Pictured Rocks draws its name from the colorful sandstone cliffs that rise above Lake Superior. The aquamarine waters here evoke the Caribbean, while the forested coastline is dotted with waterfalls, lakes, dunes, dramatic rock faces and quite a few shipwrecks. If your group is looking for a shoreline summer retreat without the heat and humidity, join increasing number of admirers heading to this striking park.
Facts and figures
- Established in 1966, Pictured Rocks is the first of four national lakeshores in the U.S.
- The park encompasses about 73,000 acres
- The colors on the cliffs are caused by minerals such as copper, iron and manganese that stain the rock as groundwater seeps out
- More than half a million visitors a year come to the park
Long before it became a national landmark, the lakeshore was known as "the land of thunder and gods" to the Ojibwa tribes that lived at the edges of Lake Superior. Their legends about the coastline appear in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem, "Song of Hiawatha." Despite the poem’s lofty praise and the zeal of explorers who visited the region, conservation efforts did not catch on, notes a Park Service history of the area. Lake Superior was just too remote.
But by the end of the 19th century, Midwesterners had begun to discover the lakeshore's appeal, and earnest efforts to preserve the area began in the 1920s. President Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation establishing Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in 1966.
Things to see and do
The colorful rocks for which the park is named take up about 15 miles of the shore and are best viewed from boat tours that run from mid-May to mid-October and from Miners Castle, a car-accessible cliff area with an overlook and a two-mile roundtrip hiking trail that takes you down to Miners Beach. The North Country National Scenic Trail also runs along the length of the lakeshore, offering additional views.
At the northeastern end of the park in the Grand Sable you'll find Sable Falls, which cascades 75 feet over several tiers of cliffs. A wooden staircase down to the falls offers visitors a better look. Wear comfortable shoes, however, as the first viewing platform lies 169 steps down. Nearby, the Au Sable Light Station is an easy three-mile roundtrip walk along the shore from the Hurricane River campground. On the trip to the light station, you'll be able to see some of the shipwrecks that are part of the lakeshore's lore. Park rangers offer guided tours of the station in summer.
Back toward the western side of the lakeshore, Chapel Rock is another good area for hiking, with trails offering views of Chapel Lake and the 60-foot Chapel Falls waterfall. Watch the sun go down over Munising Bay from Sand Point Beach, where you'll also find the accessible half-mile Sand Point Marsh Trail through a wildlife-filled wetland. Waders and swimmers, take note: "The clean and clear waters of Lake Superior are tempting," the National Park Service website cautions, but "the water is typically cold for even the hardiest swimmers."
The park's three drive-in, primitive campgrounds are first-come, first-served, so arrive early and have a backup plan, especially in July and August. Downshore near Chapel Falls, Little Beaver Lake has eight spots, while the Hurricane River and Twelvemile Beach campgrounds up toward Sable Falls have a combined 57 sites. Other options within a half-hour drive include Lake Superior State Park, Munising Tourist Park Campground and Woodland Park Campground.
Best time to go
The park is open 24 hours a day, but summer is an inevitable draw, with lots of sun and average highs in the 70s. Some park amenities and roads have limited availability beyond the peak summer season. That said, those willing to bundle up will be rewarded with serene, snow-covered woods and opportunities to snowshoe, cross-country ski and snowmobile in winter; beautiful foliage in fall; and a burst of wildflowers in spring.