Touring Grand Island to Miners Beach at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore:
A two-for-one buffet of some of the prettiest paddling anywhere in the Upper Midwest, this double-feature starring Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan offers kayakers an exquisite taste of Grand Island and an overlooked section of Pictured Rocks – all without having to shuttle. Rugged cliffs, picturesque rock walls, caves, arches, waterfalls – this trip’s got ‘em all! The only caveats are two open-passages across Lake Superior (one of which is three miles long) and of course needing the proper boats, gear, gumption, skills, and knowledge. Got those and not a lot of wind, you’ll have a grand time indeed!
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: June 9, 2023
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Great Lakes Paddling
Lake Superior disclaimer: We like to be silly on Miles Paddled and have a good time on the water (as well as telling bad dad jokes about our time on the water afterward). But kayaking on the largest freshwater lake on Planet Earth is no joke and not to be taken lightly. If you are considering paddling any measurable stretch of the shoreline point-to-point, whether that’s solely along the mainland or from the mainland to the island and back, there are several bare necessities to procure and keep in mind before you loosen your tie-down straps in a parking lot. Among these needs are having the right boat and clothing, and possessing the skills for sea kayaking – up to and including rescue/wet re-entry – as well as a general awareness of the weather (mainly wind) and its unpredictable mood swings. The water temperature is always frigid, and the lake gets choppy at 10 mph. If you have any questions, feel free to ask us. If you’re in doubt, pay the peace of mind by paddling with an outfitter.
Put-In + Take-Out:
Sand Point Beach, Munising, Michigan
GPS: 46.44873, -86.60704
Time: Put in at 11:45a. Out at 5:45p.
Total Time: 6h
Miles Paddled: 13
Scores of cormorants, mergansers, loons, and gulls.
Sometimes you order only an appetizer, thinking that’s all you have an appetite for, but the chef adds a little something-something on the side – lagniappe just because. Other times you order more than you can afford, your eyes and curiosity bigger than and getting the better of your tummy. Modern life being the complex recipe it is, most of the time both are at play, a singular activity that splits the bill in such a way that one is richly satiated like a king, the other sick as a dog and holding the bag.
Originally, this was supposed to have been an 8 or 9-mile trip: a quick zip across the open channel of Lake Superior from the mainland to Grand Island to explore the southeastern shores and cliffs of the latter, reach an apogee to beach for lunch, then turn back around second verse same as the first, just in reverse. But then I got greedy. And maudlin. So, instead of simply turning around and heading back from whence we came, we doubled – actually, tripled – down on open-passage paddling across the big, wide brow of Lake Superior to partake in some of the majestic splendor that is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. But in doing so, my girlfriend felt motion sickness, so we made an emergency landing on Miners Beach for her to be off the rollicking water and on terra firma. Fine, but our car was far, far away – 4.5 miles as the cormorant flies, or a staggering 13 miles by road. (As we’ve pointed out on this website before, Pictured Rocks is an absolutely gorgeous place and a must-do kind of Mecca for Midwest paddling, but it’s a logistical conundrum with lake-access roads literally few and far between.)
We were out paddling on a Friday, after having first arrived at Pictured Rocks five days earlier, and this was our last day before venturing back home. Our first day of play and exploration, coincidentally, was at Miners Beach-Miners Castle-Miners Falls (you might say the secret ingredient is… never mind), and that’s where the maudlin part came in: I, being the introspective, incessantly conceptual, narrative-obsessed sentimentalist that I am, reasoned that it would be a perfect full-circle to revisit the place where our vacation had begun, but also paddle past the eponymous rocks on our way back to Sand Point Beach and our car. Between her not having been to Pictured Rocks before and it being a bit of a drive away, I ordered up.
Alas, that ended up being a kind of comeuppance – one mercilessly meted out on my girlfriend, not me. And just as success is the best revenge, then my high-tailed solo-paddling 4.5 miles past stunning rock formations, cliffs, colors, contours, and waterfalls, in a dazzling blaze to get back to the car as fast as possible and hot-foot it back to Miners Beach to rescue my stranded girlfriend was poignant punishment for my Icarus-esque decision on the fly to change our trip’s itinerary. Mea culpa.
But enough about me. Let’s talk landscape. Grand Island is exactly that: grand. Grand in its scale and scope (comprising some 13,500 acres and nearly 30 miles of shoreline), and grand in its beauty (featuring/showcasing 200′-tall cliffs, coves, caves, beaches, arches, and waterfalls). For context’s sake, Grand Island possesses approximately as many square miles as Manhattan. There are primitive campsites circumscribing the island, not to mention a ton of trails, two lighthouses, and its own interior lake – plenty to encompass several days worth exploring. Indeed, to do a proper circumnavigation of the island would require 3-5 days (gotta plan in cushion time in case conditions on the lake prohibit paddling, which does often happen). In many ways, it’s a microcosm of Pictured Rocks itself. And while it is veritably identical in terms of geological grandeur, this huge island is not technically a part of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Instead, it’s a feature of the Hiawatha National Forest. What’s that, you ask – semantics for limnologists and civil servants? Perhaps, but I feel obliged to point out the distinction.
Also, should you plan on camping there, it would require a separate permit/reservation, since it’s a separate jurisdiction from the national lakeshore.
At its closest pinch it’s only half a mile away from the mainland – 2.5 miles north of downtown Munising – with a ferry that jogs across the bay. Kayakers can begin their excursion there, but for the stretch of the huge island we wanted to check out, this didn’t make much sense, as it would have tacked on several miles of more or less monotonous paddling. Instead, we launched from Sand Point Beach – 3.5 miles northeast of downtown Munising – which made for a simple one-mile jaunt over open water and a straight shot to the good stuff. It’s also worth mentioning that this enormous island has an unusual shoreline of its own, with a kind of anchor-shaped tail grafted on its southeastern side that, were it an island unto itself, would be over 9 miles in circumference. The east- and north-facing sides of this “tail” feature some of the best cliffs and caves anywhere on Grand Island. And this “tail” creates a huge harbor called Trout Bay, a safe oasis if conditions get rough. Since this stretch is nearest Sand Point Beach on the mainland, it made sense to launch here.
Since this is not a review of Grand Island itself – more like ordering happy hour appetizers, saving a full entrée for another time – I won’t go into all its aspects. But suffice it to say that the island is not uniform in its features; some sections are showier than others. (If you’re curious, this is a nice summary from the paddler’s perspective.) Moreover, the western and northern sides of the island are typically more wind-prone than the east and south, and when there’s wind there are waves. (Again, typically; not always. Anyone truly interested in circumnavigating Grand Island is strongly encouraged to get right-acquainted with maps, have the right gear – including a weather radio – and be as obsessed with the forecast as sports analysts diving into team injury reports before making their over-under predictions come game day.)
And then there’s the shoreline along Pictured Rocks, beckoning you thither like a siren’s song, a comely mirage wavering in the background. How does a paddler just pass that up? It would be like not taking an exit for a national park while driving on the highway. But be mindful of how far away the park is from the interstate…
In terms of popularity and hoi polloi appeal, Pictured Rocks is a victim of its own success. (But so too are our national parks.) We’re a social species, the more so aided and abetted by social media acting as a kind of hyper-caffeinated, highly combustible conduit between personal experience and mass broadcast. (The irony of expressing this on MilesPaddled.com is not lost on me. As H.L. Mencken famously quipped “All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.”) Despite the throngs and occasional congestion, Pictured Rocks is still a bucket-list trip for any paddler; it just is that exquisite, unique, and astonishing, truly. You’ll simply have a whole lot of company while taking it all in. The notable exception to this rule is the 4.5-mile stretch in between Sand Point Beach and Miners Beach. Consider it an opening band, a warmer or primer. But it truly is no less spectacular than the more popular segments at Pictured Rocks: Miners Beach to Mosquito Beach or Chapel Beach. Those two segments feature the best hits, whereas Sand Point to Miners is more like a classic album with a few choice hits and a lot of cool deep cuts.
Because this single trip constitutes two different stretches, I’m going to separate them as follows: Sand Beach to Grand Island, and Miners Beach to Sand Beach.
Sand Point Beach can be described as easy to get to but hard to find. Well, not really “hard,” but it is tucked away and not something you’d ever just happen upon without intentionally seeking it out. Start in Munising, the main town outside of Pictured Rocks, and head northeast first on H-58 and then turn on Washington Street past the hospital and visitor center and finally onto Sand Point Road. It’s a beach, so you can launch from wherever is closest to wherever you park your vehicle. Look across the bay and mark a reckoning for the wooden lighthouse on Grand Island; that’s the surest path you’ll want to take – just be on the lookout for boats with engines big and small, as they’re all squeezing between the island and the mainland to get to the namesake rock formations. The East Channel lighthouse is very cool – how many wooden lighthouses with cedar shingles do you ever see? (Not enough, short answer.) The views of Munising and the rugged landscape of rolling hills perforated by waterfalls are pretty cool, too.
No trip on or about Lake Superior would be complete without mentioning the astonishing hues of the water itself – from crystal clear in the shallows to a surreal swirl of jade green, aquamarine, teal, and turquoise where it gets deeper. They’re truly hypnotic, the more so when the eye takes in the stunning boulders, shoals, and whole rock shelves lying like leviathans beneath your boat. These in turn add their own contours of light and dark, an underwater topography of shades and shadows, depending on their sheer size and depth below the surface. The gravitas of where you are is in every sense of the term awesome. After all, Lake Superior itself is like the Guernica or Sistine Chapel of the Ice Ages.
Past the rustic lighthouse, moving northeast, the cobble-strewn shore gets vertical, and Lake Superior’s brownstone-esque sandstone walls (technically called Jacobsville, fun fact) start to firm up, straighten out, and skyward rise. From 10’ to 50′ to 100′ tall – further up the shoreline on the east and north sides of the island the cliffs rise as tall as 200’ above the water – the bold and bald-faced edifices tower above you, drawing you hither, reducing you to an awestruck speck. A cross between a box of chocolates, caramel, and marbled bronze, the rocks get gorgeous real fast. Contrasting with the fiery frieze of green leaves, moss, and algae, and the jade-to-emerald spools of water hues, the red and brown of the sandstone invokes tones of synesthetic splendor. Think Fauvism meets Abstract Expressionism.
Think of each cliff as a painter’s palette. The color streaks you see come not from squeezed tubes of paint, of course, but rather minerals in the sandstone that ooze out just the same: the reds and oranges brought to you by wrought iron; the blues and greens come courtesy of copper; the whites wrung out by limonite (whatever that is); and the blacks backed by manganese (a great Scrabble word if there ever was). But it’s not just the spectacular palettes that bedazzle. The cliff faces erode most at the water’s level and then bevel upward such that there’s usually an overhang slant to them. Together with the Tyvek-like wrap-around curvature bend after bend, the whole effect while seated in your kayak and looking out and up is a visual surround almost like an amphitheatre. Think Dolby meets Phil Spector – but for your eyes.
And it’s not just the angles that ogle; for many of these slick-faced cliffs glisten with weeping seeps – some a trickle of water percolating through the porous rock, others a veritable faucet-like showerhead raining down from a hundred feet above. Believe you me: those claps of water come down cold and hard! But when else can you get voluntarily pelted like that while in a boat? (Again, not often enough.) Even though Lake Superior is quintessential northcountry, it possesses passing phases and moments such as these that invoke a sense of the tropics – the colors and scale, the unabashed beauty and bounty. The feeling is truly otherworldly.
From the lighthouse to the tip of the anchor-shaped “tail” is only three miles. At approximately the 2/3 mark, the cliffs recede some in height but concede to arches and caves, a pretty neat magic trick. Here, our artist has changed media from gentle strokes of color onto canvas to a kind of benign violence with raw material: sculpted brutally by rough-hewn hands of wave and wind, and cycles of freeze and thaw, the results are masterful nonetheless. Playing the long game where centuries tick off like seconds and millennia, minutes, the shoreline here has borne the brunt of Pentecostal elements. No, the arches here won’t be the same as those depicted on tourism billboards, and the caves are more like ceilings and overhangs than intricate tunnel systems. As Chuck D said of Elvis, “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.” But Grand Island provides these unique features in miniature form – at least this side of the island – all while inviting visitors of a different cloth, those seeking their own experience without it being narrated by tour guides (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
At long last (even though it’s only three miles) you’ll arrive at the tip of Trout Point, around which lie the calm waters of Trout Bay, one of the few genuine oases on Grand Island. There’s a mile-long beach at the base of the bay – but it’s 1.75 miles of lake water to paddle to get there from the Point. There are other accessible sections of the shore – mostly cobble-strewn or a mix of sand and rocks – to take a break, stretch, have a snack. Past the Point are the first of a couple designated camp spots, if you’re looking for a multiday trip. Paddlers do have a dilemma here at Trout Point:
1: Take a break but then turn around
2: Book it across the bay to the stunning 200’-tall cliffs (requiring an additional 3ish miles there and back)
3: Or soak in the sights on the way to the pretty beach
We did a combo of option 1 and 3, having first taken a break at the Point and then sauntered some on the bayside to appreciate the almost ridiculous splendor of another amphitheatre-like wrap-around of cliffs 100+ feet tall before turning around.
And then we went off-script. Instead of simply backtracking and taking in the sights now on the right-hand side while paddling south, we high-tailed it east as the cormorant flies to the protrusion of Miners Castle on the mainland three miles away. On the plus side, the lake was flat-calm, so there was next to no risk doing this. But the proximity of Miners Castle was deceiving; I didn’t actually know it would be a three-mile open crossing or that it would take about an hour to paddle across. The upshot was my girlfriend, prone to motion sickness, got sick of all the motion. (Note to self: it’s not just the issue of rollicking; it’s the lack of solid land or a fixed object on which prize to keep one’s eyes that induces the spins. My bad.) Needless to say, if this is an issue for you or your crew, skip this part of the trip and just stick to Grand Island!Zeal, greed, and ambition aside, there are some spectacular features on the mainland and compelling reasons to paddle along the shoreline from Miners down to Sand Point. For one, you’ll have this stretch of lakeshore all to yourself, as it’s undersung and overlooked. Search “Pictured Rocks kayak” and you’ll be hard-pressed to find info about Sand Point Beach or the shoreline from there to Miners Beach. Why? Because it’s arguably less astounding than the stretch from Miners Beach to the next access points (Mosquito Beach and Chapel Beach, northeast). The omission is understandable, for the bias of starting at Miners and paddling up to at least Mosquito is based on the basic reality that the “rocks” here are at their most picturesque. But that does not mean that the section between Sand Point and Miners is drab or humdrum. Far from it: it’s stunning as well. Think of the best George Harrison songs with The Beatles – “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Amazing material and iconic music in and of itself (or within you without you) that is beyond the long shadow cast by the mighty mountain of Lennon and McCartney.
In between Miners Beach and Castle alone are mini-caves, uniquely scalloped rock shelves, and quintessential mascara-run mineral streaks. One of the highlights here is Miners Castle, an eroded promontory that with a modicum of imagination might resemble a crenellated tower. Hugging the shoreline here is a viewing platform set back to the southwest. The overlook is perched at a point much taller than the craggy spire itself. This is a popular tourist spot. Past it, however, is a veritable no-man’s-land all the way to Sand Point Beach, a stretch of roughly four miles. Here, it’s nothing but 200’-tall cliffs, mineral streaks, and waterfall seeps. Allow me to repeat that: ahem… For. Four. Miles! And allow me to repeat that almost no one paddles this stretch, so you will have it all virtually to yourself. You’ll still need to be vigilant of wake-made waves from boats big and small, as this is still the channel from Munising – and this means waves coming at you left and right, rebounded off the rock walls (aka clapotis waves). There is nothing but tall vertical walls until you’re close to Sand Point, so there is an intrinsic risk here, as elsewhere along the Pictured Rocks lakeshore. But generally speaking, this is a quiet, secluded stretch. And it does feature some truly fabulous aspects found nowhere else, together with a genuinely rugged, wilderness-esque feel.
Here, for me the soundtrack was Angel Olsen and her song “Big Time.” I had never paddled this part of Pictured Rocks, and while I still felt like a total jackass for making my girlfriend sick and stranding her at Miners Beach so that I could paddle back to the car like an Olympic rower and drive to Miners to pick her up, I kept hearing the lines “I’m losing, I’ve left it behind/ Guess I had to be losing to get here on time.” The shoreline will taper in prominence, but continue to be wild. Some of the best waterfalls are found here, slickly spilling off the sandstone face, pouring out from some unknown source in the forest. Think of them as perfect complements like a small dessert and coffee after your main meal. Sandstone will turn to sand and soon enough you’ll round the “point” to the official beach and where you first launched from. It’s always nice to not have to shuttle.
What we liked:
While we paddled past only 10 percent of Grand Island, we saw some of its best (re: grandest) features. Based on my pre-trip geekery, I knew it would be good and plenty pretty, but the reality of it surpassed my expectations. “I’m living, I’m loving, I’ve loved long before/ I’m loving you big time, I’m loving you more.” The scale and scope of its shoreline alone is truly extraordinary. Readers of this blog will not be surprised when I say that we’re awfully fond of the paths less taken, but Grand Island is hardly a B-side; it’s a platinum album all its own with a ton of hits. Combining it with an alternatively stunning section of Pictured Rocks is a best of both worlds – like seeing your favorite band perform a double set of acoustic and full-on rock.
What we didn’t like:
Obviously, my beloved getting motion sickness. That sucked. Otherwise, this trip was heavenly.
If we did this trip again:
The only thing we’d do differently is pack Dramamine. Leaving that aside, more sensible paddlers may just wish to stick to Grand Island and back for one trip, Miners Beach and back for another.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore I: Touring Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
General: Grand Island National Recreation Area
General: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Maps: National Parks Service info
Outfitter: Superior Kayaking Company
Wikipedia: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore