In general, people head straight for Traverse City and the Sleeping Bear Dunes for those classic Northern Michigan vibes, but less than thirty minutes north lies the Chain of Lakes. This waterway and surrounding area offers varied playground, ranging from secluded rivers and sedge meadows in the north to the tropical-like waters of Torch Lake. From Bellaire to Elk Rapids, the Chain of Lakes is a quieter alternative to the metropolis of Traverse City.
Hidden on the south side of Torch Lake, Alden is your perfect small lake town, with Higgins Store Ice Cream, public access to Torch Lake, and the little Alden light house. My favorite public access sites are down North Lake Street, where you can take a dip in Torch and walk as many as a hundred yards out into the lake. One of the access sites has a spit with a bench at its tip and is a prime stargazing and northern lights hunting spot.
The tiny town of Torch River is the closest public access site to the infamous Torch Lake sandbar. In the heat of summer, hundreds of motors boats collect in the turquoise water of Torch. At the Sandbar, water ranges from three feet deep to three inches.
Nearby, the Torch Rivera offers a stellar array of food, including breakfast, and the Torch River itself acts as the connection between Torch Lake and Lake Skegemog.
On the shores of Lake Bellaire at the northern side of the Chain of Lakes is Short’s Brewery, a bucket list stop in Northern Michigan. My Short’s short-list includes the brews Soft Parade, Local Light, and Bellaire Brown. If wine is more your jam, visit Hello Vino across the street for stellar service, a beautiful selection of wine and cheese, and newly introduced cocktails. The local Beewell Meadery is another hot stop on your Bellaire booze cruise, with its inviting and bee-themed interior.
Not into the alcohol scene? Worry not! Short’s has a phenomenal menu as well as beer selection, and occasionally live music. The nearby Market M-88 offers a nice breakfast venue/ bakery. Your fun doesn’t have to end with the snow—visit Shanty Creek Ski Resort in the winter.
Grass River Natural Area
The Grass River connects Lake Bellaire to Clam Lake, and the Natural Area offers hiking in the summer and snowshoeing/cross-country skiing in the winter. Cold and clear streams wind through the area, and the preserve is even home to otters!
Glacial Hills Pathway
Just outside of Bellaire are the legendary mountain biking trails at the Glacial Hills Pathways. The trails offer both beginner and advanced routes, and are especially beautiful in the fall. Not into biking? That’s okay! Parts of the trails are open to hikers as well!
Nestled between Elk Lake and the Grand Traverse Bay, Elk Rapids is a spunky little town with both a shopping and outdoors scene. Take a walk to any of the few beaches in the area, or visit Siren Hall, the old fire station turned delicious, for dinner and drinks. Your go-to coffee shop is Java Jones, and just outside of town lies Pearls New Orleans Kitchen.
Kayaking is super fun, and places like the Pictured Rocks and the Sea Caves are super gorgeous. I totally get it. But after spending a summer up guiding on Superior I’ve got a few notes for you all, just to re-enforce the whole safety thing.
This summer I saw a whole lot of people out at the Mainland Sea Caves without spray skirts, or in inflatable boats, or worst case scenario, in sundolphins. (You want to know what I hate most in the world? It’s the sundolphin. That boat is tiny, and slow, and there’s no spray skirt or bulkheads. What are you gonna do when that thing capsizes? It’s gonna sink! Are you gonna swim the mile back to the beach in 57 degree water? You’re not wearing a wetsuit! You’re gonna get hypothermia.)
So you might be thinking, “but all the pictures I’ve seen of the Lake look beautiful and calm, and I’m a good paddler, I take my sundolphin out on Lake Minnesota-dota-tonka-bago all the time.” (I don’t know the lake names here. Everything in WI sounds funny.)
I’m here to remind you that the Great Lakes are a different ball game.
You are no longer dealing with lakes when you start paddling here. You are on an inland sea. Lake Superior’s largest recorded average wave height was 28.8 feet. These lakes can create their own weather. They have taken down real ships. Do you really feel safe in that 10 foot sundolphin?
The Great Lakes are seas. Bring a Sea Kayak.
A sea kayak is defined by a few things. First, sea kayaks are longer than 15 feet. Most are around that 16-18 foot range. Tandem sea kayaks should be pushing 18 feet. Anything shorter than this might not be sea worthy.
Second, sea kayaks have sealed bulkheads. That means there are pockets of air both in front of and behind the cockpit. If your boat capsizes, it will not sink, and you can get back into it.
Sea kayaks are the only type of manpowered boat that is smart to bring on a Great Lake. Don’t have a sea kayak? Consider a guided tour.
Know how to get back in your boat
In the event of a capsize, you want to be able to get back in your boat. Do you have a scramble rescue? Do you have a paddle float rescue? Do you know what those words mean?
If you’re paddling with other people, do you have a T-rescue? No? Consider hiring a guide or taking a safety course.
There is a set list of safety gear you should have before hitting the Great Lakes. Here is that list:
Spray Skirt– keeps water out of boat. Water out of boat= boat that floats= stable boat.
PFD- Aka life jacket. And actually wear it. It’s not a lot of good floating away from you.
Bilge Pump– pumps water out of boat. Water out of boat= boat that floats= stable boat.
Paddle Float– can use to create outrigger with paddle for self-rescue. Also makes a good back rest.
Spare Paddle– in case something bad happens to first paddle.
First Aid Kit– for band-aids.
Repair Kit– so you can duct tape that hole in your boat.
Whistle- carry three signaling devices. This is an easy one.
Mirror– effective way to get someone’s attention using sunlight.
Marine Radio- you might not have cell service. Now you can still call for help/ check the weather.
Wetsuit– What’s the water temperature? Is it below 70? Hypothermia might be a risk. Lake Superior has more hypothermia incidents than drownings. Food for thought.
Extra Layers– Weather changes quickly out there. Rain jacket never hurt anyone.
Sponge– clean boat = happy boat.
Map- know where you’re going.
Most importantly, have a plan. Maybe this seems silly and obvious, but know a little bit about the hazards in the area you plan on paddling. Know the marine forecast, and check the radar before you head out. Tell people where you are paddling, and when you expect to be back. Most of the gear above you won’t even use on a typical paddling trip. But it’s good to have a plan B, and C, and D and E. And if you don’t have all the backup plans, go with someone who does.
Just the other day when my group was heading in before a storm we saw a family of four setting up for a picnic near the cliff wall on sit-on-top kayaks. The weather had probably looked nice when they left, but weather changes. (We, of course, gave them a heads up.)
The day before that, a mother was the sole survivor of a tragedy in the Apostle Islands. This incident is my primary prompting for posting this. I post a lot of pictures of kayaking on Lake Superior, and I don’t want people to see these pictures and assume that means this Lake is always beautiful and safe and calm. I don’t have my camera out when it’s not. I’m not on the water, and if I am, I’m busy trying to get myself and others off of it. There is a safe way to kayak the Great Lakes. I would hate for people to see photos that I take as a message that this place is always a safe and fun vacation spot.
This isn’t meant to be irreverent, or to shame anyone, or to assign blame. Experience informs the choices we make, and we cannot fault people for experiences they haven’t had. I don’t think death or loosing your family is a fair price to pay for simply not knowing, but the Lake isn’t fair.
If you’re reading this, awesome. I’m not concerned about you. But make sure your friends, and neighbors all know that these lakes are not safe all the time. Friends don’t let friends paddle sundolphins.
One of the questions I get asked the most—next to “what is it you do exactly?”—is “how do I get a good sunset picture?” Luckily, I have a few tips for catching a good sunset, and most of them are pretty easy! Here are a few things to keep in mind:
The Sun Sets in the West
Okay, so this one seems obvious, but there have been times when I have completely envisioned watching the sunset over a lake only to realize the lake/beach in question does not at all face west. Moreover, the sun sets more to the North or more to the South depending on the time of year, so be sure to keep in mind exactly where the sun is setting.
Sun Set Time
Sunset time is usually available online, but keep in mind that the 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after can also have some pretty dramatic clouds.
Watch the Weather
Speaking of clouds, partly cloudy days tend to yield the coolest sunsets—storms can also lead to a pretty dramatic show, but can be a little more unpredictable. In general, clear cloudless days won’t lead to a crazy sky, and on completely cloudy days you might not catch the sunset at all.
Clearings and Elevation
If you can get up high or somewhere clear, you get less of the sky blocked by trees and more foreground. This is good especially for photography, because a strong foreground makes an image a lot more interesting.
Reflections of sunsets are often almost as good as the sunsets themselves, and lakes, rivers and ponds are the ideal spots for this. Different water holds light differently, so there is something new to appreciate every time.
There’s nothing like a sunset from the water, particularly when there’s no one but otter and eagles for miles around. This sunset picture was taken at the Big Island Lakes Wilderness Area in the Upper Peninsula, but watching the sunset from a boat anywhere can be phenomenal.
Hidden in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, this area off the North Country Trail has some of the best swimming in Michigan as well as the best sunsets if you are willing to brave the Lake Superior cold.
People who ask me for hiking advice, usually about a place I have never been or hiked at– this one is for you!
Step One: Create a Pinterest dream board
Open up your Pinterest tab. Type in some key terms like “wildflowers”, “sunset”, or “Peru”. Scroll for a while. Delete the Peru thing, because you live in Michigan. Get inspired.
Step Two: Open up the AllTrails App
AllTrails will help you find trails in your area and give you a difficulty profile. Scroll through the app and favorite hikes with reckless abandon.
Step Three: Decide how far you’re willing to drive
For me, the limiting factor on a hike usually isn’t difficulty—not because I’m in great shape, but because I will turn around when I am good and ready. No, the limiting factor is how far I want to drive to get a fun new hike. Once I decide that, choosing is usually pretty easy.
Step Four: Get in the car. Battle with the GPS.
Read: Make several wrong turns. Begin to question why you didn’t just go for a quick run and call it a day.
Step Five: Abandon hike entirely. Get pizza.
Ahh yes. Truly the greatest part of a hike comes when you turn off the GPS entirely, abandon all plans for light to moderate workout, and pull into the nearest Little Caesar’s for a Hot and Ready.
Well, there you have it. The perfect hike. Use this information wisely.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of my favorite places on earth. It’s got clear blue water, rivers and forests, some of the best beaches in the world, and of course, the dunes themselves.
In the summer, the water is warm enough to swim and the beaches fill up. Fall sees the leaves change color, and by winter most tourists have filtered out, and the park becomes a snowshoe and cross country ski play ground.
Sunset from over Lake Michigan from Overlook 9 in July, looking like something out from Planet Earth.
The same overlook in the winter, with South Manitou Island obscured by snow and fog, small human for scale.
Overlook 9, basking in that post sunset purple glow.
Looking down into the water from the tops of the Empire Bluffs Trail in August, Lake Michigan looks practically tropical!
The Manitou Islands from Pyramid Point, a short mile hike up to a bluff over Lake Michigan.
Otter Creek flows into Esch Road beach on a still, cloudy day in October. In the summer, this beach is teeming with people, but as soon as September hits the crowds filter out.
The flowers in early June at the top of the Empire Bluffs Trail on a cloudy day.
The North Bar Lake Overlook in fall, winter, and summer– in the fall, spring, and summer you can take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive out to this overlook, but in the winter you have to cross country ski or snowshoe.
At Point Betsie, the wind kicks up turquoise waves.
Colors change out over the D.H. Day Farm, looking out from the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
Winter and windy vibes out over Lake Michigan.
Empire Bluffs looking bright and hot in late August.
2017 has been an eventful year for me. I had the opportunity to experience some really amazing things, from interning at the Kellogg Biological Station to playing around in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Glacier National Park. Social media tends to give the impression that all things—travel, our personal lives, camping—are always fun and easy, not ever super embarrassing.
I assure you this is false. For every awesome experience I had, a tent leaked, or I ended up leading a group friends down the wrong trail, or I made myself look like an idiot. (Okay, the last one happens more often than not.)
So, in order to fully appreciate 2017 in all her beauty and grace, I have complied a list of my most ridiculous, humiliating, and funny travel/outdoor stories and misadventures from 2017.
The time we ran for a flight
On the way back from a family trip to Whitefish, Montana, my dad, two younger sisters, younger brother and I all found ourselves running through the Salt Lake City airport to try and catch a flight back to Detroit.
Our previous flight out of Portland had been delayed, and we had about five minutes to make it across the airport once the plane landed to catch our next flight. We looked ridiculous (but like, relatable) running through the airport, and even more ridiculous when we ended up making the flight and all high fiving each other, but I don’t think I have ever been happier to be anywhere in my life than I was to be on that plane.
The time we could not find the trailhead, so we got lunch instead
In early January 2017, my sister Claire and I went out to go find and snowshoe the Brown Bridge Quiet Area near Traverse City, Michigan, but for the life of us we could not find the trailhead. Both Apple and Google maps sent us in the wrong direction, and I couldn’t figure it out from the map I had saved to my phone.
Eventually, we found a trailhead that we thought (incorrectly) was the trail we were looking for, and snowshoed there for about 20 minutes before deciding it was too cold and we were lost. We packed up, and rather than workout, we opted for sandwiches.
The time I forgot my stupid camera battery
I think I reached peak self-loathing when I screwed my camera into my tripod at Torch Lake for sunset, went to turn it on and nothing happened. Because I had forgot my camera battery. On the table. Three hours south. For better or worse, I went without a camera for the remainder of that trip.
I missed out on a lot of photos by not having my DSLR, tripod, and telephoto lens, but I did pick up quite a few things about how to get the most out of a phone camera, and I got to hike a lot lighter had way more room in my pack for extra food.
The time some fisherman thought I wouldn’t know the difference between a bass and bluegill
This one is my favorite.
I was out paddle boarding alone on a small lake near Bellaire, Michigan when I stopped to make small talk with some guys who were fishing. They were probably in their late 20s, and seemed nice enough.
I told them that if you go around the next bend, and then stick to the West side of the lake until it narrows, it’ll open up into a smaller cove that has lots of fish; not many people fish there, because it’s harder to find.
One of the men narrowed his eyes and looked at me. “Were the fish long and fat or short and small?”
I frowned for a second, not really sure what he was asking, until I realized he literally was asking if I knew that they weren’t fishing for bluegill. I tried not to laugh.
Unreal, I thought to myself.
“There are large and smallmouth bass, and there should be some trout too. The DNR stocks the lake.”
The time I ate a fistful of Lake Michigan pebbles
I knew this one was going to be embarrassing long before I got anywhere near the water. My friend Kasidy and I had decided to try out Lake Michigan surfing through Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak.
I took one look at the nine foot boards, the two-foot surf, and the line of rocks just beneath where the waves were breaking, and could see exactly where this was going. We had a great day— both of us ended up getting up for more than five seconds at a time, and I took some of the least graceful falls of my life.
The best part of this was when I was sitting out in the water, straddling the board, I turned into a small—and I do mean small—wave. The wave pushed the board up under me and smacked me clean in the nose, cutting me off mid-sentence. Real cute.
Doing that stupid Dune Climb again
There is no hike in the world I have as deep a resentment for as the Sleeping Bear’s Dune Climb. It’s only about four miles out to the Lake and back, and it’s a sort of inaugural, very “Michigan” hike, but four miles up and down over hot sand is kind of the worst.
This spring, early enough that we thought maybe it would still be cool out (wrong), my good friend/roommate Hannah and I went out to tackle the hike and “initiate” her to Michigan. Han is an Illinois native, but she’s spent the last four years living in the good old mitten state.
Nothing super eventful or particularly embarrassing happened, I just included this because I want you all to know how much I hate that hike.
The time we couldn’t find parking in Glacier
There’s a pretty clear lesson here, and it’s two-fold. The first part is that you’re better off visiting national parks in the off-season; the second is do your research. When visiting Glacier National Park, my family spent almost two hours aimlessly driving the crowded Going-to-the-sun Road after trailhead parking in the Avalanche Lake area was too full—we got up earlier then next day, getting into the park at 7am instead of 11am, and had no trouble at all and the park nearly to ourselves.
The times we didn’t see stars at dark sky park
This was a regularly occurrence for my friends and I in 2016 as well as 2017. There have been several occasions where we have trekked out to the Headlands International Dark Sky Park and had clouds and no sky at all.
Clearly, we haven’t really learned any lesson here, because we keep doing it, but we always have a good time up on the beach.
The time we almost literally died
(This is an overstatement.)
This August, when on an early hike through Glacier National Park, my father, sister and I spotted a grizzly across the Lake from us. There were a few other people at the lake, and the bear was probably a hundred yards away, which was really too close.
We booked it out of there pretty darn quick. The bear probably wasn’t interested in us, and bears don’t really seek out humans, but grizzlies are fast, huge, and not something to mess with.
The time I sunburned exactly one shoulder
I love kayaking, and being on the water period, and because of that I always end up staying out longer than I really planned to. On this particular occasion, my dad and I were out on Torch Lake one morning, and decided to paddle South to the mouth of the Torch River—about a 6 mile trip.
I realized about halfway back that not only did I forget sunscreen, but because we headed back around noon, the left side of my body had been facing the sun the entire trip. I’ll leave the burn lines to your imagination.
The time we got followed
This misadventure is less fun, but still important.
Last March, my friend and I were hiking at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, when some men, probably not much older than us, caught up to us at an overlook started whispering to each other and looking at us. We didn’t think much of it at first, and quickly moved onto the next overlook to give them some space, thinking that they were waiting for us to leave. Rather than stay at the overlook a normal amount of time, they immediately followed us, continuing to whisper and look our way.
Maybe they weren’t talking about us, and maybe they didn’t mean to follow us, but sometimes you just get a bad vibe, and better safe than sorry.
I pointed out their behavior to Estee and we turned and went back to the previous overlook. They followed again. At this point, we turned and walked quickly back to the car, the two men following us the entire way. The parking lot itself was crowded with other hikers and tourists, and they went to their own car. We hung out there for a while, waiting for them to drive off first.
There’s a lesson here, and it isn’t about us being paranoid, or about how women shouldn’t hike because it’s too dangerous. If you are a male, and you are interested in a female in any setting, be aware that while you may think behavior you exhibit is harmless, it can still seem threatening. This is not an attack. I’m telling you this because if you are actually interested in someone, you should respect them enough to not want them to feel threatened and behave accordingly.
As a general rule, talking to someone is 100% less threatening and creepy than following them.
The time I let the 15-year-old drive
On our way up to camp at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, my brother reminded me that I promised he could practice driving once we got off the highway. He had had his learner’s permit for a while, and was objectively already a pretty good driver.
I handed him the wheel, and started going through our trail plans for later in the day.
“Hey when do I turn?” Joe asked.
“Um, it should be a right at the next intersection.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, totally,” I lied.
So while I was deep in a trail guide, Joe made a right onto some small, flooded seasonal road. We hit a pothole and I looked up.
“Are you sure this is right?” he asked.
“Let me see the map.” It sure looked like this road got us where we wanted to go, and I was fairly confident my car could handle it.
We drove down the sketchy seasonal road for about five more minutes before it narrowed and I had Joe turn around and head back to the highway. After that, we abandoned iPhone directions and stuck to the Michigan road map.
The time I almost got frostbite
The original misadventure, and the first post I wrote, was probably the dumbest thing I did all year.
Rather than drive to the shoreline at the Headlands Dark Sky Park, Estee and I opted to walk a mile in. We had been out in the cold hiking all day, and weren’t too worried about the temperature. Nevertheless, we piled on a few blankets and extra layers.
Lake Michigan was frozen and beautiful, and the sunset was one of the best I’ve ever seen. My mistake was forgetting that once the sun goes down, the temperature drops quite a bit. That, and letting snow melt into my boots, soaking my socks. (I had a spare pair. Soaked those too.)
I didn’t realize I couldn’t feel my feet until I stood up and we started to pack up for the walk back. Then my feet started to burn—not just tingle, and not even feel cold. My feet felt burnt, like I had accidently stepped in the campfire. Burnt and bruised—It hurt to walk, and we had a good mile to walk back to the car.
Lucky for me and very lucky for my toes, we ran into a nice couple who offered to drive us back to my car. I was in pretty bad shape; Estee had taken both my bag and hers, and was helping me walk; we were happy for the ride.
In hindsight, it’s kind of a funny story, though at the time I was mostly just embarrassed that I hadn’t planned better.
Since then, I’ve been more careful about the cold, but even more so about the wet; it’s one thing to be cold, but being wet can lead to hypothermia and frostbite a whole lot faster.
Got any misadventures, or just adventures from this year? I’d love to hear them! Write in the comments below or shoot me a message. Wishing everyone a safe end to 2017, and a great start to 2018! May you avoid all frostbite.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Spray Falls plunge 70 feet from the cliffs into Lake Superior, and can be viewed from two different overlooks as well as from behind.
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.
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.
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.