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.
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.