looking forward to, was the 10.4 mile loop hike of the lakeshore Chapel Rock area. On our second day, we drove to the Chapel Basin Parking Lot to begin our day trek. The trail head begins at an intersection where hikers can choose left toward Mosquito Falls or right toward Chapel Falls. The forested trail leads to a nice viewpoint of Chapel Falls, a 60 foot tall waterfall, southeast of Chapel Lake, running off of Section Thirtyfour Creek. The trail then leads to the shoreline and Chapel Rock, one of the premier sights along this trail. Indeed, when we emerged from the forest, the viewing of the rock was a spectacular greeting to the lakeshore. This is where the trail intersects with the Lakeshore North Country Trail, and is also the heart and middle of the parks shoreline. Right takes hikers farther east toward the sand dunes of Grand Marais and left follows the predetermined loop west along the most revered part of the shoreline. Chapel Rock leads to Chapel Beach and the beginnings of stunning views of rocky cliffs, arch formations, cliff beaches and caverns. The winds were moderate on an overcast, cool day and the waves choppy as they slammed into the sandstone.
Just off the trail from Chapel Beach is the campground, a nice respite for hikers conquering the entirety of the Lakeshore North Country Trail, a 42 mile backpacking adventure. There is a trail here that leads back to the parking area as well for those who would like to cut their trek short. Following along the cliffs leads to Grand Portal Point, a splendid cliff beach with a view of infinite, deep cerulean water and smooth layers of sandstone.
A nice but distant view of Lover’s Leap arch can be spotted just before heading toward Mosquito Campground. Wooden steps built into the sand lead to Mosquito Beach. This is where the loop will begin leading back into the forest to a nice viewing of Spectacle Falls and finally, little Mosquito Falls, both runoffs of Mosquito River. Tree lovers will be happy here as the forest consists of several species of birch, pine, hemlock and maple. There are a few small hills during this section of trail, and after hiking for 9+ miles, the forest can feel infinite.
Clocking in a just over 10 miles, this day hike is a must-do for avid hikers and an easy to moderate hike for beginners or those not wanting to do the full loop by way of cutoffs. A way to fully appreciate the wide expanse of the largest freshwater lake in North America, this beautiful hike is an unforgettable experience. Next time, exploring the sandstone arches and caves from the water will be a must.
Tips for safe and happy hiking in Pictured Rocks: Because of the lake effects, weather changes can be extreme and sudden. The weather is often overcast, windy and chilly, pack layers and wind and water resistant clothing. As the terrain is not mountainous or rocky, good hiking shoes or even athletic sneakers are fine, though you may want waterproof shoes. High protein foods and energy snacks, water, a filtration system, headlamp, knife, first aid kit, pack out trash bag are musts. Bring gloves, a warm hat, warm socks, an extra pair of socks and a headband or neck gaiter for warmth and wind resistance. Bring you charged up phone for GPS function and for pictures, but heed warnings that your cell service will not work nearly anywhere in the park. It is isolated up there. Bring a buddy and tell someone where you will be going and when you expect to be back. If the weather turns bad, seek shelter ASAP or turn around and head back inland if it is safe to do so. Avoid being on exposed cliffs or beaches during storms. Most importantly, have fun! Enjoy it while you can, take it all in, not everyone will get to experience it.