Adventure Guide: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the Munising Area

So you want to take a trip to ‘dah UP eh? If you’re looking for beautiful colored sandstone cliffs, clear water, and waterfalls you’ve come to the right place!

I’ve broken up this guide by length of stay as well as included an “adventure rating” so that you can accurately gauge what kind of adventure you are signing up for. The key for the “adventure rating” is at the bottom of this post.

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Munising Falls in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Weekend at the Cliffs

A weekend at the Pictured Rocks is an awesome way to get a feel for the region.

Adventure:

  • Hike to Spray Falls: IntermediateDepending on the route you take, the hike from the Little Beaver Creek trailhead to Spray Falls is between four and six miles round trip. There are plenty of swimming holes along the way if you’re willing to brave Lake Superior’s cold!
  • Take a Ferry Tour: Beginner. Taking a ferry tour lets you get up close and personal with much of the cliff line. If you’re torn between the tour of the traditional Pictured Rocks Cliffs and the Grand Island Cliffs, I have been told by locals that the Grand Island cliffs are much bigger and more dramatic. Since the cliffs face the west, picking an afternoon or evening tour will show the cliffs light up by that late day sun.
  • Hike to Miner’s Falls: Beginner. A one mile well maintained trail will take you out to Miner’s Falls, where you can appreciate a lovely waterfall from a nice viewing platform.

Eat:

  • Visit Pictured Rocks Pizza in Munising for a fun lake front snack
  • Head over to East Channel Brewing to sample the local beer
  • Stop by the Bear Trap Restaurant for that Northwoods diner feel

Stay:

  • Camp: A lot of the National Parks campsites will fill quickly and be crowded, so look instead at the State Forest Campgrounds in the area. My favorite is the North Gemini Lake campground. I’ve camped there multiple times and it’s always been clean and never crowded, with some of the most stunning stars I have seen.
  • Hotel: Munising’s Holiday Inn Express has the best view you’ll find in the area and excellent ratings.
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Pictured Rocks Cliffs from a sea kayak

Three to Four Days on the Lake

The perfect amount of time to really get into some adventuring and see the most of the area!

Adventure:

  • Hike the Chapel Basin Loop: Intermediate/ Advanced. Between 10 and 13 miles round trip, the Chapel Basin Loop is sometimes treated as a beginner’s backpacking loop. But it can also be done as a day trip. Pack up a lunch and head out to see three waterfalls and hike along the cliffs!
  • Visit Munising Falls: Beginner. Near the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Visitor’s center and the town of Munising, this quick hike will take you to some beautiful falls.
  • Explore Grand Marias and the Grand Sable Dunes: Beginner. Cruise east toward the sleepy town of Grand Marias and check out sand dunes that tower hundreds of feet above Lake Superior.
  • Day Paddle the Pictured Rocks Cliffs: Intermediate. Paddling the Pictured Rocks cliffs gets you up close and personal with some of the most impressive features in the National Lakeshore. This is the guiding company I would recommend. NOTE: the ONLY kayaks safe on Lake Superior are sea kayaks. If you are not an experienced sea kayaker, you may want to hire a guide or go through a guiding company to ensure your safety. Lake Superior has been known to create 30 foot waves and is a hot bed for hypothermia. For more information, click here.
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View from the tops of the Cliffs into Superior

Week in Munising

A great amount of time to experience everything the region has to offer!

Adventure:

  • Backpack the North Country Trail: Intermediate/Advanced. The North Country National Scenic Trail winds from New York all the way out to the Dakotas, and an impressive section follows the Pictured Rocks Cliffs—shuttle out to one end and backpack along the cliff line towards Munising in a bucket list worthy trip.
  • Circumnavigate Grand Island: Circumnavigation of Grand Island is a bucket list item for any paddler, with beautiful sandstone cliffs that rival the Pictured Rocks themselves. At 26-28 mile trip, for the most advanced paddlers with the right conditions it can be done as a day trip. If you’re looking for the backcountry paddling experience, take 2-3 days to circumnavigate the island. Click here for guided trip information, or here for trip details.
  • Day Trip to Paradise: Paradise, Michigan is home to the Tahquamenon Falls, Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, and Whitefish Point. This region of Superior is known for its record setting waves, and is near the infamous wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
  • Swim at Miner’s Beach: Brave the Lake Superior cold on a white sand beach. Hike less than a mile down the beach to see the small falls and the beginning of the cliff line.

Notes:

*None of these are affiliate links; all are honest opinions formed after visiting the area multiple times, personal experience with guiding companies and guides, and research via TripAdvisor and Facebook Reviews.

**I CANNOT recommend taking out personal kayaks or kayaking without a guide. If you are not an experienced sea kayaker, then you need a guide. Experienced kayaker and sea kayaker are not the same thing. If you do not have a sea kayak, you should not be on Superior. People die every year doing this. I don’t want that to be you. More questions? Click here.

***There are a few ethical concerns/complications regarding certain outfitters in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore area. I will not call out outfitters by name, but the outfitters linked here seem to be the ones that follow the best safety practices and do not choose profit over environmental impact or safety of participants. I have worked as a kayak guide, and have only recommended companies that are up to industry standard on safety practices, as reflected in their reviews, gear used, and policies.

ADVENTURE RATINGS KEY:

Beginner: Perfect for families with younger children, or people looking for a nice starting point before launching into more physically exerting adventures. This rating still assumes a baseline level of physical fitness such as the ability to walk at least three miles, but otherwise assumes beginner level of outdoor experience.

Intermediate: Perfect for people who like spending time outside, and are excited about the idea of immersing selves in nature. Assumes some experience hiking, paddling, camping, or a flexible and positive attitude. Assumes no shoulder injuries and ability to lift at least 50 pounds.

Advanced: Perfect for people who have experience with outdoor recreation, and are prepared to tackle more strenuous hikes and adventures.

Where to next?

How to Have a Bad Camping Trip

It’s not exactly a secret that camping, hiking, and road tripping have highs and lows. The feeling when you reach the top of the mountain is great, but first you had to climb it. And by climb it, I mean probably go a few days without a shower, scrape yourself up quite a bit, make a lot of mistakes, get in arguments with your group members, and probably get pretty lost too.

Good camping trips have bad moments, and even “bad trips” have good moments too.

So what can lead to a bad trip, and how can you avoid it?

Not being involved in planning

One of the things that I have seen negatively affect several people’s trips is not doing any planning and “just tagging along”. If you don’t know what the plan is or where you’re going, you might miss out on things you wanted to do, or end up doing more than you wanted. And if you didn’t help make the plan, or at least know the plan, you aren’t going to be as invested in said plan.

An easy fix to this is to, at the very least, know a rough itinerary. Better yet, actually get involved and collaborate with the people who are making the plan. I have found that sitting down, face to face, and telling people the things that you want to do or don’t want to do works best.

Being too involved in planning

This is a trap that I usually fall into—I am known for making an elaborate plan, down to the hour, running it briefly by other group members, and then getting frustrated when parts of that plan fall through. Realistically, you can’t plan for everything, and you have to be adaptable to have a good time.

Besides, as much as I love planning down to the hour, some of the best adventures I have had have been unplanned and spontaneous.

Expecting things to go smoothly

If you expect your entire trip to go off without a hitch, you’re a whole lot more likely to be upset when things go wrong. You can plan ahead for things that might happen—print out maps for when you lose cell service, bring extra food and socks, have a first aid kit—and all of that is a good idea, but that’s not really what I am getting at.

Having a backup plan doesn’t grantee that you won’t be in a situation you didn’t plan for. And that’s fine—just know that you are probably going to reach a point where you have to deal with something you didn’t expect. As long as you are okay with things going wrong here and there, and know that it is going to happen, those road bumps won’t seem so big.

Expecting things to go poorly

Recently, I went on a camping trip that I thought for sure I was going to hate. And for a while I was right—it was 90 degrees, I was trying to keep track and take care of people, lift heavy boxes, and take photos all at the same time. For the first day, I didn’t have any fun.

I realized halfway through that the reason things were going poorly was because I expected them too. Even before I showed up, I had already told people what a drag I thought this was going to be. Of course I was having a bad time—I had already decided too.

Once I realized that I was having a bad time because of my own attitude, things got a lot better—time passed quicker, I was more engaged and less tired, and I ended up having a pretty good time!

So the moral of the story? Attitude makes a huge difference .

Not doing any research

Spontaneous trips are fun, but not knowing the area you are traveling to can be more stressful than anything else. It’s good to know what campgrounds are in the area, what gas stations are around and open, what the terrain of the trails is, and what wildlife you need to be aware of. 

Not taking time for you

Even when traveling with a group of people it is important to take time for yourself. Take the time to be alone for a second, take the time to make your coffee in the morning, and take the time to see the things you want to see.

Having a second to catch your breath can change your outlook on an entire trip. 

Don’t listen to the concerns of your group members

It’s important to think about what you want, yes, but it is just as important to listen to the people you are traveling with. A lot of the arguments and bickering I have seen traveling were caused by miscommunications.

Make sure you are all on the same page about timing, what sort of hikes/adventures you want to have, and how long you are willing to spend places.

Go with people who have similar interests

Miscommunication aside, it can be hard to travel with just “anyone”. I am a fast-paced, early morning kind of person, and have traveled with people who are slower, and want to sleep in. It was hard for me to spend the morning hours waiting for them to be ready to travel.

Overall, a good camping trip is a matter of perspective. All trips have high points and low points, they just do. You can’t always change the situation, the people you’re with, the trail or even the weather, but you can change the way you react. Take a second to breathe, because you’re going to have a great time.

The Places Stress Will Follow You

We—hikers, writers, nature lovers, always champion the therapeutic power of nature. I have told people that I hike because it relives stress, and I have spent bad days looking out the window, convinced that if I could go outside and be alone in the woods for just a bit I would be so much happier.

Hiking, or being in nature helps, but it isn’t magic, and it isn’t always a solution.

For every hike that has helped with stress, there is another hike that tested me, made me nervous, and made me doubt myself. There have been hikes where I have scraped up and bruised my legs, hikes where I didn’t bring enough water, hikes where I was sure I was irreparably lost.

There have been hikes when I have hurried up mountains to get the right shot of the sunset, worried I came all this way just to mess it up, and times where after a perfect sunset, I have had to walk back in the dark, and worried about that too.

There have been hikes that I didn’t think I could finish, where my legs hurt and I was winded well before halfway, and left feeling weaker rather than stronger.

I am a worrier, I am anxious, and I get stressed, and tall trees and fresh air don’t always fix that. But sometimes it does, and even the hikes that make me happy to get back in the car and pull off my hiking boots have taught me something.

The time my sister and I did the Dune Climb with no gear taught me that you always need water; the time I wore brand new hiking boots up a mountain in Colorado taught me I am not immune to blisters.

The time I almost got frostbite taught me a lot about poor planning, and the time I hiked to Copperas Falls taught me that not all hikes are fun, and some are definitely not worth repeating or recommending.

So while a hike isn’t medicine, and nature isn’t always an antidote to stress, even the bad hikes can still be adventures.

And sometimes, if you’re very lucky and in the right place at the right time, your hike can be both an adventure, and magic.

Roan Mountain Magic

There are places where the line between what is real and what you’ve imagined is so thin that you are certain you’ve stepped out of a dream. These places have an otherness about them, they are ageless and supernatural, and it feels if you were to stay there long enough, that maybe you might fall through time.

cropped-img_5334-1.jpgThese places are rich, as if plucked from a storybook, but have palpable history. They mean something as much as they are something, and even if you don’t necessarily know the place’s stories and history, you can feel it. We speak about these places with reverence; they are the places that inspire us, that make writers, and artists, that spark movements, places we protect.

In my life time, I have only had the luxury of visiting two of these places.

The 5-mile ridge of Roan Mountain is one of them. I’ve been told that in June, natural rhododendron gardens blanket the mountain tops, but I went in May and it was still stunning.

IMG_5719-1Every step along that beautiful trail is magic, from the initial dive into the pines, through and over the Balds at elevation 6000 feet, all the way out to Grassy Bald, and it’s commanding views of North Carolina.

Just to stand on a trail that runs for over 2000 miles is one thing, but then to walk the line that divides Tennessee and North Carolina is another. More astounding still is to look out over the Appalachians, once taller as the Rockies, maybe taller, and as old as 480 million years, and think how they have been eroded for millions of years by wind and water and ice, scraped down to less than half their size but still are standing. These mountains are ancient, and you are strolling on this resilient beast’s back.