Trail Guide: 5 Adventures in Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is known for its waterfalls, clear water, and of course, it’s cliffs. There are many different ways to experience the rocks, ranging from boat tours to backcountry hiking.

Last week, my brother and I spent a few days kayaking, hiking, and adventuring in the area. Here’s what we did, and what we would recommend!

Kayak Lake Superior:

Kayaking Lake Superior and the Pictured Rocks has always been a bucket-lister for me, and I am glad to have had the chance to check it off. Lake Superior can be unpredictable and choppy—record wave height on Lake Superior was 51 feet recorded in Whitefish Bay.

That being said, only sea kayaks should be taken out on the Lake—not canoes or recreational kayaks. Before you kayak on Lake Superior, check out the information available on the NPS site.

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Pictured Rocks sea caves from the water

Rather than rent a kayak, we opted for a morning tour with Paddling Michigan. The waves were an average 3 feet when we went. We had a blast, paddling to Miner’s Castle from Miner’s Beach, then past that along the cliffs a ways further. Through Paddling Michigan, you can take a smaller, “soft” adventure tour—this is what I did with my younger brother, and it was plenty—or you can take longer, full trips or even overnight trips down the Lakeshore.

***EDIT: After a summer working as a kayak guide in a different region of Lake Superior I WOULD NOT recommend this company. The guide ratio was near 1 guide to 12 people which is UNSAFE in this region, especially with a 3 foot average wave height. You sit approximately three feet out of the water in a kayak. With a three foot wave average you may not be able to see the paddlers next to you. IN ADDITION we were FAR too close to the cliff line and hung out in a rebound zone for at least 30 minutes, where 3 foot waves rebound to 6. In fact, unless you have full safety equipment, can self-rescue, and are familiar with the weather and wave patterns in the region, I would recommend you just not paddle the Pictured Rocks at all. To my current knowledge, there is no outfitter there that I would recommend that follows appropriate safety practices.

(Further evidence: I asked my guide at the time what happens if someone flips in those conditions, and he replied “I have a T-rescue.” We were all in tandem kayaks, and it should be noted that you literally cannot T-rescue a tandem. T-rescues are used for single kayaks. There is a completely different rescue for a tandem kayak. So this dude had no idea what he was talking about.)

So instead of risking hypothermia and Coast Guard rescue, just hike the rocks instead, or maybe consider hiring a private guide. Either way, do your research.

Kayaking offers a different perspective on the rocks, and the chance to see sea caves and waterfalls. You can get a similar experience from a boat tour, but a kayak gets you closer to the rocks and gives you the sense that you explored the rocks, rather than took a tour.

Visit Waterfalls/ Overlooks:

A good place to start water-falling is Miner’s Castle road. Here, you can stop at Miner’s Falls, a one and a quarter mile round trip hike from the parking lot. From here, driving farther down Miner’s Castle road, you can visit the Miner’s Castle overlook. If it is a hot enough day, Miner’s Beach is just off the same road too, and is a good place to picnic and swim.

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Munising Falls in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Just outside of Munising is Munising Falls, a short hike with two different viewing platforms.

Chapel and Mosquito Falls can both be reached from the Chapel-Mosquito area trailhead, with a three mile round trip hike to Chapel Falls, and two miles round trip to Mosquito Falls. The two can be hit together in the Chapel Basin Loop hike, detailed below.

Hike the Chapel Basin Loop:

We took an afternoon to do this hike, but could have easily taken longer with all of the great places to take in the view or stop and swim! The loop is 10 miles roundtrip if you want to hit Chapel Falls, Chapel Beach, Mosquito Falls, and Mosquito Beach (NPS map linked here).

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View on the Chapel Basin Loop, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Chapel Falls is a cool stop, with an opportunity to get up close to the falls before they plunge of a rock shelf into Chapel Lake. The trail continues along to Chapel Rock and Chapel Beach. This is sometimes treated as an out and back to the Beach, where you can swim both in Lake Superior and Chapel Creek. Chapel Creek meets Lake Superior in a small waterfall that you can slide down and play in.

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Natural waterslide at Chapel Beach

From here, you continue down the beach along the North Country Trail toward Mosquito Beach. This portion of the hike is along the cliffs, and one of the coolest stretches of trail I have ever hiked. There are countless scenic overlooks, and almost all of the 4.5 miles are along the cliffs.

When you reach Mosquito Beach, the trail becomes a little more difficult to follow due to poor signage and about 800 side trails leading to the beach and to the backcountry campsites. You are going to want to cross the Mosquito River, then follow the sign posts to Mosquito Falls rather than continue hiking on the North Country Trail.

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Sea caves and Lover’s Leap Arch along the Chapel Basin Loop

Rather than hike the full loop like we did, I would recommend cutting Mosquito Beach and Falls, and hiking out to Grand Portal Point from Chapel Beach, and then returning via the Chapel Lake spur from Chapel Beach. The majority of the impressive cliffs were all before Grand Portal Point, and all worth seeing twice. After this point, the cliffs are less impressive, and the trail is muddier and less maintained. Hiking from Chapel Falls to Chapel Beach, then on to Grand Portal Point and then backtracking until the Chapel Lake Spur makes for a 9.5 miles roundtrip hike.

Hike to Spray Falls:

We hit this hike around 5 pm made it back to the car around 9, and the lighting was beautiful. Even in August, the trail was empty, and the Coves, a worth stop along the way to Spray Falls, offer some of the best swimming in Lake Superior.

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Spray Falls as viewed from the North Country Trail

Spray Falls plunge 70 feet from the cliffs into Lake Superior, and can be viewed from two different overlooks as well as from behind.

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A beach at The Coves, as viewed from the North Country Trail

We started at the trailhead at the Little Beaver Creek Campground. From here it is a 1.5 mile hike out to Lake Superior, and then 2.5 miles out to Spray Falls, making for an 8 mile out and back. Check out the NPS maps here (scroll down; it’s the second map).

Swim in Lake Superior:

Lake Superior is cold even in the summer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t swimmable! The water feels great after a long hike.

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The south end of Chapel Beach, viewed from the North Country Trail

One popular location is Chapel Beach—a 3-mile hike in on the Chapel Basin Loop (above) offers a sandy beach, waterfall to play in, and backcountry camping sites nearby. Accessed from the same trailhead, Mosquito Beach is a rocky rather than sandy beach and can be slippery.

Miner’s Beach off Miner’s Castle Road is a popular kayak launch point as it is sheltered by cliffs, and an easily accessed swimming spot. From here, you can hike east to Miner’s Beach Falls (or Elliot’s Falls), a small waterfall on the Beach.

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Swimming in the crystal clear water of The Coves

My favorite swimming spot we visited was The Coves, along the North Country Trail on the Spray Falls out and back. The water was clear and calm, and there were even good spots to jump off rocks into the water.

 

We didn’t get a chance to backpack, do a boat tour, or surf, but all of those are other adventures to have in the Pictured Rocks area. Check out the National Parks Service’s more comprehensive list of activities here.

Like the Pictured Rocks? Interested in a similar experience? Check out the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore!

For an updated Pictured Rocks Guide click HERE!

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 Harder Hikes

I am not going to sing the praises of nature, as if a walk in the woods can fix all your problems. The woods are not medicine. I am not going to tell you that being alone in the woods makes it easier to think, because it doesn’t. And I’m not going to tell you that hiking alone is fun, because I would be lying.

It is hard.

It is hard when you pull yourself over what you thought for sure was the top of the mountain, only to see you still have ages to go.

It is hard when you forget water, or bug spray, or first aid, and you feel stupid and a little scared.

It is hard when you make a wrong turn and suddenly the woods get darker and you feel very, very alone, and you wonder how the hell you ended up where you are.

It is hard when you fall, whether you hurt yourself or your pride, and it is hard when you feel alone.

It is hard, and lonely, and it can be terrifying.

But listen—

 We don’t always do things to be fun, or easy, or for them to make us happy. Sometimes it’s not about having a happy walk in the woods, seeing wildflowers or playing in rivers.

Sometimes it’s more important to fall, and get lost, and make mistakes.

It’s worth it in the moment you pull yourself up again, and brush off the dirt. It’s worth it when you clean out and bandage your own cut, and when you pull out a compass you’ve never had to use before and figure it out.

And it’s worth it when you get to the place you wanted to go, simply because you did it yourself, and it wasn’t easy. You earned your final destination, and every moment in between.

No, it’s not easy, and it’s not fun, and sometimes it fucking sucks. It makes you feel small, and insignificant, and utterly at the mercy of nature. But it can also make you feel strong.

I guess I don’t want easy. I guess I want good.

Top Photo Locations in the Sleeping Bear Dunes

The Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore is arguably one of the most scenic locations in Michigan. It boasts beautiful blue green water, stunning overlooks, and beautiful beaches. The Dunes offer a lot to work with, but it can be hard to know where to start.

From Pyramid Point by Leelanau, south to Point Betsie by Frankfort, here are scenic locations in the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Pyramid Point

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Pyramid Point is located in the northern portion of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and is a quick walk from the parking lot out to the overlook. On a clear day, you can see both the North and South Manitou Islands from the bluff.

Glen Lake Overlook

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One of the first stops on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, this overlook offers a view of Glen Lake in one direction, and the dunes themselves in the other direction. The last time I was there, I was able to see clouds weaving in and out of the hills and lake below me.

Overlook 9

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Overlook 9 is the most popular stop on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and with good reason. The overlook is perched high above Lake Michigan and offers views of both dunes, bluffs, and the Lake in every direction. This overlook is the perfect place to watch the sunset over Lake Michigan.

North Bar Lake Overlook

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While Overlook 9 gets most of the attention, the North Bar Lake Overlook is my favorite. You can see both M22 below, North Bar Lake, and the Empire Bluffs in the distance all at what feels like a bird’s eye view.

Empire Bluffs Trail

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By far my favorite hike in Michigan, the Empire Bluffs are also a good place to watch the sunset. It is a 1.5-mile roundtrip hike out to the bluffs, and the majority of the hike is wooded.

Point Betsie Lighthouse

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South of Sleeping Bear, Point Betsie Lighthouse is a fun historic lighthouse to visit and another pretty place to watch the sunset, this time from the beach rather than an overlook.

 

Want more in Northern Michigan? Check out some of my other posts:

Trail Guide: Sleeping Bear’s “Dune Climb”

Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore: Places to Visit in the Off-Season

Wilderness State Park and Winter Shoreline

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.

Trail Guide: Sleeping Bear’s “Dune Climb”

The Dune Climb is one of those hikes that everyone tells you is hard, and you believe them, but it still doesn’t stop you from going. The idea of climbing over the sand until you reach the water is too appealing to stop most people, especially since that first dune sticks out like a sore thumb when you’re cruising M22. And even if you’ve done the Dune Climb before, and actually know how long it is, odds are you’ll forget the next time you’re out there.

So what do you need to know before attempting of one of the more difficult hikes in Michigan?

Mileage: It’s 3.5-4 miles roundtrip, depending on which trail/ detours you take—but it’s over large dunes for the majority of the hike. The hike will usually take 2 to 4 hours, depending on skill level and time spent at Lake Michigan. 

What you should know: While you might want to start the hike off barefoot, you will want to bring a pair of shoes or socks for the section of the hike that is closer to the lakeshore—here there can be sharp rocks and even broken glass.

You will not be able to see the lake immediately. Not after the first dune, or the second, or the third. When you do finally see the Lake, you are about halfway there.

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After 1.5 hours of hiking, we finally reached the beach

If it is cool enough to have a comfortable climb out, it is probably too cold to swim in the lake. This is probably the biggest catch 22 of the hike—ideally, the hike would be cool and the lake would be hot, not the other way around. Unfortunately, the Dunes are about ten degrees hotter than the Lakeshore, so you could easily be hot hiking, but cold by the time you get to the water.

You will probably be sore the next day. Hiking up sand is a different type of work out than running or hiking.

What you should bring:

Water: this hike is hot, hard, and in the sun. I have done it without water before, but it was back when I was running cross country, and even then it was a mistake.

Shoes: you might want to take off your shoes at the first hill, but the second half of the hike is rockier, and sometimes even has broken glass.

Sunscreen: There is no tree cover in the Dunes—this entire hike is in the sun

National Parks Pass: To access the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, you will either need a National Parks Pass or a Sleeping Bear Dunes pass, both of which you can purchase at the entrance to the Dune Climb.

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Cairn at Lake Michigan

Is This Hike Worth It?

If your goal with this hike is to swim in Lake Michigan and experience some incredible views, this hike probably isn’t right for you. You can just as easily visit one of the many other trails or beaches in Sleeping Bear and get a much better result for less work.

However, if your goal is to get a good workout or check this one off your bucket list, I would absolutely recommend this hike!

Trail Guide: 5 Must See Sights in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains

North Carolina was not the first place that came to mind when I was looking for hiking destinations, but after stumbling upon the Roan Highlands on the internet, I decided to give North Carolina a closer look.

I quickly discovered the North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains have so much more to offer than just mountains—I found waterfalls, sweeping overlooks, thigh-burning hikes, and would 100% recommend you visit yourself. When you do, here are five places to get you started on that visit.

Linville Falls

IMG_5458-1.jpgThe Linville Falls are a quick detour off the Blue Ridge Parkway, and one of the most intricate waterfalls I have seen. As a photographer, I was thrilled, because the waterfall offers so many different angles and has so much character. At the first overlook you can see the upper falls, a small set of twin cascades. Also at this first overlook the waterfall cuts its way into the rock, forming a small canyon.

The second and third overlooks give you the more classic view of the lower falls featured above. If you zoom in on this photo, you can see a man in orange taking a selfie near the base of the falls—you can reach his location by taking a third, more difficult trail.

Hawksbill Crag

IMG_5489-1Hawksbill Crag is a steep mile climb up to an overlook of the Linville Gorge. It is well trafficked, and for good reason! The blooming flowers and rock formations at the top alone are impressive, but the views of the valley below are the sort you would expect to see only from a helicopter.

A word of caution: The last portion of this hike features steeper hiking that borders on climbing. I would recommend a walking stick.

Roan Highlands

IMG_5661-1A bit of a drive off the Blue Ridge Parkway, but I will sing the praises of this hike until the day that I die. The trail from Carver’s Gap to Grassy Bald is five miles round trip, and follows the Appalachian Trail for a portion as it winds down the border between North Carolina and Tennessee.

Elk Falls

IMG_5530-1A more hidden gem, Elk Falls are hard to find, but offer the chance to get really close to a lesser known waterfall. Whatever you do, don’t jump from the top—the 40 foot drop and rip currents below claim lives every year.

The Blue Ridge Parkway

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The entire Blue Ridge Parkway scenic drive is worth your time, and there are plenty more sights to discover along the way!

 

Did I miss anything? Let me know!