Touring Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore:
A sea kayaking experience that’s truly a must-do for just about any paddler, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is an exquisite area of rugged beauty with sheer sandstone cliffs 200′ high streaked with colorful mineral deposits for miles on end, some with huge arches, quaint coves, nook-and-cranny caves and massive slabs of rock as big as a house beneath the cool jewel of translucent water.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 31, 2019
Skill Level: Beginner/Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Great Lakes Paddling
A quick disclaimer about skill levels: This trip was done with an outfitter/tour guide, who is trained in open-water rescue. That’s why we’re stating it as Beginner/Intermediate. If you wish to paddle Lake Superior on your own, or with a small group of friends, you (or one of your friends) will need to be skilled and experienced – especially on big open water the likes of Lake Superior, whose temperature is hypothermia-inducing and whose climate is notorious for sporadic shifts and temperamental tantrums. Paddlers need the right boat, the right gear, and the right know-how (including the wisdom of staying off the water if there’s even a chance that things go south when you’re up north). Half of the coast at Pictured Rocks is composed of cliffs directly lining the shoreline with no accessibility whatsoever for miles on end. Lake Superior is an awesome place to paddle, but it first demands the utmost caution and consideration.
Put-In + Take-Out:
Pictured Rocks Kayaking outfitter, Munising, Michigan
Time: Put in at 2:10p. Out at 5:40p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 5
One peregrine falcon, a score of crows and/or ravens and a gazillion seagulls.
For the uninitiated, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is, for all intents and purposes, a national park along Lake Superior’s southern coast in the U.P. in between the towns of Munising and Grand Marais. (It’s technically not a national park, but rather national lakeshore. And yet it…
A) is staffed by national parks folks,
B) has the same national parks signs with the iconic brown-and-green arrowheads marking scenic spots, trailheads and general areas of interest, and
C) features the same amount of very limited roads (most of them narrow and winding) that connect any two points in the park, all with very slow drivers or stupidly fast drivers or a gazillion ginormous motor homes that hog 2/3 of the available lane space and parking stalls in the lots. But I digress.)
Stretching for some 42 miles and comprising over 73,000 acres, Pictured Rocks is a majestic place – with 200′-tall cliffs on one side and 400′-tall sand dunes on the other, where in between there’s a baker’s dozen stunning waterfalls, wetlands, wilderness areas, boreal forests and lakes, canyons, campgrounds and hiking areas (including the mighty North Country Trail).
Purists may scoff, and perhaps there’s a better analogy I’m not thinking of or just haven’t visited yet, but for me Pictured Rocks is like the Yellowstone of the Midwest: it’s huge and abundant, with incredible diversity and eye-popping phenomena, and very popular (i.e., crowded and congested in some areas at some times of the day). But I offer that for the sake of context. If comparisons are condescending, then let me just assert that Pictured Rocks is boldly its own place entirely, and one of the most majestic anywhere in America (not just the Upper Midwest or Great Lakes region). Take that, Jackson Hole.
I (Timothy) first visited Pictured Rocks in May 2010, to kayak along the cliffs and coast, and also hike/camp. It was an experience both mesmerizing and memorable, one I’ve wanted to rekindle – and a sacred place I’ve wanted to reconnect to – ever since. The whole area is simply spectacular – I’ve never seen or been to anything quite like it before. It’s similar to the sea caves on the Bayfield Peninsula in Wisconsin, but more majestic. It’s also similar to the Dells on the Wisconsin River, but wilder and more exotic since it’s open-water paddling on Lake Superior. (Alas, like the Wisconsin Dells paddle, you’ll be sharing the water with lots of tour boats, many of which advance with loud tour guides blah-blah-blah’ing about this and that bit of colloquial folklore, together with comfortably seated tourists sipping drinks and waving at you, and then retreat with a wave-riddled wake you’ll need to be mindful of.)
Since 2013, I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to and/or coordinate a Labor Day weekend adventure combining paddling and camping somewhere more or less exotic in Wisconsin, always a different location each year. While the cast of characters has changed with each trip, there’s typically been a common core year after year. Like any good tradition, it happened naturally, with no intention or forced effort, and grew into its own fruition. The places and experiences have ranged from lazy overnight trips on the lower Black River while camping on sandbars to day trips paddling Class II rapids on the Wolf River and suffering through one of the most obnoxious campgrounds ever endured. In 2017 the master plan imploded after schedule conflicts and other complications. Similarly, last year, the unfavorable weather forecast led folks to folding at the last minute. But this year we got back on track, with an emphasis more on camping than paddling (bizarre, I know, but it made sense), and the proposal was Pictured Rocks.
That our trip coincided with the gone-viral video of a rock collapse only a couple weeks beforehand was pure serendipity.
The only catch, however, is once you start poring over maps – for paddling purposes – you’ll start scratching your head over logistics. Because this is coastal paddling, a kayaker has two trip options: to put in at Point A and paddle to Point B, either taking-out there for a point-to-point journey, or to backtrack to Point A. The former is more fun, in my opinion, and allows a paddler to explore more of the scenery, but it does require shuttling – and in Pictured Rocks, shuttling is no simple feat. Given the volume of vehicles on the main roads, the park is a far cry from ideal for bicycling. Furthermore, the accesses along the coast are literally few and far between, some of them necessitating impractically/implausibly long carry-outs from 1.5 to 3 miles from shore to parking area. That’s a long way to schlep a long boat and gear! As such, most paddlers opt for the latter type of trip – paddling along the coast to such-and-such a spot, breaking for lunch probably, then turning back around to where they initially began. Logistically, this is much easier, of course, but A) you end up seeing everything you’ve already seen up to that point (not necessarily a bad thing, given the insane beauty of the place, but still) and B) it limits how far one can/should venture, as however many miles you paddle in one direction will be doubled in order to return to the starting point.
When I first paddled Pictured Rocks, in 2010, I launched from Miners Beach, paddled to Mosquito Beach 4 miles upcoast, got out on the sand to stretch and be a landlubber, then got back in my boat to return to Miners Beach. All in all, an 8-mile trip, although I saw only 4 miles of the whole park. It was sensational, but it hardly sated my hungered curiosity to see more.
This time around, a wholly new, wholly unprecedented idea was put on the table: paddle Pictured Rocks with a touring outfitter. The touring outfitter transports you (and about 30 others) via a big boat to Lake Superior itself, whereupon you launch your kayak from the big boat directly into the big lake, thereby beginning your trip smack-dab in one of the most jaw-dropping areas of the shoreline (like the proverbial joke of being born on third base but feeling like you hit a triple). The deal is this: you board in Munising, then get ferried across some of the more mundane stretches of shoreline for about 15 miles, get dropped off on the lake to begin a 5-mile/2.5-hour-long paddle from Mosquito Beach to Chapel Rock (or vice versa, depending on the direction of the wind at the time), then hop back on the big boat that returns to Munising, where you have only to drop off your paddle and PFD and then saunter to your car (and/or change clothes). No schlepping of long sea kayaks, no strapping down boats on your car, no nothing. Easy-peasy and on your way again. The outfitter does all the work.
I don’t mind admitting the following: originally, this was not my idea, and initially, I was opposed to it. First off, I’m not a tour guide kind of guy – for anything or anywhere (museums, ancient ruins, breweries). Secondly, I’m a frugal guy, and the cost for the tour is $150 per person. After taxes, that’s pretty much two 8-hour days of work for me. My friends – who make a lot more money than I do – proposed this quite matter of factly, which, for the record, is 100% eminently sensible and supremely practical. They don’t own sea kayaks, or dry suits, or have rescue skills in the event of a spontaneous storm. Bear in mind: there are several stretches along the shore where there is no access whatsoever for miles on end, in the event of sudden weather. And Lake Superior is prone to such, um, “spontaneity” (how’s that for a euphemism?) So, given those factors plus the highly persuasive bonus of no shuttling or schlepping, that’s how the tour group idea was born.
My own reactionary idea was this: Cool! Sounds good. But how’s about we drop my car off on one end, then shuttle me and boat to Miners Beach, and drop me off? Y’all continue on down to Munising and hop on the big boat as planned. In the meanwhile, I’ll paddle up to Mosquito Beach alone but then rendezvous with y’all, then paddle together for five miles up to Chapel Rock, then continue on my own past Spray Falls (which seems insane to miss) to Big Star Cove and the beach near Beaver Creek and a 1.5-mile trail back to my car. That would have made for an epic 12-ish mile paddle, and free. And I reasoned that in the amount of time it would take them to drive to/fro Munising and all that, I could be busy doing my own thing. But, for a variety of reasons I won’t bore you with, that just didn’t happen.
So, instead I stuck with the original plan and shut my pie-hole. And boy oh boy am I glad that I did! The trip was truly wonderful.
Before discovering the true headwaters of the Mississippi River, the eminent explorer, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, described the Pictured Rocks area with the following effusive flourish:
“We had been told of the variety of the colour and form of these rocks, but were wholly unprepared to encounter surprising groups of overhanging precipices, towering walls, caverns, and waterfalls mingled in the most wonderful disorder.”
Or at least such is credited to him in Guide to Sea Kayaking Lakes Superior & Michigan, by Bill Newman, Sarah Ohmann, and Don Dimond. But I love that line – “mingled in the most wonderful disorder.”
The most popular draw to the park are the rock formations after which it is named. The eponymous rocks are sandstone, which are porous and allow water and sediments to seep through. Minerals that have filtered through the sandstone then percolate outward via groundwater and streak the rock facades with colorful décor the like of reds and oranges (wrought by iron), blues and greens (courtesy of copper – like old pennies or pipes), white (brought to you by limonite – I had to look that one up), and black (that would be manganese, which is as hard to correctly pronounce or spell, but is a fun word nonetheless). Sure, there are some stretches of shoreline where the colors in the cliffs are more captivating and vivid than others; but, generally speaking, it should be taken for granted that virtually all of this trip will feature Crayola-worthy kayaking.
Sandstone is not only permeable, but fragile and prone to erosion. Sometimes the huge chunks and curtains of rock break off (like in that video), while other times turrets, spires, coves, vortexes and natural bridge arches also result from the incessant sculpting of wind and waves. While shaped by destruction, the results are spectacularly creative!
While I’m tempted to just launch right into the trip description, it behooves me to explain the outfitter’s logistics and a quick experience of things, since this was such a departure from our modus operandi. We reserved spaces for the 2pm trip and, like everyone else in our group, met at the outfitter’s headquarters, whereupon the staff explained what we’d be doing, where going, and some basic ABC stuff about kayaks and kayaking. Everyone was paired with another to share a tandem Necky Looksha T, more rec kayak than sea kayak, but practically indestructible.
We then all got aboard a kind of small cruise vessel (aka the “big boat”) and then zip out of the Munising harbor at what feels like a hundred knots per hour, past Grand Island on one side and then the gradual drama of the national lakeshore on the other, for about 15 miles. The novelty of the big boat was twofold: all of the kayaks and paddles were stowed on top of the boat on an upper level, and at the back of the boat had a lowered platform on the water surface itself with parallel “gutters” (for lack of a more correct or elegant term) into which two kayaks were placed and soon-to-paddle people got inside before being rolled out and onto the water. It’s a very nifty operation and, honestly, pretty brilliant. I mean, why not start your trip on the water at some of the most scenic areas on Lake Superior? Sure beats shuttling and schlepping! (Privately, I had to chuckle, as it was a safe bet, given the outfits and attitudes of our fellow paddlers on display, that at least half of them had no idea just how easy the outfitter was making this for us, that it’s never this pampered or simple!)
Now, onto the trip itself…
On account of the wind coming in from the north and east, our trip began at the eastern end of the route, at Chapel Rock, then went southwest. Chapel Rock is an iconic example of sandstone’s impermanence. While it once was a uniform part of the cliff, today it has been whittled down to its own stand-alone rock formation – more or less like a classic “sea stack” – that literally is tethered to the mainland by a couple of very long, very thick tree roots that are fully exposed, thanks to the one tragically isolated tree atop the rock. And while you’ll find Chapel Rock engraved on the new Michigan quarter, you’d need a lot of them to pay the fine for tightrope walking on the roots from the mainland to the rock, as the fine is about $300. (Yes, you can thank our tour guide for that fun fact!) Just to the right of Chapel Rock is Chapel Beach, dramatically ushered by a rushing mini-waterfall where Chapel Creek enters Lake Superior by a scalloped ledge about 30′ wide. You might say the key word is “chapel.” (Note: this small waterfall at the mouth of the creek is not the same as the better known, and much bigger, Chapel Falls, a few miles farther upstream and part of the most popular day hike in the park.)
Before moving on and away from all things “Chapel,” we tucked into a quaint but not less magnificent cove just past the beach, where as you look above the overhanging brick-red sandstone juxtaposed with the green sheen of pine-lined cliffs and that sky- blue sky* that permeates a sense of Pure Michigan, the whole effect is of a vaulted cathedral ceiling that is indeed most holy. It’s all just stupefying and spectacularly magnificent – which can be liberally applied to this whole trip and whole lakeshore of Pictured Rocks itself.
* I know, you were thinking I’d plug the Wilco song by that name from the album of that name, which is one of my favorites, but the song from that album that invokes the sun-washed clean feeling I have in mind is the lead off song, “Either Way,” especially the gorgeous warm tones of the guitar solo at 1:47.
As you move down the coastline your eyes will play tricks on you. What you swear is an arch is rather an indented grotto that looks like a massive fist (or wave) punched in a paper bag. What you swear are impenetrable rocks suddenly reveal themselves to be navigable, depending on the timing of water, wind, and wave ebbing and flowing. What you swear is only 50′ high is actually 200′, and when you’re told that the cliff overhead is in fact 200′ tall, you’d swear on your soul that it’s 1000′. One mascara-streaked mineral-seeped wall resembles another, making you wonder if you’re paddling forwards or backwards – it’s all open water on the inland sea of Lake Superior. On and on. The whole effect is positively mesmerizing!
The next exceptional highlight (because, really, everything here is a highlight – and exceptional, to be perfectly honest – but I’ll try to keep this rudder in-line with our trip) is called Grand Portal Arch. Prior to entropy, this was an enormous arch that sailing ships could easily slip under, as it’s at least 60 feet tall. But sections of rock have twice collapsed in the last century into a pile of rock-rubble half the height of the arch itself. Today, it’s a huge mound that has become repurposed as a seagull colony.
Actually, that’s not really the “next” highlight – at least not right away. You’ll see it from a distance, and the eye is certainly drawn to it like a flame-ward moth. But prior to that is a mini cave that can be paddled through. It’s very short – and low-clearance – but it’s a very fun effect. The lake will need to be relatively calm to do this, otherwise you’d bob up and down too tumultuously for this to be safe (or even feasible).
Then, you come up to Grand Portal Arch. And as a kind of consolation hybrid prize, just to the right of the rubble pile is a small(er) mini cave-arch you can paddle through. Just be sure to time the wave cycle correctly in order to navigate through without getting pushed into any of the rocks!
A quarter-mile past that is the prominent landmark of Indianhead/Grand Portal Point, a promontory jutting out into the lake that, looking at it from the southwest, more or less resembles a human caricature in profile with headdress. Whether you care to anthropomorphize the rock outcrop, it is indisputably a notable fixture. I mean, seriously, it’s humongous.
Moving southwest still, you’ll paddle past fallen blocks of rocks as big as a garage tumbled over like playing dice for giants. At the risk of sounding redundant, you’ll be reminded of the sheer size of scale out here. I mean, of course, it all makes sense: why wouldn’t the largest freshwater lake on the planet (by surface area) be girded by a shoreline as dramatic and grandiose? But whereas the immensity of Lake Superior itself is all but unimaginable – it contains enough water to cover all of North and South America under one full foot of water (seriously, just spend a minute contemplating that) – at least the cliffs and fallen rocks are easier to appreciate… but still phenomenal!
Rainbow Cave comes next. To be fair, it’s as much a cove as it is a cave, but let’s not mince words (or vowels). It’s a huge overhang that features reliably trickling water percolating downwards. On sunny days those droplets can be substantial enough to create a small rainbow curtain at the right time of day in the right time of light. We did not make the good acquaintance of Mr. Roy G. Biv, but just the sprinkle effect was fun enough. Plus, the rock colors inside the cave-cove are the most flamboyant and spirit-lifting anywhere on this trip, featuring wet, loud tropical greens and creams and luscious toothpaste-hued blues.
There’s one final highlight on the trip in terms of oohs and ahs. That’s Lovers Leap, an enormous arch that hasn’t collapsed (yet) and can be paddled through. It’s an extraordinary portal and an incredible experience the likes of which… well, it’s unprecedented for little old me at least. There’s a good chance you’ve seen this arch on Michigan tourism ads. But of course, they don’t capture what it’s like to be on the water in person.
As a denouement of sorts, just past Lovers Leap is the far less PG-named “Caves of the Bloody Chiefs.” They’re a succession of gorgeous recesses at the water’s edge. I’m not sure how apocryphal this is, but we were told that prisoners of war were stockaded in these water-bound caves by native tribes. Skepticism aside, I think the tour could have skipped the narrative bits here and just let us admire the cool “cavities” at the base of the cliffs, if only because there wasn’t a whole lot more to the tour after that. Mosquito Beach does appear after this – the next/only land access since Chapel Beach. Like Chapel, there’s a small waterfall ledge at the mouth of the creek. And, like Chapel Beach, you’ll likely see folks and families along the sand here.
After this we bee-lined back to the big boat, lined up into the gangplank-like slots, and exited. After we all boarded, the big boat pulled around and headed back to Munising.
What we liked:
It’s everything, the cumulative experience of it all. There’s the sheer scale of the landscape: the whole world is just gargantuan. The jade green/translucent hues of Lake Superior’s water mimicking the Caribbean is simply breathtaking. It’s an inland sea, pure and simple (minus the salt and sharks). Yet the surreal palette of colo[u]rs is, dare I say it, True North. It’s northcountry up here, an utterly awesome reckoning when you think of how cold this part of the country gets in winter, or how short its spring, or how impetuously tempestuous its day-to-day nature the big lake is. Consider: only 24 hours before our trip there was a small boat advisory in Munising on account of 30+ mph winds and 3′ waves. But on the day of our paddle, it was easy breezy indeed.
But as I mentioned earlier, it’s namely the rock formations that draw visitors to the area (including us). Caves, coves, arches, turrets – fallen, upright – they’re everywhere, and they’re simply magnificent. Further enhancing it all are all the colors, steep facades streaked with colorful mascara runs. It’s hard to imagine a place as aesthetic as Pictured Rocks.
And I would be stubborn and irresponsible to omit the indisputable convenience of doing this trip with Pictured Rocks Kayaking. Honestly, they provide a great service and have selected a premier slice that the national shoreline has to offer. We got a lot out of our personal tour guide and were ever so thankful for the ease of this trip. You basically get the best out of an official tour boat guide with an actual paddle on the water. It’s a unique experience that we loved.
What we didn’t like:
There’s no point in pointing out the obvious things – group paddling with a tour guide or forking over $150 to do so – because that would be totally missing the point. This trip only exists on account of a touring outfitter, and the cost of doing business (and paying for insurance liability, given the inherent risk of paddling Lake Superior) is completely understandable and justifiable. Besides, those so-called “obvious things” are strictly relative being a river paddler who is used to doing my own thing, going my own way, and doing so for free (well, unless I’m in Minnesota). This trip was a whole new ballpark, so to speak. Ergo, it would be absurd to bellyache about things I’m not used to doing that are neither here nor there for a separate enterprise of a trip.
The only thing I didn’t like, in all honesty, was to miss Spray Falls. Considering that it’s only 1.5 miles east of Chapel Rock, and that we were paddling only 5 miles from Chapel Rock to Mosquito Beach, it didn’t seem like an inconvenience to include that on the itinerary. After all, it is a 70’-tall waterfall plunging from the top of a cliff, out of boreal forests, straight into Lake Superior itself… I mean, come on! It’s like something you’d expect to see in New Zealand or British Columbia! How is that not included in the best of the best?
But I do understand the technical logistics that would have to be added to include that on such a trip for an outfitter, and at the end of the day concessions have to be made and some things just skipped. You can’t see all of Pictured Rocks in a day – you just can’t.
If we did this trip again:
As stubbornly reluctant as I was about yoking myself to a tour group, let alone the cost of such a venture, it ended up being a very good experience whose practicalities cannot be casually dismissed. At the risk of sounding like a Yelp review, I’d definitely recommend this to others. But I first paddled Pictured Rocks by myself, and I’d sooner do that again (well, not necessarily a solo trip – which really isn’t advised unless you are an inveterate sea kayaker with ample and proper safety gear and have honed-in self-rescue skills – but not with an official tour group). And part of that next trip will include Spray Falls, because being so close to a waterfall that cascades off a cliff into Lake Superior but not being right there is kind of like driving past Multnomah Falls on I-84 and missing it: it’s just wrong, plain wrong.
Regardless, I recommend doing this trip off-season and/or on a weekday, as opposed to a weekend (let alone a three-day holiday weekend) for the sake of more solitude and less congestion. And, ideally, in the late afternoon, paddling eastward, to get the best effects of the sun burnishing the richest hues from the rocks and water.
General: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Camp: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Maps: National Parks Service info
Outfitter: Pictured Rocks Kayaking
Wikipedia: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore