Two Days at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
One of my 2020 bucket list items was to visit a national park and a new state. I certainly won’t accomplish most of my 2020 bucket list due to Covid-19. Although there are many things I can’t do this year, I thought that one small thing I could do is visited Pictured Rock National Lakeshore in Michigan. Michigan is not a “new” state on my list of states, but it is “new” for 2020. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is operated by the National Park Service, so, it is a part of the national park system even if it is not one of the 62 designed national parks. Pictured Rocks is one of only three National Lakeshores, which makes it special, even if it isn’t a national park. The rocks get their name from the minerals such as iron, copper, and manganese in the groundwater that have dripped down the rock face. Located only five and a half hours from Duluth, it made for the perfect quick getaway. The following are some highlights of my two day visit.
This was my favorite part of the trip. It was a ten mile loop of trail which followed the cliffs of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, while weaving through the forests as well. The trails were very muddy in many areas, which made the hiking slow and added more distance as muddy areas often had to be circumvented. The trail brings hikers past Chapel Falls to Chapel Rock. Chapel Rock is an interesting looking sandstone formation. The outcropping is straddled by the roots of a large white pine. Near Chapel Rock is Chapel Beach. This is the part of the trail which marks the beginning of following the Pictured Rocks cliffs. The trail offers stunning views of Lake Superior and the cliffs. By the end of the hike, I felt worn out, but accomplished!
Pictured Rocks Boat Tour:
A less arduous way to see the Pictured Rocks is with a boat tour. Boat tours are very popular and were booked until the late afternoon on the second day of the trip. I had also tried to book a shipwreck themed glass bottom boat tour, but these were booked for both days. I managed to snag a 3pm boat tour for the Pictured Rock boat. The boat tour costs $38 and lasted about two and a half hours. Due to Covid-19, the occupancy of the boat is half of what is typical and everyone was required to wear a mask. There are two seating levels, so for the most part, people could space out. There was some crowding in the line and when it started to rain, which sent upstairs passengers to the bottom of the boat. The great thing about doing the boat tour after the hike was that it is an opportunity to see the places you’ve been! It also is was an opportunity to see some of the landmarks that I did not have time to visit, such as Miner’s Castle and Miner’s Beach. The boat tour also offers views of Grand Island, including the Grand Island East Channel Light. The gray wooden lighthouse began operations in 1868. The boat tour is a leisurely way to soak in the astonishing cliffs and learn more about their history. The boat was very stable, so there seemed to be little risk of seasickness.
Grand Sable Dunes:
Grand Sable Dunes are located about an hour away from Munising, Michigan. The dunes are located on the far east end of the Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore. Whereas Pictured Rocks is most famous for its fifteen miles of colorful cliffs, it also has a five stretch of impressive dunes called Grand Sable Dunes. The tallest of the dunes is 275 feet above the lake. A short, quarter mile long trail takes visitors to the dunes. I expected a sprawling, Sahara like landscape. Instead, the trail ended with a few dunes which could be climbed and a view of other dunes which was partially obscured by jack pines. It was hard to appreciate the size and expanse of dunes from that vantage point. The Log Slide offers a better overview of the dune landscape. Although the view does not offer a full account of the landscape, it is a first hand experience to hike up some smaller dunes. I think my visit to Grand Sable Dunes was another example of my imagination imposing unrealistic expectations upon reality. To be fair, my imagination has been informed by dunes in Namibia, including a hike up Dune 45 and an attempt to hike up Big Daddy (ran out of time…and it was hot). The Grand Sable Dunes are an example of perched dunes, or dunes which occur on cliffs. They were formed when sand was blown up and deposited upon a glacial moraine. According to the National Park Service, Ojibwe called the dunes Gitchi Nagow or Great Sands, and used them for religious fasting. I know next to nothing about dune ecosystems, but the Grand Sable Dunes is orchid rich and home to some unique plant species. I didn’t know that the dunes were home to rare orchids! The only noteworthy plant that I saw during my hike was a gauntlet of poison ivy. Grand Sable Dunes is definitely worth a visit!
Grand Sable Waterfall:
There are dozens of waterfalls to visit in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the surrounding area. But with only two days to take in the sights of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, there wasn’t time to visit many. One very easy to visit waterfall is Grand Sable Waterfall. It is located right by the Grand Sable Dunes, making it easy to visit both at the same time. There are several viewing platforms from which visitors can view the 75 foot falls. There are 168 steps on the stairs that lead to the lowest viewing platform.
Log Slide Overlook:
The Log Slide Overlook is located about five miles west of Grand Sable Dunes. The overlook was used to roll logs down the dune into Lake Superior, hence the name. A short trail (.25 miles round trip) leads visitors to the overlook. The overlook is 175 feet above Lake Superior and offers views of the perched dune landscape as well as Au Sable Lighthouse in the distance. Visitors can hike down the side of the dune, but this is a steep five minute journey down and a long, grueling, sandy hike back up. There have been emergencies wherein tourists who could not make it back up the steep dune and had to be rescued. I was not inclined to tackle the sandy incline and enjoyed the views from above.
This is close to Grand Sable Dunes on the other side of the highway. There isn’t much to say about this stop, but that it only takes a minute or two to pull off and visit the lake. There was a small bear near the lake when I stopped there.
Since Grand Sable Dunes are only a mile away from Grand Marais, there is no reason not to stop by this small town at the far east end of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. There are a few attractions in the town, such as the Pickle Barrel House, which is a barrel shaped house on the National Register of Historic Places. There is a museum inside of the house, but it was closed due to Covid-19. Another attraction is the Gitchi Gummee Agate Museum. This had limited due to Covid-19, with evening hours on the day that I visited. There is also a memorial monument to commercial fishers, Lighthouse Keeper’s House Museum, and Old Post Office Museum. I did not visit any of these museums. However, I made a brief visit to the public beach near the Lighthouse Keeper’s Museum, where visitors can view again the dune landscape. The area is also a breeding ground for rare Piping Plovers.
Although this is not part of the Pictured Rocks, Christmas is an unusual stop right outside of Munising, Michigan. The tiny town is definitely past its heyday, but tourists can still stop to take a photo of a giant Santa sign or the giant Santa outside of a casino. There is also a motel called the Christmas Motel and several streets with Christmas themed names.
Overall, I had a good but brief visit to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. If I visited again, I would like to do more hiking and see a few more waterfalls. I also wouldn’t mind going on the shipwreck tour and perhaps trying kayaking (I am not sure if I am confident enough to kayak on Lake Superior.) Otherwise, I felt that I made pretty good use of my time. It is a popular tourist destination, so there were many people around. The trails allowed enough area for social distancing and the tourist were less plentiful closer to Grand Marais. That seemed to be a quieter end of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. With plenty of things to do and see, it was definitely worth the visit!